Postpartum Sleep Deprivation


Written by Katherine Zheng

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

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Postpartum refers to the period of time following childbirth, which different experts define as lasting between six and twelve weeks. During the postpartum period, a person who recently gave birth is more likely to experience certain physical changes, like sleep deprivation and depression.

Learning more about postpartum sleep deprivation may help a person and their loved ones better understand what they are experiencing and find ways to improve their sleep.

What Is Postpartum Sleep Deprivation?

Postpartum sleep deprivation describes when a person who has given birth in the recent past receives less sleep than the amount they need to function well. When sleep deprivation continues over time, it may be referred to as sleep insufficiency. Postpartum sleep deprivation can happen on its own, and it can also accompany or be a symptom of postpartum depression.

Signs of Postpartum Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation during the postpartum period has the same signs as sleep deprivation in general.

  • Reduced alertness and slower reaction times
  • Trouble thinking and focusing, which can affect logic and reading ability 
  • Irritability
  • Less energy
  • Low libido 
  • Briefly falling asleep at unwanted times

People may feel the effects of sleep deprivation more strongly in the morning or at night, rather than in the afternoon or evening. Typically, many signs of sleep deprivation resolve once a sleep-deprived person starts getting enough sleep again.

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What Causes Postpartum Sleep Deprivation?

Many factors may contribute to sleep deprivation during the postpartum period.

  • Natural physical changes: After childbirth, a person’s body experiences many changes as it transitions from being pregnant to not being pregnant. These include hormonal changes, and they may lead to problems with sleep, changes in eating habits, and feelings of increased stress or fatigue. The physical demands of lactation can also add to increased feelings of fatigue.
  • Changes in sleep schedule: New parents often experience major changes to their sleep schedules after a baby is born. Waking up to feed the baby at night and other aspects of caring for an infant may result in less sleep at night, more daytime naps, shorter sleep periods, less sleep overall, and more daytime tiredness. 
  • Postpartum depression: While sleep changes are normal during the postpartum period, they can also occur as a symptom of depression. If, in addition to sleep deprivation, a person feels dissatisfied, struggles to feel pleasure, is disinterested in caring for their newborn, experiences guilt, or contemplates suicide, they may have postpartum depression.
  • Postpartum insomnia: Insomnia, a sleep disorder that involves trouble falling or staying asleep and daytime tiredness, may precede the development of postpartum depression. Pregnant people face a higher risk of insomnia during the third trimester of pregnancy, and treating it may reduce their risk of postpartum insomnia.

Effects of Postpartum Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can have multiple negative consequences. Even one night of sleep deprivation has been found to impact a person’s ability to think clearly and complete tasks. If sleep-deprivation is ongoing, a person may experience a higher risk of car crashes, a reduced quality of life, and an increased risk for physical and mental health issues. 

Research suggests that sleep deprivation during pregnancy and the postpartum period is linked to an increased risk of or worsened postpartum depression. Restoring healthy sleep habits may help prevent postpartum depression.

Many studies show that sleep and postpartum depression are strongly linked. Experts believe that poor sleep can contribute to depression, and depression can also negatively affect sleep quality. It’s normal for people to experience sleep deprivation during postpartum. Caring for a child and the hormonal changes that follow birth can both make it difficult to get enough rest.

Treatments and Coping Strategies for Postpartum Sleep Deprivation

Sleeping as well as you did before you became a parent might not be possible. However, there are ways you can try and improve your sleep during the time you have. 

  • Sleep when the baby sleeps: Taking naps while your baby is asleep is a good way to get uninterrupted sleep. It can be difficult to stick to a regular sleep schedule with a newborn. So taking naps with your baby, even during the day, can help you catch up on rest being missed at night.
  • Improve your sleep habits: Practicing healthy sleep habits whenever possible may improve the quality of your sleep. These can include limiting phone use and screen time before bed, getting physical activity during the day, and limiting caffeine intake.
  • Split caretaking responsibilities: If you have family or friends in your life who can help take on some of the newborn care responsibilities, this can free up more time for you to rest with fewer interruptions throughout the night. Some people hire a night-nurse or doula to care for the baby overnight, so they can get adequate sleep.

When to See a Doctor

If, after improving your sleep habits and enlisting others to help with the baby, you still cannot sleep well even when you have the time to do so, consider seeing your doctor. You may have insomnia, which differs from sleep deprivation. 

A sleep-deprived person doesn’t get enough sleep, but they could fall asleep if given the opportunity. A person with insomnia struggles with sleep even when they have plenty of time for it. Your doctor can evaluate your sleep habits and offer further education and treatment options available to improve your sleep and lessen insomnia.

Similarly, contact your doctor if you suspect you have postpartum depression. In addition to having sleep issues, people experiencing postpartum depression often also experience feelings of general dissatisfaction, a lack of pleasure, guilt or worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts. Your doctor can suggest treatments to help, like therapy or antidepressants.

About The Author

Katherine Zheng

Staff Writer, Sleep Health

Katherine is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She has doctorate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing and is published in the journal Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research and the journal JMIR Mental Health. She has also worked as a policy fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. With a background in academia, Katherine has always been interested in making healthcare research more accessible to the public. When not writing, Katherine is an actor and loves doing theater at night.

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