Insomnia: How new moms can cope

The baby’s finally sleeping through the night, but now you can’t drift off. How long does “momsomnia” last?

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Photo: Chad Johnston/Masterfile

Tick-tock. While my baby was snoozing soundly, I’d lie awake at night. Crushing exhaustion permeated every inch of my body, yet I’d be unable to fall asleep. It was torture. I dubbed it “momsomnia,” and it plagued me on and off for months.

I’d been a prize sleeper pre-baby, crashing easily anytime. The momsomnia began suddenly when my then-nine-month-old daughter, Annabel, started sleeping for a miraculous eight — if not 10 to 12 — hours continuously. At last, I could catch up on my zzzs, I thought. But it was not to be. I’d wake in the wee hours of the morning, and to-do lists and scenes from the day ran through my mind. I was hyper-alert to every whimper and rustle Annabel made. As a new parent, I knew I’d signed up for sleep deprivation, but I didn’t know it’d be due to my own inability to turn off my brain. I’d obsess about not sleeping, then I’d worry about all the things I had to do the next day, and how I would get them done on no sleep.

Calgary mom Stacey Polet was afflicted with momsomnia from day one of parenthood. “What I was most worried about was not hearing the baby. So I would lay there and listen,” she recalls, describing her experience with her first daughter, Amy. “I was so worried about keeping her alive. It was crazy anxiety.” When her second daughter, Phoebe, came along, momsomnia struck again, but even worse. “I worried about being able to function the next day. I knew I wouldn’t be able to nap like I did with Amy. I’d lie there thinking, ‘I’m really going to be screwed tomorrow.’”

Physician Charles Samuels, medical director at Calgary’s Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, and a vice president in the clinical division of the Canadian Sleep Society (CSS), says that insomnia is common among women — more so than for men. It occurs when normal sleep is chronically disturbed by an emotional or stressful event, which can include child rearing. Parents often have poor sleep patterns, due to night feedings. Behaviours that can worsen the sleeplessness include watching TV and using laptops or iPads in bed — anything that leads to hyper-arousal. “Perpetuation is the issue,” says Samuels. He says that those who suffer insomnia often have a predisposition for it, such as having a Type-A personality or growing up in a stressful environment. While over-the-counter sleep aids are available, Samuels believes that popping a pill is not the solution. “Medication should not be the first approach,” he says. Instead, he asks patients to counter their anxious thoughts with meditation, yoga and other relaxing activities at least an hour before bed. Try simple things like meditative breathing and turning off your phone at night.

If no amount of yoga or meditation provides relief, consult your doctor about a treatment plan. Depending on the situation, you may be able to find respite through use of short-term sleep medication. A recent Motherisk study of nursing infants exposed to benzodiazepines — the kind of medication that’s often used to treat anxiety and insomnia — found that the risk of adverse effects for the baby is very low. “Our study shows that the use of benzodiazepines during breastfeeding does not result in increased risk of central nervous depression in the infant,” says Toronto physician Gideon Koren, director of Motherisk.

Polet’s momsomnia lasted about a year with each of her kids, slowly subsiding, without medication, as her confidence as a parent grew. (Her daughters are now seven and five.) “What it comes down to is that I like to be in control,” she says. “With a newborn, I had no control.”

For me, a combination of yoga, deep breathing, limiting time on my laptop and turning off the baby monitor has helped with my momsomnia. I had to quiet both the inner and outer chatter. I still have the odd night when my mind races, but for the most part, I’m sleeping well again.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline “Wide awake,” pp.82.

Read more:
Meditation for moms
Parenting through severe postpartum depression
Lonely nights: Sleeping in different rooms

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