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Insomnia After Having Baby: (Causes and Treatment Options)

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jun 03, 2021

Many women experience pregnancy insomnia.

For most new mothers, sleep quality does go up a bit, but overall sleep time goes down even more than during pregnancy (1). See the final bar on the chart below, compared to sleep quantity during the three trimesters.

Being sleep deprived with a new baby isn’t great for a mother or her baby.

In order to understand why insomnia is common during this time frame and how it can be treated, we’re going to look over some research on this topic.

Side Effects of Insomnia After Pregnancy

I think it’s important to understand how serious insomnia is.

Research has shown that insomnia in new mothers is linked to postpartum depression (2,3).

Insomnia and depression are highly interlinked in general, but especially so for new mothers. Depression is one of the biggest insomnia risk factors, and vice versa, creating a potentially vicious cycle that could lead to chronic insomnia.

On top of that, there are all the usual side effects of insomnia to be concerned with:

  • Irritability
  • Weight gain
  • Weakened immune system
  • Daytime sleepiness

None of those are exactly ideal for raising a new child. Chronic insomnia is also linked to serious health problems like heart disease in the long term if left untreated.

SummaryInsomnia is common after having a baby and can lead to serious side effects like depression with long term consequences. It’s not a good idea to try to wait and hope for it to go away on its own.

Causes of Insomnia After Giving Birth

Before we take a look at treatment options, it’s useful to understand what causes insomnia for most new mothers.

During pregnancy, insomnia is often caused by hormonal changes or physical discomfort that interrupts sleep.

While some new mothers still experience pain from breastfeeding that might cause insomnia, physical discomfort isn’t a common cause of sleep trouble after delivery.

Hormones also aren’t a common cause because they reset to “normal” levels almost immediately after birth (4):

That leaves one main cause of insomnia after having a baby: stress and anxiety.

Sleep Anxiety With a New Baby

There’s a lot of research linking anxiety to insomnia (5).

Much like depression, insomnia is bidirectionally related to anxiety (6). In other words, anxiety causes sleep issues, which then cause more anxiety - creating a feedback loop.

There’s a lot of stress during pregnancy, and even more after it, particularly for mothers who really want the best for their child (7). While it varies among mothers, this commonly includes worrying about things like:

  • What are the best things to feed a baby?
  • How should the child be educated?
  • How am I going to be able to afford everything?
  • Am I doing well enough as a parent?

These sorts of things can affect fathers as well, but that isn’t a topic that has as much research behind it.

SummaryWhile there are some exceptions, the main cause of insomnia after having a child is stress and anxiety.

Treatment Options for New Mothers With Insomnia

Because there are often individual nuances that affect someone’s sleep quality, insomnia is something that should be treated by a doctor.

A doctor can prescribe a complete treatment plan tailored to a specific mother, or make a referral.

When it comes to insomnia, natural sleep aids can help a bit, but aren’t a complete solution. Similarly, medication can be a short term solution, but is rarely a cure.

The majority of modern sleep research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is by far the best treatment method for insomnia. CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps “correct” negative or inaccurate thoughts that lead to stress and insomnia.

While there hasn’t been a ton of research on using CBT for new mothers, there is some.

One study examined the effectiveness of CBT in new mothers that had both postpartum depression and insomnia and found (8):

Statistically significant improvements were observed in sleep diary-rated sleep efficiency and total wake time, and subjective mood, insomnia severity, sleep quality, and fatigue

CBT is effective for most people, making it a great base to start a treatment plan from.

Let’s take a closer look at the results:

Sleep efficiency, which refers to the amount of time spent asleep while in bed, went from about 75% to over 89%. That’s a huge increase.

PSQI scores went from an average of 12.5 to 7.8. For reference, a high PSQI score is bad, and good sleepers score under 5. A few sessions of CBT were able to make a lot of progress in this study.

You can use our online PSQI score calculator if you’re curious about your own score.

Other Treatment Options

If a doctor determines that stress and anxiety are the likely cause of sleep trouble, there are other aspects that can be added to a treatment plan like:

  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Light to moderate exercise

Additionally, all insomnia treatment plans should start with improving sleep hygiene if there are any major issues.

SummaryCBT and sleep hygiene improvement are currently the most effective ways to treat insomnia in new mothers. Relaxation therapies, natural sleep aids, and sleep medication may also be prescribed on top depending on the individual situation.

Summary: Sleep Deprivation After Having a Baby

While some level of disrupted sleep with a baby is to be expected, insomnia is not.

If not treated, it can develop into chronic insomnia with serious consequences that can affect a new mother’s health for years.

The main cause as we’ve seen is not from hormones or physical pain in most cases, but stress and anxiety.

For now, research suggests that doctors should prescribe a treatment plan that focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy. Just a few CBT sessions can have immediate and long lasting improvements on sleep for most people suffering from insomnia.

References

  1. Effects of pregnancy on mothers' sleep
  2. Link between insomnia and perinatal depressive symptoms: A meta-analysis
  3. Effect of maternal depression on child behavior: a sensitive period?
  4. Hormonal changes during pregnancy
  5. Sleep and Anxiety Disorders
  6. A Systematic Review Assessing Bidirectionality between Sleep Disturbances, Anxiety, and Depression
  7. Does ‘Wanting the Best’ create more stress? The link between baby sign classes and maternal anxiety
  8. An open pilot of cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia in women with postpartum depression

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.