with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Shelby Harris
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- The Best Way to Treat Sleep Problems
- Momsomnia and How to Keep It Under Control
- Ways to Create an Effective Bedtime Routine for Yourself
- How to Use a Sleep Diary to Help Identify Your Patterns
- Sleep Hygiene Tips for Moms
Maternal sleep deprivation is very common for new moms. Night feedings, frequent baby wakeups, stress, and perinatal mental health concerns can all cause sleep disturbances that leave moms feeling frazzled, overwhelmed, and fatigued.
I chatted with Dr. Shelby Harris, clinical psychologist and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, about maternal sleep. In a recent blog post, Dr. Shelby discussed insomnia and why moms struggle to sleep. Today, she’s back to share tips to help break out of maternal sleep deprivation.
“You Just Need Some Rest”
After my third son was born, I spent the first ten weeks of his life in urgent care or at the doctor’s office at least once a week.
One of my other sons brought home Hand-foot-mouth from daycare. Of course, I got it–my immune system was weakened from having the baby and I was a sleep-deprived mess.
Then my other son got an ear infection. Then I got mastitis. And then bronchitis.
We were drowning in medicine, tissues, fevers–when one of us started to get better, something else hit. It seemed like we would never all be better.
My husband and I spent every night up with the baby and a sick toddler. I tried to nurse myself back to health while running on empty. It felt impossible.
When the bronchitis started lingering, I went back to the doctor. I felt so desperate. I almost pleaded with him, “How can I move through this? It’s dragging me down so badly.”
The young, male doctor looked at me and said, “Oh, you just need to get some rest.”
I saw red. I would have loved to just get some rest. But I couldn’t do that. That was the problem. He may as well have been telling me to fly.
People tell moms that we need to get rest and take care of ourselves–and we do–yet, there is little to no support for maternal sleep. Nobody helps us plan for or protect our sleep.
We’re running ourselves ragged trying to be “good moms” and do it all–both during the day and the night. But it is essential to stop treating the act of sacrificing maternal sleep as synonymous with being a good mother.
Good mothers need sleep–and if we’re going to battle maternal sleep deprivation, we have to start protecting maternal sleep. Instead of empty phrases or shifting our focus onto controlling baby’s sleep behaviour, we need to focus on protecting maternal sleep—separate from baby’s sleep. When we do that, we can start to restore our sleep (and our health).
The Best Way to Treat Sleep Problems
So, how do we treat and manage maternal sleep deprivation? Dr. Shelby said that the gold standard for treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This should always be the first line of defense.
CBT involves adjusting the behavioural issues contributing to sleep (for example, too many screens, inconsistent bedtime, lack of a nighttime routine). It also tackles the cognitive issues that play a role (anxiety, feeling too wired to shut off your brain, being unable to relax).
A treatment plan with CBT might involve relaxation techniques, adjusting wake and bed times, forming a healthy sleep hygiene plan, and practicing mindfulness meditation.
Dr. Shelby said that medication can play a role in certain sleep situations in the short-term, but it shouldn’t always be the first or only treatment. Often, when sleep aids are prescribed, the issues return as soon as the medication is stopped.
But with CBT, you learn a long-term plan to treat and manage insomnia in the long-term. CBT sessions with a sleep specialist might only last a few sessions, but are 60-70% effective at treating sleep problems.
However, Dr. Shelby had plenty of tips you can try at home to manage maternal sleep deprivation and insomnia before seeking the help of a specialist.
Momsomnia and How to Keep It Under Control
One of the common issues moms face that leads to maternal sleep deprivation is momsomnia, also known as sleep revenge procrastination—when moms stay up too late after their kids go to sleep, leading to more exhaustion.
I confess that I often fall into this pattern. After a long day of mom life with three boys, feeling touched out and tired from being needed constantly, I like to catch up on The Real Housewives.
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to zone out and keep watching well into the night—and I always regret it the next day.
Dr. Shelby said that moms often need that wind down time, and that it’s fine within reason. However, it’s important to keep momsomnia in check.
Setting timers for screen time and establishing a non-negotiable bedtime with yourself can give you the freedom to enjoy some “me time” without sacrificing too much sleep. One easy tip she shared was turning Netflix off of “autoplay,” so you have to make the conscious decision to proceed to the next episode.
Sometimes getting up between episodes and grabbing water or stretching can give you the headspace to determine whether you actually want to watch another, or if you’re ready to go to bed instead.
If you find that it’s difficult to stick to reasonable limits, Dr. Shelby recommends diving within yourself to see why you don’t value your own sleep, as well as being real with yourself about why sleep matters.
Good sleep will make you less irritable, more productive, a better parent, and a happier person. Remember those “why” factors when tempted to sacrifice your sleep.
Ways to Create an Effective Bedtime Routine for Yourself
Another way moms can help manage maternal sleep deprivation is by setting up an effective bedtime routine. We often think (or maybe even obsess) about establishing a good routine for our babies’ sleep. But we don’t do the same for ourselves.
Just like babies, our bodies need signals that it’s time to sleep. Dr. Shelby said that there is no one ideal routine—the important thing is to find something that is calming, relaxing, and enjoyable for yourself that you can do in dim lights without screens.
For her, that looks like turning off the screens as close to an hour before bed as possible, going upstairs to brush her teeth and wash her face, then doing a 20 minute stretch before reading for about 20 minutes before bed.
It doesn’t have to be perfect or rigid. If you can’t turn off the screens an hour before bed, aim for 20 minutes. Don’t fall into the belief that a good night’s sleep will be thrown out the window if your routine is thrown off. It’s important to stay flexible and realistic with your routine.
How to Use a Sleep Diary to Help Identify Your Patterns
If you find yourself dealing with maternal sleep deprivation or insomnia, a sleep diary can help you track patterns and factors impacting your sleep.
Download a sleep diary template and start logging your results—most diaries will keep track of how long it takes for you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up, whether you took a nap, what medications you are on, and your alcohol and caffeine intake.
As you notice patterns form, make adjustments to see if they positively affect your sleep. If it’s still not working, contact a sleep specialist. (Your sleep diary will be a valuable tool when you seek help as well).
Dr. Shelby added a couple of caveats to the sleep diary discussion, however. First, adhering to the clock is not always a healthy mindset. She encourages patients to just think about these factors and log them the best they can, rather than rigidly tracking the time. As she said, don’t let a watch dictate how you feel during the day.
She also pointed out that a sleep diary isn’t necessarily valuable during the postpartum period. You have obvious factors that impede your sleep, and you don’t need another thing on your plate! This tool is best used if you find yourself struggling to sleep even when you have protected time.
Sleep Hygiene Tips for Moms
Ultimately, new moms are likely to encounter some sleep deprivation. It’s normal and healthy for newborns to wake up frequently.
Instead of focusing on controlling our baby’s sleep, we can do our best to impact our own—both by creating positive sleep hygiene habits and making a plan to protect chunks of sleep for ourselves.
When you’re waking up at night to feed the baby, try to keep the lights dim, and avoid scrolling your phone if possible. Establish a routine that works for you and stick to a regular bedtime.
Another way to create a healthy sleep environment is by turning the noise down on your baby monitor—we often rouse to every noise, grunt, and motion our babies make—but not every sound requires intervention.
Finally, consider bringing in a partner or family member to help share the load. Perhaps your partner can take a feed while you get 4-6 hours of protected sleep, or at least handle the diaper changes and resettling so you can get back to sleep faster.
Ready to create a plan that prioritizes your sleep, but not sure where to start? Download our FREE ultimate maternal sleep resource A Sleep Plan for Mom: Ways to protect maternal sleep in the postpartum period.
Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM is a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in private practice in NY. She is board certified in Behavioral Sleep Medicine and treats a wide variety of sleep, anxiety and depression issues using evidence-based, non-medication treatments. Her self-help book, The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Relying on Medication was published in 2019. Before going into private practice, she was the longstanding director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. Dr. Harris has been an invited columnist for the New York Times “Consults Blog,” and is frequently quoted in the media. Dr. Harris can also be found on Instagram at @SleepDocShelby where she provides evidence-based information about sleep wellness and sleep disorders.
- Shelby’s Book: The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia
- Happy as a Mother Wellness Center
- A Sleep Plan For Mom