'Will we ever sleep again?' Life in that new-parent fog

The effect of sleep deprivation can be far-reaching, but for some, it leads to serious and persistent drops in mood, and ...
The effect of sleep deprivation can be far-reaching, but for some, it leads to serious and persistent drops in mood, and can be a trigger for postnatal depression and anxiety (PNDA). Photo: Shutterstock

“Will we ever sleep again? What have we done wrong?”

These are the questions infant and child sleep consultant Chantal Cohen hears regularly from exhausted parents.

Sleep deprivation is a universal experience for new parents. Anyone who has been active in tending to the needs of a newborn will recognise the all-consuming fog that seems to tinge your every waking moment (and there are so many waking moments) when you are so sleep deprived that you search for your glasses while wearing them.

And for many parents, particularly those whose baby’s wakefulness lasts beyond the first six months, the effects of never getting enough sleep can seep into every aspect of their life, affecting their health, work, friendships, marriage, relationships with older children, and their self-esteem.

The effect of sleep deprivation can be far-reaching, but for some, it leads to serious and persistent drops in mood, and can be a trigger for postnatal depression and anxiety (PNDA).

More than one in seven mothers and up to one in 10 fathers experience postnatal depression and/or anxiety, and sleep can be a major factor in its development and maintenance. In fact, studies have shown that new mothers with poor sleep quality are more than three times as likely to suffer depression.

It makes sense: if you’re not getting enough sleep, your reserves to deal with one of the most challenging and transformative periods of life are depleted. We all know that when we are really tired we become more irritable, cranky, and emotionally fragile and we also know the flattening of our mood that comes with exhaustion; so is it any wonder that for some people, particularly those with a predisposition, these feelings reach clinical level?

Running counselling sessions and parents groups at family care centre Tresillian, social worker Margaret Booker sees many parents who struggle with low mood and mood disorders triggered by exhaustion.

“It’s universal to feel tired, to feel exhausted, to not be getting enough sleep when there is a baby in the house,” she says. "And that exhaustion can be a pathway to the mood disorders.”

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Child sleep consultant Chantal Cohen, who spends her days (and nights!) helping families get more sleep, agrees, saying she finds a large proportion of her clients are experiencing PNDA.

Many feel pressured to “make” their baby sleep, and the feelings of failure they experience when they won’t absolutely trashes their confidence. Exhaustion just makes those feelings worse.

According to Cohen, many parents who are chronically exhausted find they can’t sleep even when they have the opportunity because they are “primed to be ‘on’ all the time”.

“Increased cortisol and adrenaline are coursing through your body and you’re just lying there, awake, ready to jump at the baby’s first sound. It makes you sick and it makes you anxious.”

The evidence agrees. A 2015 review of research found that women who experience insomnia and sleep disturbance are more likely to become depressed, and women who are depressed are more likely to experience insomnia. This is supported by research from the Black Dog Institute, who found insomnia is both a risk factor and a symptom of depression. It leads to a cycle of feeling low because you’re not sleeping and not sleeping because you’re feeling low.

Cohen says that, when her clients experience success in helping their child to sleep better, they report feeling much happier, have far more energy, and feel more connected to their baby.

This is also supported by research. A study of 80 mothers and their infants in Adelaide in 2012 found that, following explicit instruction about sleep and settling techniques, not only did the number of night wakings decrease, but there was a corresponding decrease maternal stress, anxiety, and depression.

However, if you’re experiencing clinical postnatal depression and/or anxiety, simply regaining sleep alone is unlikely to be a miracle cure. Parents who suspect they or their partner may be experiencing PNDA should enlist the help of their GP and/or call the PANDA helpline (1300 726 306) who can direct them to the right services.

But what about when you just can’t seem to get your baby to sleep no matter what you try, and it’s really affecting your mood?

“Parents know that if they could just get their baby to sleep they’d feel better. But they can’t get more sleep. So they have to learn to manage their mood psychologically," says Booker. Acceptance, she says, is the key.

“We have to accept the reality that we’re just not getting sufficient sleep because otherwise we just struggle against the wrong thing, which will just make us feel worse … we need to minimise the sequelae of not getting enough sleep rather than agonise over it. We trick ourselves into thinking we don’t really care about sleep and that we can cope without it.”

Booker teaches her group therapy clients cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and how to integrate self-care in daily life, but she says that one of the most important things is the sharing your experiences with others who can relate and support you. She believes in the power of women making deep connections and understanding each other to help each other to cope.

“Getting mothers together to get that mutual support is so important," she says “When they can really connect with other women, they’re going to be fine.”

Booker encourages parents seeking guidance about their baby’s sleep to call Tresillian’s helpline to speak to a qualified baby health nurse (1300 272 736), speak to their GP or Early Childhood Health Centre, or book into one of Tresillian’s courses and workshops.

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