Battling 'mum insomnia'

tired woman
tired woman 

As parents, we all know that we have to accept a degree of sleep deprivation. But once the baby phase has ended and the children are sleeping through, many mums still find themselves wide awake during the night.

Despite the fact that her 18-month-old daughter now sleeps well, Merrill Brassil is not getting any sleep. “I lie there thinking about all the things that need doing or the things that are worrying me, and I find myself getting more and more frustrated by my inability to drift off,” she says.

“After about an hour I generally get up and get stuck into blogging, sewing or just watching TV. By 5am I find I’m tired enough to sleep so I'll head to bed and get a few hours.”

As this is something that occurs around five nights a week, it’s no surprise that Merrill is exhausted.

“I rely on coffee and Diet Coke, which is probably adding to the situation,” she admits. “I've put on 10kg in the last three months from eating for energy. My mood is low at times, and I often find myself dreading going out because I am so tired.”

And it’s not just Merrill – sleep psychologist Liora Kempler, from the University of Sydney, says it’s fairly common for women to experience these sort of sleep difficulties after having children. “While there is no specific disorder classified as ‘mum insomnia’, there definitely could be,” she says.

So why do so many mums find themselves in the grips of insomnia? Kempler says that insomnia can develop when our bodies begin to associate night time with being awake.

“Naturally, with a newborn, mothers find themselves awake through the night when they’re not used to it. This can then lead to them spending time awake, thinking or worrying in bed, which lengthens their time awake in bed. The association between sleep and bed is then weakened,” she explains.

But there is some good news: Kempler says that just as our bodies learn to stay awake, they can re-learn to sleep through. Her advice is to keep “worry and thinking” away from your bed.

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“If you find yourself laying awake thinking for more than about 15 minutes, get up and go and sit quietly in a dark room in another part of the house. Many people find that by the time they get there, they can hardly remember what they were thinking about. Sit and do nothing until you’re feeling more relaxed and possibly a bit more sleepy, then return to bed,” she advises.

Kempler also warns that going to bed early to “catch up” on sleep could exacerbate the issue. “You’ll just be awake for longer, which will strengthen the awake/bed association. Instead, go to bed when you’re in a calm, relaxed state, even if it’s a bit later, as you will be more likely to allow sleep to come.”

But for some, sleep disturbance could be indicative of a more worrying problem: postnatal depression (PND). Hannah Webb suffered from ‘mum insomnia’ for four months after the birth of her second daughter. “I found myself getting obsessed about sleep,” she says. “I'd add up the amount of sleep I had each night and decide whether it would be a good day or not.”

Webb assumed that her insomnia was just a normal reaction to living with a newborn, and it wasn’t until she discussed the anxiety she felt during the night with other mothers that she realised there was something else going on.

“In the end I had to take anti-depressant medication as I was diagnosed with PND, which finally helped with my sleep,” Webb explains.

Gordon Parker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, says that while sleep problems may be one symptom, there are other signs that will help mothers distinguish between a bout of insomnia and PND.

“If PND is present the mother will have a lowered self-esteem and have multiple signs of a depressed mood, not simply sleep disturbance,” says Parker, who is also the author of Overcoming Baby Blues: A Comprehensive Guide to Perinatal Depression.

Parker notes that one of the key issues in managing PND is ensuring that the mother gets enough sleep, which could involve enlisting the help of others. “PND is painful. PND with distinct insomnia is doubly painful,” he says.

Whatever the cause, if you’re experiencing mum insomnia, discussing it with your GP could help you get to the bottom of it.

“You need as much sleep as you can possibly get when you have small children,” says Webb. “Never think that getting help or rest is selfish; it's the opposite. You need to do it to be the best mum you can!”