Post-natal insomnia: when your baby sleeps through the night - but you don't

Image: Supplied
Image: Supplied  

"Sleep while the baby sleeps!" 

If you're a new mum chances are you've heard that nugget of advice oft-given to bleary-eyed mums and dads. But what happens when your baby sleeps through the night and you're left lying awake and staring at the ceiling?

That's the situation 25-year-old Zoe Miller-Starr found herself in after welcoming her baby Hamish with her partner Fraser in August 2019. 

Image/Supplied
Image/Supplied 

"He started sleeping through the night at six weeks," Ms Miller-Starr tells Essential Baby of her smiley nine-month-old. "The first time it happened, I woke up and panicked. It was daylight! I thought there's no way it will happen again." While she initially thought it was a fluke, Ms Miller-Starr laughs, "It kept happening!"

Hamish slept soundly, but the the reality for Ms Miller-Starr was very different. The new mum was managing only three or four hour sleep a night. 

"When he started sleeping through I was like, 'but he's asleep. Why aren't I asleep?' If I did fall asleep I was constantly waking up and not falling into a deep sleep."

Ms Miller-Starr assumed she was simply listening for her baby's' cries. "But then it got past that," she says. "He was perfectly fine. This was a me problem."

But it wasn't anxiety keeping her awake either. 

"I've always been the kind of person where my mind travels at 20 million miles an hour. It will race, race, race. It's not necessarily about anything - a tv show, a song stuck in my head, or something stupid like do you think pigeons have feelings?" she laughs.

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And the insomnia began to take its toll.

"My poor partner cops a lot of it," she said. "He sees me at my worst rather than my best because he's at work all day. That's a struggle for him. There have been days when I'm just trying to be a mum and I'm crying and trying to still smile and say "mummy's here and she's just having a moment."

And while the mum admits she's always been good at putting on a face, "You think ,maybe I'm not managing things as well as I thought."

Ms Miller-Starr turned to exercise to help exhaust herself for sleep. "I'd get to ten and my brain would be wired and I'd go to the gym and do a work out," she says." I'd physically exhaust myself and come home and have no choice but to sleep."

But this all changed amid the coronavirus. 

"COVID hit, the gyms all shut down and I couldn't go running in the middle of the night. Exercise is great but totally not viable in the middle of the night," she laughs. Instead, the para-medicine student threw herself into study. "I would study until my brain was physically, 'no, no more' 

It was time to seek help.

The mum visited her GP two weeks ago and has been seeing her psychologist. "I'm in therapy now for CBT," she says, adding that she's been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and has started taking medication to help with her circadian rhythm.

Ms Miller-Starr is now urging other new mums lying awake, to not be ashamed of asking for help.

"If you've tried all the suggestions - meditations and counting your breathing, suck your pride up and go to the doctor. Don't wait nine months like I did.You're not a bad mum because of it. You'll be a better mum because of it. If nothing's working, it's OK not to be the super strong one all the time.

"[Depression] comes out in different ways. I have friends who look at me like 'You're not depressed'!' But I stopped eating, too. It might not be your 'typical I can't get our of bed symptoms."

While it's early days, Ms Miller-Starr is already feeling better and enjoying her "perfect angel baby."

"I've never seen a kid so happy," she says. "I'm so lucky". 

Dr Nicole Highet, founder and executive director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) tells Essential Baby that it's important to be aware that changes in sleep may be a sign of anxiety or depression. "Anxiety often makes it very difficult to fall asleep or sleep through the night – regardless of how you baby may be sleeping," she says. "While depression can lead many parents to want to sleep more, for others sleep patterns are disturbed in other ways."

You can find more sleeping tips from COPE here

You can hear more about Zoe's story and other sleep hacks tonight on Insight at 8.30pm on SBS.