Are you suffering from insomnia after having a baby?
For all mums who are having trouble with insomnia once their kids are sleeping through, read on
I can’t believe I’m the only mum who forgot how to sleep after having kids.
Like most of us, I used to be a great sleeper. And that still held true after two children – well, once they were sleeping through the night, of course.
But then baby number three came along. By that point, like all parents with more than one child, you’re not only being woken by the tiny baby regularity of night feeds, dawn nappy changes and sleep settling – but by the occasional night-time needs of your older children too.
You know the sort of thing – 3am medicine distribution and brow-stroking duties, being called to pick crumpled duvets off the floor and offering warm cuddles to soothe nightmares. And all after being awake for hours with your newborn.
I don’t know what happened but it was like an insomnia switch was flicked inside me.
By the time my baby was sleeping through at nine months old and my older kids had got the hang of their duvets, I wasn’t. I found myself staring into the darkness at 2, 3, 4am, panicking about how I was going to cope with yet another day with three kids on limited sleep.
The longer it went on, the more I panicked. I thought I had forgotten how to sleep. And then of course I was so anxious about any mention of sleep that I thought about it all day long and found it difficult to nod off at the start of the night too.
For a few months, I was too weepingly exhausted to do anything about my sleep problem. But after bursting into tears with a friend when my youngest was one, I realised I had to take action. One prescription of sleeping pills later, I was in a better place to sort out my nights and set myself on a mission to crack this sleep nut on the head.
More about this in a blog post to follow but, three years later, I can say that my nights are completely different. With a few essential props, I’m now able to fall asleep within 10 minutes. And when I wake up in the night, the difference now is that I don’t wake up completely – my brain stays in fuzzy mode and I can drift off again.
What is the cause of baby-related insomnia?
I spoke to Dr Tim Quinnell , respiratory and sleep physician at the Respiratory Support and Sleep Centre at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, about we can forget how to sleep after having kids.
“While it might feel as though your internal body clock has reset itself to a permanent night-time schedule or that you have forgotten how to sleep, this just can’t happen,” says Dr Quinnell.
He also explained that those ups and downs in the middle of the night don’t lead to any permanent change or damage to your sleep patterns.
Instead, it seems as though your body can embrace a new habit – the habit of being awake in the middle of the night.
“You are used to being on duty for your baby and so are a bit wired overnight too,” says Dr Quinnell. “Your body has to learn that you don’t have to constantly be on call.”
How do you start to whip your sleep habits back into shape?
Before you go to bed, you need to spend time reassuring your mind that your child is safe, he says – this will help you switch off.
“Take a deep breath, step back and say, ‘Is there anything to worry about with my children?’” he says. “Then tell yourself, ‘No, they are sleeping well, there are no issues.’”
Dr Quinnell’s 4-step plan for getting back to sleep in the middle of the night
1. Don’t look at a clock
“This will just feed your mind’s micro-analysis of what’s going on,” says Dr Quinnell. “So turn the clock to the wall and don’t look at your phone.”
2. Don’t think about sleep, whatever you do
“If you start thinking about sleep and how you want to get back to sleep, it amplifies the problem rather than solves it as it engages the brain in decision-making,” he says. Try to keep your brain on fuzzy mode.
3. Don’t just lie there
“If the bed is becoming a battle ground and you’re worrying about sleep, take the pressure off and bail out,” says Dr Quinnell.
One option is to stay in bed and read a book or look at a magazine for a brief period, using a low light, like a pen torch.
“Alternatively, you can get out of bed and wander around with the lights low,” he says. “But don’t turn on your phone or computer, and don’t do chores.”
4. Pop back to bed after what feels like a maximum of 10 minutes (but don’t look at a clock obviously)
“Don’t wait until you feel tired and want to go to sleep as this means you’ll be analysing how you feel and making decisions – and that doesn’t help,” he says. “So after two or three pages of your book or a few minutes of wandering around, settle down again in bed and turn out the light.”
4. In bed, tell your mind that you don’t care whether you sleep or not – even if you do
Play tricks on your mind. “Tell yourself, ‘If I sleep, I sleep and if I don’t, I don’t. I don’t care’,” says Dr Quinnell.
“It introduces an ‘I don’t care, I’m relaxed, I’m resting anyway’ type of attitude.”
If this doesn’t work after a few minutes, repeat the steps as often as necessary. For more sleep tools and tricks, read 9 tips to help with insomnia. Good luck!