When I was in the throes of postpartum insomnia, I was an absolute mess. I was terrified I was going to completely lose my mind due to lack-of-sleep induced psychosis and be one of those moms you read about on the news who kills herself and her baby. I didn’t have any THOUGHTS of wanting to do this, mind you, but I was terrified that I eventually would, because everything I had read online said that sleep deprivation altered your mind and made you think and do crazy things.
I asked a walk-in clinic doctor if it was possible to die from lack of sleep (yes, I was seriously worried that this might be a possibility) and he laughed and told me that they used sleep deprivation as a form of torture at Guantanamo so no, it would not kill me. And I found this comforting, believe it or not.
One thing I did a lot of when I had insomnia was google postpartum insomnia. And a lot of the results were depressing. Many women who struggled with it reported being diagnosed with and medicated for depression. And many articles I read talked about how lack of sleep was a major indicator for mental health issues. Not exactly what I wanted to hear. Some people talked about insomnia plaguing them for months on end. Terrifying.
Postpartum depression and anxiety is common and treatable and nothing to be ashamed of, but for those of you struggling with insomnia in the days or weeks following the birth of your child, please know that it doesn’t necessarily mean you will struggle with long term mental health issues requiring treatment, nor that you will not sleep for months. By all means: Seek help if you think you need it! I do not want to discourage that at all. However, my story had a very happy ending, and that’s why I wanted to share it. To add a hopeful story to the reams of scary ones on the Internet.
I’ll keep this as short as I can, because if you’re a new mom you probably don’t have a lot of time 😬
It started two days before I gave birth.
On the night of January first, my water broke at 11:30pm. Contractions hadn’t started, and wouldn’t start for another 24 hours, but I was so excited that the baby was coming soon that I didn’t sleep the whole night.
The next night my contractions started. And I didn’t sleep all night because they were painful enough that I couldn’t.
The day after my second sleepless night, I gave birth. That night in the hospital I was too wound up from the adrenaline from giving birth to sleep.
The next day we came home, and my fourth sleepless night began. I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t really know how to take care of the baby, and she kept thrashing around in her crib and wouldn’t sleep. And since she wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t sleeping.
The fifth day I tried to take a few naps during the day to make up for all this sleeplessness, and found that I couldn’t. My midwife told me to take a Gravol. I did. It made me high, but it didn’t make me sleep.
That night was sleepless again. This time for no reason, really — every time I started to drift off, a jolt of adrenaline would shoot through my body and I’d be wide awake. It was the most frustrating thing. The adrenaline was for no reason: I wasn’t worried about the baby like some new moms are, all I was worried about was how I couldn’t seem to sleep.
It didn’t help that everyone else was worried too. I was instructed to stay in the bedroom and try to sleep pretty much around the clock. The midwife lingered and spoke in hushed tones to my family. My husband, looking utterly exhausted himself, took care the baby AND me. One thing I learned though this whole experience (not that I didn’t already know it!): I picked a GREAT husband. He was a hero those first few days, and he put on such a brave face. I know he was a total mess himself but he never let me see it. Instead he just told me how much he loved me, what a good job I was doing, and remained SO optimistic that everything would be fine, even when I was sobbing hysterically and telling him that I was falling apart.
The midwife prescribed Serax, a short-term anti-anxiety medication also used for aiding sleep.
It didn’t make me sleep.
The next day (day 6 of no sleep!), when I went to the doctor and he asked me how much Serax I had taken he was shocked that I hadn’t slept and wanted to know if I was a regular drug user. I’m not.
His advice was to forget about the pressure of daytime naps (“Sleep when the baby sleeps” ugh), force myself to stay awake all day, and to go to bed at a normal hour that night, taking Serax again, but far less than I had before.
It worked. It was a weird and nightmare filled sleep that I hope to never repeat, but at least I slept.
I hated the way Serax made me feel, and I hated that my husband had to formula feed while I was on it, so the next night I decided to do the same thing as the day before, but minus the meds.
Just FYI, I was still a total mess. This whole lack of sleep thing made me teary and zombie like and nothing like the person I normally was. Right before bed that night I started to panic at the last minute about my decision to go med free and called my midwife in tears. “Am I going to lose my mind? Have you ever seen a new mom go through this before? Did she recover?!”
The midwife evaded my question about whether she’d seen it before (not exactly encouraging!) but did tell me not to worry about sleeping that night and to just focus on relaxing all night instead, and we’d re-group with a new plan in the morning if I didn’t manage to sleep.
The night that followed was the weirdest experience, although now it’s something I’ve encountered a few times since. I guess it’s one way the body can react when it’s running low on sleep.
If you had asked me if I slept that night, my first reaction would have been “no — I was awake all night.” But then I’d try to recall the night and realize there were large chunks of time where I would have sworn I was conscious, but I had no memory of the time passing. So I had… slept? Gone into some kind of weird catatonic state? It was nothing like normal sleep, but it was some kind of sleep, anyway.
I was encouraged by this, and the next night I tried again.
And I slept. Real sleep. And I was overjoyed. After 8 days of the most terrifying insomnia I had ever experienced, I had actually slept for a couple of hours.
Recovery after that was gradual, and I still sometimes get a bit of insomnia if I’m up with the baby for too long in the middle of the night, but I’ve learned not to stress about it, and sleep always comes eventually. Most nights I sleep no problem at all (I mean other than the baby keeping me up, but the terror of not being able to fall asleep because of something wrong with ME is far less than the more logical explanation that an external force is keeping me up 😊)
These are the tricks I find handy in the sleep department:
- I have a bedtime ritual for myself. Always a shower, always soak my head under the water.
- I never worry about falling asleep, I just tell myself to enjoy a few quiet hours without a baby crying for attention.
- If I find myself getting anxious about falling asleep, I get up and dunk my face in cold water which triggers the Dive Reflex, a neat trick I learned in a mindfulness class.
- If it’s the middle of the night and I can’t sleep, I view it as an opportunity to read a book. I read until I find myself getting sleepy, then I put it down and close my eyes. If I still can’t sleep and the sleepiness passes, I pick the book up again. Rinse and repeat. If it goes on for too long, I may feel like shit the next day, but at least I’m enjoying my period of insomnia instead of stressing out about it.
- I do my best not to think to myself “only 2 hours until baby is up again.” “only 1 hour until baby is up again” … this is hard af, and I don’t always manage it, but I try!
- “Sleep when the baby sleeps” put WAY too much pressure on me and I hated it. So I never nap. To my detriment, maybe, but it has worked for me.
- Instead, I try to go to bed early. Between 7pm and 8pm most nights. My husband will rock the baby to sleep while I’m already in bed so I don’t have to worry about getting her down before I can go down.
- It’s still not perfect. Our baby is a crappy sleeper, so even though I’m “in bed” from 7pm until 7 or 8am the next morning (13 hours!), I probably only get 5–6 hours of sleep in half hour -2 hour chunks (a 2 hour chunk is a real treat!). A good night might be closer to 8 with a 3 hour chunk at the beginning. Those nights I feel like a million bucks the next day. So: It can be ugly. But I think a lot of babies are better about sleeping than ours!
We’re only 3 months in to this parenting thing, and everything may change again, but for now, I feel normal again (well, as normal as I can, haha), and have ever since the first few weeks postpartum.
And the knowledge that I faced down that insomnia and came out victorious makes me optimistic that whatever obstacles I might face in the future, I can handle that too!