Once the baby is born, new challenges to both motherhood and sleep are born. Sleep deprivation for mothers actually begins during pregnancy, which could be thought of as a way to “train for” the next wave of lost sleep that everyone has come to recognize as a chief obstacle for new mothers.
But problems with sleep for mothers follow along a continuum and shouldn’t be limited to those experiences hoping for junior to sleep through the night.
Sleep deprivation across the lifespan of motherhood
Untreated chronic sleep deprivation for any person does not end well, especially if it’s left untreated for years.
Let’s go in with eyes wide open and identify all the myriad ways in which Moms can—and will—lose sleep during their careers as mothers. Some of these causes for sleep problems are just part of life, to be sure, but sleep debt left to accrue over the years is a key reason for mothers to seriously consider getting help for their sleep problems.
This is the actual birth of sleep loss for many mothers. When they are expecting, they experience a wide range of sleep-stealing health concerns.
New motherhood and sleep when baby is not sleeping
In the first year of motherhood, sleepless nights to feed and nurture the new baby are a known and expected reality.
What may be overlooked during the first year of motherhood is the sneaky emergency of postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety (PPA). Having either problem is closely linked with lost sleep but also with aggravating any low-lying mood problems that weren’t known before. And did you know? Untreated sleep apnea can sometimes be misdiagnosed as depression.
Mothers of toddlers and pre-schoolers
Sleep deprivation during the years when kids are pre-school aged can arise after the mother returns to her job or can be caused by:
- struggles with lingering mood disorders
- untreated sleep apnea (which may have started during pregnancy)
- other sleep disorders (restless legs or periodic leg movement disorder, circadian rhythm sleep disorders, parasomnias, insomnia, in example) that can masquerade under the label, “I’m a Mom… aren’t all Moms tired?”
- the added efforts required of moms of special needs children
- a need to appear “put together,” which may mean lost sleep to participate in social activities (the adult version of FOMO: “fear of missing out”)
- frequent illness when children bring home viruses that lead to family-wide infections
- the use of “Mother’s Little Helpers” to fight insomnia or daytime fatigue (caffeine and Benadryl are two common culprits, but it could also mean performance drugs like Provigil or sleeping pills like Ambien)
- the use of alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana at night to relax, or other unhealthy sleep hygiene behaviors
- the family bed may lose its relaxing qualities as kids struggle with independence and wanting to sleep with Mom; this can create conflicts in relationships as well as additional sleepless nights
Now that the kids are in school, does Mom get her sleep back?
As the kids grow older, untreated sleep problems (for the same reasons listed in #4) tend to worsen and lead to other health problems that, ironically, make it even harder to sleep well.
Family schedules also get more complex as the kids get older and schools and coaches demand more of their time. This can translate into additional anxiety leading to insomnia or mood disorders which can have a negative impact on sleep quantity and quality.
Meanwhile, a mother’s sleeping partner might have developed a penchant for snoring and it may become an additional cause for sleep deprivation.
The joys of raising adolescents
Teenaged children bring their own set of anxieties for both motherhood and sleep: curfews, concerns about drug or alcohol use, emergent depression in their children, bullying, stress over grades or performance in activities, heartbreak, early sexual activity and unprotected sex, learning to drive, and more.
Meanwhile, a women who has become a mother later in life may also be experiencing perimenopause (or menopause outright) as they concurrently struggle with raising increasingly challenging children during their tween and teen years.
Other anxieties develop, such as the cost of college, sharing the family car, having kids with learning or behavioral challenges that don’t appear until they are older, and other personal losses such as divorce, deaths in the family or among circles of friends, and economic stress.
When the kids have flown the coop
By the time a mother has achieved an “empty nest,” new emotional burdens can emerge: feeling unneeded or unwanted, fearing for the safety of children who’ve moved away for college or work, and grieving the loss of ordinary household life. These can translate into problems with sleep or can be problems that emerge due to lost sleep for whatever reason.
If a mother continues to experience daytime fatigue and/or insomnia throughout her career as a mother, and has not addressed these sleep issues, the risk is high that sleep deprivation and untreated sleep disorders (sleep apnea, restless legs, insomnia) will lead to major chronic health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, mood disorder, or kidney disease.
Menopause and the golden years
Aging brings its own cast of characters to the drama: arthritis and osteoporosis can lead to chronic pain, injuries, and major surgical procedures or the use of medications, all of which can greatly impact motherhood and sleep.
Once a woman passes the age of menopause, she has her own health concerns to consider (even for healthy people, aging can bring problems that require attention). However, she is still a mother, and the happiness and economic security of her children may still bring anxiety and sleepless nights.
When grandchildren enter the picture, many of the same challenges of early motherhood and sleep also affect grandmothers, especially when it comes to the care and safety of the new little ones.
Meanwhile, more lifespan realities (divorce, retirement, loss of a spouse, economic stress) continue to play a part in the emotional health and sleep health of women.
MOTHERHOOD AND SLEEP: THE BOTTOM LINE
When women become mothers, it is truly in their best interest to establish sleep as a priority from day one, and that means during pregnancy.
Otherwise, even the healthiest mother, who can already expect to face a lifetime of sleepless nights that are the occupational hazard of motherhood, can also expect increased risks for mental and physical health problems.
Adequate sleep, intentionally sought night after night, is an inexpensive and effective way to relieve, prevent, even eliminate the problems caused by sleep deprivation.