Rock-a-bye mama: the importance of sleep for new mothers

Fragmented sleep can lead to anxiety, irritability, poor focus and concentration and fatigue during the day in new mothers

Updated - August 11, 2023 01:53 pm IST

Published - August 11, 2023 12:25 am IST

New mothers grapple with the aftermath of childbirth, trying to establish breastfeeding, they also have to deal with months of broken sleep.

New mothers grapple with the aftermath of childbirth, trying to establish breastfeeding, they also have to deal with months of broken sleep. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

World Breastfeeding Week just drew to a close on August 7, 2023, but there’s another aspect to new motherhood that perhaps requires a little more conversation: the gruelling effects of lack of sleep.

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Not only do many new mothers grapple with the aftermath of childbirth, trying to establish breastfeeding and coping with the changes in their body, they also have to deal with months of broken sleep, all while looking after a tiny human. A 2019 study published in the journal Sleep in fact, found that new parents could face up to six years of sleep deprivation. Not surprisingly, women faced greater sleep losses than men.

Up until last month, says Suparna S. Thantry, mother to twins born in April, even three hours of sleep at a stretch was a luxury. This month it’s been slightly better: she’s managing to get about four hours. “The twins keep me up at night, playing, sometimes cranky, and even when they do sleep, I barely have time: I have to catch up on general chores, look after my older daughter and express breastmilk for them for when they wake up,” says the 32-year-old.

And yes, babies are hard work, and are known to wake up in the night, but more and more research is telling us something simple yet crucial: good sleep is important for good health. Sleep deprivation in fact, is considered by many as a form of torture!

This January, a study published in the journal BMC Psychology found that mothers with higher levels of fatigue, poor sleep quality, and low resilience levels, were at high risk of developing post-partum depression.

This serious risk apart, fragmented sleep can lead to anxiety, irritability, poor focus and concentration and fatigue during the day in new mothers, said N. Ramakrishnan, director, Nithra Sleep Institute, Chennai. “A good support system, where, for instance, mothers can catch up on sleep during the day, is important,” he says. While most mothers tough it out and do manage to sleep better once the baby sleeps through the night and generally, get better at it the second time around, if, at any point they feel they cannot cope, they should get help,” Dr. Ramakrishnan emphasises.

While acknowledging that different age groups need different amounts of sleep, the Sleep Foundation (sleep foundation.org) recommends that most healthy adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night, while infants, young children, and teenagers should get more sleep to support growth and development. Apparently the recommendations were evolved with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine bringing together a panel of sleep experts to review hundreds of high-quality research studies about sleep duration and key health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, depression, pain, and diabetes.

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