How I overcame postnatal insomnia

In those shattering weeks of early parenthood, I remember thinking that if I could just get four hours sleep in one stretch, then everything would be okay; I would be able to function. Little did I know that Martha sleeping better would signal the end of my sleeping well, and that I was yet to know the meaning of true sleep deprivation.

It all started when Martha was around 8 weeks old and we decided to put into her own room. We figured that she would sleep better in a cot than a squeaky moses basket and that we would all disturb each other less in our own rooms. Her sleep improved almost immediately and we both breathed a sigh of relief. No more creeping around to go to the loo. Or whispering. Or waking up at every snort and whistle she made during the night.

Suddenly, for no particular reason, I stopped sleeping AT ALL.

At first, all went swimmingly. I would pump at 9.30pm and go to bed, leaving my husband with a bottle to give her at 11pm before he came to bed too. Martha would then wake at around 3am for a short breastfeed before going back to sleep until 7.30am, and we’d all wake up feeling refreshed and happy. We thought we had it so sussed.

Then, suddenly, for no particular reason, I stopped sleeping AT ALL. Well, that’s not quite true. I would sleep from around 10pm until something – rarely Martha – would wake me somewhere between 11.30pm and 1am. Knowing that Martha was probably going to wake soon for a feed, I would lie awake, waiting for her cry. A few hours would pass. She’d wake. I’d do the feed. I’d get back into bed. And I’d lie there, awake. Wide awake. But a wired and exhausted kind of awake, watching the light creep in until morning arrived and another day began.

A heavy film of fatigue hung over every waking hour.

“Have a nap when she’s sleeping during the day,” people would say. But I couldn’t nap either. I felt anxious. Frazzled. Short-tempered. Tearful. Irrational. I heard Martha’s cries when there weren’t any and started to question my own judgement about any sort of minor decision. A heavy film of fatigue hung over every waking hour; I peered out into a world I hardly recognised. I became obsessed with my “windows of sleep” and if it didn’t happen immediately, the window would just slam shut.

The crunch point came when the panic attacks started – breathless, middle-of-the-night terrors where the walls closed in and I felt so crazed with lack of sleep that I was genuinely scared that I wouldn’t be able to look after Martha properly; that I might actually die from exhaustion. I went to my GP.

“Before you say it, I’m not depressed,” I asserted, “I just can’t sleep.” She said that my body had forgotten how to sleep from all the broken nights and prescribed some sleeping pills to help “get me over the edge”, but I was too wired and irrational to take even a tiny nibble. What if some of it went into my breast milk and I poisoned Martha? What if I went into such a deep sleep, I didn’t hear her cry?

Getting through that period was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

In the end, I had to find my own way out of the black hole that I now know as Postnatal Insomnia, and I do sometimes wonder if I didn’t skate quite close to Postnatal Depression (insomnia is often a symptom).

Getting through that period was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but with the help of a few night-nannies, a very supportive husband and a strict bed-time routine (for me), my sleep patterns gradually returned to normal, and, as they did, the world – and motherhood – looked bright again.

HOW TO BEAT POSTNATAL INSOMNIA

1. Rule out postnatal depression

Insomnia is one of many symptoms linked to postnatal depression, which needs to be identified and treated quickly. It is hard to confess that you’re struggling when you think everyone else is finding it easy (they’re not), so be honest with your GP about what is really going on.

2. Get some help with the baby

Whether it’s your husband or a trusted family member, a night-nanny or maternity nurse, find someone who is going to respect and support the way you want to do things (breast/bottle; routine/non-routine) in a non-judgemental way and let them take over for a few hours while you take a breather.

3. Take some exercise

I walked when Martha slept rather than trying (and failing) to sleep myself. A bit of physical activity and some fresh air releases endorphins, and being physically tired helped lead to a more natural and restful sleep.

4. No screens before bed

All the research now says that electronics are terrible for our sleep, so Instagramming at 3am was never going to be a good idea. From 5pm, I made a rule to turn my phone off and read a book rather than watch TV and I’m sure this helped to restore my sleep patterns.

5. Create a bed-time routine – for you

I had a bath, a warm milky drink, read my book for a while and sprayed my pillow with This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray in Lavender (a natural sleep aid), all of which helped relax me before bed and lead gently to sleep.

6. Don’t go to bed too early

In the height of my insomnia, expecting to wake at around midnight, I made the mistake of going to bed far too early, which I’m sure made things worse. Having a proper evening (no matter how tired I was) and going to bed at a sensible time for an adult (10/10.30pm) definitely helped.

7. Try muscle relaxation techniques and deep breathing

I would do yoga breathing and try to focus on relaxing each bit of my body, starting with my toes, individually until my whole body felt heavy without me thinking about sleep directly.

8. Take a sleeping pill

Once insomnia takes a hold, and goes on for a very long time, it is hard to find your way back. After things started improving and I was thinking rationally again, I vowed never to let myself get into that frazzled state again. This meant that, if I had three bad nights in a row, I’d organise a trusted someone to take care of Martha for the fourth night and (like my GP had originally suggested) take quarter of a sleeping pill to “re-set” myself. As all the experts say, “sleep breeds sleep”. Turns out that’s as true for adults as it is for babies.

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