It’s Anxiety Week - Save 20% on our Managing Postpartum Anxiety course with code anxiety20.
LEARN MORE
It’s Anxiety Week - Save 20% on our Managing Postpartum Anxiety course with code anxiety20.
LEARN MORE

February 20, 2024

May 11, 2022

Understanding Insomnia: Why New Moms Struggle to Sleep—The Biological, Psychological, and Social Factors

E:
120
with
Dr. Shelby Harris
Clinical Psychologist

What You'll Learn

  • What Qualifies as a “Sleep Problem”
  • Sleepiness vs Fatigue
  • Why Women Are At Higher Risk for Sleep Issues
  • The Sleep Issues Moms Face
  • What Causes Insomnia
  • Tips for New Moms to Get Sleep

Maternal sleep deprivation is very common. Even if baby sleeps, moms often find themselves battling insomnia–struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get good quality sleep. When you’re a new mom, it’s easy to become obsessed with sleep. Watching the clock, obsessing over wake windows, and worrying about when your baby will sleep through the night seem to be common mom pastimes. 

But the baby isn’t the only one who needs to sleep—moms do too. And we often have an uphill battle to face when it comes to sleep issues. Dr. Shelby Harris, clinical psychologist and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, joins me to discuss sleep difficulties for moms.

(For the second part of our conversation, on tips to manage maternal sleep deprivation, catch our blog post for part two!)

Your Sleep Matters

Before my first son was born, I spent a lot of time preparing for his sleep. Picking out a bedside co-sleeper for when he was little, choosing a crib for later, shopping for sleep sacks and pacifiers and sheets. 

What I didn’t spend any time doing was forming a plan for my own sleep. I imagined that I would sleep when the baby slept and that even though I would be tired, it would be manageable. 

Of course, it was harder than I had ever imagined. I stirred at every movement, every noise my son made. I intervened to nurse probably more often than I needed to. And I tried to take on every nighttime responsibility—not because my husband wasn’t willing to support, but because I felt like I had to be the one to do everything. 

If I could do it all over again, I would do things differently. I would probably move the co-sleeper a little farther away. I would try to worry less. But most importantly, I would make a plan from the beginning to protect my own sleep. 

Sleep is something that we think we must sacrifice as mom.

Sleep is something that we think we must sacrifice as moms—and, to a degree, we do. But there’s a difference between waking up to feed the baby and letting go of sleep as a priority. All too often, I hear from clients who absolutely can’t sleep—beyond frequent night wakes for the baby. 

In Dr. Shelby’s book, she dives into the sleep issues moms face—from insomnia to fatigue to sleep apnea. I was excited to chat about sleep from a different perspective. 

What Qualifies as a “Sleep Problem”

There are many different sleep struggles that people face, all with various factors and outcomes. Some people struggle to fall asleep, while others have trouble staying asleep. Some wake early, or wake up feeling groggy even if they had a full night’s rest. Sleep struggles can be medical, psychological, or even social. 

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep issues Dr. Shelby sees. Up to 30% of the population struggles with it—and 50% have trouble sleeping from time to time. Insomnia is defined as having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking earlier than you want at least three times a week. 

With short term insomnia, this occurs for 1-3 months. If it persists beyond three months, it’s considered chronic. 

Another common sleep problem is sleep apnea—a disorder affecting breathing during sleep. Dr. Shelby pointed out that, although we think of sleep apnea occurring in older, overweight men who are heavy snorers, that’s not always the case. 

Plenty of young, healthy women suffer from sleep apnea as well, and the snoring might be lighter than we think. It arises often during pregnancy, particularly in the third trimester. Sleep apnea can cause sleepiness and fatigue, leaving people feeling like the sleep they get is not of good quality. 

Restless leg syndrome is another common sleep issue. It is very common during pregnancy and the postpartum period, and can make it difficult to fall asleep or sleep well. 

As Dr. Shelby said, it’s normal to have nights of poor sleep here and there—we all do. But when it’s affecting you on a regular basis or persisting, it’s time to take a closer look at your sleep issues. 

Sleepiness vs Fatigue

Sleepiness and fatigue can both be signs of underlying sleep issues, but they are distinctly different. With sleepiness, you might find yourself drifting off during the day, unable to keep your eyes open. 

But with fatigue, you might feel tired, but wired and unable to fall asleep. Dr. Shelby describes fatigue as feeling like you are dragging bricks along with you. People with fatigue often don’t feel as if they have the energy to carry on through the day. 

I experienced extreme fatigue during my third postpartum period—a symptom of postpartum depression in my case. When I finally sought treatment, I told my husband that it felt like shackles had been taken off my feet and I could finally move forward. 

As moms, we sometimes wear fatigue as a badge of honour.

As moms, we sometimes wear fatigue as a badge of honour, treating it like something that should be normal once you have a baby. 

But Dr. Shelby says that shouldn’t be the case. Sleep disturbances are part of being a parent. But if you carve out protected sleep periods and you still have trouble falling asleep, or you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night on your own, she encourages you to see a doctor about appropriate treatment. 

Why Women Are At Higher Risk for Sleep Issues

According to Dr. Shelby, before adolescence, the rates of sleep struggles are fairly even for everyone. After adolescence, however, women are more likely to face sleep issues. They face shifts in their hormones that impact their sleep. 

It’s common to suffer from insomnia before a period, due to spikes and drops in estrogen and progesterone. (In fact, Dr. Shelby often recommends that women who suffer from anxiety check to see if it aligns with their menstrual cycle. Knowing the pattern helps arm you with knowledge when you seek help from a doctor.) 

Those hormonal triggers for sleep issues persist throughout women’s lives—in perimenopause and menopause. The hormone shifts can cause short term or chronic insomnia. 

The Sleep Issues Moms Face

Moms face many factors that contribute to sleep struggles. Sleep disturbances often begin during pregnancy, due to increased urination, heartburn, or physical discomfort. 

Once the baby comes, moms are often taking on more night wakes and feeds, and dealing with stress, or even anxiety and depression, all of which come with higher risk for insomnia. 

Even after a baby starts sleeping better, many moms find that their bodies become accustomed to waking up. Unfortunately, this often leads to more sleep disturbances—moms find themselves waking often and anxiously awaiting baby’s wakeups. 

Moms also carry extra pressures and stress in the home, often taking on the primary responsibility for the care work. That stress is a recipe for sleep struggle.

Moms carry extra pressures and stress in the home which is a recipe for sleep struggle.

Sometimes moms have trouble getting diagnosed with sleep issues. The symptoms are often misdiagnosed as anxiety or depression. Other times, they are dismissed completely because of the baby. 

But Dr. Shelby said that the perinatal period is a high-risk time for sleep issues. It’s important to be on high alert to notice if you need help. 

What Causes Insomnia

Medical professionals used to believe that insomnia was always caused by another condition—often depression or mental health struggles. But we now know that there are countless reasons people suffer from sleep. Sometimes, they are obvious (like a newborn who wakes up every hour all night long!) Other times, they are harder to determine. 

Dr. Shelby says that sleep psychologists focus on the Three P’s when trying to get to the root of sleep issues. 

Predisposing Factors: There are some factors that make people more likely to develop insomnia, including working night shifts, having a new baby, or a history of sleep issues in the family. Those factors might set the stage for sleep struggles, but they don’t always cause insomnia. 

Precipitating Factors: Other factors arise that might trigger insomnia. Pregnancy, stress, concerns about the world, or even excitement can throw off your sleep. Sometimes these lead to chronic insomnia. 

Perpetuation: When we start to experience insomnia, we all too often develop habits to help us in the short-term that actually perpetuate the condition. We nap or change our sleep routine by going to bed early or waking up early. Sometimes we worry about sleep, which makes it harder to fall asleep. Other times we turn to sleep aids or alcohol to help us get through the day. 

It’s hard to recognize that these perpetuation factors make the problem worse because they feel like common sense solutions at the time. But sleep treatment often requires changing these behaviours. 

Tips for New Moms to Get Sleep

New moms have their own ways to perpetuate insomnia and sleep struggles. It is tempting to scroll your phone or turn on the light when doing a night feed. Dr. Shelby said we need to think about what will help calm our brains. 

Another way we perpetuate sleep struggles is by worrying about our sleep and the baby’s sleep to an extreme degree. It’s important to have a realistic understanding of what infant sleep should look like and set reasonable expectations to ease some of that worry. 

It can feel impossible to get enough sleep as a new mom.

Sometimes, it can feel impossible to get enough sleep as a new mom. But it’s important to prioritize sleep where you can. Dr. Shelby says that if you can protect a period of at least four (but ideally six) hours of sleep, it can help restore your body and brain. 

If that’s unrealistic for you, consider bringing in a partner or family member to provide naps during the day. Ordinarily, it’s best to avoid napping. But in the postpartum period, you often have to get creative to get sleep. 

We can also get creative about how we divide night feeds. If you bottle feed, trade off with a partner if possible. If you are nursing and can’t share night feeds, try to offload other responsibilities, like diaper changes or resettling. 

Most importantly, remember that your sleep and the baby’s sleep are two different things. If you cling to the idea that the baby must sleep in order for you to sleep, you might stress yourself out trying to control sleep—causing more sleep difficulty in the long run. 

Make a plan for your own sleep, separate from the baby’s sleep plan. If you can, make a mom sleep plan in advance, before the baby comes and you’re in the thick of a sleep crisis. 

Sleep is an important part of your mental health—If you are someone who has had anxiety or depression before having a baby, sleep deprivation increases your risk of developing postpartum depression or anxiety. (If you’re struggling, visit our Wellness Center to book a free consultation with a mom therapist). 

To hear more from Dr. Shelby about sleep, be sure to read the second part of the blog post on mom-centered sleep, where we’ll dive into sleep hygiene and how to get more sleep!

Ready to make your mom sleep plan? Download our FREE Sleep Plan for Moms to learn about sleep myths, make a plan for support, and protect your sleep!

NEWSLETTER

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay updated.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Tags:

New moms struggle to sleep

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood, Pregnant

Share Now:

OUR GUEST

Dr. Shelby Harris
Clinical Psychologist

Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM is a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in private practice in NY. She is board certified in Behavioral Sleep Medicine and treats a wide variety of sleep, anxiety and depression issues using evidence-based, non-medication treatments. Her self-help book, The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Relying on Medication was published in 2019. Before going into private practice, she was the longstanding director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. Dr. Harris has been an invited columnist for the New York Times “Consults Blog,” and is frequently quoted in the media. Dr. Harris can also be found on Instagram at @SleepDocShelby where she provides evidence-based information about sleep wellness and sleep disorders.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
RELATED ARTICLES
February 20, 2024
January 31, 2024
Postpartum Rage vs. Parental Anger: How Social Expectations Create Overwhelmed Moms
E:
210
with
Dr. Ashurina Ream
Founder and CEO of Psyched Mommy, licensed clinical psychologist
February 20, 2024
January 24, 2024
You’re Not an Angry Mom: Why We Experience Mom Rage (and What We Can Learn From It)
E:
209
with
Minna Dubin
Author of Mom Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood
February 20, 2024
January 17, 2024
What Causes Mommy Brain? The Role of the Invisible Load on Forgetfulness and Brain Fog
E:
208
with
Dr. Jodi Pawluski
neuroscientist, psychotherapist and author
February 20, 2024
January 3, 2024
How Parents Can Avoid Information Overload: Maintaining Confidence in Our Decision-Making
E:
206
with
Cara Goodwin
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
November 29, 2023
Prioritizing the Invisible Load of Motherhood: Valuing Our Own Time and Letting Go of Mental Labor
E:
201
with
Whitney Casares
Founder and CEO of Modern Mommy Doc
February 20, 2024
November 15, 2023
Breaking Generational Trauma Cycles: Healing Our Past and Moving Forward in Motherhood
E:
199
with
Dr. Mariel Buqué
Psychologist and the author of the book Break the Cycle: A Guide to Healing Intergenerational Trauma
February 20, 2024
November 8, 2023
Is There Such a Thing as Healthy Perfectionism? Reframing the Concept of “Perfect” in Motherhood
E:
198
with
Katherine Morgan Schafler
Psychotherapist and author
February 20, 2024
October 11, 2023
Embracing the 7 Types of Rest: Why Moms Are Exhausted and What Actually Helps
E:
194
with
Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith
Board-Certified internal medicine physician and award-winning author
February 20, 2024
October 4, 2023
Interpreting Newborn Hunger Cues and Sleepy Signs: How to Learn Your Baby’s Needs
E:
193
with
Sharon Mazel
Author of Bite-Sized Parenting: Your Baby’s First Year
February 20, 2024
September 20, 2023
Managing Mom Anxiety: Why Millennial Moms Are So Anxious and How to Overcome Our Fears
E:
191
with
Dr. Lauren Cook
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
September 13, 2023
Embracing Power as Moms: Reshaping Dynamics In and Out of the Home
E:
190
with
Claire Shipman
NYT Bestselling Author
February 20, 2024
September 6, 2023
How to Raise Confident Kids: Breaking Cycles of Negative Self-Esteem
E:
189
with
Dr. Vanessa Lapointe
Founder of The North Star Developmental Clinic
February 20, 2024
August 23, 2023
Understanding Sensory Self-Care: How Overstimulated Moms Can Regulate and Regain Calm
E:
187
with
Holly Peretz
Pediatric Occupational Therapist
February 20, 2024
August 16, 2023
Navigating Matrescence: The Roller Coaster of Becoming a Mom
E:
186
with
Dr. Catherine Birndorf
Co-Founder and Medical Director of The Motherhood Center of New York
February 20, 2024
July 26, 2023
The Journey of a Bereaved Parent: Stefania Thomson’s Story of Navigating Grief and Loss
E:
183
with
Stefania Thomson
Bereavement and Grief Advocate
February 20, 2024
June 21, 2023
Myths About Toddler Behavior: How to Reclaim the "Terrible Twos"
E:
178
with
Dr. Cathryn Tobin
Pediatrician
February 20, 2024
March 29, 2023
Birth Trauma Part 2: Facing Pregnancy After a Traumatic Birth
E:
166
with
Kayleigh Summers
Clinical Social Worker
February 20, 2024
March 22, 2023
Birth Trauma Part 1: How Birth Trauma Impacts Our Family Decision Making
E:
165
with
Kayleigh Summers
Clinical Social Worker
February 20, 2024
March 15, 2023
Real Self-Care for Moms: Why Mindset Matters More Than Massages
E:
164
with
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin
Psychiatrist
February 20, 2024
February 8, 2023
Overcoming Mom Guilt: Rewriting the Motherhood Contract and Charting Your Own Path
E:
159
with
Libby Ward
Founder of Diary of an Honest Mom
February 20, 2024
December 28, 2022
Coping During Postpartum with No Family Support: When Reality Clashes with Expectations
E:
153
with
Emmalee Bierly and Jennifer Chaiken
Founders of ShrinkChicks
February 20, 2024
November 23, 2022
The Mental Load of Motherhood: How to Address the Imbalance of Household Labour
E:
148
with
Gemma Hartley
Journalist and Author
February 20, 2024
November 16, 2022
Surviving the Baby Witching Hour: How to Cope With Colicky and Fussy Babies
E:
147
with
Dr. Whitney Casares
Pediatrician
February 20, 2024
November 2, 2022
How To Deal With Toxic Positivity As a Mom: What To Do When Someone Invalidates Your Feelings
E:
145
with
Whitney Goodman
Marriage and Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
October 19, 2022
Returning to Work After Maternity Leave: Navigating the Emotions, Difficulties, and Challenges
E:
143
with
Dr. Cassidy Freitas
Marriage and Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
October 12, 2022
How to Know if You Have Postpartum Anxiety: Red Flags to Watch for in Pregnancy, Birth, and After Baby
E:
142
with
Dr. Sarah Oreck
Reproductive Psychiatrist
February 20, 2024
October 5, 2022
Protecting Maternal Sleep: The Relationship Between Sleep Deprivation and Postpartum Depression
E:
141
with
Dr. Nicole Leistikow
Reproductive Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
September 21, 2022
Encouraging Independent Play: Why Unstructured Play Matters and How to Foster It
E:
139
with
Susie Allison
Founder of Busy Toddler
February 20, 2024
August 31, 2022
Why Does a Messy House Give Me Anxiety? How to Stress Less About Cleaning and Keep Your House Functioning
E:
136
with
KC Davis
@domesticblisters on TikTok and Founder of Struggle Care
February 20, 2024
August 3, 2022
Overcoming Postpartum Depression and Anxiety: Why Support Matters and How to Find Resources to Help
E:
132
with
Dr. Wendy Davis
Executive Director of PSI
February 20, 2024
July 27, 2022
Overcoming Working Mom Guilt: Why Moms Should Never Be Ashamed to Be Ambitious
E:
131
with
Lara Bazelon
Law Professor and Author
February 20, 2024
February 16, 2022
What is Matrescence? The Transition into Motherhood (And Why Being a New Mom is Hard)
E:
108
with
Dr. Katayune Kaeni
Perinatal Psychologist
February 20, 2024
February 2, 2022
Discover Your Personal Core Values
E:
106
with
Dr. Cassidy Freitas
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
January 26, 2022
When Mommy Rage Strikes: How to Prevent and Control the Anger
E:
105
with
Dr. Ashurina Ream
Founder of Psyched Mommy
February 20, 2024
January 5, 2022
Sleep Training Doesn't Have To Be Scary
E:
102
with
Dr. Aubrie DeBear
Founder of Baby Sleep Dr.
February 20, 2024
January 19, 2022
Carrying the Mental Load: How to Redistribute the Burden and Give Moms More Freedom
E:
104
with
Eve Rodsky
New York Times Bestselling Author
February 20, 2024
January 12, 2022
Baby Blues vs. Postpartum Depression: How to Spot the Signs So You Can Seek Support
E:
103
with
Dr. Kristina Deligiannidis
Reproductive Psychiatrist
February 20, 2024
December 29, 2021
Decluttering: The Secret of an Easy to Tidy Home
E:
101
with
Katy Wells
Declutter Expert
February 20, 2024
December 22, 2021
100th Episode: Erica’s Husband Tells All
E:
100
with
Frenel Djossa
February 20, 2024
December 15, 2021
The Pressure to Get It Right
E:
99
with
Dr. Jen Douglas
Psychologist
February 20, 2024
November 24, 2021
Overcoming Gender Disappointment
E:
96
with
Dr. Renée Miller
Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
November 17, 2021
Adding a Sibling to Your Family
E:
95
with
Bryana Kappadakunnel
Family Therapist
February 20, 2024
November 10, 2021
Regulating Your Nervous System
E:
94
with
Dr. Quincee Gideon
Psychologist
February 20, 2024
October 13, 2021
Momming With ADHD
E:
90
with
Dr. Melissa Shepard
Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
October 6, 2021
Supporting NICU Moms
E:
89
with
Kristin Reinhart
Registered Social Worker
February 20, 2024
September 22, 2021
Working As A Mother
E:
87
with
Dr. Courtney Tracy
Founder of The Truth Doctor
February 20, 2024
September 8, 2021
Caring for the Postpartum Brain
E:
85
with
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
Neuroanatomist
February 20, 2024
August 18, 2021
Is Breastfeeding Worth Our Mental Health?
E:
82
with
Johanna Phillips
Maternal Mental Health Specialist
February 20, 2024
August 11, 2021
Exploring Mommy Wine Culture
E:
81
with
Michelle Smith
Addictions Counselor
February 20, 2024
July 28, 2021
When Treatment Becomes Trauma
E:
79
with
Dr. Quincee Gideon
Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
July 21, 2021
PMS or Something More?
E:
78
with
Dr. Nichelle Haynes
Perinatal Psychiatrist
February 20, 2024
June 23, 2021
The Self-Compassionate Mother
E:
74
with
Dr. Kristin Neff
Associate Professor and Author
February 20, 2024
June 16, 2021
The Overstimulated Mommy
E:
73
with
Larissa Geleris
Occupational Therapist
February 20, 2024
June 9, 2021
Mom Brain
E:
72
with
Dr. Jodi Pawluski
Neuroscientist and Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
June 2, 2021
OCD in Postpartum And Motherhood
E:
71
with
Jenna Overbaugh
Licensed Professional Counselor
February 20, 2024
May 26, 2021
Whole Brain Mommying
E:
70
with
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
Neuroanatomist
February 20, 2024
May 19, 2021
The Perfect Mother Myth
E:
69
with
Dr. Sophie Brock
Sociologist
February 20, 2024
April 28, 2021
A Deeper Look into the Mother Wound
E:
66
with
Bethany Webster
Author
February 20, 2024
April 14, 2021
Breaking Cycles And Interdependence
E:
64
with
Sian Crossley
Psychotherapist
February 20, 2024
March 24, 2021
Managing Screen Time Without Guilt
E:
61
with
Dr. Elizabeth Adams
Clinical Psychologist
February 20, 2024
April 7, 2021
Melissa Bernstein's Journey with Depression and Anxiety
E:
63
with
Melissa Bernstein
Co-Founder of Melissa & Doug & Author
February 20, 2024
March 3, 2021
Overcoming Resentment in Our Relationships
E:
58
with
Dr. Ashurina Ream
Founder of Psyched Mommy
February 20, 2024
February 24, 2021
Understanding the Mother Wound
E:
57
with
Bethany Webster
Author