Sleep Tips for New Mothers: Quality vs. Quantity

According to a recent study new moms sleep patterns mimic those who suffer from sleep disorders like sleep apnea. They get enough hours asleep, but not enough hours in restorative sleep.
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It seems impossible: could new mothers really get the same amount of sleep as usual?

That's what one report seems to be saying ... until you dig a little deeper (so don't throw tomatoes at me yet, new moms).

According to a new study that looked at the sleep life of postpartum mothers from the birth of the babies until they were four months old, new moms may often get a decent amount of sleep -- an average of 7.2 hours to be exact -- but here's the catch: they don't get the quality of sleep they really need.

A little more than seven hours of sleep is actually better than average for most Americans, but the sleep these new moms were getting is not the kind of sleep that makes you feel refreshed and well rested the next day. The study revealed, not to my surprise, that new moms experienced highly fragmented sleep that steals much needed deep sleep. In fact, their sleep patterns mimic those who suffer from sleep disorders like sleep apnea, where you experience enough hours asleep but you don't spend enough hours in restorative sleep.

How is this possible? It's simple: patterns of sleep follow definitive cycles, each one lasting about 90 minutes to two hours. A new mom whose sleep is disrupted during the night may not get enough full cycles of sleep, if she gets any at all.

The old adage of quality trumps quantity rings true. You're likely better off getting high-quality sleep for 6.5 hours than low-quality sleep for a longer period of time. This may explain why some people are okay on fewer hours of sleep than average. If you can log lots of restorative sleep in a shorter amount of time, you're golden. Few, however, have this ability. The vast majority of us really need 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

And if you're a new mom whose baby, even at one year, makes it a challenge to get a full night of uninterrupted sleep, there are some solutions to consider:

  • Nap for a full cycle: a 20-minute power nap might not do much if you're severely sleep-quality deprived. You would do well to try and get a full cycle of sleep into a nap, which means about 90 minutes. If your baby sleeps for that long in one of his or her siestas during the day, don't catch up on your work at that time -- take a nap too!
  • Be mindful of your mood: if you feel like those postpartum blues are getting worse, speak with your doctor. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate the stress a new mom's body goes through after giving birth. Hormonal changes add to the challenges. And all of these can further make for troubled sleep.
  • Teach your partner so you can skip a feeding: I've mentioned this before and it bears repeating because I don't see this happening enough. It's not hard to teach your partner how to tend to your baby's needs in the middle of the night so you can skip a feeding and sleep through it. Even moms who are exclusively breastfeeding can pump and have a bottle ready to go.
  • Ask for help: Don't be shy about asking for help from family and friends. A long afternoon nap while someone else takes care of your baby may be worth more than you ever imagined.

As an aside: For many parents, the onset of the new school year is like New Year's in children's lives. Now that summer has set with Labor Day, it's a great time to renew commitments to health. Which of course entails a pledge to sleep better. The kids are back on a schedule. Get back to a sleep schedule too. It probably won't be the same one as your kids', but it'll help you to be the best, most refreshed parent (dare I say patient?) you can be.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

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