A child sleeping through the night at six weeks old is usually a blessing, but for this new mum, it marked the beginning of her own trouble sleeping.
Preview above: Dr Michael Mosley joins Insight to share evidence-based ways to get a better night’s rest. Sleep Hacks, Tuesday May 18 at 8:30pm on SBS and On Demand.
When Zoe Miller-Starr’s son, Hamish started sleeping through the night at just six weeks old, she thought she was one of those lucky mums.
“Yes! I’m going to get my sleep back now,” was her reaction, after weeks of waking to feed her newborn.
But Zoe’s sleep pattern never returned to normal, and four months on, she continued to struggle.
“I would just lay there thinking – why am I awake? Why do I constantly wake up when my baby is fast asleep?” she said.
“It kind of went from being worried about my child, to being worried about my mental health, to my brain just being constantly wired.”
The young mum had never had problems sleeping before pregnancy. After getting just three hours each night, Zoe’s family noticed a change in her mood and memory.
“It would go days and days and days without [my family] hearing from me or we’d organise something and then I would forget,” she said.
“My mum rang me and she was like, ‘We’re really worried about you – what’s going on?’
“That was kind of when I realised like, oh okay, this is actually really affecting me now.”
A Monash University study of 160 new mums found one in 10 may experience post-partum insomnia, where they lie awake despite the opportunity to sleep.
Lead researcher Dr Bei Bei explains how sleep problems among mothers are often linked to bedtime becoming a stressful part of the day.
“As people cope with significant sleep disruption over an extended period of time, such as attending to a newborn overnight, they may develop different thoughts and behaviours around sleep, and some of these may not be helpful,” she said.
“For example, going to bed hours earlier to make up for sleep loss may mean going to bed when very alert, making it harder to sleep.
“Some may also develop anxiety around sleep and bedtime because of prior poor sleep.
“These thoughts and behaviours may continue even after the child is sleeping through the night.”
For many new mothers, recognising the difference between sleep deprivation from raising a newborn and having a sleep disorder is critical in improving their shuteye.
“There is a difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia,” explained Dr Bei.
“Insomnia describes poor sleep even though there is plenty of quiet time and space to sleep.”
Dr Bei recommends speaking to a GP and asking for a referral to a psychologist, many of whom specialise in insomnia.
For Zoe, who found reprieve in the gym until COVID-19 saw it close its doors, professional help is the next step.
“I've recently contacted a psychologist to look at talking to him to try and handle those thoughts that run through my mind to help try and control it,” she said.
“Once [Hamish] started sleeping through the evening with no issues, I thought, awesome. Now I just need to teach myself how to sleep through the night again.”