postnatal depression and sleep deprivationAs a practitioner and researcher, my approach to postnatal depression is a holistic one. From my experience, I don’t necessarily believe in a one-size-fits-all theory as to why women suffer postnatal distress; many factors can contribute to a given woman’s (or man’s) low mood and difficult feelings following childbirth. I think one such factor which is oftentimes under acknowledged is sleep deprivation.

Of course anyone with children will tell you that sleepless nights are standard once you become parents. In fact, it is often this aspect which is jokingly referred to when new parents are congratulated on their new arrival. For some, this is a relatively discrete period as their newborn establishes an appropriate sleep routine, but for others broken sleep can continue nightly for months or even years. Regardless, the initial experience of bringing home a new baby is generally utterly exhausting and draining for new mums and dads and unsurprisingly, can have a devastating impact on mood.

The link between depression and insomnia is well established. Although sleepless nights with a baby isn’t generally regarded as insomnia, the effect of the constantly interrupted sleep and long periods of wakefulness in the night are the same. Insomnia research therefore gives relevant insight into the impact of sleeplessness on mood. It is estimated that people with insomnia have 35 times the rate of depression as people who sleep normally. The effect of broken sleep strikes fast; symptoms of depression can be caused by depriving normal people of just 2 hours sleep than they need for as little as 5 nights. But of course, tending to a baby night after night generally results in far greater sleep loss. Part of the reason for depression among the sleep deprived is that changes in day-night sleep cycles affect the brain chemistry which regulates mood.

The psychological and physiological impact of sleep deprivation:

  • Low mood and tearfulness
  • Disrupted eating and digestion
  • Impaired coping, judgment, memory, decision making
  • Irritability
  • Reduced enjoyment of life


Unsurprisingly, these symptoms mirror the experience commonly reported in PND.

Certainly, I see the impact of sleep deprivation in clients I work with who have postnatal depression. Often on exploration it is discovered that there is a strong link between lack of sleep and a surge of PND symptoms such as feeling low and tearful. And this can be very reassuring for many women to see a cause-and-effect link in their postnatal experience; it doesn’t necessarily change the situation but the insight can help women cope with the low periods simply by understanding what is contributing to their feelings and encourage taking extra measures to catch up on sleep or to share the night duties. Certainly it helps clients to see their sleep deprivation as a trigger of postnatal symptoms.

Two tips you might find helpful:

  • Keep a daily log of your symptoms –when do you feel most depressed or low? Notice if this correlates with patches of particularly broken sleep. Make a note of your energy levels alongside your mood. After a week or so, review what you’ve recorded, is their a link in your experience?
  • Get extra support –enlist the help of friends and family to allow you to catch up on sleep during the day. If you are breastfeeding, consider expressing a night’s feed and let your partner do the nightshift.

For further support with postnatal depression, therapy may help. Call for an appointment at my Wimbledon counselling practise 0796 9501 888.


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