Endless nights and dark days: The link between sleep deprivation and postnatal depression

Endless nights and dark days: The link between sleep deprivation and postnatal depression

Endless nights and dark days: The link between sleep deprivation and postnatal depression

Anecdotally, we all know that we feel better after a good night’s sleep; sufficient sleep makes a huge difference to our body, our brain, and our mood.

However, what’s perhaps less well known is how closely sleep deprivation is linked to postnatal depression (PND). It’s a link, however, that is well set in science.

Research has long highlighted the reality that sleep deprivation is the number one contributing factor for depression in parents. In fact, studies clearly show that less than four hours of consolidated sleep in a stretch increases anyone’s chances of depression.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that all mums who are suffering from postnatal depression just need a good sleep; there are hormonal and chemical forces often at play as well. However, let us not discount the environmental factors – and sleep deprivation is right up there, along with a lack of social or family support.

One of the mums we’ve worked with shares: "When my baby was six months old I saw my doctor about my mental health. He wanted to try anti-depressants but he also felt that my extreme lack of sleep was contributing to my depression. My daughter was waking between four and six times a night, and taking up to an hour to go back to sleep each time. I resented her in the morning, and felt like we were not bonding at all. My doctor suggested we work with a sleep consultant before coming back for a review in a couple of weeks to explore the possibility of medication.

Once we worked through my daughter’s settling issues at night, the turnaround in my mood was phenomenal. I started to have the energy to go for walks which helped me feel less down, and more like I could cope as a mum. The overwhelm disappeared and the crying and difficult periods didn’t upset me as much. I didn’t need medication in the end, but I truly believe without sleep it would have been a different story."

 So many of us think, when we embark on the crazy ride of parenting, the torturous amounts of sleep deprivation are simply par for the course – and we discount the seriousness of the impact that sustained insufficient sleep can have on our mental health. 

 Another mum we’ve worked with shares: "I remember those sleep deprived days like they were yesterday; they still haunt me now. That feeling of anxiety before bed because I just didn’t know what the night would hold… I thought for months that I had postnatal depression. I would say it to my husband and he would tell me I just needed sleep. At a time when I should’ve been overjoyed, I felt like I was locked in a torture dungeon and could not see a way out.

 My then 8 month old was severely overtired; I would rock him for 20-30 minutes and he would then nap for 30 minutes in my arms. If I tried to put him down he would wake instantly. I felt completely lost; I cried a lot – at least once a day. I was failing. I was defeated. I could not see a way out of it all.

I’ll never forget the day I started working with a sleep consultant and my son finally slept through the night. It took me months to get over my sleep debt; every night I would still go to bed at 8pm and that anxious feeling stayed for months too. Thank goodness he’s been a great sleeper for the last four years now and my 18 month old is great too. I wouldn’t wish how I felt on anyone! "


PND is more than simply tiredness… so, what exactly are the symptoms?

The symptoms of postnatal depression can be many and varied and last for several weeks. Typical symptoms can include:

  • Anger, anxiety, fear, guilt, hopelessness, low mood and mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Fatigue or restlessness
  • Lack of concentration or unwanted thoughts, often ones that cycle repeatedly
  • Crying and irritability
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Insomnia

And hence the situation spirals… "I had three children quickly. By the time number three arrived, I don’t think I had slept properly in four years. My husband worked overseas, and only came home during weekends (and not every weekend!) My hair was thinning, and my skin bruised easily. I didn’t have the energy or motivation to leave the house in the day with the kids, and I was starting to cut contact with my friends. I knew I needed to do something about the postnatal depression that was consuming me.

I saw my doctor and he confirmed that sleep deprivation was behind my physical signs, and probably contributing to my mental health also. He put me in touch with a counsellor, and a sleep consultant. We worked on all of the children’s sleep, as well as my own habits to make our lives more functional. I truly believe that without the extra sleep I wouldn’t have been able to work through my depression with my counsellor."

Postnatal depression is more common than many of us realise; it’s estimated that between 10-20% of women are affected. However, despite its prevalence, it’s not always easy to take steps towards seeking help.

So, what can you do if you’re struggling or suspect someone you know may be suffering?

Despite making progress in removing the stigma around depression, as a society we’re still not great about discussing our mental health. Asking for help is key to turning your experience around.

We need to look out for each other too. My hope is that every woman feels comfortable to say to a fellow mum, “you don’t seem as happy as usual… are you OK?” and be prepared to follow that through. Help a friend to seek support from a professional – whether that means going with them to an appointment, or watching their kids so that they can see someone.

There are any number of professionals that can help, but it pays to start with your doctor, midwife or Plunket Nurse. They can make a referral to Maternal Mental Health, or suggest a counsellor, psychotherapist, psychologist or psychiatrist that can help.

 Another one of our mums shares:

 "I remember sitting on the bedroom floor naked, trying to do skin-to-skin to calm my daughter down and get her to sleep, but I was bawling my eyes out because every time I blinked I didn’t know if I could open my eyes again. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to be a mum anymore! The thoughts I had were terrifying and only fuelled my ideas of not being a good mum and not wanting my baby. I hate to think what would have happened to my mental health have I not got the sleep and support I needed. My Plunket Nurse had referred me to Maternal Mental Health, but after some decent, consolidated sleep, I could think straight and communicate with my support team better, so I no longer needed it."  


There’s no denying that the early days of parenting a tough. However, it’s OK to want to sleep – and to acknowledge that your needs matter too.

 "When I had my second child, I remember waking each morning and wondering how I was going to get through the day with two kids. I was so anxious the moment I woke (if I slept at all). I had nowhere to be, nothing to do, but I was just so worried and couldn’t shake it. Then came the guilt; what did I have to be worried about?"

 "There was a time my newborn slept seven hours straight; I didn’t sleep a wink! I realised I wasn’t eating well so was losing weight in an unhealthy way and worried about my supply; how was I going to feed my baby?

A colleague I was chatting to online knew the signs and suggested I see my doctor, so I did. Just admitting you are struggling and then asking for help is like an instant weight off your shoulders. For a long time I would say that I was just anxious and tired, but I look back now and realise that there was some definite PND and I know my triggers; so much of it stems from sleep. I now make this the number one priority for myself and my family."

 If you think a lack of sleep might be impacting on your mental health, give us a call. 

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