The Baby is Sleeping—So Why am I Awake?

The Baby is Sleeping—So Why am I Awake?

Anxiety, PPD, hormones, and habits (put down that phone!) can all keep you up at night. Learn how to reclaim those precious Zzzzs.

By Alice Oglethorpe

First off, we are never going to repeat that horrible adage, “Sleep while the baby sleeps.” Because that’s a lot of pressure! 

For at least the first three months, your baby needed to eat during the night. That means you were up-and-at-’em every few hours and your body, although likely exhausted, has conditioned itself to wake on these shortened sleep cycles. Annoyingly, even if your baby has started sleeping for longer stretches, you might find it hard to do the same. If and when your infant is sleeping safely through the night, chances are you’ll need to begin the hard work of re-teaching your own brain how to sleep through the night as well. Many new parents fail to understand this and without proper attention, will go years and years without a sound night of sleep. 

There are a lot of factors at play here. Maybe you have a hard time quieting your brain enough to drift off. Maybe you constantly wake up, convinced you heard a cry, only to check the monitor and see that your baby is fast asleep (those are called “phantom cries”). One possible reason you hear your baby when your partner can stay sound asleep: A study in mice showed the hormone oxytocin, which surges in both mice and humans after childbirth, changes the way auditory signals are processed in the brains of mothers, amplifying the cries of baby mice–so it’s no wonder you’re so alert and attuned to cries, or even the possibility of cries. Other postpartum hormone changes affect your circadian rhythm, making it tough to feel sleepy when you want to shut your eyes.

The result of all this sleep deprivation isn’t pretty. Researchers have found that the kind of interrupted sleep that happens with a baby—waking up briefly a handful of times a night—is super disruptive. A full night of on-and-off sleep is similar to sleeping just four hours straight. Have one night like that and you’ll find it harder to focus or be in a good mood. Repeat that for weeks and months on end and you start to wonder if you’ll ever get to sleep through the night again.

So what’s a bleary-eyed mom to do? Keep reading for how to start sleeping better ASAP:

  • Retrain your brain. After so many nights not sleeping well, your bed can become associated with some pretty negative thoughts. (If you’ve ever dreaded climbing under the covers because you worry you just aren’t going to sleep well, you know what we’re talking about.) The good news is that it’s possible to break that connection. Starting now, only use your bed for sleep (sex is the only exception). And whenever you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing somewhere else (reading on the sofa is a good idea!). Once you notice your eyelids getting heavy, head back to bed.
  • Set yourself up for snoozing success. We don’t want to add anything to your to-do list, but a few daily rituals can make a huge difference when it comes to sleep. You don’t need to do all of these—test a few out and see how you feel.
  • Move your body during the day. Even if it’s a 20- or 30-minute walk, being active can help fill up your tired tank. (Just don’t try a high-impact bootcamp workout right before you hit the hay, which can rev you up.)
  • Limit late-in-the-day caffeine. Yes, you’re sleepy at 4pm, but that is not the time to make yourself a fresh cup of coffee. You need to be done ingesting caffeine several hours before bedtime so it can be out of your system.
  • Keep a notepad and pen by your bed. Worrying about all the things you need to do the next day is a recipe for sleeplessness. Before you turn in, jot down anything you have on your mind.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep haven. Keep the room as dark as possible (your baby isn’t the only one who can benefit from blackout curtains) and cool. And check your thermostat: A temperature below 71 tends to work best for sleep. Add luxury linens and eye masks to your wind-down routine as well. 
  • Create a pre-bed ritual. The last hour of the day should be all about relaxation. Put down your phone, run a warm bath, pick up a book, sip on some herbal tea, apply some lavender body lotion, try some gentle stretches…you’ve got the idea. You could even try to a meditation or breathwork app. Research shows they can help you feel sleepier at bedtime and get better quality shut-eye.
  • Talk to your doctor about supplements. Pills or gummies that contain melatonin and valerian are linked to better sleep, they aren’t always safe—especially if you’re breastfeeding. Still, they can be a better option than pharmaceutical sleep aids that could put you into too deep of a sleep: You don’t want to take anything that will knock you out so much that you won’t be able to notice if your baby needs you.
  • Seek treatment if you think you might have postpartum depression. In addition to causing extreme sadness, anxiety, and fatigue, postpartum depression can also make it hard to fall asleep. And it can be a vicious cycle: Insomnia can raise your risk of postpartum depression. Same goes for postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD–feeling anxious about your baby can keep you up at night, too. If you feel sad, anxious, or hopeless (or just don’t enjoy things like you used to), talk to your doctor about a treatment plan.
It may feel like you’ll never sleep well again, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Put a few simple practices into place and soon you’ll be sleeping like, ahem, a baby.