Beyond Baby Blues: How Sleep Deprivation Can Intensify Postpartum Depression

Updated 
November 26, 2023
 | 
8
 minutes read
Written by
Mandy Treeby
Chief Baby Sleep Consultant
Medically reviewed by
Arik Alper, MD
Pediatric Gastroenterologist and Aerodigestive Specialist

Becoming a parent can bring on a wide range of emotions such as excitement, nervousness, fear, and frustration—all which can be compounded by the lack of sleep that comes with bringing a new baby home.

While a roller coaster of feelings may be normal during the first few weeks of your baby’s life, it’s important for you to be able to spot the difference between the “baby blues” and postpartum depression, a common yet serious condition that requires treatment Postpartum Depression from a physician.

While the exact cause of postpartum depression is unclear, there are many factors that may increase your risk of developing it. Decreased sleep may be one of them.

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What is the Difference Between Postpartum Depression and Sleep Deprivation?

Big feelings can be expected as you adjust to your new normal and schedule with a baby. Shifts in hormone levels, recovery from childbirth, and the stress from a new little human can be overwhelming at first. Plus, anyone who suddenly is woken up every 2-3 hours will need some time to get used to it!

That’s why it’s common in the first two weeks after your baby comes to experience anxiety, crying, or restlessness, which is lovingly referred to as the “baby blues”. In fact, up to 85% of moms report experiencing some form of it but can ride the wave until it subsides.

However, extreme anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, negative thoughts, or debilitating fatigue that lasts for more than two weeks may be signs of postpartum depression, a more serious condition that requires you to see your physician for treatment.

What is Postpartum Depression?

Postpartum depression is a type of depression that affects as many as one in seven women after they’ve given birth, or within the first year of their baby’s life. The cause is unknown, but hormonal changes from pregnancy and childbirth, genetics, and exhaustion are some of the factors that may play a role. If you have a history of depression, your risk of postpartum depression also goes up. If you experience postpartum depression with one baby, chances increase with the next one.

The signs and symptoms can be very similar to other types of depression, the big difference being you have a new baby. The most common symptoms include:

  • Extreme fatigue  
  • Difficulty sleeping  
  • Difficulty concentrating  
  • Depressed mood that lasts most of the day
  • Decreased interest in or apathy towards activities that you once enjoyed
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Suicidal thoughts  
  • Trouble bonding with baby or breastfeeding

Postpartum depression can also affect new dads, and symptoms may include irritability, emotional restriction, and depression within the first year.

If you're experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, you may feel like you can’t take care of your baby or yourself. You also may feel guilty, as there is a stigma towards not being happy or grateful after becoming a parent.

It’s important to know that postpartum depression is treatable, and help is out there. Talk to your physician right away if you’re showing any signs or symptoms, and if your “baby blues” lasts more than two weeks.

Why Are New Parents Always Tired?

For new parents, sleep cycles are often already out of whack even before baby starts waking you up throughout the night. Months of pregnancy and sudden shifts in hormone levels aren’t well known for promoting good sleep!

But it’s no joke that sleep deprivation can be debilitating—it’s why pilots, doctors, and truck drivers have restrictions on how much time they can work. Studies show poor sleep can cause difficulties concentrating or focusing, forgetfulness, slower reactions, mood swings, and more. It can affect not only how you parent, but how you go about your daily life.

The CDC recommends that adults​ ​get at least seven hours of quality sleep a night, but experts say parents often lose as much as two hours of sleep every night for the first few months (and even years) of their baby’s life! A study from peer-reviewed journal Sleep showed that it took six years for parents to reclaim the sleep lost after having kids.

Studies show new parents can lose as much as two hours of sleep every night after their baby comes!

Emotional changes may also cause you to feel physically tired. Whether it’s stress, change in routine, or helping other children acclimate to their new sibling, feeling worn out or drained can exacerbate your sleep deprivation even more.

For all tired parents out there: there are tips and techniques to help you cope with your tiredness. Download the Smart Sleep Coach app to get a step-by-step personalized plan to help your baby (and in turn you) sleep better. Our team of experts also put together this guide on sleep deprivation.

When it’s More Than Just Tired

Many people who are sleep deprived are still able to function throughout the day, albeit a bit more slowly. However, if your exhaustion is debilitating, you should talk to a physician. It may be easy to blame your symptoms on sleep deprivation, but the differences between being tired and postpartum depression should not be ignored.

You’re likely a tired parent… 

You may be experiencing postpartum depression…  

Bouts of extreme emotions last for the first two weeks of your baby’s life 

Exhaustion is coupled with extreme emotions that last longer than two weeks 

Able to fall asleep and easily wake up 

Experience insomnia, or sleeping too much  

Able to complete everyday tasks such as showering or cooking 

Difficulty completing everyday tasks, as simple as getting out of bed  

Safely care for your baby, which includes feeding, changing, and soothing them 

Inability to safely care for your baby 

Bonding with your baby 

Feel like you’re not a good mother or struggle with bonding with your baby  

Think clearly and make decisions 

You have thoughts about harming yourself or your baby 

A small amount of new moms also experience postpartum psychosis, which is an emergency. If you are experiencing hallucinations or delusions, or coming in and out of consciousness, seek medical attention right away.

How is Postpartum Depression Diagnosed?

If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression at any point after your baby is born, make an appointment with your physician. They will go over your symptoms and ask questions to determine your diagnosis and come up with a plan for treatment.

Different screening tools also exist to help your physician diagnose your condition. If have a history of depression or other mood disorders, you also should speak with your physician about ways to decrease your risk of developing postpartum depression.

Does Lack of Sleep Cause Postpartum Depression?

Quality sleep is proven to improve your mood and health—and not getting enough of it increases your risk of depression, along with other conditions including heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, and dementia. Depression may also cause sleep disruption, so it’s sometimes a chicken or the egg situation.

Even though the cause of postpartum depression is not completely clear, there are many factors that put you at a higher risk, including decreased sleep.

Not getting enough sleep takes away the time your body needs every day to restore and heal itself. Quality sleep is responsible for:

  • helping your brain process emotions, memories, and experiences
  • regulating your hormone levels, which includes the stress hormone cortisol
  • healing, repairing, and restoring your immune system

The correlation between sleep and depression are clear. Studies show that women who don’t get enough quality sleep have a 3.34 times higher chance of developing depression than those who do. If you have a history of depression, your risk of postpartum depression also goes up. Depression is also closely linked to death by suicide, which accounts for about 20% of postpartum deaths. Over the last ten years suicide attempts during and after pregnancy have nearly tripled.

Sleeping for short periods at a time, and constantly waking up at night to care for your baby, makes it difficult to complete the sleep cycles your body needs to restore itself. Regardless of if you’re experiencing postpartum depression symptoms or not, sleeping more will do nothing but benefit you, your baby, and your mood.

How Better Sleep Can Help You Manage Your Postpartum Depression

Sleep deprivation exacerbates feelings of irritability, sadness, and anxiety, all symptoms of postpartum depression. Prioritizing quality sleep is one way to help you manage your symptoms, and better cope with the everyday challenges that come along with being a parent.

Ways sleep can help you manage your postpartum depression:

  • Regulate your hormones (and your mood). Sleep helps regulate your hormones that impact mood, such as cortisol (the stress hormone) and serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone).
  • Emotional processing. Sleep stages like REM sleep help with your emotional processing, which is needed to help you cope with the challenges that may come along with taking care of a baby. Unfortunately for new parents, you only enter that stage after you’ve been asleep for a while, so won’t get to it if you’re constantly woken up by crying.
  • Stress reduction. Quality sleep naturally reduces overall stress levels, making you less reactive or affected to everyday stressors. You’re more likely to be able to handle or respond to difficult situations when you’re well rested.
  • Enhanced resilience. A well-rested mind is more resilient to negative emotions and is better equipped to manage any mood swings. Resilience is key to preventing and managing symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety.
  • Improved cognitive function. Better sleep helps you make better decisions and solve some of the many problems that you may face as a parent. This may prevent feelings of frustration and helplessness, and make you feel good about your choices.
  • Increased energy. Sleep gives you the energy to do activities you enjoy, such as exercising and socializing, which naturally boost endorphins and improve your mood!
  • Social interactions. When you’re well-rested, you’re more likely to want to spend time with others, and have positive interactions when you do. Cuddling your baby is also a great way to boost your mood.

We know getting quality sleep is easier said than done. That’s where your support system comes into play. Lean on your loved ones and resources designed to help parents like you to get the rest you need to be healthy and happy.

Treatment for Postpartum Depression

If your physician diagnoses you with postpartum depression, there are different treatment options they may recommend.

When I recognized what I did have control over, which included leaving a stressful job, being outside in the sunshine, and connecting with other new parents, I started to get back to feeling good. Lindsay Donnelly, CEO, influencer, and postpartum depression survivor

Therapy

Talking with a mental health professional can be helpful for anyone, especially for people with depression. Therapy can help you come up with ways to better understand and cope with your challenges. Getting things “off your chest” also may increase your happiness, and even helps you sleep better at night!

Medication

Talk with your physician about the different medication options available to treat postpartum depression.

Lifestyle changes

Healthy eating, exercise, avoiding stressful situations, and prioritizing sleep are all effective ways to help you manage your postpartum depression. Small changes in your sleep habits can make a huge difference. Even limiting alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods may help you sleep more soundly. Also, try and remember to do things you enjoy—whether it be going for a walk outside with your baby or listening to your favorite music.

Tips for Getting Your Baby to Sleep Better

Tools like the Smart Sleep Coach by PampersTM app was built by tired parents, pediatricians, and certified sleep consultants to help get your baby on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule so that when they’re biologically ready to sleep through the night, it’s easy to teach them how. It also step-by-step walks you through how to sleep train your baby in a way that works for you.

Here are some tips for how to get started with prepping your baby to sleep through the night.

1. Create a consistent, soothing bedtime routine

The same routine before each nap or bedtime cues your baby it’s time for sleep. Whether it be a bath or a story, doing the same thing will get them ready to bed.

2. Set your baby’s sleep environment up for success

This means having it pitch black and set to the temperature of 68-72 degrees, with a white noise machine. These are all proven to help your baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Setting your bedroom up like this may help you sleep better, too!

3. Keep in mind their circadian rhythms

Knowing the natural time for your baby to sleep makes sure they don’t become overtired, which can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. This is where the app comes in handy! The Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ features an automated schedule that updates every time you track a sleep and reminds you when it’s time to look for sleepy cues.

4. Be flexible with their bedtime

Sleep during the daytime affects sleep in the nighttime. If naps were less one day or skipped completely, try putting your baby to sleep earlier—deeper, restorative sleep happens before midnight so earlier the bedtime, the better the zzz’s.

5. Help your baby learn to self soothe

To sleep successfully through the night your baby needs to learn how to fall asleep and put themselves back to sleep on their own. This is where sleep coaching or sleep training comes in. Smart Sleep Coach is the perfect partner when it comes to safe and effective sleep training. The app will walk you through the best science-backed technique for you and your baby to make them the best independent sleeper possible.

6. Remember you’re not alone

Sleep challenges affect nearly every baby and parent at some point or another. Be kind to yourself and arm yourself with all the support you need. Whether it be following the recommendations of Smart Sleep Coach, chatting with a certified sleep consultant available through the app, or enlisting your partner or another caregiver to handle the bulk of sleep training, know that resources exist to support you and your baby—beyond just with sleep.

Try Smart Sleep Coach by PampersTM for Free

Lack of sleep doesn’t necessarily cause postpartum depression, but good sleep may help prevent and manage it. Setting your baby up for success is the first step in getting you (and them) the sleep you need to feel your best.

Making time to rest and creating good sleep habits are also key to maintain your mental health. Rely on your support system to help you care for your baby, whether it be your partner, loved ones, or parent resources like Smart Sleep Coach by PampersTM. We are here to help take some of many things to do and think about off your plate.

Get started for free today with our free sleep assessment today.

How We Wrote This Article

The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

Sources

Source, Hopkins Medicine

Source, StatPearls

Source,  International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health.

Source, CDC

Source, The Sun

Source, Mayo Clinic

Source, NIH

Source, Journal of Research in Medical Sciences

Source, Mayo Clinic

Source, Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health

Source, Pyschiatric Times


William Cement, MD, PhD, The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night's Sleep

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Studies show new parents can lose as much as two hours of sleep every night after their baby comes!

“Thanks to the Smart Sleep Schedule, I’ve been able to follow my baby’s natural rhythm, and stick to the wake windows. This makes a huge difference in her ability to nap longer.”

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Studies show new parents can lose as much as two hours of sleep every night after their baby comes!

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Thanks to the Smart Sleep Schedule, I’ve been able to follow my baby’s natural rhythm, and stick to the wake windows. This makes a huge difference in her ability to nap longer.

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FAQs:

Quality sleep is proven to improve your mood and health—and not getting enough of it increases your risk of depression, along with other conditions including heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, and dementia. Studies show that women who don’t get enough quality sleep have a 3.34 times higher chance of developing depression than those who do. For people with a history of depression, the risk of postpartum depression also increases. Depression is closely linked to death by suicide, which accounts for about 20% of postpartum deaths. Over the last ten years suicide attempts during and after pregnancy have nearly tripled.

It’s recommended that adults get at least seven hours of quality sleep a night, but studies show new parents only get an average of four hours and 44 minutes of sleep a night during the first year of their baby’s life. That adds up to nearly 50 nights of sleep lost!

Sleeping for short periods at a time, and constantly waking up at night to care for your baby, makes it difficult to complete the sleep cycles your body needs to restore itself. Regardless of if you’re experiencing postpartum depression symptoms or not, sleeping more will do nothing but benefit you, your baby, and your mood.

Quality sleep is proven to improve your mood and health—and not getting enough of it increases your risk of depression, along with other conditions including depression, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, and dementia. Depression may also cause sleep disruption, so it’s sometimes a chicken or the egg situation. Even though the cause of postpartum depression is not completely clear, there are many factors that put you at a higher risk, including decreased sleep. Not getting enough sleep takes away the time your body needs every day to restore and heal itself.

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