For many mothers, having a child is truly a dream come true.
However, as many as 85% of new mothers will experience sadness and negative mood in the first week after labor.
Many of these women will experience serious and prolonged depression after giving birth.
This can make it hard for new mothers to care for themselves and their infant.
The good news is, research indicates that proper care for depressed mothers can immediately improve infant-mother relationships and infant well-being.
Often, part of the experience of postpartum depression (PPD) is serious sleep disturbances.
The role of sleep in PPD, and depression in general, is a contested issue in psychology.
Sleep troubles can be thought of as a risk factor — something that makes depression more likely.
Lack of sleep could also be thought of as a symptom — an effect of depression.
Or, it could be a cause…
The CDC lists trouble falling asleep as a possible symptom of PPD, but does not suggest any potential causes.
It does seem clear that previous experience with depression makes recurrence more likely.
The National Institute for Mental Health gives a twofold causal explanation:
“(1) After childbirth, the levels of hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in a woman’s body quickly drop. This leads to chemical changes in her brain that may trigger mood swings.
(2) In addition, many mothers are unable to get the rest they need to fully recover from giving birth.
Constant sleep deprivation can lead to physical discomfort and exhaustion, which can contribute to the symptoms of postpartum depression.”
Are sleep troubles a symptom of or a causal factor for postpartum depression?
The relationship is complicated, and this is where good research is necessary.
One way to explore the question is to test if sleep troubles predict PPD.
Researcher’s looked into this. Women who had recently given birth wore actigraphy wristbands for a week, which means their movements were measured over time.
These mother’s nighttime activity levels were then compared to their scores on postpartum depression tests.
New mothers who took longer to fall asleep, and woke up more during the night, were more likely to meet the criteria for postpartum depression.
The authors ended this study by arguing that there is a clear need for research-based treatments for sleep difficulties in depressed postpartum women.
So we can see that having sleep difficulties predicts PPD.
But just from this research alone, it’s still not clear that sleep is a primary causal factor. It’s also not clear that improving sleep will lower new mothers’ risk of depression. So we need to look deeper.
Researchers decided to compare the hormone theory to the sleep theory.
In 2011, scientists from the Pittsburgh School of Medicine published their study in the very impactful Journal of Affective Disorders, comparing the role of sleep vs. hormones in PPD.
More than fifty new mothers repeatedly took blood tests, and also reported on their sleeping patterns.
Stress hormones like cortisol, reproductive hormones like estradiol, and markers for inflammation like lnterleukin-6 were all tested eight times over seventeen weeks.
Sleep quality was reported using the PQSI, a test that I’ve written about before and which is very common in sleep research.
In the final analysis of that data, poor sleep predicted depression recurrence, while hormone changes did not.
In another study, researchers found that new mothers experienced poor sleep quality and negative emotional states; when they controlled for the influence of sleep, the mood disturbances stopped being significant.
In their words “controlling for the effect for “time awake” at night eliminated the significant effect for dysphoric mood.”
Multiple rigorous scientific sources are telling us that sleep troubles are a big problem for new mother who are at risk for PPD.
It seems reasonable then, given that sleep troubles seem to predict PPD more than other posited explanations, that we should try to improve new mothers’ sleep.
Sleep troubles often have to do with stress.
Being a new mother is very stressful.
Methods for improving sleep often aim to address stress.
Soothing music is a good example, one which we know helps people sleep.
So let’s start there.
Music helps young children sleep.
Music helps overworked students sleep.
Music helps older people sleep.
Music helps depressed people sleep.
Music helps clinical insomniacs sleep.
Music even helps traumatized refugees sleep.
But does music help with new mothers who are trying to relax and sleep?
One study from Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing recommends a combination of relaxation techniques and music, as well as other cues, to help new mothers sleep.
Another paper from the Journal of Nursing Research suggests using music to help postpartum women sleep.
Soothing music was also recommended at the end of this study examining sleep and fatigue in new mothers.
So music can help.
Another method for improving sleep is relaxation training.
This can involve relaxing the mind, often using guided imagery (GI), where you are encouraged to create a cozy imaginary space.
Another method is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), where you slowly release physical tension.
Progressive muscle relaxation has been suggested by researchers as a way of treating stress after giving birth.
Scientists tested guided imagery combined with progressive muscle relaxation and it reduces postpartum depression symptoms.
So some combination of music, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation should improve the well-being of new mothers.
Some mothers do not have access to the care they need.
Seeing a trained music therapist, or a trained behavioral therapist, is not a realistic option for most people.
Motherhood is already incredibly difficult as it is, especially for first time mothers, without even factoring in not having access to the resources that will help you succeed.
That’s why at Pzizz, we’re launching a new program to give six months of free “Pzizz Pro” to all parents of newborn children (yup, Dad can get in on this too!).
You’ll get access to all of our audio content — made with scientifically tested psychoacoustic principles and clinically tested relaxations techniques — to help you sleep, nap, and focus.
It’s part of our broader campaign to raise awareness of how critical good sleep is to our overall well-being, and delivering on our mission “To bring great sleep to the world.”
Are you a parent of a newborn child and want six months of free Pzizz Pro? Apply to the program here.