Sleep Deprivation vs Postnatal Depression: Am I Depressed or Just Really Incredibly Tired?

Sleep Deprivation Postnatal Depression

If you’re pregnant, no doubt you’ve heard this line: “Enjoy your sleep now, because you won’t get any when the baby comes!”

It’s difficult to imagine what new baby sleeplessness is like until you’re in the midst of it. Then factor in that you’ll likely have residual soreness or healing stitches, as well as a flood of hormones. You may find yourself struggling with exhaustion, mood swings, anxiety, loss of appetite, and other symptoms. How are you supposed to know the difference between signs of postpartum depression and the need for some uninterrupted rest?

Sleep and Depression Affect Each Other

Sleep and depression are somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem. The National Sleep Foundation notes that depression often causes sleeping troubles, and that sleep problems can contribute to depressive disorders. It’s no wonder that going without restful sleep for prolonged stretches of time makes you feel like you’re at your mental breaking point!

Ask yourself the following questions to get more insight into whether you should discuss postpartum depression or anxiety with your medical provider.

Do You Sleep When the Baby Sleeps?

You’re up around the clock, but when the baby finally goes down, are you asleep before your head hits the pillow? This may be a sign that you’re mostly dealing with lack of sleep.

Do you struggle to fall asleep, even when exhausted? Perhaps you feel an obsessive need to watch the baby, even though she’s resting peacefully and you know you need a nap. Insomnia, despite feeling tired, can signal a deeper mental health need.

Postpartum depression and anxiety can go undetected because parents feel like it’s normal to be overwhelmed.

What Keeps You Awake?

New parents quickly realize taking care of an infant is a 24-hour job. External responsibilities (like feedings and diaper changes, or meals and showers for yourself) drain sleep time. Internal pressures, such as uncontrollable anxiety or frightening thoughts about harm befalling your baby, can also keep you up at night.

Before the baby’s born, ask your partner, a family member, or friend to help check in during the early days. They can ask whether you’re usually up to care for the baby, or if fears keep you from sleeping.

What Makes You Feel Anxious?

Postpartum depression and anxiety can go undetected because parents feel like it’s normal to be overwhelmed. There are subtle differences between typical first-timer anxiety and warning signs to tell a doctor about.

Sleep deprived parents may think:

  • I wish my baby would stop crying
  • I’m not sure I’m doing this “parent” thing right
  • I hate feeling so tired
  • I can’t wait for this stage to be over

Parents experiencing depressive thoughts may think:

  • I am already failing my baby
  • I am a terrible parent
  • If I don’t sleep tonight, I will lose control of myself
  • This is never going to get better

If you’re feeling strong, negative emotions, feel hopeless, or have thoughts about harming yourself or your baby, ask for help.

When Will Things Get Better?

Hopelessness can be a critical distinction between exhaustion and depression. When you’re living hour by hour, it’s tough to think months or even weeks ahead. Sleep-deprived parents may find it somewhat easier to grit their teeth and say, “We’ll manage the next four weeks somehow, and then things will improve.” Parents with postpartum depression may have a harder time imagining how it will be possible to cope, or may feel hopeless that life with a baby will ever feel manageable.

Sleep will improve, either on its own or with the help of postpartum depression treatment. Ask for the help and support you need, and you may find that all of you catch longer stretches of sleep soon. 

Click here for strategies on preventing postpartum depression.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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