Everyone can sleep, but there are times in our lives when it is harder than others. As a new Mum or Dad it’s more important than ever to make sure you can sleep through the night.
Waking up for multiple night-time feeds can at first feel like a form of torture, especially if you were used to getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep for most of your adult life. However, after a short while many new mums report tuning into their babies feeding patterns, whereby they awaken naturally just in time for the feed, only to then slip back to sleep when all is done.
Unfortunately, such a seamless transition is not always the case. Whilst it is quite natural for new mothers to report sleeping lightly or with one eye and one ear open, one of the main culprits keeping most new mums awake is their own minds.
Left alone in the middle of the night, the thinking mind can begin to race and, if left unchecked, can fuel wakefulness. At best, thoughts can be mundane; plans for tomorrow, or an annoying tune that just keeps playing in your head. At worst, the mind can get fixated on all the worries in your life, effortlessly creating catastrophic fantasies about how everything could go badly wrong.
After a few bad nights, when over-tiredness sets in, it’s very easy for the thinking mind to turn its attention to sleep itself. Suddenly a seed of doubt about our own ability to sleep takes hold and unhelpful thoughts begin to creep in. “What if I I don’t fall back to sleep after the feed?” “I know my baby will wake up soon.” “If I don’t sleep soon I won’t be able to cope tomorrow and will be a bad mum.”
All in all, such worrisome thoughts can lead the body into a state of fight or flight, similar to if you were being chased by a lion, and obviously far from an ideal state for sleep. The natural reaction to such thoughts is to try and block them out or to lessen them in some way. Unfortunately, such actions can be likened to struggling in quicksand, whereby the harder you struggle the deeper you sink. If allowed to continue, such struggle can become habitual, whereby the brain begins to associate the nighttime or feeding with wakefulness instead of sleepiness. This state of hyper arousal is what can lead to the development of chronic insomnia that carries on regardless of the fact that your baby is now sleeping through the night.
At The Sleep School we see many mums and dads whose sleeping problems started when they had children and then carried on for the rest of their lives. Sleep is a learnt habit and having children can simply train parents out of a good sleeping pattern. Our approach involves teaching new mums to let go of struggling with their sleep and allow it to emerge naturally over time by re-establishing the connection between the nighttime and sleepiness.
It works by increasing peoples’ willingness to experience the discomfort of not sleeping. Paradoxically, when you choose to notice such unhelpful thoughts and not fight against them, they disappear on their own accord and no longer activate the waking systems of the brain.
The Sleep School is pioneering the use of a new behaviour therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT for the treatment of insomnia. As the name implies, it teaches you to let go of struggling with your sleeplessness and to place your energy into things that matter in your life, such as your children.
One part of ACT is mindfulness, which is a non judgmental awareness of the present moment. It teaches people to observe their thoughts and sensations in an objective way and to then return to some form of present moment anchor. Such an anchor could be the touch of your pillow on your face, the duvet touching your toes, or the movement of your breath. Neutrally describe such sensations and remain connected to the present, instead of letting your mind catastrophise about the future. For example, you can say ‘I can feel the pillow touching my jaw and cheeks, my toes on the duvet and the movement of air in and out of my nose’. As you do this, your mind will undoubtedly wander off onto a thought and when this happens, greet any such thought by saying “Thank you, thinking mind” and then returning to whatever you were observing at the time of distraction. It does not matter how many times your mind wanders off; what matters is that you notice it wandering and that you bring it back. The aim is to cultivate a gentle relationship with the discomfort of not sleeping, therefore informing the brain that it no longer needs to keep you awake.
Click here to learn more about our revolutionary approach to insomnia and the ways in which we can help you.