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. Dr Guy Meadows talks us through the problem many new mothers have when it comes to sleeping.
Waking up for multiple night-time feeds can at first feel like a form of torture, especially if you’ve been 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 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 the thoughts can be mundane such as the plans for tomorrow or an annoying tune that just keeps playing over and over. At worst they become fixated on all of the worries in their life and effortlessly create catastrophic fantasies about how everything could go so badly wrong.
If a few bad nights are experienced and over tiredness sets in, then it is very easy for the thinking mind to turn it attention to sleep itself. Suddenly a seed of doubt about our own ability to sleep takes hold and unhelpful thoughts begin to creep in such as “What if I I don’t fall back to sleep after the feed?”, “I know my baby will wake up soon” or “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 or the commonly accompanying emotion of anxiety or sensations of a racing heart is to try and block them out or 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 night time or even feeding with wakefulness, rather than with sleepiness. In this state of hyper arousal we see the development of chronic insomnia, which carries on regardless of the fact that our babies are now sleeping through the night.
At The Sleep School we see many mums (and Dad’s) 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. My approach involves teaching many 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 night time and sleepiness.
It works by increasing peoples’ willingness to experience the discomfort of not sleeping and being able to make space for all of the unwanted thoughts and sensations. The paradox being that when you can 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 are 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 teaches you to let go of struggling with your sleeplessness and place your energy into things of importance 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 then return back to some form of present moment anchor. For example, you might try to describe the touch of your pillow on your face, the duvet touching your toes or the movement of your breath in your mind whilst lying in bed (e.g. ‘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 it by saying “Thank you, thinking mind” and then returning back to what ever you were observing at the time of distraction. It does not matter how many times your mind wanders off, but more that you notice it wandering and bring it back. The aim is to cultivate a gentle relationship with the discomfort of not sleeping and therefore inform the brain that it no longer needs to keep you awake.
To learn more about this revolutionary approach to insomnia or to attend one of events please visit: www.thesleepschool.org