Anyone who has grown another human knows that one of the first things that gets affected in the perinatal journey is sleep. But beyond that, the complexity of women’s hormones throughout their lives has both an impact on sleep as well as sleep affecting how our hormones adjust to our different life stages. Hot flushes? Tired but wired? Left the car keys in the fridge? Your growing belly making it uncomfortable to sleep? Read on for more.
Let's talk about sleep, and how it affects women, particularly those who are mothers, differently?
As Mums, we tend to sleep lightly, like we have one eye and one ear open on permanent standby. If a child calls out or cries, or sometimes before they do that, you are almost already awake. In my house, my kids never call out “Dad". It's always "Mum". And once you’re awake because it's always with a startled effect, you are now ‘wide awake’ making it hard to get back to sleep. This is because your body has just moved from a resting heart rate of active rate for example to from 50bpm to 100bpm. Sometimes it can take time to get back to a resting rhythm of 50bpm in a short space of time.
There’s also a hormonal component affecting women through the different stages of puberty, pregnancy, postpartum and menopause. How do these shifts affect sleep?
This is a huge topic. I'll try to be brief.
Pregnancy, postpartum and menopause are three major life changes that many women go through in the brief moment we have on earth. It's often overlooked and hardly talked about. Each of these is majorly affecting the physical body and the mental challenges. Meanwhile there can be an expectation that you are still expected to carry on your normal day’s work - both at home and outside, a smile on your face for the world to see.
When you are going through pregnancy your body is growing to accommodate a baby. Your body is no longer your own, as the baby grows, your body gets heavier and it gets more and more uncomfortable and difficult to find the perfect position to sleep. If you are a tummy sleeper, say goodbye to that. As the baby gets bigger, pressure increases on your body and your organs. Often you have unexplained aches, like sciatic pain or swollen ankles and increased frequency of peeing as the baby sits on your bladder as it runs out of room to move. There is so much going on every day that sometimes the hormonal, physical and mental changes don't align together at the same time. A pregnant woman can get low in iron as they are using lots of this for both them and the baby. But low iron can also affect bad sleep so it's important to get your blood checked regularly. Low iron has been a big contributor to all three situations of pregnancy, postpartum and menopause.
Postpartum is another massive change physically and mentally. I experienced a lot during this time with my second child and have bore witness to many other mothers over the years who really struggled. It's such a hard subject for women to express this openly as there is a huge underlying expectation that all should be well and everything will happen naturally. When you are supposed to be the happiest woman in the world from having this precious baby, you can feel so sad, so lost and incapable. A lot of this has to do with hormones. If you are still breastfeeding your body is still going through the huge hormonal changes from continuing on providing nourishment for your baby and slowly getting your body back to what you had before, but never quite the same somehow and if you had a traumatic birth, this takes even longer.
This is when I think it would be amazing to have a strong sisterhood relationship, giving loving experience from wise women to support you at this time of need. Unconditionally as well as the mother themselves should feel free to ask for this help without judgement upon them or judgement on themselves. It's ok to ask for help because it's a sign of strength that you want to get better quickly and face up to your needs as a Mum as a woman.
As for me, I felt so lonely and too proud to ask for help as I've always been so independent; after all, it's my second child, I should know what to do this time. But my second child was not a good sleeper; she was such a happy baby but would wake up 3 to 4 times a night for the first year. I was sleep-deprived and had a toddler to deal with as well, while my husband would go off to work. I could not see things clearly or make changes to my life for the better quickly. But my friends were all in the same situation. My husband's family were too far away to ask for real help. What I wish I had was someone to hold the fort for a couple of hours each day allowing me to have a nap or go for a walk, or providing me a night once a while when I could have a full night's sleep.
Some women can go through it as young as 40 and some have no choice if they have to get a hysterectomy. They are such varied experiences. For some women, it hardly affects them; some go through it for a long time, up to ten years, some as quick as one to two years. The hormonal changes are like pregnancy as far as you are not in control of your body. Spontaneously, you can be hot and covered in a cold sweat without any warning. For some women it can be pretty embarrassing. For my clients who are going through this period, they like me to put the AC on before they come and never put the electric blanket on even in winter. Sleeping through the night is a bit of a nightmare, especially in summer. It helps if you have a bed that minimises restless sleep disturbance and made from material that keeps you warm and cool at the same time like the supernatural Comfi bed and a duvet for your partner and a light blanket for you.
What are the four biggest challenges women face when getting good quality sleep and what tips would you suggest to address these?
- Invest in a good bed:
You spend 1/3 of your life sleeping. Would you wear an ill-fitting shoe all day, all year round? Probably not. Would you put up with a sore back every day and expect to live a productive everyday life? No! This is why I love my Comfi so!
- A good routine:
This is key; as humans, we like routine; even when you are away, always bring something from home to help you settle into sleep quickly, like your favourite herbal tea or pillow. Go to sleep around the same time each night even when you are on holiday.
- Check your diary for the next day
If the kids have got a swim/dance lesson the next day, pack those things into the car the night before—Prep clothes, lunches ready for the morning. You’ll be surprised how ten to twenty minutes of extra time put in at night will set you up for the morning. In the morning, you might have spare time for a walk or catch up for a coffee with a friend before work.
- Always have a wind down period before bed.
Switch off your phone/ TV well before you go to bed. Take a bath to unwind, do some stretches, have a cup of tea, read a book. Write down your to-do list for the next day and journal if that’s your thing. If you have stuff in your mind you need to get it out of your head. If you don’t, your mind may chat to you all night.
You can find Miria @miriaaman_empoweringwellness on Instagram or at www.miriaaman.co.nz