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Postpartum Insomnia Is Taking Over My Life

Photograph by Twenty20

The bedtime routine used to begin at 8:30 p.m. Dim the lights. Turn off all screens and TV. Take a bath. Put on pajamas. Drink some warm milk. Brush teeth. Read a bedtime story. Kiss goodnight. Lights out at 9:45 p.m.

The first wake up was usually around 11:30 p.m. Followed by 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. And then I would stare at the ceiling until 6 a.m. when my peacefully sleeping 8-month-old daughter would wake up.

Oh, did you think that was my baby's nighttime schedule? Nope. It was mine.

This is called postpartum or postnatal insomnia—otherwise known as hell on earth. And it's apparently pretty common, sometimes linked to postpartum depression and sometimes appearing on its own.

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When your baby is just a few months old, and you are horribly sleep-deprived, all you want in life is eight solid hours in your own bed. Every day you think to yourself, "Dear god, if she would just please sleep through the night, then I could finally feel like a human being again."

It got to the point where I dreaded bedtime, knowing it would bring another night of watching the clock.

But what happens when your baby finally does start sleeping through the night, and you discover that you can't? Suddenly, you are the one waking up every two hours, unable to fall back asleep—exhausted, frustrated, desperate for rest—while your baby dreams away happily in her crib. I know, who said motherhood was fair?

In the beginning, I told myself it would pass. I had never had sleep problems before. I assumed I was just in the habit of waking up frequently to nurse my daughter. My body would eventually readjust, right? I dragged myself through the days, struggling with concentration and memory, nervous every time I got in the car. It got to the point where I dreaded bedtime, knowing it would bring another night of watching the clock.

As the months went on, I tried a long list of treatments for insomnia: acupuncture, Chinese herbs, melatonin, exercise, Ambien, vitamins, supplements, cutting out caffeine, alcohol, sugar, psychotherapy, sleep apnea tests, Benadryl and even medical marijuana. That last one was actually the only thing that brought some relief, and I joked with my husband about being one of the few people in Los Angeles actually using medical marijuana for a medical purpose.

But it wasn't a cure. The cocktail of drugs I took every night did knock me out for a few hours but left me groggy in the morning. The sleep I was getting was mostly light and not very restful. Whenever my husband had to go out of town for a day or two, I lived in fear of our child waking up with some nighttime emergency or illness that I would be too stoned to handle on my own.

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One night when my daughter was about 16 months old, she woke up crying at 1 a.m. I stumbled into her room in a daze. I sat with her in the rocking chair, trying to rock her back to sleep while the motion made my head swim. After a few minutes, she looked up at me, puzzled.

Maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to see a light at the end of the insomnia tunnel.

"Mommy dizzy?" she asked. I could only nod at her. "Go crib," she said. I put her back in her crib, and she rolled over and instantly fell sleep. I looked down at her enviously. Then I wobbled back up the stairs to my own bed, vaguely aware that something had to change.

Several months later, I finally ended up in the office of a cognitive behavioral therapist. While I'm not a stranger to therapy, I had never done CBT before. CBT for insomnia often involves something called "sleep restriction." This means limiting the number of hours you spend in bed in order to consolidate and deepen sleep. The beginning feels like torture. No matter how much sleep you have had, even if you have been up all night, you still have to get out of bed and start your day at the same time every morning. Fun, right? The amazing thing is—it works.

I'm nervous even to write this. But maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to see a light at the end of the insomnia tunnel. It's been so long that I can't really remember what it feels like to sleep like a normal person. I'm tempted to fantasize in the way that some people imagine what their lives would be like if they lost 50 pounds or won the lottery. Will I suddenly be a better mom? A better wife? Will I have infinite patience and empathy? Will my career take a giant leap forward? Will I constantly be filled with joy and wellbeing? Probably not. But right now my bed is starting to feel like a place of rest instead of misery. And for that, all I feel is grateful.

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