Days turn into nights that blur into days … those first few weeks after a birth are relentless, especially if you have little support to help you with your baby and offer you respite.
For Mauritian expat Manuela Cotte, who has been in the UAE for eight years, pregnancy came with few initial challenges. “All the tests and scans were all very positive for me and my baby, so that my gynaecologist gave her approval for a water birth without medication, which was my wish,” she recalls in an interview with Gulf News.
However, things took a dive for the worse when at nearly 42 weeks of pregnancy, the 33-year-old went into labour. “I was being prepared for my water birth when meconium staining was observed. The doctors had to take the decision to undertake an emergency C-section, and I was rushed to the operation theatre without my husband, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Though the emergency C-section was an absolute traumatic experience for me, I gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl who weighed 3.6kg. My husband and I were over the moon,” she says.
Then came the wave of overwhelming emotion. “My husband and I were on our own since day one as our families could not come from abroad. After three days in hospital, while recovering from a C-section, struggling with breastfeeding and no more than two hours of sleep, I left the hospital literally shaking from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. I remember thinking, ‘How will I be able to do it on my own without the nurses and doctors around?’ My mind was completely blank and I could not take any new information,” she explains.
This inability to process a ton of information is only to be expected. “Sleep is an integral part of maintaining health. Sleep is also crucial for good mental health. For these reasons, it is important for a new parent not to ignore this aspect of their life as they embark on what can be a challenging, yet often rewarding experience,” says Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant in Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry, Priory Wellbeing Centre.
More than physical impact
The lack of sleep doesn’t only have mood-dipping repercussions but also mind-altering lashes. As per a study conducted by UCLA (University of Californa, Los Angeles) scientists and released in August this year titled, ‘New mothers’ sleep loss linked to accelerated ageing’: “A year after giving birth, the biological age of mothers who slept less than seven hours a night at the six-month mark was three to seven years older than those who logged seven hours or more.”
For Cotte, the first month was just about survival. “I had no time and energy to think about myself and what was going on around me. As well as having full-time jobs, my husband and I are also university students. Two weeks after delivery, we both had to sit for our end-of-year examinations. I barely remember how we got through these weeks, I just know we accumulated numerous sleepless nights and days of studying and taking turns with our baby. Just like most newborns, my baby was crying for hours at a stretch but was not sleeping much. Coupled with the challenges of breastfeeding, I was most of the days in pain, mentally and physically. I lived each day that passed by as a victory.”
Sleep deprivation can worsen symptoms of postpartum blues in the new mother during the initial few weeks after birth. It can also worsen the symptoms of postnatal depression, which is described as moderate to severe depression that affects mothers, fathers and partners within the first year of giving birth.
“According to research, after a baby is born, mothers lose on an average one hour of sleep each night. This can happen due to various reasons, including waking up for night time feeding and struggling to go back to sleep; anticipating one’s baby’s crying, etc. Sleep deprivation can worsen symptoms of postpartum blues in the new mother during the initial few weeks after birth. It can also worsen the symptoms of postnatal depression, which is described as moderate to severe depression that affects mothers, fathers and partners within the first year of giving birth,” explains Dr Ahmed.
The importance of talk
Post-partum depression, which according to a study sited on US-based website postpartumdepression.org, affects one in seven women, was something Cotte was never diagnosed with or treated for, even though she suspects she was suffering from it at the time. “I have never been medically diagnosed simply because I never talked about it, except to my husband who has seen it all. It was a question of priorities, my baby needed me and I had no time to spend on myself and my feelings,” she explains.
But there was also another little-talked-about reason Cotte kept her feelings to herself. “I did not talk about it, because the rare times that I ventured to say that I did not expect motherhood to be this hard, I felt like I was not understood and judged. Sometimes, I felt like I was not a good mum just because other mums looked so happy and serene. It took me long to realise that if I was doubting whether I was a good mum, it only meant that I was one. That irrespective of anything else, motherhood is hard in one way or another for everybody. And that we should not be too hard on ourselves. This is what I learned through reading on other mum’s experiences on Facebook groups for mums, and through personal introspection.”
For most mums who suffer from the baby blues – or sadness/depression for the first few weeks of motherhood – sleep can make a world of difference.
1. Wake up for some of the night feeds: “Because being awake in the middle of night with a child can get very lonely. You're like, you're the only person awake in the whole world at 4am, 3am or 2am,” says Gillard.
2. Allow mum to sleep in: Allowing the new mother to sleep in and getting up with a baby or putting the baby to bed and allowing your wife to have some ‘me-time’ will give her respite and earn you brownie points – not to mention, you’ll have alone time to bond with your baby.
3. Volunteer, don’t wait to be asked to help out. “I think the worst thing, as a wife and a mother, is having to ask for help. Because most likely you think it's your job and you're delegating some of your job. It's not really your job. It's the job of both of you. That would be my big message to dads. Please ask if there's anything you can do. Check about the everyday things, say, you know, ‘would you like a hug? Can I give you a foot massage?’ Those small things make such a difference,” says Gillard.
How to get some sleep
Dr Ahmed says: “Some experts suggest that parents should sleep when the baby sleeps. Even short bursts of sleep can act as ‘power naps’ and are able to refresh and lower stress levels in the parents, to be able to care for their baby in a warmer manner.
“Creating a good sleep environment and bedtime routine is important – having the room cool, quiet and dark; settling down by reading a book to the baby together; and having set arrangements for one partner to be “on” and the other “off” so that at least one parent can have an uninterrupted spell of sleep to be then able to take over when it’s time to give the other a break.
“Parents should be able to divide responsibilities evenly and be able to get some individual time even if just to go out for a quick walk in the neighbourhood. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help from friends and family when they need some time to sleep or want to have some ‘downtime’.”
A year on, Cotte is in a better place. But, “I still experience ‘low’ moments, which I believe are a normal part of a first-time motherhood experience,” she admits.
Seeing other mums talking about their tiredness brings out in her a fierce protectiveness. “If only for all the time, energy and love you are putting in raising your little one, you are already a badass warrior. Be nice to yourself, give yourself time because things do get better with time. One day these sleepless nights from rocking your colicky or teething baby to sleep will be over, and you will just love every minute of this amazing journey,” she says to newbie mums.
“Maternity in the collective consciousness and in the images depicted in media are something nearly fairy and enchanting; a mum who talks about the other side of the coin is obviously a bad mum. I was surprised to notice that mums, among themselves, tend to blame and judge each other while they all have been through the same at one point or another,” she adds. It’s important to recognise that “… no mum is better than another, we are all doing the best we can with what we have been given”. And by doing so the healing can begin.
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