While some mothers feel “back on their feet” after just a few days home from the hospital, medical studies show that fatigue generally reaches its peak two to four days after you return home. Many women also go through a slump between the eighth and tenth week after childbirth when the accumulated lack of sleep really begins to cause damage. Only 50 percent of women feel that they have regained their usual energy levels within six weeks postpartum. Twenty-five percent more feel that they are back to normal only after six months. This means that a quarter of new mothers are still suffering from fatigue and low energy more than six months after childbirth. But then, remember also that two-thirds of babies aged six to 12 months, and a third of toddlers have trouble sleeping through the night.
Lack of Sleep
Most mothers find that their biggest problem is lack of sleep. A sleep cycle is made up of four phases, which in total last about 90 minutes. The last phase, deep sleep, when physical recuperation takes place and the immune system works hardest, occurs mostly early in the night. Only after the full sleep cycle is complete can the body go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep when we dream and process all the mental stimuli accumulated during the day. If a mother is woken during any stage of her sleep cycle, she will go back to its very beginning when she falls back to sleep, thus missing out on precious REM sleep. So even if you are sleeping the same number of total hours within a 24-hour period, you may still suffer from REM sleep deprivation.
Elevated hormone levels are notorious for disturbing sleep during pregnancy. These persist for the first weeks after childbirth. Add in a newborn’s erratic sleep patterns as well as the habits of your older children, and it seems that you can’t escape the burning eyes, chills, hunger for sweets, irritability, lethargy, difficulty in concentrating, and even depression that accompany “sleep debt.”
Fortunately, it takes just two or three nights in a row of uninterrupted sleep to cure these symptoms. Most importantly, fatigue is managed through prevention: by building up energy reserves that can be called upon in times of stress and by never letting yourself become completely exhausted.