Triggering the Baby Blues

One of the simplest causes of postpartum depression in new mothers is sleep deprivation. Here's how you can prevent it.

By Carlin Flora, published March 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A leading cause of postpartum depression may be a condition familiar to most new mothers: sleep deprivation.

In the final stretch of pregnancy, women spend nights tossing, turning and dashing to the bathroom. Labor itself may keep them up for at least one full night, and in the weeks to come, a needy infant will disrupt their slumber as often as once an hour. "The overall effect is as though they'd just landed from Australia," says Meir Steiner, a psychiatrist and director of the Women's Health Concerns Clinic at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Ontario. Steiner believes a prolonged bout of sleep deprivation is an often overlooked trigger for postpartum depression (PPD), which overwhelms about 10 to 15 percent of new moms with feelings of anxiety and sadness and hinders their ability to bond with their infant.

Five years ago, he took a cue from research showing that the way to treat jet lag is to reset a patient's biological clock by synchronizing sleep and wake patterns for five days. Steiner accordingly designed a preventive protocol for pregnant women particularly susceptible to developing PPD. The program's success indicates that ensuring adequate sleep can cut their rate of PPD by one half.

Women in the program—each of whom is at high risk because of a past depression or a family history of the disease—are given a quiet, private room in the hospital for five days after they give birth. Their infants are kept with them during the day but are whisked away for the night by nurses who handle feedings. Most participants relish the chance to rest and receive extra support from hospital staff, Steiner says.

While PPD normally occurs anytime within the first 12 weeks after a baby's birth, sleep restoration is crucial in the first week, since an upset body clock can spiral into insomnia. But Steiner encourages moms in the program to maintain a restful regimen at home by having their partners pitch in. "We always say to the significant other that if the mother continues to lose sleep, she will have a chance of crashing into [depression], whereas if you lose sleep, you'll just be cranky."