It’s a refrain we’ve all heard—if you’re having a baby, you’re going to be tired. It comes in the form of unsolicited advice, gentle ribbing and glances of pity. Unfortunately, the well-meaning commenters are often right—new parents get very little sleep. But it’s more than just a cranky baby that causes a perpetual feeling of exhaustion that defines the first few months of parenthood. Here are five reasons why new parents are tired, even if they’ve got a good sleeper.
1. Labour and delivery are exhausting
Whether you gave birth vaginally or surgically, having a baby is tiring. The mental toll of labour and delivery cannot be understated, and the process can come with challenges and major decision-making for everyone involved at a time when emotions are already running high. Physically, holding the weight of your infant, placenta and amniotic fluid is no easy feat, and some labours can last days, causing sleep deprivation even before active labour and pushing or prepping for a c-section has even started. Labour also causes your heart to work 80% harder (higher “cardiac output”), which can take up to two months postpartum to return to normal. Labour and delivery are emotionally and physically taxing, so it’s not unusual to feel tired even before your little once has made their entrance.
2. Post-delivery recovery takes time
Good news! The aftermath of delivering a baby can be euphoric. But it also requires a good recovery period. Your body has been through a lot, even if you were lucky enough to have a straightforward birth or short labour. Your blood volume decreases over eight weeks postpartum, and kidney function (filtering of fluid) must shift to accommodate the change. During recovery, the uterus will change and start to decrease in size, but you still have a good amount of the hormone relaxin in your system which, during pregnancy, kept your ligaments all loosey goosey in preparation for delivery. It can take up to a year for those ligaments, muscles and joints to recover and become stable again. All these processes take time and energy to coordinate and complete, which—you guessed it—can really contribute to those feelings of exhaustion.
3. Pregnancy and postpartum brain changes take brain power
Early parenthood requires a lot of adaptation. These are the days you start learning about your baby and their needs. You’ll continue to develop new abilities and skills as a parent and that takes a good amount of brain power.
The maternal brain undergoes a lot of remodelling both during pregnancy and after. Certain areas of the brain actually decrease in size—a change that can last up to two years postpartum. Meanwhile, receptors for oxytocin are enriched and activated, allowing you to take advantage of skin-to-skin and cuddle time with your baby. These oxytocin signals are incredibly important for milk production and parent-infant attachment. Your sensory system also becomes heightened, allowing you to be super in-tune with your baby. Like a spidey-sense that alerts you when your baby needs you.
4. Making milk, feeding and/or pumping uses up energy
The process of making nutrient-dense milk and chest/breastfeeding (should you decide to do so) is a demanding post-partum process. The nutrients found in your milk (which include omega-3 fatty acids, Choline, Vitamin A, B-vitamins, Vitamin D, iron, and more) are taken from your body’s stores or you own diet or supplementation. It’s recommended to continue taking your prenatal vitamin during this time to ensure you and your newborn are both getting all the nutrients you need—many find it hard to cook nutritious meals or even to remember to eat in those first few weeks with a baby. When chest/breastfeeding or pumping, you can burn around 500 extra calories per day—so it is so important to get those nutrients in postpartum to keep your energy up.
Whether you’re using formula, are nursing or doing a combination of both, a newborn feeding schedule can look very different to your pre-baby mealtimes. For starters, the first few weeks (at the very least) your newborn will need food every three or so hours—yes, even at night. Which means you (and your partner or support system) are on-call day and night. Many babies don’t sleep through the night for weeks, months or even years, which, unsurprisingly, can be super tiring for parents.
If that wasn’t enough, many new parents opt to pump, which allows more people to help out with feeding (yay!)—though it often comes with a strict pump schedule in order to maintain supply (boo!). Prolactin, the milk-producing hormone, is highest in concentration in the middle of the night, which forces many new moms to wake, sometimes multiples times in the night, to pump.
Newborn feeding is complicated no matter what route you choose to nourish your child, and they all tend to include middle-of-the-night eating. The result? Broken sleep cycles and short stretches of shut eye that result in a lack of rest.
5. No consistent sleep schedule means no consistent sleep
While you may be obsessively watching wake windows and sleep cues, your baby is unlikely to offer much consistency in the early days. Despite your best efforts, your baby will refuse to nap at some point and throw the day into chaos. Plus, leaps in your baby’s development over the first year also can change their needs and behaviour—and disrupt their rest with dreaded sleep regressions. It’s not easy growing up, and for an infant, those leaps in brain development alone can be distressing and exhausting. Babies can have periods of being clingy or fussy, alternating with periods of calmness and happiness that last days or weeks, but are often hard to predict and prepare for. If you used to be able to count on a certain number of hours of sleep per night, chances are that has changed post-baby and you are always at risk of having your sleep interrupted with a little one around.
While some parents can try to catch up on sleep by napping when baby naps (easier said than done), many parents need to go back to work, some as early as four weeks, after welcoming a newborn.
When you can’t depend on a solid eight hours of rest a night—sometimes for weeks or months at a time—but still need to be up, alert and attentive all day, it’s no wonder that new parents are tired. Remember