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Parenting, Sleep, Women's Health

What other cultures can teach us about managing postpartum sleep deprivation

What other cultures can teach us about managing postpartum sleep deprivation

New_mom_072114Prior to becoming a mom, I felt fully confident that caring for a newborn would be less demanding than, or at least equal to, the physically grueling trainings from my college soccer days or my sleepless year of graduate school. But I soon learned that both of these experiences paled in comparison to the exhaustion I encountered after the arrival of my 8-pound-plus bundle of joy. So I was interested to read a recent Huffington Post blog entry from the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine examining how mothers in other countries cope with postpartum sleep deprivation.

In the entry, Mara Cvejic, MD, a neurologist at the University of Florida and former sleep medicine fellow at Stanford, notes that although sleep deprivation can profoundly affect cognitive function and mood, the brain of a postpartum mom is actually growing. She writes:

… despite all the formidable evidence of sleep deprivation in the everyday person, the scientific evidence of what happens to the postpartum brain is positively astounding — it thrives. A study published by the National Institutes of Health in 2010 actually shows that a mother’s brain grows from just 2-4 weeks to 3-4 months post delivery without any significant learning activities. The gray matter of the parietal lobe, pre-frontal cortex, hypothalamus, substantia nigra, and amygdala all form new connections and enlarge to a small degree. The imaging study confirms what animal studies have shown in the past — that these brain regions responsible for complex emotional judgment and decision-making actually bulk up with use. Rationale to the study shows that mothers who have positive interactions with their offspring — soothing, nurturing, feeding, and caring for them — are performing a mental exercise of sorts. Their learned coping skills in the face of novel child-rearing actually muscularize their brain.

She goes on to outline how new moms from Bulgaria to Sweden, and everywhere in between, turn to “hammocks, spa treatments, hired help, warm foods, arctic cradles, and cardboard” to cope with a lack of sleep. Personally, I’m in favor of Americans adopting this Malaysian tradition:

Food and warmth are also a focus of the Malaysian confinement of pantang. Steeped in the belief that the women’s life force is her fertile womb, she undergoes a 44-day period of internment to focus on relaxation, hot stone massage, lulur (full body exfoliation), herbal baths, and hot compresses. Typically a bidan, what can only be described as a live-in midwife and nanny combined, is hired to attend on the new mother. This is sometimes a family member, such as her mother or mother-in-law.

Previously: The high price of interrupted sleep on your health, What are the consequences of sleep deprivation? and Study: Parents may not be as sleep-deprived as they think
Photo by sean dreilinger

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