Sleep vs exercise: what new mothers need to know
Sleep… remember that?
As a new mother, do we even have to ask if you’re getting enough sleep? Of course you’re not!
A 2019 study found that, compared to their sleep pre-pregnancy, women lose an average of one hour of sleep each night in the first three months of their child’s life. And we bet you are feeling that lost hour right about now!
The consequences of severe sleep deprivation go far beyond bags under your eyes and accidentally reheating bolognese for breakfast. Being seriously underslept can result in serious mood changes, brain fog, memory issues and increased risk of injury.
Injury? Yep. “During pregnancy, your body produces cheeky hormones that relax joint-stabilising ligaments,” says FIT women’s health physiotherapist Phoebe Armfield, and the effects can linger after you’ve given birth.
This means your body is already more prone to injury, so adding sleeplessness to the mix can be a recipe for rolled ankles and sprained wrists. Definitely not what you need right now.
So how can you find the energy you need to get on with being a new mama?
How exercise fights fatigue
Our bodies are made to move, so a little bit of daily exercise may be just what you need for an extra energy boost. There’s plenty of evidence that regular workouts decrease fatigue even in cancer patients and people with chronic illnesses.
Exercise is an energiser because it releases mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, oxygenates your blood and can even increase brain function. Ever beaten a mid-afternoon slump with a sweaty HIIT sesh? Then you know the feeling.
And here’s the news you really want to hear: regular exercise is closely linked with better quality sleep, so prioritising a bit of movement every day will help you to fight fatigue AND get more rest.
Sleep vs exercise: which is more important?
You were up most of the night tending to a screaming baby (which your partner somehow managed to snore though). Now it’s morning and your baby is napping soundly – should you try to squeeze in your workout, or crash on the couch?
If you didn’t get more than a few hours sleep (or were up all night) you should always prioritise getting some Zs. Take that nap while you can, mama!
If you got around 30–60 minutes less than your ideal sleep, you may find that 20 minutes of moderate exercise helps more than a snooze.
But, if you’re operating on less than 5–6 hours of sleep you should avoid intense workouts or using heavy weights. The workouts in FIT Post-Pregnancy Stages 1 and 2 programs are short, low-impact and moderate – designed to help you through this period and perfect for a pick-me-up.
Gentle exercise can help you fight new-mama fatigue.
Tips to max your sleep
Your baby is gonna do what your baby is gonna do, so here’s what YOU can do to ensure you’re getting enough shut-eye.
1. Sleep when your newborn does
In the early weeks of parenthood, it is important that you prioritise sleep – it’s a crucial part of your overall recovery after giving birth.
Try sleeping (or at least napping) when your baby sleeps, instead of always using that time to do chores or catch up on your emails. It’s not selfish to look after yourself and recognise what your body needs.
2. Don’t be too proud to ask for help!
The overwhelming stress of having a baby can sometimes feel like a nasty secret – you might not want to admit that you’re struggling because you’re worried people will judge you. But you don’t get any rewards for trying to do it without help, and it will only make things harder in the long-term.
And you know what, your trusted family and friends mean it when they offer to babysit or watch the little one for a few hours – so say yes when they offer!
3. Let others do the work
There are often good reasons that mothers tend to be the ones jumping up to deal with a fussing baby – like baby’s food source being attached to their body, for starters. But it’s also true that a lot of couples fall into a habit of letting the person who gave birth deal with the baby care by default.
In the average heterosexual couple, for example, dads are still less involved in childcare than mums.
So if you’re partnered, ask your other half to take their fair share of turns getting up, and once they’re up, trust them to handle it. (If you’re breastfeeding, having some pumped milk handy for nighttime feedings is a good idea, too).
4. Sleep hygiene
Is there anything more frustrating to be feeling dead on your feet before bed, only to find sleep impossible once you actually lie down? If you’re exhausted, you might expect falling asleep to be easy, but that’s not always the case. That’s why it’s especially important that you practice good sleep hygiene as a new mother so that you can make the most of your opportunities to rest.
By hygiene, we don’t just mean fresh sheets (though that can help). Good sleep hygiene includes avoiding blue light from devices (i.e. your laptop or tablet) in the hours before bed, nixing caffeine in the afternoon, and not taking your phone to bed (even if you’ve got the blue light filter turned on).
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