The words new mom and exhaustion pretty much go hand-in-hand. While it’s to be expected to some extent, it’s more than just a rite of passage into motherhood. There are real reasons behind your exhaustion…which means there are real solutions.
Here are a few of the 10,687,653 reasons you might be so tired, mama.
10 reasons for postpartum exhaustion
1. Recovery from birth takes a long time
You’ve probably heard that it takes about six to eight weeks to recover from birth. That’s sort of true—that’s how long it takes for your uterus to shrink back down to its pre-pregnancy size (a process called involution). But I’ll tell you that I have never met a woman who “felt like herself” again at six weeks out.
Pregnancy and birth are arguably the most intense things our bodies ever do. Recovery is about way more than a shrunken uterus—it involves every aspect of our physical and mental selves. We have to start looking at our transition to motherhood as a discovery of our new identities, not about bouncing back to some pre-baby version of ourselves.
What you can do: Heal. I know this sounds silly in its simplicity. But you would never expect someone to clean their house a few days after having surgery, or to run errands when they are getting over the flu—so why do we expect ourselves to snap out of giving birth? Pregnancy and birth are not ailments, but they are the real deal. Be gentle on yourself, and allow your body to heal.
2. You might be anemic
It is estimated that as many as 56% of new mothers are anemic (have low levels of iron in their blood). This can be caused by pregnancy itself, lack of iron-rich foods or bleeding during or after birth. Anemia can include a fast heart rate, difficulty breathing dizziness and, of course, fatigue.
What you can do: Talk to your provider. A simple blood test can determine your iron levels, and some supplementation and diet changes can often really help you to feel better.
3. Your brain is on high-alert
Crying is your baby’s way of letting you know he needs something. Of course, this method of communication is super important now, but back in our cave-lady days, it was essential for survival—baby sees bear, baby cries, mama saves baby from bear.
While bears are generally less of a risk now, our brains still respond as if they are. Research shows that when a baby cries, a woman’s brain is triggered into a state of acute alertness, while a man’s brain is not. This constant danger-awareness can be pretty exhausting.
What to do about it: Try meditating. A recent study found that mothers who meditated experienced a greater sense of self-efficacy, improved well-being and decreased stress. If you need some help getting started, we love HeadSpace!
4. Your work schedule is ridiculous
The average mom of a 5 to 12-year-old in the United States clocks a 14-hour work day—every. single. day. That means she spends 98 hours per week doing work and/or parenting related activities. Now add to that the work of a mother with a newborn, who wakes up every two or three hours all night long—I am exhausted just typing that.
Your work as a mom is physically and emotionally demanding—and your little boss doesn’t ever let you get a break. You may love being a mom, but that doesn’t mean you’re not overworked.
What to do about it: Take a break. Labor laws exist for a reason! Breaks are necessary for optimal functioning and mental well-being. Research indicates that even a five-minute break—when taken before you feel totally depleted—can help boost your energy levels significantly. Ask a friend to come hold the baby while you shower in peace, take the baby on a walk around the block, or Motherly’s favorite pastime: browsing the isles of Target.
5. Moms multitask—all the time
Studies have found that women are better at multitasking, probably because we do it all the time. While this has proven beneficial for our survival as humans (and being able to simultaneously shop on Amazon while talking to your best friend and stopping your kids from trying to see if that cat knows how to skydive), it takes a serious toll on our brains.
Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, told Quartz that multitasking, “comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing.”
What you can do: Daydream. Professor Levitin recommends taking 15-minute breaks every few hours to simply let your mind wander. Hello, daydream, believer!
6. Women physically need more sleep than men
Says science. You’re welcome.
Research finds that women need about 20 more minutes of sleep than men do (likely due to all that multitasking our brains are trying to do). While 20 minutes doesn’t exactly feel like a luxurious amount of sleep, it does explain why it might be hard for us to pry ourselves out of bed in the morning.
What you can do: Get into bed 20 minutes earlier. Just 20 minutes. You might be surprised by how much better you feel in the morning.
In general, we are pretty good at taking care of our bodies when we are pregnant, but once the baby is born we often assume our physical work is done, and revert back to our pre-pregnancy ways.
However, women that are breastfeeding are actually using more energy to make breast milk than they were to grow their babies when they were pregnant. It requires about 500 calories per day to exclusively breastfeed a baby—that’s the equivalent of walking about seven miles per day!
What you can do: Chow down. If you are breastfeeding, ensure that you are getting 1800-2200 calories per day (unless your provider suggests otherwise of course). Check out some of our favorite breastfeeding power food ideas here.
8. Postpartum depression
Maybe the depression is causing the fatigue, or maybe the fatigue is causing the depression—either way, if you are really tired it might be a red flag.
What you can do: Get help. Up to 25% of new moms will experience postpartum depression or anxiety. You are not alone, and there is so much out there that can help you. Speak to your provider or head to an emergency room if it’s really bad.
9. Decision fatigue
Moms everywhere nod.
Scientists have discovered that we only have so much energy to devote to decision-making—once it’s gone, it’s gone (for the day, at least).
John Tierney wrote in the New York Times, “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
Motherhood is a seemingly endless collection of decisions that need to be made. It’s no wonder our brains feel like mush at the end of the day.
What you can do: Click off. Take some time to figure out what you can put on auto-pilot. For example, decide on a one or two-week menu rotation, and never stray from it. Taco Tuesday every Tuesday sounds just fine to us.
10. We don’t take very good care of ourselves
You are an amazing mama to your little. But are you an amazing mama to yourself? I’d venture to argue that every mom out there could stand to prioritize herself more than she does. We get so caught up in the guilt of “are we enough?” for our kids, that we forget about being enough for ourselves.
Take care of yourself, mama. Put yourself first sometimes. I promise, your kids will be okay—and even thrive—when you do.
What you can do: Whatever you want! Do something (or a lot of somethings) just for you. You’ve got this.
A version of this post was published July 9, 2021. It has been updated.