The Deal with Postpartum Night Sweats
Experts explain what causes postpartum night sweats, how long they will last, and how new moms can manage so you can some sleep at a time when it's so important.
As the mother of two young girls, Sarah O'Connor thought postpartum night sweats had become her new norm.
"I would wake up two, sometimes three times per night freezing because my pajamas were soaked," she says. I would have to change essentially every night, sometimes twice in the same night. On the nights I wore just a t-shirt I would wake up from feeling the sweat drip down my legs."
Sound familiar? Postpartum night sweats, the same type of night sweats that perimenopausal and menopausal women experience, happen to millions of new moms. And they can be incredibly frustrating.
"I tried everything to combat my night sweats," says O'Connor. "Even when my youngest started sleeping through the night, a time that is supposed to be amazing, I wasn't able to get a full night's sleep because of my night sweats. [And] by not getting proper sleep I was exhausted, dehydrated, and emotional beyond belief."
The good news is that postpartum night sweats, while annoying, are totally normal. Here's what to know about them, plus tips from both experts and real moms on how to cope.
What are postpartum night sweats?
It's not a shocker, but you can thank your pregnancy hormones for causing postpartum night sweats.
"These symptoms are the result of hormonal changes that happen after delivery," says Dara Matseoane-Peterssen, MD, chief of general obstetrics and gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital. "During pregnancy, levels of estrogen and progesterone rise. After birth, these levels fall. Low estrogen levels mimic what happens in menopause, and some patients experience mood swings, vaginal dryness, along with night sweats."
And women who breastfeed also have lower levels of estrogen, which could also make you more susceptible to postpartum night sweats.
"Women who are nursing also experience rising levels of prolactin, a hormone necessary for breastfeeding that also acts to keep estrogen levels low," says Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen. This actually mimics menopause.
"The reason breastfeeding moms get night sweats is because exclusive breastfeeding affects your hormones, suppressing ovulation and your period. It's kind of like menopause, which is why women have similar symptoms," says Heather Beall, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital.
Night sweats can also occur during pregnancy, not just after.
"They are also a bit of a misnomer, since the feeling of heat being trapped in your body, or suddenly being drenched in sweat can happen in pregnancy (35% of respondents in one study) as well as in the postpartum period (29% of respondents in the same study)," says Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen.
But not all women experience postpartum night sweats. "Most women who choose to formula feed their babies do not experience night sweats because their periods return within the first couple months after they deliver," says Dr. Beall.
How long do postpartum night sweats last?
It depends, but you're most likely to experience them in the immediate weeks after giving birth. "The postpartum variety may peak 1-2 weeks after delivery and improve as hormone fluctuations do," says Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen.
And the longer you continue to breastfeed, the more time it may extend the sweats.
"Many women breastfeed for six months and then they start to add food to their babies' diets. When you add food, all bets are off," says Dr. Beall. "That's when your hormones start to kick in again, you ovulate, and you'll get a period again. That's also when the night sweats and other symptoms start to go away."
Your weight could also influence how long you have postpartum night sweats.
"A woman's weight may influence the intensity of night sweats. The body has two ways to produce estrogen, and that's through the ovaries and through fat," says Dr. Beall. "Breastfeeding suppresses the activities of the ovaries, but if you have more body fat that's producing estrogen, you may have enough of the hormone in your body to keep night sweats at bay. Women who are thinner may not have as much estrogen in their systems and may have more symptoms."
How can I stop postpartum night sweats?
Unfortunately, postpartum night sweats tend to stop completely on their own timeline. There are, however, ways you can make them more bearable. Here are tips from experts and moms who have lived to tell their tale of surviving postpartum night sweats:
Try to keep cool
Dress in layers, wear breathable fabrics, and keep a fan by the bed (or run the AC if the people with whom you live will tolerate it), advises Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen.
"Each night I would purposely dress in layers that were easy to shed throughout the night," says mom Brittany Duffee. "I would climb into bed with all of these layers, cuddle up into the fetal position (no pun intended), and wait for the shivering to stop and the sweating to begin. Knowing the puddle of sweat was inevitable, I would [also] layer my side of the bed with towels every night before bed to absorb the moisture and not ruin our mattress."
Clean up your diet and exercise routine
"Exercise can also be helpful—even a brisk walk," says Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen. "It's also a good idea to avoid caffeine and alcohol which can exacerbate symptoms." Dr. Beall adds that while there are some vitamins or supplements you can take postpartum, she wouldn't recommend any additional supplements be taken while a woman is breastfeeding.
As a fitness coach and a pre/postnatal yoga teacher, O'Connor believed her postpartum nutrition was pretty on point. "I knew my body well and felt confident in what I needed to eat to achieve balance and have abundant energy throughout the day," O'Connor says. "[But] by the time my youngest was 18 months, I finally decided to do a full body cleanse. I started by eliminating all processed foods and dairy. Then I gradually removed meats and proteins. I ended the cleanse on an all-natural, caffeine-free vegan diet. The night sweats stopped! I was ecstatic. It was a painful, grueling couple of years, but the night sweats stopped."
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
"Stick with water, especially if you're nursing, to replace the fluids you sweat off," says Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen. And drink lots of it.
"By my third child, I had a few tricks up my sleeve," says Kristen, mom behind the Momosas podcast. "I would always lay out an extra shirt each night before bed, to change into in the middle of the night. I also noticed that if I was diligent about drinking enough water during the day, my night sweats were not as bad."
When to worry
Call your OB/GYN if you have a fever, racing pulse, or a productive cough with your night sweats, advises Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen. "These additional symptoms might prompt an evaluation for other causes of sweats, such as an infection or a thyroid issue."
And if your postpartum night sweats cause any emotional fall-out, you should talk to your healthcare provider ASAP. "Please speak with your doctor or midwife if annoyance becomes stress or sadness which becomes hopelessness," says Dr. Matseoane-Peterssen. "Those feelings are symptoms of anxiety and depression, and we can help."
But rest assured that even if you do experience these emotions, they won't last forever. "I usually talk to my patients about it at their postpartum appointments," says Dr. Beall. "Most women feel better when they know the symptoms will be short-lived."
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