Between feedings, diaper changes, and a fussy baby that just won’t settle, sleep deprivation is often the rule, not the exception, for new parents. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get approximately seven to nine hours of sleep per night, studies show that 28 percent to 57 percent of infants six and 12 months old don’t sleep through the night. It doesn’t take long to realize that math just doesn’t add up.
Dr. Azizi Seixas, Founding Director of the Media and Innovation Laboratory and Associate Director for the Center for Translational Sleep and Circadian Science at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, says, “Parents of newborns and infants are generally sleep deprived because their sleep clock is based on when their child is awake. And since children have multi-phasic sleep (they sleep multiple times during the day), parents are unable to get good consolidated sleep over a long period of time.” While this sleep style works for infants, it leads to the dysregulation of the parents’ sleep schedule, which can make them feel sleep deprived.
Digging a little deeper, we find that not only are parents missing out on their forty winks, but studies also show that parental satisfaction and duration of sleep take a drastic nosedive in the first three months following childbirth. And if that weren’t anxiety-inducing enough, the same study shows that “In both women and men, sleep satisfaction and duration did not fully recover for up to 6 years after the birth of their first child.”
And finally, if anyone is keeping score in the battle of the sexes, the same study also revealed that infant sleep patterns have a stronger adverse effect on mothers than on fathers. While mothers lost just over an hour (62 minutes) of sleep each night, dads only lost an average of 13 minutes — we’re not quite sure who the winner is in this case, but it looks like we can definitively say that infant sleep habits disproportionately affect mothers.
While sleep deprivation is par for the course in parenting, practicing good sleep hygiene, leaning into your village, and sleep training your little one when the time is right are effective ways of mitigating the effects of sleep deprivation.
How does sleep deprivation affect parents?
A newborn in the home doesn’t just cost parents precious minutes or hours of sleep, but whatever little sleep they do get will likely be out of whack with their circadian rhythm lower in quality. Typically, parents can anticipate that their sleep patterns will get better somewhere around the three to six-month mark, although, as we pointed out earlier, a full “recovery” won’t happen for another six years. Still, when they’re dealing with the effects of sleep deprivation on a daily basis, that light at the end of the tunnel might bring little consolation.
In the short term, sleep deprivation can not only result in irritability and a short fuse, but it can also affect your mood, judgment, and cognition. Dr. Seixas also warns that the emotional toll sleep deprivation exacts on parents can also affect how they parent.
Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to a host of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Physical health issues associated with long-term sleep deprivation include obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
If you’re not sure when being tired crosses the line into sleep deprivation, you might want to be on the lookout for some common signs of sleep deprivation, including:
- Excessive sleepiness
- Daytime fatigue
- Changes in mood or behavior
- Weight gain
- Poor memory function
- Cognitive impairment
8 ways to avoid sleep deprivation as a new parent
While sleep deprivation may be a given with a new baby, there are things you can do to prioritize your sleep and get some shut-eye.
Practice good sleep hygiene
While taking care of yourself will certainly be a challenge when a newborn arrives, it’s still important to make every effort to prioritize your sleep and practice good sleep hygiene as much as possible.
Good sleep hygiene includes:
- Exercising regularly and staying active during the day, even if you feel tired
- Avoiding nicotine, caffeine, sugary foods, and alcohol later in the day or at night
- Limiting your use of devices and electronics before bed
- Creating a cool, dark, and quiet sleeping environment
Ask for help
At no time is the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” more appropriate than when a new baby comes home. These little guys need round-the-clock care; no one can realistically do it alone. So don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Think about rotating night duty with your partner, each taking one night on and one night off. If a full night off doesn’t work for you, consider taking shifts — one partner can take the first half of the night, and the other takes the second (breastfeeding moms can pump to facilitate shifts).
The overarching theme here is to ask for help and accept it as it comes — no doubt grandparents will gladly oblige, and friends and relatives can be quite helpful too. If you don’t have an extended family or network, you might consider a night nanny if your budget allows.
Make sure your baby is comfortable before putting them down
One of the best things you can do to help your baby (and you) sleep for longer stretches is to make sure they are freshly diapered, comfortable, and well-fed.
Consider your sleeping arrangements
The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) recommends that parents sleep in the same room as their baby, but parents should never sleep in the same bed with an infant. While keeping your baby in bed with you might seem like an efficient and expedient way to care for your child and get some sleep for yourself, the APA cautions parents to reconsider.
According to the APA, “The risks of sleep-related infant deaths are up to 67 times higher when sleeping with someone on a couch or soft armchair or cushion; and 10 times higher when sleeping with someone who is impaired because of fatigue or use of sedating medications or substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs; or is a smoker.”
To that end, you might think about keeping your baby in a bassinet close to your bed. This will make feeding and comforting your little one less of an ordeal in the middle of the night.
Sleep train your baby
To buy yourself a little more sleep, you might consider sleep training your baby when the time is right. Dr. Seixas says sleep training can help parents get some rest, but they should keep in mind that sleep regressions are par for the course.
“Parents of newborns should try to regularize their sleep around their children until they begin sleep training with their newborn,” says Dr. Seixas. “The key is to ensure that newborns are cued to night and day as times when they need to sleep and wake. Sleep training can take some time and can be cyclical. You can begin to train newborns around 6 months, but it is likely as time progresses and as the child reaches different developmental milestones, they may experience sleep regression. Those regressions will cause the parent to lose sleep as they need to help their child to retrain their sleep.”
Sleep when your baby sleeps
Relying on overnight sleep alone is a sure path to sleep deprivation. Remember that newborns sleep for about 18 hours per day. So, if you heed the long-standing advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” those naps can add up.
And while many parents use nap time to tackle household chores, you might want to think about skipping the chores or letting things slide more frequently — at least for the time being. The dishes and the laundry will still be there when you wake up, but you’ll probably feel much better about dealing with them when you’re rested.
Pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best, Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, says, “You may be tempted to do all sorts of housework or other activities while your baby naps, but it may be more appropriate to try to nap while your baby naps, even if it is for a short catnap of 10 to 20 minutes. Also, lying down without sleeping can be restorative.”
For new moms
Pump before bed
Breastfeeding moms should make it a habit to pump before going to sleep. Not only will this give mom the opportunity to sleep longer, but it also allows a partner, family member, or nanny to help with nightly feedings.
Ditch the mom guilt
If you’re parenting with a partner, do your best to fight the “mom guilt” and try to split sleep responsibilities equally. If one partner is particularly sleep-deprived, you might try sleeping in a separate space to catch up on your shut-eye without disruptions.
Don’t neglect your own bedtime routine
Bedtime routines aren’t just for babies and kids. In fact, they’re incredibly important for everyone at every stage of life. With all that they have going on, new moms, in particular, should keep up with their bedtime routine; take the time to relax, whether it’s with a warm pre-bedtime shower, reading a book, listening to some relaxing music, or meditating.
Other Conditions That Might Make You Feel Tired
Many new moms experience what’s known as postpartum “baby blues.” Baby blues often show up immediately after delivery and may last for up to two weeks. Common symptoms of baby blues include difficulty sleeping (which can make you feel tired), mood swings, anxiety, and crying spells.
About 14 percent to 15 percent of mothers may go on to develop postpartum depression. While postpartum depression may be mistaken for baby blues (sometimes the phrases are mistakenly used interchangeably), the symptoms of postpartum depression are far more intense and tend to last longer.
Common symptoms of postpartum depression include:
- Severe mood swings
- Excessive crying
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual
- Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy
- Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
Postpartum fatigue is a serious and common form of exhaustion affecting almost 40 percent of new moms. Typical symptoms of postpartum fatigue include a marked lack of energy and difficulty concentrating.
When to see a doctor
If you feel like sleep deprivation is getting the best of you, or you’re experiencing anything that looks or feels like baby blues, postpartum depression, or postpartum fatigue, it’s imperative that you see your healthcare provider immediately. Not only can they confirm a diagnosis, but they can also help you through the critical next steps so that you can do what’s best for you and your baby. It’s also important to note that while the condition can feel very scary, it’s an incredibly treatable and common part of postpartum life — postpartum depression can affect anyone, and new mothers shouldn’t blame themselves if they find themselves with symptoms.
The Last Word from Sleepopolis
Sleep deprivation is a running joke for most parents, but the truth is sleep deprivation is a serious issue that can lead to some very real consequences over time. While running low on sleep is just part of the deal for new parents, there are things you can do to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation in your baby’s first year.
Asking for help when you need it and prioritizing your own sleep are just some of the things you can do when you need to get some shut-eye. And while the advice of sleep when your baby sleeps may seem cliché or just plain foolish when there’s a sink full of dishes or multiple loads of laundry with your name on it, the health and wellness of both you and your baby should always be the priority. The household chores will just have to wait.
Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.