Sleep Deprivation: The Dark Side of Parenting

Sleep deprivation is an inevitable part of having a baby, and surely that’s been true throughout the history of our species. But we also live in a culture that seems to take some amount of pride in getting by on little sleep. We think of sleep as time wasted, as lost productivity. We forget – or ignore – the biological necessity of sleep.

Becoming a parent only further stretches our already-too-thin sleep allotments. Newborn babies wake frequently to feed or for comfort during the night. We try to “sleep when the baby sleeps” and piece it together to come up with a reasonable amount, but it often doesn’t feel sufficient. And now more than ever, new parents are really isolated as they make this transition; they don’t have much in the way of backup resources to help with the 24/7 job of caring for a baby.

This month, the theme of our Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting is Transition to Parenthood. (See the bottom of this post for links to other Carnival posts and here for summaries of them all.) Sleep deprivation is a universal part of that transition. What does the sleep deprivation of early parenthood really look like? How does it affect us? And what can we do to mitigate it?

Just How Bad Is It?

For many moms, sleep debt actually begins in pregnancy, when sleep needs may increase but discomfort and frequent trips to the bathroom interfere with a full night’s sleep. But by far, the biggest change happens in the immediate postpartum period. One study found that in the first week of the baby’s life (compared with late pregnancy), moms got 1.5 hours less sleep, fragmented into three times more sleep episodes per day. The early postpartum period is also characterized by lots of day-to-day variability in sleep. Sleeping with a new baby means unpredictability, with little to no control over whether tonight will be a good night or a bad one.

Mothers usually get the majority of our sympathy when it comes to postpartum sleep deprivation, but the research shows that fathers’ sleep takes a hit, too. A study of 72 San Francisco couples welcoming their first baby compared sleep in the last month of pregnancy to sleep in the first month postpartum (around 20 days of life).  Across this time span, mothers lost an average of 41 minutes of nighttime sleep, while dads lost just 18 minutes. Moms, however, gained 30 minutes per day in daytime napping; dads didn’t get a nap bump at all. In fact, in this study, dads actually slept less than moms – both in late pregnancy and in the postpartum period. Moms still had it harder; they were waking more during the night and had more sleep fragmentation than dads (and it’s quite possible that moms need more sleep, what with recovery from childbirth and the demands of breastfeeding). But regardless, in this and other studies, moms and dads both reported a similar level of fatigue during the day.

There’s some good news to come out of this research, however. It seems that experienced moms are better at handling sleep in the postpartum period. Despite juggling more responsibility at home, studies show that moms who had given birth at least once before tended to get more sleep at all stages of pregnancy and in the postpartum period. Their sleep was also more efficient, meaning that of the time they spend in bed, they spend most of it sleeping rather than tossing and turning – or laying awake listening to the grunts and sighs of new baby sleep. Somehow, experienced moms seem to prioritize sleep more, or they’re just so tired that they crash hard at every opportunity.

How does sleep deprivation affect new parents?

We know a lot about the effects of sleep deprivation but actually very little about the specific type of crap sleep experienced by new parents. Most sleep deprivation studies have been conducted in residential labs, where participants (often young, probably resilient, undergrads) are generally paid to live for a few nights or maybe weeks so that their sleep habits can be controlled and monitored. In a review paper entitled “Sleep Disruption and Decline in Marital Satisfaction Across the Transition to Parenthood,” Gonzaga professor Anna Marie Medina and colleagues make an important point: Lab study participants know that they’ll be subjected to sleep deprivation for a finite amount of time, and they know they can even drop out if it becomes too much for them.

“Understanding that one can end a study, and being certain of the temporal parameters of potential sleep deprivation, imbues the experience of sleep loss with a level of controllability that new parents seldom have. That is, (most) new parents realize they cannot opt out of the sleep disruption experience, and they have no certainty about when they may have an opportunity for sufficient sleep. The stress literature has suggested that such uncontrollability could amplify the mood and physiological consequences of sleep deprivation.”

In other words, most of what we know about the effects of lost sleep may be even worse in new parents. On that happy note, there are a few major areas of concern…

Sleep deprivation impacts mood.

Medical residents are notorious for being sleep-deprived, and their situations may be similar to new parents in that their sleep is chronically restricted and fragmented. Studies on medical residents show that sleep loss is associated with more intense negative emotions and hostility. One study found that interns who became chronically sleep-deprived over the course of their first year of training had seven times the odds of becoming moderately depressed, compared to those managing to get enough sleep. Reading these studies, all I could feel was sympathy for my friends who juggled residency and new parenthood at the same time.

Specific to new moms, many studies show that moms whose babies have sleep problems are at greater risk for postpartum depression. In studies that have given parents advice in managing their baby’s sleep, resulting in improved sleep for the baby, maternal mood improves as well.

Sleep deprivation impacts cognitive function.

Sleep deprivation decreases a range of cognitive abilities, and I’m not just talking about SAT scores. For example, reaction time and alertness are essential for safe driving. Working memory is the ability to juggle multiple tasks, and well, that’s what parents do. Cognitive flexibility is what allows you to see a situation from more than one point of view (a skill vital to both parenting a toddler and maintaining a healthy marriage) or to quickly switch tasks, maybe from trying to fire off a work email to the more urgent demands of a toddler who has to go potty NOW. Verbal fluency is the ability to find the right word at the right time – to communicate effectively. We use all of these skills throughout our daily lives. They allow us to work towards goals (even mundane ones like getting out the door or getting dinner on the table), solve problems, and regulate emotions. And guess what? All of these cognitive skills are impaired by sleep deprivation.

To put this into perspective, one study found that two weeks of six hours of sleep per night caused declines in many cognitive measures – similar to those found after a full 24-48 hours of sleep deprivation. Perhaps more concerning is that the six-hour sleepers had no idea how impaired they were; they rated their sleepiness as only mild, but their test performance showed otherwise. Another study found that cognitive performance of people who had been awake for 18-19 hours was comparable to those with blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 (the legal limit for driving in most U.S. states is 0.08). It is estimated that 15-33% of fatal car crashes are related to driver fatigue.

What can you do to improve your sleep situation?

I know that you know that sleep deprivation sucks, and I don’t mean for this post to be a downer. Is there anything we can we do to make things better? I can’t claim to have answers, but I’ll offer some suggestions:

Cut yourself some slack. This parenting job is hard enough as it is. Doing it on little sleep everyday? It’s a hurculean task, and yet we do it. Sometimes we need to just focus on the basics and have popcorn for dinner.

Prioritize sleep. It’s so critical to our health and happiness. The dishes in the sink? They aren’t nearly as important.

Give yourself a bedtime. We know our kids don’t function well if they’re short on sleep. We don’t either – we’re just a little better at hiding it.

Get help. This is particularly critical for parents of newborns. It may require creative delegation of tasks to friends and family so that you can squeeze in a longer nap or an earlier bedtime. They’re happy to help, and you need it. We were never meant to parent alone.

Help your baby develop healthy sleep patterns. Check out my tips for newborn sleep here. And if your older baby is struggling with sleep (and by extension, you are too), know that it is not selfish to make changes that help everyone get the rest they need (more on that here).

Avoid screen time before bed. It gets in the way of melatonin release, confusing the biological clock trying to keep time in our brains and prepare us for sleep. Yes, your Facebook feed may be your lifeline to the world, but it could also be keeping you up at night.

Be aware of your sleep debt. I think that after a while, we forget how much sleep we’re missing. Six hours a night and chronic daytime yawns become our new normal. But knowing that we’re behind on sleep, combined with the knowledge of the profound effects of sleep debt on mood and cognition, can give us valuable perspective. Maybe, for example, your partner is being just a little bit of an ass instead of the complete asshole that you perceive. Maybe catching up on sleep will help the day’s problems seem a little more manageable.

And now, a confession: All of these tips I just gave you? I’m not very good at them. I hate leaving dishes in the sink, and I’m not good at asking for help. I stay up too late – usually in front of my computer. I don’t get enough sleep, and it isn’t even my daughter’s fault. She sleeps for 11 hours at night. Why can’t I manage to sleep for 8 of those? What am I staying up for? It’s that treasured ME time. These days, most of it is actually spent working, but that doesn’t make it easier for me to give any of it up. This research, though, has convinced me that sleep deprivation is probably putting a damper on my productivity, and maybe my parenting patience.

So, I’m taking a pledge: For the rest of the month of May, in honor of Mothers’ Day, I’m giving myself at least 7 hours of sleep each night. I’m making it a priority. I’m informing my husband that no, I will not watch one more episode of Breaking Bad with him, unless it is before 10 PM. And I’m turning off my computer and phone by that time, too. It’s a personal experiment and a gift to myself. Happy Mother’s Day, Me!

Do you get enough sleep? If so, how do you do it? If not, what’s standing in your way?

Check out the other posts in this second edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting:

The Transition to New Motherhood (Momma, PhD)

Bonding in Early Motherhood:  When Angels Don’t Sing and the Earth Doesn’t Stand Still (Red Wine and Applesauce)

The Connection Between Poor Labour, Analgesia, and PTSD (The Adequate Mother)

For Love or Money:  What Makes Men Ready for New Fatherhood (Matt Shipman)

What the Science Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Breastfeeding Issues, Postpartum Adjustment, and Bonding (Fearless Formula Feeder)

No, Swaddling  Will Not Kill Your Baby (Melinda Wenner Moyer,  Slate)

Sleep Deprivation:  The Dark Side of Parenting (Science of Mom)

The Parenting Media and You (Momma Data)

Reassessing Happiness Research:  Are New Parents Really That Miserable? (Jessica Smock)

40 Long Days and Nights (Six Forty Nine)

You can also “like” the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting on Facebook. Check out our Facebook page, and connect with all of us there! And finally, we’ll be hosting a Twitter party (I’m @scienceofmom) Friday 1-2 PM EST to discuss new parenthood and our posts (#parentscience). Please join us!

39 thoughts on “Sleep Deprivation: The Dark Side of Parenting

  1. I know this all to well. Post partum depression, and lack of sleep are awful! When my daughter was born (three years ago) she was a daytime sleeper and a nighttime screamer. My husband and I did ‘shifts’, giving each other time to nap. Now, my lack of sleep happens because I go to be late, and my daughter bursts in our room early. ;) I feel a little tap on my cheek and a, “wake up mom!” to start my day. I love your pledge! Fantastic idea!

    • Sounds like me – when I get behind on sleep, it’s because I’m staying up too late (and rarely have the option of sleeping in). When my daughter wakes up in the morning, I often ask her to come snuggle with me in the morning. She says, “No, Mama, wake up!” She’s ready to go…

  2. It is interesting and I think it is very true that first time moms are more susceptible for sleep deprivation. I think moms may think more about sleep the second time around and arrange their lives in a way that helps them get more sleep. I don’t think sleep deprivation is inevitable. Many parts around the world mothers don’t get sleep deprived. There are more support for moms, the responsibilities are shared more, and babies stay and sleep with their mothers, so mothers can sleep. Although I didn’t have any family support because I am an immigrant and my husband’s family lives far too, I did not get sleep deprived with my second child. With the first one, I only got sleep deprived in the hospital, but we had to be there. Once home, we were fine. I co-slept with my kids and I nursed them in the side-lying position when they woke and stirred. I barely had to arouse from sleep that way and we seemed to stir and arouse at the same time, so I didn’t experience the disorienting waking to a baby’s cry from deep sleep. I think we both got all our sleep because our wakings were momentary only. Babies can nurse in their sleep and the mother can sleep through it. I think the key is to not wake up fully. I know that this kind of arrangement doesn’t work for all, perhaps because there is a lot of cultural messages against it but I think for most moms around the world this is what keeps them out of sleep deprivation.

    • I’m really glad to hear that you’ve been able to get enough sleep through this transition! However, I think everyone’s experiences are different, and while I think our culture is particularly bad at valuing sleep, I do think sleep deprivation is a very common experience among new parents across cultures. Babies wake a lot, and cosleeping doesn’t work for everyone. In some situations, it leads to really chronic waking in the night, and not all moms can sleep while nursing. Whether we accept that as normal or not may be cultural, but it doesn’t change how it feels to be woken throughout the night. There was this large cross-cultural survey of nearly 30,000 parents in 17 countries that found that sleep problems (as defined by the parents) were actually more prevalent in Asian cultures, where cosleeping is the norm. http://www.sleep-journal.com/article/S1389-9457%2811%2900087-6/abstract

    • Hah, you must have had easy babies. Try living with a baby that wakes 8-10 times a night—or more—and continues to do so, for over a year. Try saying you can stave off sleep deprivation by cosleeping with that level of sleep interruptions. You can’t. Then, right about when you start getting sleep with your first baby, try doing it all over again with your second. We’re at 5 months old now with our second reflux baby, just because we’re so lucky we get to have it happen all over again. And now that I have a toddler to handle, I don’t get the benefit of sleeping when the baby sleeps. So I get to experience a whole new level of sleep deprivation I didn’t know was possible.

  3. Sometimes I’m amazed at the studies that are conducted in the name of science. =) Everything that these studies “discovered” or defined, I knew!! I’m reading this post thinking, I could have told you that!

    With that said, no. I don’t get enough sleep. I co-sleep with my 5 month old, who’s my second, and am a pretty light sleeper. So when she stirs, I wake. And sometimes those stirring happen in my deep sleep. Yes, I often fall asleep nursing but it seems like I’m waking 3-4 times a night. But it doesn’t help that I do goof off on my phone on FB and playing a few games to unwind while in bed before dozing off. So, I have to claim responsibility for that. I’ll take your challenge with you. Starting tonight. And let’s see how I feel at the end of the month. But boy! Do I hear you so loud and clear and that ME time!! It’s the only time during the day that I get any alone time. Sigh……

  4. This is terrific, Alice. Such valuable information and great advice to think about. For me, I’ve never been a good sleeper myself, even as a small child. I’ve always had trouble falling asleep, no matter what the circumstance or reason. The first few months of parenthood weren’t actually that bad for me, in terms of sleep. (I was prepared for it, at least!) I’ve had a harder time in some ways with the toddler period, in terms of my own sleep. Your life has started to stabilize, the baby is (sometimes) sleeping (mostly) through the night, and you want to go back to having some “me” time, as you describe. Chasing after a toddler is so mentally and physically exhausting that I need a lot of time to unwind at the end of the day. And that means staying up WAY too late. However, toddlers are notorious for waking up at the crack of dawn, no matter what. I, for one, have not found the balance!

    • Yep, I’m realizing that I’m not the only one with this problem! The postpartum sleep deprivation, while it can be severe, often gets better fast, but then it is very common for moms to continue to not get enough sleep. We have to shift the me time to the baby’s sleeping time, and there’s only so much time in the day.

  5. My children are 16 and 13 now, but I will never forget the sleep deprivation I experienced when they were babies! With my second child (who never napped during the day), I just put him to bed at 7:30 and he learned that this was his bedtime. Unfortunately, my older son (at 2 1/2 years-old) started waking up in the middle of the night. My husband eventually dealt with putting him back to bed and I began wearing ear plugs and a sleep mask, both of which enabled me to obtain a better night’s sleep. I still wear them to this day! P.S. My friend’s husband told me that “the difference between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep.” So true!

    • OH, that quote is so true! I’m glad you eventually found a solution to getting more sleep, and I’m glad that your husband got involved! In the research for my book, one of the things that I’ve run across is that dads do often have an easier time with bedtime. Plus, sometimes you just need to tag out for the night, to feel that you’re not on call constantly.

  6. Reblogged this on Positive Birth News and commented:
    Sleep deprivation – one thing I had no idea about before my babies were born and it sure took its toll on me! We drew on Elizabeth Pantley’s ideas from her book ” The No Cry Sleep Solution” to make some changes and improve sleep for everyone.

  7. …’just a little bit of an ass instead of the complete asshole you perceive…’ Soooo true.

    I’m in the thick of this with a 5 month old and 3 year old…admittedly it’s a bit easier than last month and a bit easier than the month before that but still tough. I’m going to bed 10pm tonight, no excuses!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and for all these tips on how to improve sleep. I really learned a lot from this article. It’s amazing and I really love it! This is a problem that I am currently working on and I am really grateful for your wonderful article!

  9. Pingback: Sleep Deprivation During the First Months of Parenting

  10. Thanks again for another timely post- I’m in the thick of this again w/ a toddler & a 2 mo old. I don’t know that I’ve gotten any better at napping this time around but would add a couple tips that have helped me survive the 1st few weeks:
    -Blackout shades for daytime napping
    -Havinv spouse, family or friends help out in the early am. I find if I can hand baby off while my toddler is having breakfast that I can sneak away for a little extra sleep…going back to sleep in the am is easier for me than napping. Obviously this isn’t realistic long term but it got me through the first couple weeks.
    -Side lying breast feeding to rest in the afternoon- I usually can’t sleep but somehow just lying in a horizontal position makes me feel more rested!

    • Great tips, Sarah! Hang in there! I hope it’s starting to get a little easier – the sleep that is. I know you’ve got your hands full:) I also loved side-lying breastfeeding. It’s definitely more relaxing.

  11. Great discussion, still fighting sleep deprivation effects some 12 years into parenthood. I also struggled with insomnia during pregnancy so was exhausted by the time my children were born. Sure the sleep becomes less fragmented over time and the situation definitely improves but now it’s still an issue for me due to a busier evening schedule, aging and here’s the part I was not prepared for – contending with children staying up later and later to finish homework, practice clarinet, relax, shower, text and Instagram etc. My children did not sleep a good 7 to 8 hours anytime close to the alleged 3 months, one maybe at 6.5 to 7 months, the other two months later. But here’s the good news, they turned into very good sleepers. I was and still am strict about bedtime and it’s related issues (i.e. no screen time 30 mins beforehand) and have been quite fortunate.

  12. Pingback: What is a proper bedtime? | BabyZzz

  13. I am honestly reading this from bed, allowing my melatonin to be disrupted, knowing I have to be up and cognitively unimpaired in 5.5 hours. Eek! I’m taking your challenge with you. And I’m going to bed.
    p.s. “Maybe, for example, your partner is being just a little bit of an ass…” I’m still giggling over that one.

    • Lori, I do this too! But since doing this research, I’ve been making more of an honest effort to turn off screens for a while before I go to bed. I really wonder how much these portable screens are impacting our sleep quality. I slide by with chronic, mild sleep deprivation – it is my normal. But reading all this research, I wonder if I have some incredible untapped potential that would come with enough sleep! And I’m only half kidding there. And yes, that last statement comes from my personal experience:)

  14. Very interesting !,
    Just a month before my baby was born, I had a marital problem that almost ended it , didn’t happen but it changes my beginning of motherhood.
    I’m a first time mom, when my daughter was born she was a night owl, sleeping all day wake up all night, and where I live , winters day are short so for me, day light was only couple ours , it was really a nightmare!
    My mom came for 2 weeks, I didn’t speak to my husband a word, and I got a severe postpartum depression.
    After almost 4/5 months I finally could get my baby to sleep ” early ” at 10:00 pm.
    My life was on my bed watching movies and feeding my baby ( breastfeeding only).
    I Lost my friends who didn’t understand what I was going through , but I met new friends too, in a moms support group, they were and are still my support.

    I tried to introduce formula in a bottle to my baby when she was 6 months ” that was the best option ( midwifes and all organic moms says), but she accepted it until she was 9 months!! I just needed some help from my husband at night time!!
    Finally at 9 months we took turns on night him on night I, but she was waking up sometimes 3 to 4 times.
    Now she is 19 months old and after a month of training she finally sleeps all night, but I still feel depressed…
    Lack of good sleep for si long really has bad consequences, now I see new moms and how they are enjoying with their husbands their new life and wish I could had more advices about postpartum depression and SLEEP.

  15. Your “She sleeps for 11 hours at night. Why can’t I manage to sleep for 8 of those?” really resonated with me, I do the same. However I like your May pledge, and may do something similar.

  16. From personal experience:
    Depression can be a major cause of lack of sleep. Lack of sleep can be a major cause of depression. While pregnant or as a new parent, you can get into a horrible cycle. I literally nearly drove myself to death with lack of sleep while preganant. The depression can magnify the significance of a messy sink or a load of dirty laundry, making oyu think htat those are more important than sleep. TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR. There are techniques, and anti-depressants that are safe for pregnant women, and for breastfeeding.

    • To add to this – often depression doesn’t make you feel “sad”. If you are not sleeping _for any reason_, it is critical to talk to your doctor and get an outside (and trained) perspective

  17. As a mother of a 7 mo old and 3 year old, I found it comforting to read the stats on the effects of sleep deprivation. There have been times when I have felt I’m losing my mind! I started sleep training last week and thankfully my baby is now only waking 1x per night to eat. Although it was painful to hear her cry, it seems she has learned important skills and I know we will all be better off. Thanks for giving voice to this important topic!

  18. Pingback: SIDS and Bedsharing: A Pediatrician’s Perspective | Science of Mom

  19. Pingback: Kristine Rudolph » Explore More : May 24th

  20. One of the most self-created troubles i make is going to bed too late. Because my children are home educated, I need to be at the top of my game, all the time, cause they see the best Of me and the worst of me. Add PMS to the picture and we’ve got trouble in River City.
    Having said that, there is no way to get around the gradual sleep deprivation that new parenting brings…the beginning teaching of learning selflessness and spending ourselves out for that new human being! And that lesson only intensifies in many ways, and I’m told never ends.

  21. Now that my 1-year-old sleeps pretty reliably from 7:30 until 6:30 or 7am, I get enough sleep most of the time. When I don’t, it’s because of the damn screens–computer, tv, iPhone, tablet. I have to get better at just shutting them off, ideally 1 hour before I go to bed. And you know what–when I actually do power off, I end up having a great evening chatting with my husband or reading a (real) book or magazine. But in order to do that, I need a firm bedtime. So, I’m taking up a version of your challenge: devices off by 9:30 at the latest, bedtime no later than 11pm. The stuff I do online after dinner is usually not very meaningful, anyway.

  22. Pingback: HIGH Interest Charges on Sleep Debt | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  23. Pingback: Tired of being tired | The Sparkle and the Speckle

  24. Pingback: Een kind kost je je nachtrust (?) | Geleerd uitschotGeleerd uitschot

  25. so true – my son is almost 11 months old, has slept through the night about 3 times. We average between 1 and 4 hours of sleep at a time. I love my son and wouldn’t trade it, but it has definitely had devastating affects on all areas of our lives. People want to just brush it off and say “oh you’ll sleep when he goes to college”, but the affects of true sleep deprivation are serious. I try to be in bed by 9pm! even still, hard to make it through most days!… Thank you for the highlight on this issue! hugs!

  26. Pingback: 5 Practical Tips for a Less Stressful School-Day Morning for Mom | The Joy of Teaching - An Evan-Moor Blog

Please join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s