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)
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!