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… Read more