Having children is a major source of joy for most parents. It is possible that increased demands and responsibilities associated with the role as a parent lead to decreased sleep quality and sleep for up to six years after the birth of the first child.
Picture this scenario!
It’s 2 am, and you haven´t slept a wink! You stand over your screaming infant´s crib, exhausted and sleep-deprived. The baby’s cries have been non-stop for hours. You´ve tried everything. Everything. You don´t know what else to do. You snap scream “JUST GO TO SLEEP”, at your tiny, defenceless baby. A moment later, realising what you´ve just done, you become overwhelmed with guilt and shame.
Who is it you empathise with more in this situation – the tiny baby, whose only crime was simply being a dependent infant? Or the mother at the end of her tether?
The answer to that question is likely to hinge on whether you’ve ever been that mother. Whether you’ve ever found yourself so completely overwhelmed, so completely under-resourced, so entirely depleted and so unwillingly consumed with rage, that you no longer feel in control of anything anymore. Least of all your tiny baby. Or your emotions.
I’ve heard it said that you don’t truly experience unconditional love until you become a mother. The same could also be said for this other of life’s most intense emotions: Anger. Rage. Fury.
It’s okay to admit to yourself how much anger you’re experiencing as a result of motherhood. In fact, acknowledging your emotions is the first step in dealing with them. Being conscious and mindful of your anger is one of your greatest protections against not letting that anger manifest into aggressive, hurtful and potentially dangerous behaviour as a result of sleep deprivation.
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.
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. Couples welcoming their first baby can compare 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.
The Three Main Impacts Of Sleep Deprivation In New Moms
Impacts Mood. New parents are proof that sleep loss is associated with more intense negative emotions and hostility. Parents who became chronically sleep-deprived, have seven times the odds of becoming moderately depressed, compared to those managing to get enough sleep. 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.
Cognitive Function. Sleep deprivation decreases a range of cognitive abilities, affecting reaction time and alertness while performing essential activities. 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 to solve problems and regulate emotions. And guess what? All of these cognitive skills are impaired by sleep deprivation.
Depression. Sleep deprivation can hamper a mother’s ability to care for her infant, as judgment and concentration decline. Sleep-deprived mothers also may inadvertently compromise their infants’ sleep quality because infants often adopt their mothers’ circadian sleep rhythms. While all parents experience some form of sleeplessness, prolonged insomnia despite exhaustion is one of the many symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, and other postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. If you’re doing all you’re supposed to do, including asking for help, trying to get sleep when the baby sleeps, and prioritizing sleep, you may need to look at the other symptoms of postpartum depression to see if something bigger is happening.
What can you do to improve your sleep situation?
Cut yourself some slack. This parenting job is hard enough as it is. Doing it on little sleep every day? It’s a herculean task, and yet you do it. Sometimes you 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. You know your kids don’t function well if they’re short on sleep. You don’t either – you’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. You were never meant to parent alone.
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. After a while, you forget how much sleep you’re missing. Six hours a night and chronic daytime yawns are your new normal. But knowing that you’re behind on sleep, combined with the knowledge of the profound effects of sleep debt on mood and cognition, can give you valuable perspective. Maybe catching up on sleep will help the day’s problems seem a little more manageable.
For the rest of the month of May, in honour of Mothers’ Day, give yourself at least 7 hours of sleep each night. Make it a priority. Gift yourself with sleep. Happy Mother’s Day!