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Parenting and Sleep Deprivation: When ZZZs Elude New Parents

There’s a major link between parenting and sleep deprivation, and we’ve got tips to try and break it.

As a new parent, you’re experiencing a slew of firsts such as baby’s first word, baby’s first steps, baby’s first tantrum, and parents’ first sleepless night. The sleep you once coveted may be out of reach the moment your new baby enters the world. “No sweat,” you think to yourself. “I can get by on zero hours of shuteye.” Think again.

Parenting and sleep deprivation go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly but unlike the popular sandwich combo, there are no benefits to fighting to stay awake while your newborn is napping.

So, why do so many new parents literally lose sleep the moment they welcome their first child?

Let’s break it down and see how much sleep you should be getting, and how much sleep your baby needs.

Sleep by the numbers

Everyone needs sleep. While some adults can get by on four hours per night, others may require nine. When you bring kids into the mix, everything changes, but it doesn’t have to.

How much sleep does your baby need?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), newborns (0-3 months old) require 14-17 hours over a 24-hour period. This includes naps. Infants, ages 4-12 months, need 12-15 hours of sleep over 24 hours. This also includes naptime.

How much sleep do you need?

Adults aged 18-60 should get seven or more hours of sleep nightly. However, time doesn’t always permit and as aforementioned, some folks are able to sleep less than seven hours and function perfectly, while others need an eight-hour uninterrupted trip to dreamland to get through the next day.

Tackling parenting and sleep deprivation without losing your mind

As a new parent, you’re in the process of navigating the choppy waters of your baby’s sleep patterns, and most of the time, you’re without a paddle. Harvard Medical School instructor in Medicine, Dr. Rebecca Robbins, says the challenge lies in the early weeks of your infant’s life. Because you, the caregiver, are operating on minimal sleep due to nighttime feedings, cries in the darkness from soiled diapers, and whatever else is plaguing your little one as they enter and leave slumberland throughout the night, your health may suffer.

According to Very Well Family’s recap of a 2019 study from the medical journal aptly titled Sleep, mothers (or the parent in charge of breastfeeding or bottle feeding) reported an average of 40 lost minutes of sleep per night during the first year of their baby’s life with the most sleep-deprivation occurring before their child graduated from newborn to infant (around 3.5 months old). Fathers (or the parent not in charge of feedings) also lost sleep but for an average of 13 minutes nightly. Moreover, some parents claimed they experienced sleep deprivation for the first 4-6 years of their child’s life.

No matter if you fall into the baby-feeding category or not, you cannot make up for lost sleep. Plus, the less you sleep the more you are at risk for:

  • Insomnia
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Stunted sleep when you do finally catch some zzzs
  • Postpartum depression - affects one in eight mothers (or the parent who physically birthed the child)
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Increased possibility of accidents/injuries

What’s a parent to do?

You want to sleep but sometimes you simply can’t because of your child’s needs. However, focusing on your baby’s well-being doesn’t give you the license to neglect your own health. Besides giving you the energy to get through tomorrow, sleep keeps you from getting sick, helps repair cells and tissues, and improves cognitive function.

We’ve put together some tips to help you sleep even if it means only getting 30 of those lost 40 minutes back.

  1. Ask for help. This is the most important thing you can do as a new parent. If you are exhausted and can have your partner, friend, family member, or anyone else you trust watch your child for 30 minutes or more, do it. Asking for help isn’t easy but keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to someone else. You are no less of a parent if you ask for help so you can take a 30-minute eyes-closed break.
  2. Feed the baby in your bed. When you wake up for a night feeding and find yourself nodding off while your child is eating, this could be very dangerous. Feed your child in your bed, and ensure that it is free of risky objects and other hazards like twisted sheets and fluffy blankets. If you do nod off while feeding your baby, return them to their sleep space as soon as you wake up.
  3. Sleep when the baby sleeps. You’ve probably heard this from your pediatrician or other healthcare professional and there’s a reason: infants have shorter sleep cycles and generally sleep in 1-3 bouts. Any sleep you can get while your youngster is sleeping is beneficial. Even if you are taking power naps that are 10-20 minutes in length, you are helping your body recharge. Moreover, napping reduces stress levels making it easier for you to complete other tasks you may have to tackle like laundry, meal preparation, and your workload if you aren’t taking time off from your job.
  4. Practice proper sleep hygiene. Brush your teeth, put on pajamas, and act as if you are going to get a proper night’s sleep. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet so that when you are able to sleep, you’ll be in the right environment.
  5. Have on and off nights. If you are part of a two-parent household consider taking turns with night wakeups. One parent can sleep with earplugs and get a good night’s sleep while the other tends to the baby. Switch it up for the next night so you both get the chance to be the sleeper. If you are breastfeeding, this could prove to be tricky. In that case, the breastfeeding parent may have to be on all night so make sure they or you have everything they need to get through it.

Take care of yourself by saying NO

The link between parenting and sleep deprivation is strong and shouldn’t be ignored. When you have a newborn, everyone comes out of the woodwork. “Can I see the baby?”, “Let me hold the baby!”, and “Can I come over and meet your child today at 4 pm?” These are examples of what you may be faced with.

This doesn’t mean you have to say no to everyone in your life who wants to see your baby. Trust your gut. If you think having a visitor for an hour or two won’t affect your chance of getting some sleep, go for it. Conversely, if you’re zonked and need that time to nap, say no. Your family and friends will understand that you have to take care of yourself too.

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