Sleep deprivation after the baby comes home is no joke. You may think the all-nighters you pulled in college were a piece of cake. Maybe you thought the “tiny bladder syndrome” you had when you were pregnant would prepare you for loss of sleep after the baby came home. I’m here to tell you that nothing can prepare you for this kind of sleep deprivation. Real postpartum sleep deprivation can harm your health and your relationships, not just with your significant other, but also with your baby.
The Toll Sleep Deprivation Takes
Just because you’ve brought a baby home doesn’t mean you need less sleep! To the contrary, you need all the sleep you can get. Yet one study showed that mothers get an average of 1.5 fewer hours of sleep per day in the first week after giving birth. And the quality of that sleep wasn’t very good, meaning it was fragmented into smaller parts. This happens with newborns, who sleep short intervals.
Most of the research we have was done on generally young, healthy volunteers who knew that they could drop out of the study if the stress became too much for them. So research probably does not tell us the full story of what happens to parents when they come home from the hospital. Real mothers and fathers do not have that luxury. In addition to being sleep-deprived, they know that they cannot drop out of the study at any time.
The good news is that we do not see any increase in child abuse that occurs because of sleep deprivation. Although we have read warnings about it on the internet. However, it does appear that new moms with sleep problems may be more susceptible to postpartum depression.
It’s clear that lack of sleep makes it harder to think. Working memory, flexibility, even reaction time are diminished when you haven’t slept. The risks can be substantial if you get in a car and try to drive, with or without the baby! Between 15-33% of fatal car accidents are caused by driver drowsiness.
Need a SLEEP COACH?
And many studies have shown that your satisfaction with your partner can be damaged in the first year of a baby’s life, possibly related to other stresses in addition to lack of sleep. But lack of sleep certainly does not help. It’s clear that sleep-deprived people are grumpier, less patient and more argumentative.
So What’s a Sleep-Deprived Parent to Do?
There are many things you can do. Here’s a list of some of the better ideas I’ve come across.
- Sleep When You Can: This means sleep when the baby is sleeping. Sure there are other things to do: bathe and wash clothes, etc. But some of these things you can do while baby is awake. Baby sleep time is the best time for you to sleep as well. This goes for night-time bedtime as well!
- Exercise: This is one of the three legs on which all of health stands. It’s best to get some vigorous exercise in the morning or the afternoon. Night time would not be ideal, as it may wire you up too much and make it difficult for you to sleep.
- Eat Well: Meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, rare grains, no sugar. Diet matters. You’ll feel better and you’ll sleep better.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine: Especially after lunch time. These substances are not the friend of sleep.
- Avoid screen time at night: The blue light from screens inhibits melatonin, the “sleepy hormone”. We tell teenagers this all the time. It goes double for sleep-deprived parents!
- Get help: Yes, you can do this alone. But if you can get someone to help you do things around the house, including taking care of the baby, by all means do it. And take a nap when you are being helped, for the love of Pete!
- Remember perfection is unattainable: Stop trying to do it all and cut yourself some slack. Learn to prioritize. Sometimes you have to wear the same pair of panties two days in a row and eat leftovers. The world will keep turning.