Sleep deprivation really shows when you are that much quicker to snap at your partner. It shows when a task that should take 10 minutes takes twice as long because your mind is fuzzy. It shows when you “just don’t feel like yourself” day after day. It shows when you can’t seem to shake the symptoms of a cold.
“There is nothing in our daily lives in which sleep deprivation doesn’t have a negative effect,” says Whitney Roban, Ph.D., the sleep specialist behind Solve Our Sleep. “Sleep is considered the third pillar of health, along with diet and exercise.”
So where does that leave parents? Although popular Pinterest posts may have you believe 6-week-olds will sleep through the night with a few simple steps, that isn’t the case for the majority of newborns. In fact, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics, 43% of 12-month-old babies wake up throughout the night. Studies that do claim the majority of infants sleep through the night by three months typically come with some major fine print, like this small 2010 one published in Pediatrics that used the criteria of snoozing from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.
The disruptions only compound for parents of multiple children, which can make “exhaustion” the standard mode of operation for many of us — but not without consequences.
Kelly Burch, a mom of two, says she wasn’t even aware of how much sleep deprivation was affecting her until she accidentally backed into a ditch with her car when her second child was 6 weeks old. The damage cost her $1,000 to meet her car insurance deductible, but the fear that she could have endangered her children or others was even heavier to bear.
“I thought I had it together that day. I had actually gotten dressed, was looking human and remembered diapers,” Burch says. “It honestly made me nervous driving afterward, because I had been doing everything right, but my brain just wasn’t working properly.”
Indeed, a 2018 study published in the journal Sleep found drivers who slept less than the recommended seven to nine hours per night had elevated crash risks. Those with four or fewer hours posed the same threat as someone with a blood alcohol level 1.5 times the legal limit.
Yet, unlike picking up kale at the grocery store on a mission to eat better or training for a 5K to get fit, it’s hard to find clean-cut solutions to sleep struggles. Making matters worse, parents often get the message “this is what you signed up for,” which can make us keep the realities of sleep struggles to ourselves.
Stacey Skrysak found herself in this vicious cycle of feeling sleep deprived and then feeling guilty for “complaining” when she welcomed another baby six years after losing two preterm triplets.
“I was lucky to have a baby years after infertility and after two heartbreaking losses,” Skrysak says. “I [felt I] should embrace the late nights. But, being tired triggered some of the other emotions that come with loss.”
Studies show there is a two-way correlation between sleep deprivation and postpartum mood disorders: Not only does sleep loss worsen symptoms of depression, but mothers experiencing postpartum depression also report taking longer to fall asleep and reduced overall quality of sleep.
The most commonly trotted out suggestion for overcoming this deficit is to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” but that is unrealistic for working parents or those with other demands. (Meaning all of us.) Not to mention, adults and newborns have very different sleep cycles. So while babies can thrive just fine on regular bursts of sleep, adults need an uninterrupted stretch to perform optimally.
This isn’t just a “new parent” problem, either. Sleep interruptions can continue for the next five years — and often beyond — as older children develop crutches like needing a parent to be in the room as they go to bed. This makes it all the more important to instill healthy sleep habits from an early age, says Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine and author of Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach.
“Parents should not put this task off,” says Schneeberg. “If parents teach their children to become great, independent sleepers, they will have more quality time together as a couple, bedtime will be a more peaceful time and they will get more sleep themselves.”
The challenge is determining what separates the ordinary sleep disruptions of new parenthood from those that are developing into bad, long-term habits. Some sources will advise against rocking a baby to sleep, feeding older infants too often during the night, or staying with a young child until they fall asleep. But these are actions parents often take out of desperation to get a bit of shut-eye — and it’s hard to blame them when every extra minute feels so precious.
Ultimately, every family should keep the importance of sleep in mind while taking the approach that is right for them, whether that is trading off nighttime feedings, hiring a sleep coach or following a certain method. As Solve Our Sleep specialist Roban says, “Once parents learn to restructure their thoughts from ‘I want to sleep’ to ‘I need to sleep,’ the guilt will dissipate and they can then focus on making the changes they need to make to their daily sleep lives so that they can welcome more sleep into their family.”