Parents and sleep deprivation: Our top tips for survival

It’s a fact all parents have to face: Children are sleep-stealers. 

Yes, they’re cute and we love them, that goes without saying. But at 3am, when they’ve woken you up every hour, on the hour, their cuteness just doesn’t cut it. 

And you can’t say we don’t get fair warning on the matter…

“You won’t be sleeping in once the baby arrives.” they said. “Rest while you can.”

[All said with a knowing smile].

Yep, thanks for that. Not. Helpful. 

Because while it’s widely known that parenthood and peaceful sleep don’t go hand in hand, it doesn’t change the fact that all that lost sleep can be a huge shock to the system. 

So how much sleep do new parents get? The answer: not a lot. In the very early days, babies have no sense of day and night. They need to eat every few hours, and they depend on you for E-VER-Y-THING. Whether it’s being bounced around, rocked to sleep, or it’s time for their next feed – you’re their whole world.

There’s no doubt that these are wonderful times. But for sleep-deprived parents, these months can be tough. So having your own ‘survival strategy’ for sleepless nights is always a good idea.

We’ve put together our most helpful tips and advice on how to deal with sleep deprivation as a parent, so you can actually enjoy your time as a new parent. 

First up, let’s take a look at our sleep cycle and how it works.

Understanding the sleep cycle

People often think of sleep as one long state of consciousness, but this isn’t the case. There are two different types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also known as dream sleep, and non-REM sleep (that blissful, restorative sleep). And it’s important to understand each.

Non-REM sleep

Non-REM sleep is made up of three stages that our bodies go through approximately every 90 minutes. 

STAGE 1: You’re drowsy and beginning to relax. You have a semi-awareness of what’s going on around you.

STAGE 2: Your body temperature drops, your heartbeat and breathing slow down, and eye movements cease. This is the “falling asleep” stage.

STAGE 3: You’re there. You’ve achieved deep sleep, the most healing stage of sleep there is. Your breathing is slower and you have no response to what’s going on around you. 

Then you enter into:

REM sleep

This is the period of sleep where dreams can occur. 

Your closed eyes are darting back and forth, and your brainwaves speed up.

In a typical night, we go through four to six sleep cycles, with our deepest sleep happening in the first half of the night.

How does a lack of sleep affect parents?

New parent sleep deprivation is very common. In fact, new parents and sleep deprivation go hand in hand.

Ever heard of the term “brain fog?”

It’s a phrase that sums up the forgetfulness of parenting perfectly.

“Did I just change that diaper?” 

“When did the baby last feed?”

“How did I leave the house without shoes?!”

Yep, brain fog is a huge symptom of lack of sleep and is mostly caused by not getting enough REM sleep. When you’re experiencing REM sleep, your brain is hard at work sorting through memories and processing the day. If you’re not quite reaching the REM stage, your brain can’t do the work it needs to, making you more at risk of memory lapses and finding everyday tasks more challenging.

Here are some other possible effects of sleep deprivation: 

  • Mood changes

You got one hour of sleep last night. ONE. So it’s no wonder you’re feeling irritable, emotional, and downright done with the world. Maybe you’re snappier with your partner or your toddler is driving you crazy. It’s totally normal to find it hard to remain calm.

It’s also very common to experience sensory overload as a parent, which can add to your feelings of frustration and overwhelm. 

While it is completely natural, sometimes these feelings can escalate to anxiety or depression. If you’re worried, always reach out to your midwife or health visitor. It’s a tough time, and there are people out there who want to help.

  • Weakened immune system

When you sleep, your body is busy producing antibodies to fight infections and viruses. This means that your body’s defenses are weakened, leaving you at a higher risk of illnesses, such as colds and flu.

  • Weight gain

You have two hormones that control your hunger pangs: leptin and ghrelin. When you’re not getting enough sleep, these hormones are thrown off balance. Resisting the urge to dip into the biscuit tin just became a whole lot harder.

Also, your motivation is probably not the highest it's been, so chances are that exercise may be a distant pre-child memory.

  • Increased risk of accidents

It’s true that sleep deprivation is responsible for forgetfulness (remember the brain fog I mentioned earlier?), but it’s also the culprit for hindering your reaction times. Which means if you’re super sleep deprived, it can make things like driving and exercising unsafe.

What are the main causes of sleep deprivation in parents?

Put simply, most parents just don’t get enough sleep. 

And that’s not exclusive to the newborn stage. The path of parenthood supplies more than enough reasons for you to lose sleep, all on its own. 

Here are some of the main causes of sleep deprivation in parents:

Earplugs for Sleeping
  • Anxiety

Parenting can bring worries with it. Whether it’s financial worries, dealing with toxic relationships in your life, family issues, health concerns, imposter syndrome or balancing work and children – the burden of anxiety can sometimes loom. 

If you’re concerned, be sure to check in with a health professional to get support.

Anyone who lives with insomnia knows just how tough life can be. You can’t fall asleep. You’re waking up at night. You wake up too early and can’t fall back to sleep. And when you’re a parent, your usual sleeping habits are turned upside down, so you may find that even if insomnia wasn’t part of your life before, it might have made an appearance now.

  • Other sleep disorders

Pregnancy can bring other undesired conditions too, such as snoring or sleep apnea, that just won’t go away when you’re in the postpartum period.

Another common problem is restless legs syndrome, an intensely irritating condition that can disrupt sleep.

  • Hidden health conditions

After you’ve had a baby, your body is in full transition mode. And with those huge changes can come a whole host of health problems that can disrupt sleep, such as insulin resistance, hypertension, digestive problems, spine misalignment, and more.

You’ve also got a whole ton of hormones whizzing around your body, which can contribute to your sleepless nights.

How do parents survive sleep deprivation?

The tightrope between sleep and parenting is a difficult one to walk. But there are things that you can do to make it easier. As promised, here is your sleep-deprived parent survival strategy to help you on your quest to more consistent, restful sleep:

  • Turn down the monitor

We know how the newborn days go. You’re in bed and have the monitor glued to your ear, waiting for the first tiny noise so you can leap up out of bed to check out what’s going on. 

The thing is, newborns are active sleepers. Which means that they’re going to make noise (like little groans and whimpers) in their sleep.

By six months, most babies can sleep seven to eight hours so you can start encouraging them to fall asleep on their own. 

So prise the monitor out of your hand and turn it down to an acceptable level. You might be surprised at the results.

Investing in some noise-reducing earplugs can help you turn down the volume of parenting while still being able to hear everything you need to. Like Loop Quiet earplugs, for example. 

Not only do they reduce noise by up to 24 decibels, but they’re also flexible, comfortable and designed to stay put all night long.

  • Keep your lifestyle healthy

Seems obvious, but eating well, keeping active, and drinking lots of water can have significant effects on your sleep. 

Keeping healthy will work wonders for your energy levels when you’re super sleep deprived. Fueling your body with the right foods boosts your metabolism, so start the day with a breakfast brimming with nutrients, and eat a mix of fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains throughout the day.

Try to avoid alcohol and caffeine where you can (we know that morning coffee is non-negotiable) because it can lead to dehydration, which in turn can intensify your fatigue.

  • Take a nap

Don’t try to fill your baby-free time with too much. There’s no need to force yourself to be productive. Take the pressure off and take a 20-30-minute nap. This is the ideal length to avoid the groggy feeling you get with an overly long daytime nap. Short daytime naps are the best way to rejuvenate yourself, and to give yourself a headstart for the long night ahead.

  • Rotate nights 

If you have a partner and they work during the day, don’t be tempted to take on the night shifts all by yourself. Doing round-the-clock feedings can lead to serious sleep deprivation. So if you have the option, why not rotate nights? At least one person can recharge and be more helpful the following day. Co-parenting is about working together as a team. 

If you’re nursing, you could try pumping breast milk ahead of time, even for a couple of the nighttime feeds.

  • Ask for help

Parenting can be overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to lean on those closest to you. Try calling on a friend to help with childcare or household tasks so you can get some well-earned rest! And don’t feel guilty about it. A good friend will be happy to help wherever they can.

  • Create a good sleeping environment (for you and the baby)

A cool, quiet, dark environment is ideal for both you and your baby.

Make sure that the temperature is not too hot or too cold – 68-72°F (20-22°C) is ideal.

Also, put some bedtime rituals in place from an early age, such as reading a story or a gentle warm bath before bed. It can help your baby (and also you) drift off as it sends signals to your body that it’s time for sleep.

  • Set yourself up for good sleep

To put you in the best state for sleep, there are certain things you should avoid doing too close to bedtime:

  • Don’t eat anything too heavy right before bed
  • Don’t do any stressful tasks at night (e.g., working late)
  • Don’t exercise 2-3 hours before sleep
  • Don’t drink caffeine within six hours of bedtime
  • Practice meditation

Meditation is a relaxation technique that is known to help you sleep better. It quiets the mind and body, enhancing inner peace and promoting an overall sense of calmness. 

The great thing about meditation is that it requires no equipment, so it can be done anywhere, anytime. All you need is a few minutes. 

The basic steps of meditation are:

1. Find somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. Get into a comfortable position – it can be sitting or lying down. 

2. Close your eyes and breathe slowly, concentrating on your breath. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply.

3. If a thought pops into your head, imagine letting it go, and refocus your energy on your breathing.

It can take a fair bit of practice, so be patient with yourself. 

Start with 5-10 minutes each night, and when you feel like you’ve mastered it, you can increase to 15-20 minutes for optimum effect.

Key takeaways

  • There’s no doubt that the parenting journey is a beautiful one but with it are going to come sleepless nights. Our sleep cycles are made up of REM and non-REM sleep. If you’re being deprived of your deepest, most restorative sleep state then it’s going to have effects on your physical and mental well-being, such as mood changes, a weakened immune system, anxiety, and weight gain. 

  • To improve your sleep, you can do things such as creating a good sleeping environment, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, asking for help, and taking little daytime naps.

  • Invest in some noise-reducing earplugs to help you make the most of the sleep you do get. They’re also super handy with taking the edge off when little one is screaming and crying!
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