During pregnancy, everyone probably hammered you with jokes about how you needed to sleep as much as possible before the baby arrived because you were never going to sleep again. Now you know exactly how much truth there was to those jokes!
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It’s true that every parent is tired; in our workaholic culture, almost everyone is tired whether they have kids or not. However, a lack of sleep can have a negative impact on your health. Has your parenting weariness crossed the line into unhealthy sleep deprivation? If so, what can you do about it?
Causes Of Sleep Deprivation
The most obvious cause of sleep deprivation is not getting enough sleep, but there is more to it than that. A lack of sleep is a definite contributor to sleep deprivation – the Mayo Clinic recommends seven to nine hours per night for adults – but poor-quality sleep can be just as damaging.
Frequent night waking can keep you from going through your full sleep cycle, robbing you of the benefits of a good night’s sleep even if all those sleep periods add up to seven hours.
If you wake up during your deepest sleep, you may be groggy and disoriented, and if you can’t finish a full 90-minute sleep cycle, it can be just as bad as not getting any sleep at all. Moreover, if you’re constantly dreading the moment when the baby wakes up and starts crying or the toddler comes in for another glass of water, your anxiety will make sleep more difficult to attain and less restful when you get there.
Unfortunately, if you are a new parent getting up with a baby every few hours, you can’t choose to have eight blissful hours of uninterrupted, deep sleep.
Symptoms Of Sleep Deprivation
Some of the symptoms of sleep deprivation aren’t surprising. Fatigue and irritability are well-known side effects for anyone who has ever had a poor night of sleep. Other symptoms of sleep deprivation, however, are more troubling.
You may find that you’re constantly hungry because your body is trying to get energy from food instead of sleep. Your memory might be fuzzier than usual, and you may find yourself acting impulsively because sleep deprivation has wrecked your self-control.
Making decisions can become more difficult because sleep deprivation interferes with your cognitive abilities. Sleep deprivation might make you feel clumsier or even make your vision blurry because your body is having trouble controlling your muscles, including the muscles of your eyes.
Put it together and you have a recipe for cranky, worried and generally worn-out parents.
Dangers Of Sleep Deprivation
All of those negative side effects may seem bad enough on their own, but it gets worse: sleep deprivation poses real long-term risks to your health. During sleep, your brain’s neurons get the rest they need to face the next day, and your body releases proteins to rebuild your cells.
Without that regeneration, you run the risk of doing some serious damage to your brain and central nervous system. Hallucinations, depression, and paranoia are all possible with too little sleep. If you’re a new mother, this is especially risky because you may be more vulnerable to postpartum depression.
Worse yet, sleep deprivation can make you sick, which will make you even more tired. Your immune system recharges when you sleep; too little sleep runs your immune system ragged and makes you more vulnerable to infections that sap your energy even further.
You’re more likely to get sick, and when you do get sick, it’s likely to take you longer to recover. If you have a chronic health problem, your symptoms will be more pronounced when you are sleep-deprived.
The overeating from sleep deprivation increases your risk of weight gain. Not only are you eating more, but sleep deprivation boosts your insulin levels, which causes you to retain more of the food you eat as fat. This means that sleep deprivation can lead to all of the negative health effects related to obesity, including heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Stopping Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation is a serious health problem, but what can a parent to do about it? If you have a baby, getting up for nighttime feedings is part of the deal, and even older children might continually interrupt your sleep if they’re sick, struggling with nightmares, or having their own problems falling asleep.
Although you can’t control whether you get those blissful seven to nine hours of sleep per night, there are some steps you can take to ensure that you’re getting the sleep you need and that your child needs you to get in order to be the best parent you can be.
If you’re a new parent, sleep when the baby sleeps whenever you can. It’s shopworn advice, but it’s true. Catch up on chores later and concentrate on getting as much sleep as humanly possible.
Sleep close to your baby if he’s a quiet sleeper. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages sleeping in the same bed as your baby, you can put your baby in a bassinet, crib, or dedicated co-sleeper.
That makes it much easier for you to roll over; nurse, bottle-feed, or pat the baby; and then roll back over and go to sleep.
If your baby is a noisy sleeper, however, don’t be afraid to put him in another room and turn the monitor’s volume down. You don’t need to get up for his every nighttime grunt and whimper if he seems to constantly make sounds in his sleep.
Keep the volume at a level where you can hear it if he actually cries, then go to sleep.
Learn your child’s sleep cycles and plan your day accordingly. Drink your coffee right after the baby wakes up from a nap so the caffeine will wear off in time for the two of you to take the next nap together. If you can’t stop your toddler from waking up at four in the morning, try to be in bed before 10.
Accept help. Divide up childcare duties with your partner; the two of you are a team. If you’re a new parent, ask a friend or family member to come over and watch the baby for a few hours while you sleep. If your children are older, ask Grandma if the kids can sleep over on occasion.
If all else fails, don’t be ashamed to occasionally put in the kids’ favorite movie or bring up their favorite show on streaming and go back to bed.
Follow the usual rules for getting a good night’s sleep. Avoid caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime and have a soothing bedtime routine, such as taking a warm bath or reading a good book an hour before turning in. Keep your bedroom cool and dark, and avoid doing anything except sleeping or having sex in your bed.
Avoid bright lights and screens before bed because they can trick your brain into thinking it’s the middle of the day.
Remember that this isn’t going to last forever. One day, your kids will sleep, and you will, too.