7 Ways Sleep Deprivation Screws With Your Life When You Become A Parent

Parental sleep deprivation is nothing new, but it is even harder now, says baby sleep coach Heidi Skudder.
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Sleep deprivation is a cruel beast.

It alters your mood, your ability to basically function, your physical health and can even wreak havoc with your relationships. (Ever fallen out with your other half because you’re doing the lion’s share of the leg work when your little one wakes in the night? Thought so.)

When a baby is first born, new parents tend to lose around two hours sleep per night, on average, and even when they are sleeping, they’re in a hyper-alert state – or ‘listening out mode’, as sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows calls it. This means you don’t quite drop off into the much-coveted territory of quality sleep.

Obviously as your baby develops, their sleep should – in theory – improve. But even once that first year is out of the way, research suggests parental sleep deprivation doesn’t just end over night. In fact, it can last up to six years after the birth of your child. Fun!

Over time, this can take its toll on your brain and body – and basically all aspects of your life.

Of course, parental sleep deprivation is nothing new, but it is even harder now, says baby sleep coach Heidi Skudder, because we live in a world where we have less social and family support around us. Many of us are going it alone and it’s tough.

“This is having a huge effect on not only mental health, but also physical health too, as well as relationships and work/life balance,” says Skudder.

Here are just some of the ways sleep deprivation totally screws you over when you’re a parent.

1. Your mental health goes down the pan

It’s perhaps unsurprising that your mental health can seriously take a hit when you’re not getting as much sleep as you used to. For some, this manifests as low mood and irritability which is just about manageable. For others, it could spell a more serious issue like postnatal depression (PND) and anxiety.

It’s increasingly acknowledged that lack of sleep can be a contributing factor to PND. “Some sleep deprivation is to be expected – but significant periods of sleep deprivation can cause parental mood to lower, meaning new parents are at a higher risk of developing postnatal depression,” says Skudder, noting that this can occur in both mums and dads.

Signs of PND include: feeling low in mood, feeling tired all the time, having trouble sleeping at night, loss of appetite or overeating, feeling agitated, struggling to bond with your baby and loss of interest in the world around you.

2. You get sick (a lot)

On your twentieth cold of the year and wondering why? Short- and long-term sleep deprivation also impacts the immune system. For starters, this means it can make us more susceptible to picking up coughs, colds and other flu-type illnesses.

But on a more serious note, prolonged lack of sleep has also been linked to a higher risk of more chronic conditions like diabetes and heart problems, according to The Sleep Foundation, as well as increased levels of inflammation in the body.

“Stocking up on good quality vitamins and napping where possible – easier said than done with a new baby, though – can, at the margin, help a new parent survive those early months whilst trying to look after their new arrival too,” suggests Skudder.

3. Your relationship can feel different

Perhaps one of the biggest strains on a new parent’s life will be the impact of sleep deprivation on their marriage or relationship, says Skudder, who adds that many of her clients report struggles with trying to manage tiredness, as well as their relationships.

When a baby or young child isn’t sleeping well, parents will often try everything they can to get enough sleep – this could mean going to bed really early, or sleeping in separate rooms. These are practical solutions. But on an emotional level, it can leave you feeling like you’re drifting apart.

“It is not unusual for there to be challenges in how each parent wants to approach sleep too – with mum perhaps wanting to co-sleep, and dad perhaps wanting to get baby sleeping on their own,” adds Skudder.

4. Your sex life takes a holiday

Unsurprisingly, as your relationship takes a hit, so too does your sex life. If you’ve wondered where your libido has disappeared off to since becoming a parent, you’re not alone – and you can probably thank sleep deprivation for that one too.

Studies have found lack of sleep can impact men and women’s sex drive. One in particular found low sleep quality was associated with arousal problems and difficulty achieving orgasm in women, while in men, it was linked to erectile difficulties. And that’s not even factoring all the extra stresses of being a parent that can add up and impact physical and emotional intimacy.

5. You’re more likely to make mistakes

Perhaps unsurprisingly a tired brain does not make for a totally efficient you. Sleep deprivation can leave you struggling to concentrate, perform basic tasks or even remember things correctly.

It can also lead to you making mistakes. One rather extreme study in the journal Sleep suggested people who sleep fewer than seven hours have higher odds of being in a car accident – and the risk is highest for those who sleep fewer than four hours a night.

If you’re feeling less than brilliant about your productivity and creativity levels at work, you can thank your lack of sleep for that too. Skudder says lots of parents she works with are “genuinely worried about their jobs or career and how they can juggle both parenthood and working full time”.

6. Other sleep issues can crop up

What is perhaps the cruelest joke of them all is that when you’re low on sleep and you do manage to fall asleep, your moment of peace can be disrupted by other sleep-related issues that crop up as a result of being so over-tired.

For example, night terrors. You might wake up thrashing about, sit bolt upright or show other signs of being scared or agitated. While your partner might think you’re awake because of all that activity, it’s likely you won’t respond to them or even remember what happened when you wake up the next day.

“One of the biggest precursors to a night terror is additional tiredness, because night terrors occur out of non-REM sleep,” says sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows. “When you’re super sleep-deprived you have much more non-REM sleep – so more light than deep sleep – and that increases the risk of you having a night terror.”

Tackling sleep deprivation

So we’ve established sleep deprivation is the absolute pits. Now, what – if anything – can you do about it?

Broken nights are to be expected to some extent as babies and toddlers can wake up multiple times in the night for feeds and comfort, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some changes to your child’s bedtime routine and implement some sound sleep hygiene to help you get a bit of a leg up.

“We have to look at what works for each individual family,” says Skudder. “Whilst one parent may be ok with regular two hourly wake-ups, others will struggle with this and it can affect both physical and mental health.”

Her advice is to make your child’s sleep environment as comfortable as possible. This might be as simple as reassessing where they’re sleeping: is their cot comfortable, is the room too hot or too cold, is it quiet in there or are certain noises contributing to your little one waking up?

In those first few months, new parents are often advised to nap when the baby naps – if this works for you, definitely keep doing it. But it’s important to acknowledge that for lots of parents it’s not doable: you might struggle to take day naps or you might have a to-do list that’s longer than your arm. Your baby might sleep in 30-minute bursts meaning by the time you actually fall to sleep, they’ve woken up again – leaving you groggy and thoroughly annoyed.

“Whilst one parent may be ok with regular two hourly wake-ups, others will struggle with this and it can affect both physical and mental health.”

“If parents continue to experience broken and disrupted sleep, then looking into whether or not the baby is over or under-tired from napping in the day would be a next step,” says Skudder.

“Babies actually need to have fairly lengthy day time naps in the first six months to help aid their nighttime sleep. That said, some babies will be napping too much in the daytime and therefore waking in the night too.”

There are tonnes of factors that could influence why a baby is waking up multiple times in the night – and if you’re not managing to get to the bottom of it, it might be time to call in back up.

“Should you wish to have more sleep – or even need more sleep – then talking to a sleep coach is a good starting point in working out what can be done next for your baby’s sleep, to help the whole family on their way to a more settled and rested night,” says Skudder.

And next time you’re giving yourself a hard time for messing something up after three hours of sleep, just think about how well you’re actually doing given the circumstances...