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How Does Being a New Parent Affect Sleep?

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Elise Chahine

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Bill Fish

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When you become a new parent, you enter a world of exciting and surprising changes. You have the joy of a little one in your life growing every day, along with the challenges of feeding, stimulating, and sleeping. “Navigating your and your newborn’s sleep are among the steepest challenges during the early weeks of an infant’s life,” Dr. Rebecca Robbins, instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School offered. “Unfortunately, this can be difficult, particularly as the caregiver is often operating on very little sleep due to their nighttimes now being punctuated by feedings, introducing stress and frustration. Fortunately, there are evidence-based tips and strategies that can set you up for success during the early weeks and months of your infant’s life and well into their later stages of development.”

On average, adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, most new parents lose sleep after the new baby is born for a number of reasons. You may lay awake anticipating your baby’s cry, or you may struggle to fall back to sleep after a nighttime feeding. After the baby is born, men lose an average of 13 minutes per night, while women lose over an hour of sleep each night. Parents’ sleep often does not return to pre-pregnancy levels until the oldest child is six years old.

New mothers are also at risk for insomnia, daytime sleepiness, anxiety, depression, non-refreshing sleep, and fatigue. Sleep deprivation can worsen symptoms of postpartum depression, which affects one in eight mothers.

Being a new parent requires navigating through a number of sleep decisions and challenges. While your primary focus is likely on your child’s wellbeing, experts advise new parents to also pay attention to their own sleep needs. Sleep helps you form memories, repairs cells and tissue, and prevents you from getting sick. Plus, good sleep gives you the energy to enjoy the next day with your little one.

Breastfeeding and Sleep

Parents who choose to breastfeed may experience changes to their sleep and wakings from their child. Interestingly, evidence suggests that infants who are breastfed demonstrate more awakenings from sleep than formula fed babies. Further, breastfed babies wake up more easily than babies that are formula-fed. As a result, parents who breastfeed are awake more during the night.

New parents may accidentally fall asleep during feeding, especially at night. To keep the situation safe for you and your baby, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends an adult bed as the safest place to feed if there is a risk of you falling asleep. The AAP also recommends parents breastfeed in a space free of hazards, such as blankets, sheets, and other potentially risky objects. If you fall asleep while breastfeeding, the AAP recommends you return the baby to their individual sleep space as soon as you wake up.

Sleep Deprivation

Between the nighttime wakings and feeding and the stress of having a child, falling or staying asleep can be difficult for new parents. Sleep deprivation, or not getting sufficient sleep, extracts a toll on all of us in terms of mood, health, safety, and even longevity in all of us. Here are a few consequences of sleep deprivation that are particularly important for new parents to be aware of:

  • Irritability: Under conditions of insufficient sleep, you may be more irritable, anxious, or likely to lash out at friends, co-workers or spouses and other loved ones.
  • Anxiety and depression: Without sufficient sleep, we are at greater risk for negative moods, anxiety and depression. If you experience symptoms of poor mental health, consider speaking to your healthcare provider.
  • Accidents and injuries: Without sufficient sleep, we are at greater risk for longer reaction times, which can increase risk of accidents, such as motor vehicle crashes. Try to avoid driving or operating other machinery when you are sleep deprived.

A lack of sleep can also affect new parents in several specific ways.

Sleep Deprivation and Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is moderate to severe depression in mothers within three months of giving birth. This disorder affects eight to 13% of new mothers. Poor sleep is highly associated with anxiety in new mothers.

If you experience symptoms of postpartum depression, talk to your healthcare provider. Treatment for postpartum depression includes getting as much rest as you can, socializing when possible, and asking for caregiving assistance from partners, family, and friends. Your healthcare provider may also recommend medication, therapy, and support group attendance to help improve your symptoms.

Sleep Deprivation and Parenting

Research shows that sleep deprivation can also negatively impact positive parenting. Positive parenting involves being responsive and warm toward your child. Preliminary research shows that caregivers who sleep less experience higher levels of stress. Higher levels of stress are associated with difficulty regulating emotions. This difficulty may help explain why caregivers who have less or fragmented sleep, or who take longer to fall asleep, show less positive parenting in the hour before their child’s bedtime than caregivers who get more sleep.

    Good Sleep Hygiene for New Parents

    Prioritizing your own sleep helps you have the energy to care for your new child, so learning what works best for you and your child is key. Infants have shorter sleep cycles than adults. They sleep in one to three hour bouts, which means they, and therefore you, are awake several times during the night. The following elements of sleep hygiene are especially important for new parents:

    • Nap when the baby naps. Experts recommend you sleep when the baby sleeps. This can be challenging with mounting household tasks, but Even power naps, or short naps that are 10 to 20 minutes long, help you recharge. Research shows napping can also reduce your stress level and will allow you to make time for things like cleaning, meal preparation, and other general tasks.
    • Be comfortable saying no. There will likely be many friends, family members, and other loved ones who want to meet your baby. Before their 2-month shots, this may be ill-advised from the standpoint of their health, but as you navigate a new life with your little one, be comfortable saying “no” or asking to delay a visit until you and your baby have a bit more of a routine.
    • Create a good sleep environment and bedtime routine. A good sleep environment for adults is cool, quiet, and dark. The same recommendations apply to your newborn’s bedroom. Make sure the temperature is neither too cold nor too hot (i.e., approximately 68° to 72°F), dark, and quiet in their nursery. If you sleep with a partner with whom you share parenting duties, a common mistake new parents make is to both be awoken by the baby at night. Instead, consider having one person be “on” and the other be “off,” sleeping with ear plugs or even in a separate bedroom so they can (hopefully) get a consolidated night of sleep. Nighttime rituals are important as well, so make sure there is a chance to bond as a family at the end of a long day. This may look like reading a story together, lighting candles, or taking a warm bath with your baby once they are able to do so.
    • Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask friends, neighbors, and family members for help when you are in need of some sleep or alone time. Be sure to communicate with your partner to create a functional and consistent schedule while the baby is awake, plus also dividing responsibilities evenly. Making sure you have time to get outside, even for a quick stroll around the block, can have many positive effects on your mental health.
    • Start sleep training around six months. Sleep training helps your child sleep better. Research shows that sleep training also improves maternal mood.

    You might also consider connecting with a new mother or parent support group to talk about your sleep experiences. The members may have suggestions that meet your specific needs and provide a vital support system to help you know you are not alone.

    If you struggle to sleep in the weeks and months after giving birth, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can determine if your experiences are part of normal postpartum fatigue or something requiring further medical attention. They can also suggest additional strategies for helping you feel your best.

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    Elise Chahine

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    Bill Fish

    About Our Editorial Team

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    Elise Chahine

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    Bill Fish

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