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