Do you remember a wonderful nightly activity that involves closing your eyes and remaining horizontal for eight hours until sunrise? If you have a baby, probably not. A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 76 percent of parents have frequent sleep problems. Of course, none of this is news -- especially if you have an infant.
Clearly, sleep deprivation, whether it's due to the arrival of a baby, a bout of insomnia, or other problems is nothing to yawn at. The good news is that there are strategies you can use to get the rest you need.
We often think of sleep as one solid, unchanging state of unconsciousness. But there are actually two different types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM), known as dream sleep, and non-REM. Non-REM is made up of four stages. Stage one is a drowsy state when the body begins to relax and you have a semi-awareness of your surroundings. In stage two, body and eye movements cease and brain waves slow down. This is the stage we call "falling asleep." Stages three and four are deep sleep; breathing is regular and you show no response to what's going on around you. These are the most restorative stages of sleep.
Moving through these four stages takes about 90 minutes, after which the body shifts into REM, the period in which most dreams occur. Your closed eyes begin to dart back and forth, as if you're watching a movie, and brain waves speed up. The entire cycle of four stages and a period of REM sleep is completed about four to six times a night, says Amy Wolfson, PhD, author of The Woman's Book of Sleep (New Harbinger, 2001). REM segments last about 10 minutes at first and increase in length as the night wears on. Most of our deep, restorative sleep normally takes place during the first third of the night, while dream sleep tends to be concentrated toward morning.
The effect of fragmented sleep goes beyond a tired body -- it also affects how you think and cope. With this kind of sleep deprivation, you're not just shortchanged on deep sleep; you're also getting less dream sleep, says Lauren Broch, PhD, director of education and training at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Dreams provide more than fodder for the next day's musings. In fact, they play a surprisingly important role in our ability to think clearly. During REM sleep, the brain sorts memories and processes the day's events, says Margaret Moline, PhD, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center. Lack of REM sleep can cause memory lapses and make tasks requiring higher cognitive functioning more difficult, leaving you feeling scattered and foggy (as in, "Did I just change a diaper?"). For moms, this makes a range of daily activities problematic -- from balancing the checkbook to conjuring up the patience to deal with a cranky toddler. Indeed, it's much harder to use techniques such as distraction or humor (instead of yelling) when you're exhausted.
All of this means that your newborn will wake up easily, sleep for shorter periods -- no more than three to four hours, and maintain his light, disordered "pattern" around the clock.
Of course, if your baby's awake, so are you, which means you're on call throughout the night to feed and comfort him. This type of sleep deprivation, typical of parents of newborns -- where over the course of eight hours you're up two or three times for 20 minutes (or longer) -- is even more grueling than getting just five hours of straight sleep. Why does the number of awakenings matter more than total hours? For one, sleep fragmentation causes a significant decrease in your deep sleep. That's because each time you get up and then go back to bed, you have to start the sleep cycle all over again, entering the light stages before you return to deep sleep. The result: exhaustion.
Whatever is coming between you and blissful unconsciousness, there are ways to reach your sleep quota:
Hormones can also cause sleepless nights. After ovulation, levels of progesterone start off high and then begin to fall. The more quickly levels drop, the more likely you are to have sleep problems.
You may take longer to drift off, have poorer-quality sleep, and feel more lethargic in the phase after ovulation up to the start of your period. The cramps and tender breasts of menstruation can also make you too uncomfortable to sleep well.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is that sometimes we just can't nod off, despite the fact that we're desperate for sleep. Here are some strategies for dozing off:
If you're a member of the walking weary because you're a new parent, just remember that the grueling nights do come to an end. Pretty soon, you'll start vaguely recalling that enjoyable horizontal activity.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Stein, CNM
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.