How to Deal With Sleep Deprivation After Baby

Parents of babies are notoriously sleep-deprived, which can lead to serious health issues if left unchecked. But while you may not be able to avoid the nighttime feedings and fussiness, we’ve got tips for getting the rest you desperately need to recharge. 

Young mom breastfeeding newborn girl
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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. Research shows that new parents lose significant sleep each night, with disruptions lasting until the oldest child is 6 years old. The good news is that there are strategies you can use to get the sleep you need. Here's what to know about coping with sleep deprivation after having a baby.

How Does the Sleep Cycle Work?

To deal with sleep deprivation, you need to understand the sleep cycle. 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 three 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, your body temperature drops, heartbeat and breathing slow down, and eye movements cease. This is the stage we call "falling asleep." Stage three is deep sleep; breathing is slower and you show no response to what's going on around you. This is the most restorative stage of sleep.

Moving through these three non-REM 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 sleep is completed about four to six times a night, says Amy Wolfson, PhD, author of The Woman's Book of Sleep.

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.

Understanding the Importance of Sleep

The effects of fragmented sleep go beyond a tired body—it also impacts how you think and cope. With sleep deprivation, you're not just shortchanged on deep sleep; you're also getting less dream sleep, says Lauren Broch, Ph.D, 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, Ph.D, 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 parents, this makes a range of daily activities problematic—from paying bills to conjuring 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.

Other negative consequences of sleep deprivation include:

  • Increased risk of accidents. Lack of sleep hinders reaction times, which can make activities like driving and exercise unsafe.
  • Mood changes. When you're extremely tired, you may feel irritable, emotional, and temperamental. You may be quicker to lash out at friends and family members. This could even escalate into problems with anxiety and depression.
  • Decreased immune system function. When you sleep, your body's immune system is hard at work producing infection-fighting antibodies. Without sufficient sleep, your body's defenses are weakened, meaning you may be at higher risk of contracting viruses like the flu and common cold.
  • Weight gain. Sleep is associated with the production of two hormones that control your feelings of hunger and fullness: leptin and ghrelin. Sleep deprivation may put these hormones off-balance, causing you to overindulge. You may also have less energy to exercise.
  • Memory issues. During sleep, your brain is forming connections to help you process and remember new information. Sleep deprivation can disrupt these processes, leading to problems with both short- and long-term memory.

What Do Newborn Sleep Patterns Look Like?

It's also important to understand an infant's sleep patterns, which look nothing like yours. Their sleep cycles are shorter, and they include a higher percentage of REM sleep. This means that your newborn will wake up easily, sleep for shorter periods at a time (no more than three to four hours), and maintain a 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 them. Parents of newborns may be awakened two or three times over the course of eight hours. This type of sleep deprivation is even more grueling than getting just five straight hours of non-stop sleep.

Why does the number of awakenings matter more than the 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.

How to Deal With Newborn Sleep Deprivation

Whatever is coming between you and blissful unconsciousness, there are ways to reach your sleep quota. Here's how to catch some restful slumber, with tips for combatting the effects of newborn sleep deprivation.

Make up for lost sleep. If you're dealing with sleep deprivation after having a baby, it's possible to compensate for some of what you've missed. When a person who's long been bereft of sleep finally gets some shut-eye, the brain will make up both deep and REM sleep, says Dr. Moline. You'll spend more time proportionately in deep and REM sleep than normal, at the expense of the lightest stages. Sleeping a bit more on the weekends—say, two or three hours—can be beneficial. But don't let a little extra dozing turn into a sleep binge. Overdosing on sleep can start a whole new cycle of deprivation because you won't be tired at bedtime.

Catch a nap. New parents shouldn't try to be more productive during their baby's nap time. A 20- to 30-minute nap will refresh you without causing sleep inertia, that groggy, out-of-it feeling when you wake up. Most people, not just new parents, could benefit from a short afternoon nap. But don't sleep any later than 2 or 3 p.m.; this may interfere with your bedtime. If your baby isn't on a regular nap schedule, take advantage of offers of help from friends and relatives. Let someone else hold and entertain the baby while you crash for a while.

Trade-off middle-of-the-night feedings. When one half of the new-parent team works outside the home, it's tempting for the at-home half to do all the feedings so the "working" one can get up in the morning. But taking on round-the-clock feedings can lead to serious sleep deprivation. It may make sense to rotate nights, so one person does all the feedings while the other sleeps. That way, at least one person gets a good night's sleep, instead of both of you getting fragmented sleep. Nursing parents might consider pumping breast milk so the other can take care of at least one nighttime feeding.

Turn down the monitor. Newborns are active sleepers. If your baby is groaning or whimpering in the night, that doesn't mean you need to leap out of bed. By 6 months, most babies are capable of sleeping seven to eight hours at a stretch. To encourage your baby to fall back to sleep on their own in the middle of the night (instead of crying for you), put them to bed while they're still awake. Weaning them from whatever strategies you've been using to soothe them to sleep (nursing or rocking, for instance) will teach them not to rely on these when they wake up.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet and staying active are key for maintaining energy levels, whether you have kids or not. Healthy food boosts your metabolism, so start the day with a nutrient-rich breakfast and make time to fuel your body with fruit, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the day. Dehydration can also make you feel tired, so drink plenty of water and avoid excessive caffeine—which can actually lead to more fatigue.

Ask for help. If you're very overwhelmed or tired, a relative or friend might be able to help with child care or household tasks. Be clear about your needs, and outsource where you can.

Set yourself up for good sleep. To help you fall asleep faster, avoid eating heavy meals right before bed, don't do stressful tasks at night, don't exercise in the two or three hours before sleep (although earlier in the day is beneficial), and avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime. Your bedroom should also be a quiet, dark, temperate haven to induce sleep. Use light-blocking window shades, turn a bright alarm clock away from you, and use a white-noise machine if necessary. Establishing a sleep ritual—such as reading a book or taking a bath— signals to your body that it's time for sleep, and it might also help you doze off faster.

Could It Be Postpartum Depression?

While "baby blues" are common among new parents, one in eight people who have recently experienced a live birth may show symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD), according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These may include feelings of anger, worry, sadness, and anxiety, along with guilt and doubt in your ability to care for your baby. Sleep deprivation is a risk factor for depression, and it can also exaggerate symptoms of PPD in new parents.

While it can be difficult to distinguish between sleep deprivation side effects and PPD, you should speak with your health care provider if you're experiencing symptoms such as anxiety or panic attacks, frequent bouts of crying, loss of appetite, mood swings, or a loss of interest in things that you normally enjoy.

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