Sleep deprivation. By the time you reached your second trimester, friends, relatives, even complete strangers held forth on the bleary-eyed, hallucination-inducing exhaustion of parenting a young child. There you'd be, walking down the street, absentmindedly rubbing your pregnant belly, when a well-meaning older lady would come up to you, smile warmly, and say, "Congratulations, dear. You'll never sleep again."
So how bad is this alleged exhaustion? We decided to ask our readers. Thirteen thousand people responded! Some of the results were surprising to us; other made it clear that you need some help tackling your sleep situation. Here's what we learned -- and what you can do so that you and your little one will sleep like babies.
What we learned: Sixty percent of you say you definitely need to bag a few more ZZZs than you're getting. One-third of you report that you get less than six hours of sleep a night. The sleepiest group was mothers of newborns.
What surprised us: First-time moms reported that they generally felt well rested, even though the majority of them are getting less than six hours of sleep a night.
So why are the walking weary so cheery? We found three reasons. The first, as a new mom reports, is "sheer new-parent joy, plus a healthy dose of adrenaline." The second is a bit more disconcerting. There's quite a bit of research that shows that overall, people are very bad at predicting how sleepy they are, says Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night (Harper Perennial). New mothers are no exception. In addition, the less sleep you get over time, the harder it is to catch up, and the more impaired your judgment becomes. Even if you feel good on less than six hours of rest a night, eventually all of that lost sleep with catch up with you, Mindell says. Everyone needs seven and a half to eight and a half hours per night to perform at their best.
However, another reason why you're all not so sleepy could be how you're choosing to feed your little one. Two-thirds of you are exclusive bottlefeeders; bottlefed babies tend to sleep for longer periods than their breastfed counterparts.
What we learned: Sixty-five percent of new moms don't nap when their baby naps.
What surprised us: First-time moms are more likely to snooze when babies sleep.
The first-timers deserve kudos; the fact that you've picked up such a smart habit so soon is surprising and impressive. The rest of you should follow their example. Maybe you're doing laundry or watching older kids. However, there's plenty of evidence that suggests if you don't snooze, you definitely lose. Even if you don't feel particularly tired, you're probably frustrated, emotional, and forgetful -- all signs of sleep deprivation, says Mindell. Plus, it makes parenting a new baby that much more stressful. Regardless of how crunched for time you feel, you can make time for sleep. Incidentally, you don't need a full hour to reap sleep's restorative benefits. A 20-minute nap can really help. Be sure to schedule naps for yourself -- and guarantee you'll get them by asking a friend or relative to come over and watch your baby while you nap.
What we learned: When it comes to getting your baby to snooze, you stick to the basics -- 65 percent of you rock, sing, or feed your baby to sleep.
What surprised us: Stores are overflowing with sleep advice books, but apparently you don't need them! A whopping 85 percent of you consider yourselves pretty effective at getting your baby to sleep.
All of that swinging and singing is right on target for newborns, say experts. Rocking and singing to an infant is like flipping a biological off switch, says Harvey Karp, MD, a Los Angeles pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer (Bantam, 2002). After all, the womb is full of movement and rhythmic sound.
Though all of these tactics are great for a newborn, you may want to rethink your sleep strategy as your baby moves out of infancy. Once you start using a specific method to help your child fall asleep, he's going to want to keep it, says Mindell. Fortunately, even the smallest changes in your child's sleep routine can make a difference. If you feed your baby to sleep, for example, you could feed her, change her diaper, and put her down awake, Mindell says. That well, she will gradually stop relying on you to soothe her to sleep and she will learn to relax on her own.
What we learned: Nearly half of you -- 43 percent -- say that your baby doesn't sleep through the night. Those of you with newborns have it the roughest: 45 percent of babies between birth and three months awake frequently.
What surprised us: One-quarter of restless sleepers are actually older babies between the ages of 4 and 12 months.
As desperate as you may be to get them to sleep, only 5 percent of you use what experts tout as one of the most effective ways to help a baby learn to soothe herself, known as the delayed response or the Ferber method.
For those of you with newborns, there's not much you can do in the early days -- in general, infants will wake up when they're hungry. Kids 4 to 6 months old often sleep through the night. If yours doesn't, he may have a sleep issue. All babies wake up during the night, says Mindell. Fussy ones just can't soothe themselves back to sleep. Settling back to sleep is a learned skill -- one that frequent fussers really need to learn.
That's where the Ferber method -- a strategy very unpopular among survey respondents -- comes in. This system, developed by Richard Ferber, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital in Boston, is designed for babies 4 to 6 months and up who can't fall asleep on their own or soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake up during the night. It involves placing your baby in her crib awake, giving her a reassuring pat, and leaving. If she cries, you return in five minutes, reassure her that you're there for her, and leave again. The next time she cries, you return in 10 minutes, and so on. This method can take anywhere from a few days to a week to work. So why are moms so resistant?
Parents may think that the baby feels abandoned or is afraid of the dark if he cries, says Mindell. There's no research that suggests such methods cause anxiety in babies. In fact, studies suggest the opposite; sleep-trained babies were found to be more securely attached to their parents and happier overall than babies who weren't.
Another strategy to help teach a baby to soothe herself to sleep is introducing a sleep routine as early as possible -- even at 3 months. It needn't be complicated. For a younger baby, simply feeding her, changing her diaper, and singing a song is all that's required. Toddlers may demand a bit more -- a story, a glass of water. Regardless of the routine you choose, make sure it takes a reasonable amount of time -- under half an hour -- and that you impose limits, says Mindell. A sleep routine that involves multiple books and bathroom trips isn't a sleep routine at all -- it's a ploy to avoid going to bed.
What we learned: When it comes to wee-hour nighttime feedings, you aren't getting much help from your partner: 68 percent of you say you're pretty much on your own.
What surprised us: Eighty-two percent of you say you're perfectly happy with such an arrangement.
Even so, you still need rest. Mindell suggests coming up with a sleep plan so that everyone can get the rest they need. It's important to get several hours of uninterrupted sleep, she says. It's hard when someone needs to work in the morning, but there are ways to arrange it so that you'll all make the most of what you get. For example, you can go to bed from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., then take over while your partner sleeps. The good news? Eventually, even the fussiest baby sleeps through the night -- and so will you.
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.