New Parents Can Expect to Lose Sleep for 6 Years

New parents are easy to spot: The bloodshot eyes and dazed expressions are an instant tip-off. Although the birth of a child is a joyous event, many parents are taken aback by how exhausted they feel during those first weeks and months. Newborns usually require constant attention — they need to eat every hour or two and have their diapers changed just about as often.

Mother feeding newborn

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep every night. When you sleep only a couple of hours a night on an ongoing basis, you build up a “sleep debt” that can be hard to pay back. If your sleep debt persists over time, your health can suffer.

For most parents’ sleep deprivation improves once their child begins sleeping through the night (six to eight hours). For about 90 percent of babies, this begins at around 3 months old, according to the Nemours Foundation.

When a newborn comes home, parents know sleep goes out the window. But new research shows that sleep loss could plague Mom and Dad for up to six years.

“What is new in the current study is that we compare sleep before pregnancy with sleep up to six years after birth,” study author Sakari Lemola explained. “We were surprised to see that sleep duration and sleep satisfaction were still decreased six years after birth.”

Why? “Having children increases the demands and responsibilities associated with the new role as a parent,” said Lemola, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warwick, in England. “Also, older children are sometimes ill, have nightmares or just wake up and go to their parents,” he added.

“Even if children don’t wake up the parents directly, it is possible that parents have more things to worry about, to plan and to organize compared to before the first child, which may curtail their sleep,” Lemola explained.

Another recent study was conducted in Germany with more than 4,600 women and men participating; interviews to gauge sleep duration and satisfaction were conducted on an annual basis.

In the end, the investigators found that both sleep satisfaction and duration “sharply declined” following childbirth during the first three months, particularly among mothers. First-time parents were particularly vulnerable to experiencing sleep disruption early on, as were mothers who breast-fed. On average, new moms lost an hour of sleep a night in the first three months.

While sleep patterns did improve significantly over time; however, to some degree sleep disruption continued even six years later, regardless of parental income or whether a mother or father was raising a child alone or with a partner.

How newborn sleep patterns affect parents

Newborns tend to sleep in fits and starts for 16 to 20 hours over a 24-hour period, so it’s virtually impossible for a parent to get more than a couple hours of rest at a time. According to Dr. William C. Dement, a physician and sleep specialist, parents of newborns often lose about two hours of sleep per night until the baby is 5 months old. From then until their child hits 2 years old, parents usually lose an hour of sleep each night.

Nursing mothers often bear the brunt of sleep loss. Many newborns breastfeed as often as every hour or two, leaving their moms struggling to stay alert during the day. Although nursing might mean weeks or months of interrupted sleep, the emotional rewards can make it worthwhile.

Bottlefeeding parents must also learn to cope with frequent sleep interruptions. You have to rouse yourself and go to the kitchen to get supplies, so it may be even worse at first. However, one benefit of bottlefeeding is that someone other than the mother can help with feedings and share the burden of sleep loss.

Even if your baby is primarily breastfed, you might decide to use bottles filled with formula or expressed breast milk at night in order to get a few hours of rest..

Finding Calm Among the Chaos

What can a mother do when the house is a mess, the baby’s screaming, and she’s exhausted?

It’s a fact: your life will be a bit chaotic for the first few months; new parenthood is not the  time to try to live up to the unrealistic ideal of the “perfect parent.” Letting go of these impossible ideals and asking for help can let new parents relax, rest, and focus on those precious early moments with their baby.

Can I train my newborn to sleep on a schedule?

It’s not a good idea. In his book The Promise of Sleep, Dement explains that newborns’ biological clocks are immature and need time to develop, so it’s not a good idea to force them into a regular pattern of sleeping and wakefulness. However, he also believes that the same sleep cues that work for adults should work for infants as they mature. Cues like letting light in the baby’s room in the morning, dimming lights in the evening, and maintaining a regular feeding and activity schedule should help coordinate the baby’s biological clock with the 24-hour day as she grows older.

Learning to Rest When the Baby Does

Sleeping father and baby

A parent loses about 350 hours of sleep at night over her baby’s first year. Napping is a great way to reduce your sleep debt. If you’ve gone awhile without getting good-quality rest, the sleep you do get — even during a nap — will become more effective. You’ll fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly, so you’ll actually get more sleep and refreshment for the shorter amount of time spent in bed.

Of course, when you’re sleep-deprived, the longer the nap, the better. A team of researchers found that a 45-minute nap improved alertness for six hours after the nap. Other researchers found that a “prophylactic” — or preventative — nap of one to two hours helped people function better. Even 20 minutes can make a big difference for many people.

How to get more rest

As tempting as it is, don’t try to catch up on chores while the baby is sleeping. Instead, turn off your phone and lie down in a quiet, darkened room; create a relaxing environment by using a mattress with plenty of support and setting a comfortable room temperature.

Other tips which can help are:

  • Ask your partner, a family member, or a friend to watch the baby while you nap. Your helper might also pitch in with housecleaning, cooking, laundry, or babysitting older children.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants, and while alcohol may help you fall asleep, it actually increases wakefulness during the night.
  • If you’re nursing, learn how to feed your baby while lying down on your side. Many mothers find this to be a very restful position, especially at night. You might want to consider putting the baby’s crib or bassinet next to your bed — this will save a lot of nighttime trips to the nursery.
  • If, on the other hand you use formula, have bottles of room-temperature water and powdered formula next to your baby’s crib or at your bedside. In fact, prefilling several bottles with powdered formula might save you some time. Save energy by cutting down on the number of trips to the kitchen!
  • Working parents might consider cat naps at lunch time. Bethany Scheck, mother of an 18-month-old daughter, found that napping in her car during lunch and eating at her desk afterwards was a good way to catch up on sleep.

Although it may be difficult, try to limit the number of visitors you have during those first few weeks or months. Having to entertain a steady flow of guests can take time away from your naps and from bonding with baby.

If you have a spouse or partner, remember that you’re in this together. Try sleeping in shifts, and have your partner take over some of the nighttime feedings. If you’re nursing exclusively, your partner can help by bringing the baby for breastfeedings, changing her diaper, and rocking her to sleep afterwards.

If you can afford it, hire a weekly housecleaning service for a month or two (or more!). It can allow you to avoid strenuous chores while you recuperate and adjust to having a new child.

The Price of Sleep Deprivation

When sleep deprivation is not addressed, the consequences can sometimes be devastating. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research found that infant abuse may be more likely for sleep-deprived parents, who may feel they are at their wits’ end and shake or hit a crying infant. Also, co-sleeping parents who are exhausted may be less aware of the baby sleeping next to them. Sleep deprivation tragedies can occur outside the home as well. The National Sleep Foundation states that more than 1,500 people die every year due to fatigue-related vehicle crashes.

And there’s yet another reason to get as much rest as you can: Sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor in postpartum depression. If your fatigue is overwhelming and you experience the “baby blues” for longer than two weeks after delivery, be sure to see your physician.

Sources: WebMD and Health Day