Sleep deprived? You aren’t the only one, and we hate to say it, but this is your new normal. Recent studies have found parents lose length and quality of sleep after the birth of your first child. Shock! Horror! Neither parents’ sleep patterns go back to pre-pregnancy levels for up to six years. The research, conducted by the German Institute for Economic Research, University of Warwick in the UK and West Virginia University in the US, was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, Sleep.
The eight-year study involved researchers carrying out annual interviews with 4 659 people, who were asked how long they slept at night, and how satisfied they were with their quality of sleep. The difference between pre- and post-pregnancy sleep was most noticeable three months after the baby was born.
Mothers, on average, slept 62 minutes less compared to fathers, who only reported losing 13 minutes of sleep. What is interesting, is that factors, such as age, economic status, and single parenthood, did not make a difference. Another interesting point raised by the researchers is that breastfeeding mothers only recorded 14 minutes less sleep than non-breastfeeding mothers.
The women surveyed said, on average, they had seven hours and nine minutes of sleep a night prior to falling pregnant, while men reported on average seven hours, 11 minutes sleep a night. Not only did women lose up to an hour after the baby was born, they reported lower sleep quality and satisfaction.The birth of second and subsequent children also impacted sleep quality and length, but not to the same extent.
The researchers believe this may be because sleep quality was already diminished. The men studied also reported a drop in sleep length, but not necessarily regarding sleep quality or satisfaction.
And this sleep deprivation was found to be long-lasting – four to six years after birth. While women gained some sleep back (on average, the women surveyed reported that they slept 22 minutes less than pre-pregnancy, gaining an extra 40 minutes a night compared to the first year), men did not. The study found that men still maintained the 14-minute deficit six years on.
Tips to mitigating the impact of sleep deprivation
Sleep is vital for your body and mind to operate at optimum levels, as extended sleep deprivation can be physically and emotionally draining. Here are some sanity-saving measures:
- Discuss your sleep needs with your partner prior to giving birth and how you can divvy up the parental duties to ensure you both get sufficient sleep.
- Just say yes… If your mom offers to wash the dishes while you sleep, or your best friend says she will take your eldest for a night. Don’t feel guilty. It truly does take a village to raise a child, and your family will be the better for it.
- Sleep when your baby sleeps. This is one of the most common mistakes new parents make, as soon as your baby closes his eyes, you leap up and wash the dishes, tidy up or catch up on your favourite programme. Don’t. Just don’t. The experts share that as tempting as it is, rather let things go a bit, and catch up on that sleep. It’s no good not being able to care for baby (or yourself) because you have a tidy home and are completely sleep deprived.
- Share tasks. If you’re breastfeeding, ask your partner to get up and change your baby. If you’re bottle feeding, let him do the late-night feed and you get some sleep. Take a gap and have your partner bath your baby or create a night-time routine. Not only does he feel more involved, but it’s great bonding time as well. Plus, as the old adage goes, a load shared is a load halved…
- Don’t ignore the blues. Sleep deprivation can lead to mood changes, which may put you at risk of depression. Baby blues are completely normal, particularly if you have gone without sleep the night before. But when this doesn’t abate after a few days and you feel completely overwhelmed and unable to cope, speak up and ask for help.
- You will sleep. Eventually. Some babies sleep through the night earlier than others, and there will be disrupted nights with teething, growth spurts, or, as he gets older, going out with his mates until all hours. But you will adapt and sleep is in your future.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.