Sleep deprivation is something that many parents joke about -- especially those who have recently welcomed a newborn into their home. It’s no laughing matter, though. Getting less rest than you need can lead to serious health problems, and even death. It’s safe to say most people probably agree that they need more sleep. It’s not just moms, either. Dads also suffer from a lack of sleep. So, why do we have so much trouble getting enough rest?
Obviously, there are a lot of factors related to how much sleep a set of new parents can manage. If you’re a parent, you get it. Notwithstanding the tumultuous sleep cycles of an infant, parents in America and most Western countries tend to lack the support network that allows them to take breaks and rest when they truly need to. It starts with issues like a lack of paid maternity (and paternity) leave, but also includes living far away from grandparents and other relatives who might otherwise help care for a new baby. The biggest problem, perhaps, is not placing enough emphasis on the importance of proper sleep.
Some sleep experts argue that the government should take up sleep deprivation as a public health concern, and provide financial support to parents who cannot afford to have a “stay-at-home” parent, or family leave when a new child arrives, or even regular childcare.
The side effects of sleep deprivation reach farther than irritability and an overabundance of yawning. Sleep deprivation causes genuine cognitive impairment as do common sleep aids (of both over-the-counter and prescription varieties). Falling asleep at the wheel is clearly not the only risk from lack of sleep. There are serious long-term effects as well, like Alzheimer’s disease and even heart disease, that come as a result of sleep deprivation.
Here are five things parents can do today to start getting more (and better) sleep.
1. Sleep when they sleep.
This is the adage that everyone, and I do mean everyone, tells expectant parents. The advice is often received with laughter, but as the mother of a child who did not sleep until he was a year old, I will never laugh at those words again. In fact, this concept has become my new mantra.
It might not be possible to follow the advice literally, but it’s a good starting point when you’re thinking about prioritizing sleep. You might even consider a family bed, as co-sleeping is proven to lead to more sleep for both babies and parents. Whether you decide to bedshare or sleep in another room, if you don’t get to bed at a reasonable hour, you’ll never be able to get enough sleep.
Yes, parents often rely on naptimes and early bedtimes in order to get things done, and that’s okay. When the kids go to sleep, though, think critically about your “to do” list and tackle only the truly necessary things. The dirty dishes, the pile of mail, the thank-you cards from your baby shower can all wait. If your kids go to bed at 7:30pm, don’t stay up til 11pm sorting junkmail and folding laundry. Do only the crucial things, and get yourself to bed at a reasonable hour. If you have trouble falling asleep, experiment with some natural remedies for sleeplessness. After all, who knows what time (or how many times) those little munchkins will wake up.
2. Accept help.
Chances are, you have a friend or neighbor or three who have offered to babysit your kids for a while if you ever needed it. If you’re not getting enough nighttime sleep, then your number is up. You need their help. Don’t be bashful about accepting help, especially from someone who has offered multiple times! So often, parents are strapped with the feeling of obligation to do everything on their own, but that’s just not always possible. If your neighbor has offered to come over and hold your new baby for an hour so you can take a nap, do it. If your friend suggests that she take your kids to the park, let her. And, whatever you do, do not use that alone time to do house chores that can wait. Don’t go through the mail, don’t vacuum under the kitchen table, and do not lift the toilet scrubber. Lie down. Rest. Even if you’re not able to sleep, relaxation periods during the day can still help your body and your mind combat sleep deprivation.
3. Turn off the TV.
Many of us use television as a method of unwinding at the end of a long day, and that might have worked better before you had kids. Once you’ve entered the realm of sleep deprivation, the time-sucking Netflix marathons aren’t doing you in any favors and they can, in fact, make it more difficult for you to sleep well later.
Although sleep requirements do vary from person to person, sleep experts and medical doctors still recommend that most adults get around seven to eight hours of sleep each night. If you’re up late catching up on episodes of “Scandal” and your kids wake you up at dawn, you’ll never be in bed long enough to get close to that goal. Aim for eight hours, and know you’ll still be better off on nights you only get six or seven.
4. Divide and conquer.
Sure, you probably don’t get to spend much alone time with your partner since the kids came along. Although it’s important to set aside time to connect, don’t cut into your sleep hours to do so. Work with your parenting partner to design a schedule that protects sleep as a high priority for each of you, and divide your parenting responsibilities to make it work.
Typically, this will mean that one parent is the “primary caregiver” during the day, while the other takes the night shift. However, your family might find it makes more sense to break the day into several shorter shifts, like morning, day, after school, and bedtime. There are some jobs only Mom can do, but Dads can do a lot to support the effort and they are fully capable of performing most parenting tasks. By sharing the parenting responsibilities, you can not only ensure that your children have equal opportunity to bond with each parent, but you’ll also find yourself admiring your spouse for the amazing parenting work they do, especially if it means you can rest easy.
5. Seek quality sleep.
Most of our advice so far has been about getting more sleep, but the quality of the sleep you’re getting is a huge factor as well. New parents tend to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about how well their babies are sleeping, and they forget to pay attention to their own sleep conditions. When you’re getting your little ones ready for bed, you probably go through a checklist of questions: is the temperature is comfortable, is there too much light (or not enough), does the humidifier need to be refilled, does the fan/air purifier/white noise machine need to be turned on?
As you’re setting up your own sleep space, answer the same questions. Adults rely on the proper conditions for a good night’s sleep as much as kids do, and you’ve been shortchanging yourself if you’re not taking a few minutes to make sure that you have the tools you need in order to sleep properly. So, curl up with a bedtime story and tuck yourself in after lulling your little ones into sweet slumber.
If we, as parents, cannot structure our lives in such a way to get adequate rest, how will we expect our children to do so as they grow up? Essentially, we have all the reasons in the world to make sleep a bigger priority on a daily basis. Change your priorities today and sleep more tonight!