The other day I had a very interesting question come in from a new mom. She asked if I could write on how to cope with the sleep deprivation that comes with being a new parent. It’s a great question and I’m sure one a lot of parents would like to hear advice on, but my first thought is that most people aren’t going to want to hear the answers I’m going to give. So I start with a bit of a warning: This post isn’t for you if you hope to be able to continue your life as it was pre-baby and not experience any changes to your sleep whatsoever; in short, I will not advocate any type of mainstream sleep training (though if you want good gentle resources that can help, you can read about those here). That said, here are some ways to help deal with sleep deprivation, or even better, avoid it altogether.
To Help Avoid Sleep Deprivation
Co-sleeping or Bedsharing. This has been found to increase sleep stretches for many families (but not all and can have the exact opposite effect depending on the type of sleeper you and your baby are; see here for more information). The importance of increased stretches of sleep (even if they don’t increase overall sleep) is that they assist the body in going through a full cycle of sleep (or hopefully more than one) which is really what keeps the body and brain from experiencing the strong cognitive and emotional effects of a lack of sleep. If you can bedshare, or at least co-sleep (which one should be doing for the first six months, but I’m talking even beyond), and you’re breastfeeding, this may be one of the life savers for your sanity.
Check Your Baby’s Sleep. Although we have a real problem in our society whereby people really don’t understand what constitutes “normal” infant sleep, there are cases where babies – and therefore moms – truly are suffering from severe sleep disruption. Sadly parents often believe the problem is with the sleep when in fact, the sleep problems are like the canary in the coal mine – they reflect an underlying problem and this is simply your first cue to look at other problems. So before you panic about your infant’s sleep, first check if what you are experiencing falls within the realm of normal (see here) and then check the many reasons why sleep is interrupted in infants and the various things you should check out as possible reasons for your and your baby’s sleep deprivation (see here).
Nap When Your Baby Naps. This is one of the easiest ones and yet the one that most new parents avoid. If you’ve only got one baby, nap. Seriously. Take your rest where you can get it and realize that the other things you feel you must do while your baby naps really, honestly can wait. Now, the caveat here is for those of you with more than one child and who cannot always get down for a nap during that coveted time. If this is you, what you can try to do is at least make that time a “rest” time for you and your other kids so that you aren’t feeling constantly frazzled. If your other kids are old enough you may be able to rest or even nap, but when they’re younger, make it a story time, a cuddle time, heck – even watch TV if that gives you the downtime you need.
To Recover From the Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Moderate Your Caffeine Usage. Okay, many of you sleep deprived parents will relish that cup of coffee first thing in the morning – and that’s okay! – but you also want to be careful with it. Although the research shows that low doses of caffeine can actually prevent the negative cognitive effects of sleep deprivation, it also shows that caffeine taken too close to bedtime (within 6 hours) creates sleep disturbance and that usage in general may negatively influence sleep overall, but especially for sleep recovery (for a review, see ). This means that while that cup first thing in the morning can be helpful, using too much or taking it too late may result in a cycle of sleep deprivation followed by the use of more caffeine to stay alert. One recommendation is to switch to half-caf-half-decaf so you’re cutting back but still getting the amount of caffeine needed to counteract some of the negative effects; and of course, don’t have caffeine after a certain point – that point being dependent upon when you plan on heading to bed.
Power Naps. If you can get 20-30 min a day when your partner comes home or you get someone else to come over and help, take a quick but very beneficial power nap. Individuals who take power naps show increases in cognitive performance, positive mood, and short-term memory, all while not impeding night sleep. I acknowledge that this involves asking for help – something that is not very common in our society – and so if you are unwilling to seek out help in one way or another, this won’t be an option, but I urge you to get over any fear or unwillingness and ask someone – a friend, a neighbour, a grandparent – to come over and help for just 30-40 minutes so you can get some sleep. Notably, these naps may be most beneficial and needed by those who work full-time as the amount of cognitive impairment that can happen when sleep is disrupted can make driving dangerous.
Restorative Yoga. This is not active yoga, but rather is designed to de-stress and relax you, something everyone could use, but especially new moms or busy moms who just need some time to themselves. If you can afford and have the time to go to a class, wonderful (and I’m jealous), but if you’re like many others of us, that’s a no go but you can still find some time at home and do a class online (Do Yoga With Me offers free streaming classes) or buy a video. Yes, you may need to ask for some help from a partner or someone else, but even just once a week this type of relaxation can have long-lasting effects.
Progressive Relaxation. This is a technique that helps you relax by slowly relaxing each muscle group one at a time along with a bit of guided meditation. If you know how to do it yourself, you can just do it, but if not, there are places online where you can listen to or read up on the meditation and instructions. Like restorative yoga, this gives the body a break which enables you to relax and reduces the stress that often accompanies sleep deprivation. When used before bed it can also lead to deeper sleep which can help you feel more restored if you are not getting as much as you are used to.
A certain degree of sleep disruption is simply par for the course when it comes to parenting and to expect otherwise is to place highly unrealistic expectations on our babies. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t always agree with this and can place highly unrealistic expectations on new parents as well. Hopefully these suggestions can help you either get at the root of (and thus avoid) sleep deprivation or avoid it altogether but also to counteract the effects of any sleep deprivation you may experience. Remember: It may be hard, but asking for help is one sure fire way to help you deal with the changes that come from being a new parent.
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