New parents can lose up to 600 hours sleep in their baby’s first year, and it’s no surprise; parents’ lives can be hectic, and getting enough sleep is often pushed to the bottom of the list. Having a baby is life changing and it can be the most wonderful thing we ever experience, but it can also impact our health and well-being, including interfering with sleep. Parents, like everyone else, can suffer from a range of sleep problems and, in addition, they just might not have the time to get a good night’s kip.
The amount of sleep needed to have a positive effect on health differs from person to person. It has been found that adults need around 7-9 hours sleep (although some claim to be able to survive on 4 hours, and others need 10+).
In the first blog post in this series, we looked at what sleep is and how our cycles work (90 minutes cycles of REM and non-REM sleep). We then discussed the importance of sleep for pregnant women. This blog post looks at the next stage of parenthood, after the baby is born, and how sleep is still extremely important for parents. We will look at the science behind the benefits of good sleep and some tips on how to improve it.
Look out for the final part in these series in which we’ll look at what research says about sleep and babies, along with some advice on how to promote better sleep for our little bundles of joy.
Sleep problems may be internal
A busy household or hectic schedule may impact our sleep, but sometimes problems can derive from internal issues.
Sleep needs and problems are different for everyone. You might know people who hit the mattress, sleep through 7 hours and wake up feeling chirpy and ready for the day. You may also know people who toss and turn for 10 hours, can’t fall asleep or wake up after a few hours and spend the day feeling groggy and exhausted. Why is it that some people seem to have more trouble with sleep than others?
Sleep in adults can be affected by:
Over the last ten years, research into genes and sleep has intensified. A study from The Rockefeller University has found that a mutation of a gene (CRY1) affects some people’s biological clocks, which makes them stay awake later. This means that they can’t sleep at night, but still have to wake up in the morning, leading to fatigue and other health problems.
Another study by Posthuma et al found seven genes for insomnia, and noticed that some of the genes are associated with other conditions like depression and restless leg syndrome. Anke Hammerschlag said that “this is in an interesting finding, because these characteristics tend to go hand in hand with insomnia. We now know that this is partly due to the shared genetic basis.”
There can also be rarer gene mutations that allow some people to survive on very little sleep, and some that create sleep problems linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (where people tend to feel more depressed than normal in winter months). Researchers have also discovered a gene region that links longer sleep and better glucose metabolism.
Around 50% of adults experience occasional insomnia. New parents who suffer from insomnia may find that they are affected even more, as they may not be able to get back to sleep after waking for night feeds and changes, or they may suffer from postnatal insomnia.
Other sleep problems that can result in a lack of sleep include sleep apnoea (where you stop breathing during sleep), restless leg syndrome (unpleasant sensations in legs or the urge to move legs), sleepwalking and night terrors.
Disorders can also take us in the other direction and result in prolonged sleep. Hypersomnia makes people sleep for excessive amounts of time, or makes them extremely sleepy during the day to the point that they fall asleep while eating, talking or driving.
Many medical conditions can affect how much and how well we sleep. Research by Viola-Saltzman and Watson found that 30-70% of people who suffer with traumatic brain injury experience sleep disturbances, with insomnia, fatigue and sleepiness being the most frequent complaints.
Problems with sleep can also be caused by heart failure as the body struggles to pump blood, which people to wake up, breathless. Research by Rao and Gray found that sleep disordered breathing is experienced by around 50% of patients with heart failure.
Sleep can also be affected by kidney disease, thyroid disease, depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, dementia, and others. It’s important to contact a healthcare professional if you believe that your sleep problems are being caused by more than night feeds and ‘sharenting’ woes.
Sleep yourself healthy
As parents, we tend to put our babies needs before our own, but it’s important to remember that looking after our own well-being can put us in a better position to care for our little ones. Here are some of the reasons why good sleep is so important.
Boost memory, creativity and attention span
Research has found that sleep can help consolidate memories and strengthen our skills. A study by Jeffrey Ellenbogen found that sleep deprivation “results in the loss of sleep’s benefits for cognitive processes such as memory and insight formation: the building blocks of learning, creativity, and scientific discovery.” By getting enough sleep, we can help our brain to strengthen the skills that we’ve learned while awake.
Sleep makes it easier for the brain to receive information, meaning that sleep can increase our ability to problem solve and recall what we’ve learned. It’s thought that REM sleep helps people to combine ideas, which helps with creativity.
Sleep also helps with our attention span which, in some cases, can be a matter of life and death. A study by Brian Tefft looked at 6,845 drivers and found that drivers who slept for less than seven hours were more likely to be involved in crashes, and less than four hours increased this risk even more. Road crashes are one of the leading causes of death for under 40s in developed countries, and tiredness plays a huge part in this – research by Wheaton et al found that 1 in 25 of the drivers they looked at reported that they had fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days!
Being alert is especially important when it comes to caring for children, as unpredictable things happen all the time.
Help to keep the weight off
It has been found that proper sleep can help you with maintaining a healthy weight and metabolism. Research by Tehari et al found that an increased body mass index is associated with short sleep duration. This is because it reduces a hormone called leptin and increases one called ghrelin (aka the hunger hormone), which together can increase appetite, leading to higher BMIs and obesity.
Lack of sleep has also been found to reduce glucose tolerance, putting people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Research by Donga et al found that just one night of partial sleep can have an effect on insulin resistance. This is a serious condition that can affect your life in many ways, including relationships with your family. Of course, healthy diets and activity levels are required in addition to adequate sleep to maintain a healthy weight.
Heal our bodies
Sleep enhances muscle recovery. This is especially important after exercise or if you have any sort of muscle injury. While you’re asleep, your energy consumption is low, meaning that the energy you have can work on restoring bones and muscle. This is done by increasing blood flow to certain areas, which “brings along oxygen and nutrients that help recover and repair muscles and regenerate cells.”.
Along with increasing blood flow, the body also releases growth hormones during sleep which are essential for tissue growth and repair, bone building and fat burning. Staying healthy and rested can help you to keep up with your child as it grows older.
Heal our minds
Lack of sleep alone doesn’t cause depression, but along with other problems, it is seen as one of the factors linked to the illness.
A study by Nutt et al found that “links between sleep and depression are strong. About three quarters of depressed patients have insomnia symptoms.” It is thought that sleep deprivation can make a person less enthusiastic, more irritable, and lead to feelings of sadness and loneliness.
This is especially prominent with new parents as, combined with other stresses, it can lead to postpartum depression. Lack of sleep can both trigger and worsen the symptoms of postpartum depression.
A good night’s sleep can reduce fatigue and re-energise us to handle whatever parenting challenge is thrown at us the next day, without it becoming too overbearing.
Boost our immunity
Lack of sleep can increase our risk of inflammatory diseases like arthritis, periodontist and cancer. It can affect our immune function, which in turn can increase our chance of getting ill from viruses, and our recovery time from these illnesses.
Lack of sleep can also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. A study by Michiaki Nagai found that sleep deprivation is a significant risk factor when it comes to coronary heart disease and concluded that to stay healthy, sleep periods should be neither too short nor too long.
Sleep tips for new parents
Keep your baby close
It is advised that babies sleep in a crib in the same room as you for the first 6 months – this can help to reassure you about your baby’s well-being, leading to less anxiety and better sleep. But there are pros and cons of co-sleeping and – while there are no clear recommendations for sleeping arrangements after 6 months – the general evidence points towards transitioning to a separate room to help your baby sleep better, which can also help you sleep better. Take a look at our blog post on co-sleeping for more information.
Establish a routine
Babies are not born with a sleep routine and a sense of day and night. They develop and learn this gradually. Having a consistent bedtime routine can help your little one get into the rhythm of sleeping, meaning that they’ll settle easier and it may give you more time to sleep. If you are sharing the care of your baby with a partner, you could plan things such as who is getting up in the night, to create less disruption to the sleep of whoever isn’t getting up. (Make sure there’s some pumped milk ready if it’s mum’s turn to stay in bed).
The introduction of a new baby can be pretty manic, but if you are able to find a few minutes to yourself, try some things that could relax you. This could include exercise, meditation, or breathing and mindfulness techniques. Try winding down before bed with a good book, or give a friend a call. Don’t feel guilty about taking some time for yourself – it may help you to care for your child better in the long run.
Switch off to switch off
Light plays an important part when it comes to sleep, especially the blue light that comes from things such as televisions and phones. After a busy day with your baby, you might want to catch up with friends online or doze off while watching a movie, but this artificial light can have negative effects on sleep, and can delay the onset of REM sleep – meaning that you may be sleeping, but not getting the quality sleep that you need. Try switching off at least 30 minutes before bed and see if that makes a difference.
When it comes to getting up in the night, a soft night light is not only useful for reducing the risk of your baby’s sleep being disturbed – it can also make it easier for you to fall back to sleep after night feeds and changes. Just make sure you use a nightlight that’s dim and free from blue light.
Don’t get up at the slightest noise
It’s understandable that a noise from your baby will alert you, but if it’s just something small, not responding straight away will allow your baby to learn to self-soothe and fall back to sleep by themselves. This gives you a better chance of falling back to sleep and creates less disturbances in the long term.
Parents need naps too
If your baby is napping in the daytime, try to have one yourself. The National Sleep Foundation says that “a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance.” And napping has been found to be more effective than coffee. So it might be tempting to down an espresso and run around doing chores while your little one has an afternoon snooze, but it may be more beneficial to use that time to rest your head too.
We hope this has helped you to understand how important sleep is for us all.