Sleep deprivation can begin during pregnancy and last for several months after the arrival of your new bundle of joy. The effects of long-term sleep deprivation can be serious. Learn how sleep deprivation can affect your life and effective techniques for managing the challenge.
Kim put the car in reverse, and backed into the closed garage door. Christine dropped a fork, and cried for 20 minutes. Lisa put the baby back to bed, without a diaper. Julie forgot to grab a baby wipe before cleaning her baby’s bottom. Every new mom can tell a silly story of some crazy, zombie-like moment where they crave sleep so badly, simple things in life are no longer simple.
But sometimes, it extends to more than just a silly story. Sleep deprivation decreases a wide range of cognitive abilities including reaction time (very important when caring for young children), alertness (essential for driving), working memory (juggling multiple tasks), cognitive flexibility (seeing a situation from more than one point of view or being able to quickly switch tasks), and verbal fluency (communicating effectively).
For many women, sleep deprivation begins during pregnancy and continues well into the postpartum period. As new parents, we know how much we crave sleep, we understand by our zombie moments that we are not our best selves. But how bad is it to be sleep deprived?
Several different studies on sleep deprivation have catalogued and quantified the damages of sleep deprivation. Two weeks of six hours of sleep per night caused the same decline in cognitive function that occurred in people who went 48 hours without sleep. People who had been awake for 18 hours had the same level of impairment as someone with a blood alcohol level of 1.0 (the legal limit in most states is 0.08). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year, resulting in an estimated 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries. Sleep deprived moms are at greater risk for postpartum depression, as sleep deprivation negatively affects our moods.
The sleep deprived brain defaults to habit memory systems, that zombie-like state that can lead to silly moments, or, worse, near accidents and even tragedy as parents go through their routines without conscious thought. This explains how some parents are able to forget their child is in the car, leading to hot car deaths.
Our brains use the sleep process to organize and declutter our days’ events, store information into long-term memory, and clear the way for higher cognitive thinking throughout our day. We clearly need more and better sleep to be better parents, as well as to accomplish all the tasks in our day-to-day lives safely and efficiently. With a new baby in the house, large chunks of time aren’t available, so it’s up to new parents to adopt strategies to maximize sleep opportunities, and minimize exhausting decisions.
The first step is to prioritize sleep. Sleep when you can. That means sleep when the baby naps. Let the dishes sit in the sink, and the laundry in its baskets . Dust and dirt can be cleaned later, even days or weeks later, after you have caught up on sleep.
Create good sleep habits, even for napping. Make sure your room is dark. Switch off the television, and turn any bright clock lights away from you. Leave your smart phone in a different room, and unplug any landline that could ring in your room. Use a white noise machine, if necessary. Even turn down the baby monitor – babies can make quite a bit of noise when they sleep, alarming new parents at every sound. Have faith that you will hear your baby cry when she needs you.
Create a regular sleep schedule, if you can. Set a bedtime for yourself, and stick to it. Try to nap at the same time every day (not too late in the afternoon, say 2:00 or 3:00pm, or you’re likely to not be able to sleep at bedtime.)
Focus on keeping things simple. Dinner can be a frozen packaged meal, a box of macaroni and cheese, or even a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Our desire to be efficient can sometimes cause us to create complicated to do lists. If you need diapers, go get diapers. Don’t worry about what else you can do to make the trip “worth it.”
Accept help from lots of different sources. If your baby will take a bottle, let your partner take an overnight feeding, and give you a chance to sleep for a greater amount of time. When friends and family visit, let them wash your dishes, fold laundry, sweep a floor, or do whatever tasks are bothering you so much you can’t relax. (And don’t take their help as a criticism of your housekeeping or parenting. No one was meant to parent alone.) If they are willing to let you take a nap while they take care of the baby, let them.
Be forgiving of yourself. Thank you notes can wait. Returning calls to friends and family can wait. Getting “back in shape” can wait. In fact, everything except the baby can wait. Sleep really is that important.
Finally, get professional help if you need it. Call for an overnight nurse, even if it is for just one night a week. Knowing a professional nurse is caring for your baby’s needs can be just the reassurance you need to enjoy a deep and satisfying night’s sleep.
The best news about sleep deprivation due to a newborn is that your baby will be able to sleep for longer and longer amounts of time as they grow. Many babies are able to sleep 8 hours a night at six months old. As interminable as it seems when you’re going through it, the day will come again when you take a good night’s sleep for granted, and you can say goodbye to the zombie mom moments.