As a parent, you expect to be tired … but not this tired, right? Disturbed sleep and lack of sleep is really debilitating, and can have a big impact on you and your child’s mental and physical wellbeing. How does sleep deprivation actually affect our bodies?
Sleep would generally be right at the top of the wishlist for any new parent. We’re not talking about lazy Sunday morning lie-ins, those days are long gone; just 6 hours of deep, uninterrupted golden sleep would suffice.
For the vast majority of parents, it’s the single most talked about topic there is. We feel the need to analyse in great detail why little Johnny is so wakeful, and feel a pang of jealousy when someone dares to utter that their child “sleeps through the night”. But in reality, sleep disturbances and bedtime battles are commonplace in many households.
So what is it about sleep that drives us to utter despair and conquers our thoughts on a daily basis? Well, let’s face it, sleep is vital for mental and physical wellbeing and without it we simply wouldn’t function. Over short periods of time, our bodies cope remarkably well with broken sleep, but prolonged sleep deprivation can have devastating consequences for family life. And, unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation can have an even bigger impact on your child.
here are some of the most common problems associated with broken sleep:
parental isolation Many parents say they feel as though they are the only parent dealing with a sleep issue and often feel ashamed to share their experiences with other parents. Sadly, we live in a society of competitiveness and comparison, and are often too afraid to speak up and ask for help.
tearful and anxious These feelings can quite often be confused with Postnatal Depression, but actually it can be simply due to a lack of REM sleep. Because REM sleep is mentally restorative, not having enough of it can leave parents feeling tearful, anxious and with a general sense of feeling ‘low’. It is important to know that for adults, REM sleep usually occurs during the second part of the night (between 2-5am) which is, unfortunately, when most babies are likely to be more unsettled, thus compounding the problem.
poor concentration/memory loss Parents report that one of the first things they notice when they are tired is the inability to focus on a simple task. Remembering appointments or when you last fed the baby is difficult, and even planning the next meal can seem like a huge hurdle. It is simply your body’s way of prioritising its resources, thus your cognitive functioning is usually the first to go. Sleep deprivation affects children in the same way.
resistance to sleep The adage ‘sleep begets [promotes] sleep’ is important to remember. Research shows that when humans sleep, their nervous system settles. That means that sleep is part of both your and your baby/child’s biology for calming. If your child misses out on sleep or doesn’t sleep well, they may be missing out on the settling and calming that sleep provides. This can make for a very sleep-deprived, fussy and cranky baby/child who may have more difficulty not only sleeping, but also learning, interacting, and socialising. Sleep-deprived babies need a lot more parent help to sleep and research shows that they also cry more. Babies who are better rested will sleep better overall. It also means that without proper sleep over a length of time, our bodies go into ‘fight or flight’ mode which increases the levels of cortisol in our bodies (a naturally-occurring hormone associated with stress) and with these increased levels, your (and your child’s) body will find it harder to shut down and relax.
poor appetite or cravings A lot of sleep-deprived children can become ‘fussy eaters’ and tend to crave familiar foods in small quantities. An increased interest in and appetite for food is often the first thing parents comment on once their child starts sleeping better. Additionally, many parents find they succumb to cravings when tired, leading to bad dietary habits, as well as sugar lows and over-reliance on stimulants such as caffeine; all of which have negative effects on our bodies, as well as affecting night-time sleep.
lowered immune system Non-REM sleep (stage 4 deep sleep) is a vital stage of sleep where blood is released to our muscles, tissue is grown and repaired, the immune system functions fully and hormones are released for growth and development. Without enough non-REM sleep, children’s bodies aren’t growing at their potential, and our adult bodies aren’t functioning at their peak, so we start to feel run down and become more susceptible to illness.
No matter what kind of sleep problem you are experiencing, it is always worthwhile first asking yourself: “What impact is this having on my family life?”. Some parents choose to co-sleep with their children and if that works for you and you all get a good sleep, then nothing needs to be done. However, if your night-time disturbances are driving you to despair and impacting on your daily life, then you need to address it before it grinds you down. Don’t let sleep deprivation cloud those precious years of parenthood!
survival strategies for parents
The first thing to do is to engage the support and understanding of your partner or a close friend/family member. Quite often, when given a role, partners love to be involved, and sometimes just talking it through with someone can help ease the burden.
If your baby is still waking for night feeds and you are breast feeding, try expressing some milk so your partner can help out. Perhaps swap shifts so you each take it in turns to do different stages of the niwght; this will help maximise your chances of getting better quality sleep.
Ensure that you rest when your baby does, no matter what time of day it is.
Accept all offers of help from friends and relatives.
If you are able to, invest in some extra help around the house. Even if it’s only for a few weeks, it will give you a much-needed break.
Look after yourself and ensure you are getting enough to eat and drink. Try and avoid the caffeine-and-biscuit option as this will only give you a temporary lift and may play havoc with your wake/sleep cycle.
Invest in some Me Time. It may be a trip to the hairdressers, sharing a coffee with a friend or simply a walk in the fresh air. This short time away may help to rejuvenate you and allow for a little reflection.
Try online grocery shopping: an energy- and time-saving solution, plus a great way to budget as you know exactly what you are spending
Annette Faamausili is a children’s sleep advisor who runs a home consultation service for parents of children with sleep problems. (www.serenesleep.co.nz)