Rachel and Ross in Friends, Haley and Dylan in Modern Family, Miranda and Steve in Sex and the City, Jane and Rafael in Jane The Virgin… The raccoon-eyed new parent is a trope we’ve heard about and seen in films and TV shows so often, we almost don’t think about sleep deprivation as a health issue that can have far-reaching effects.
If you have a newborn or sleep-untrained toddler, and are wondering if it’s natural to be so tired that you’re ready to fall asleep standing, don’t. Even Meghan Markle and Prince Harry struggled to get sufficient shut-eye as new parents, so what hope do us mere mortals have as we deal with early morning feeds, incessant midnight wailing and diapers that seemingly need to be changed at all hours of the day and night?
“Most new parents want to be perfect, which means doing everything for their babies and forgetting about themselves,” says Ausra Cirkelyte, a paediatric sleep consultant and founder of King of Sleep in Sharjah.
While a lot of sleep deprivation can be credited to the daunting task of keeping a tiny person who can’t communicate their needs alive, Cirkelyte also attributes sleeplessness to psychological factors, especially for mothers. “Most parents feel anxious about falling asleep and not hearing their babies. Post-partum depression plays a big role too, with one in eight mums suffering from it. There are also studies that show its risk increases for mothers with babies who don’t sleep well.”
Health professionals around the world recommend about between seven to nine hours of sleep every day for the average healthy adult, based on decades of research on sleep. And how much are parents getting? The numbers vary from study to study, but everyone agrees on this — not nearly enough!
There’s quantifiable research on the subject of new parents and the sleep debt they accrue in the months after their baby’s birth. According to a 2021 research by Sleep Junkie, only 10 per cent of new parents said they managed anywhere close to seven hours of sleep in the first 18 months. Most were getting by on five to six hours, and were losing an average of 109 minutes of sleep every night in the first year. A 2019 survey from Owlet Baby Care found that 43 per cent of the parents surveyed were getting only one to three hours of uninterrupted sleep in the first six months.
“While short-term sleep deprivation can be manageable, it can have serious repercussions over a sustained period,” says Dr Tanya Dharamshi, a counselling psychologist and clinical director at Priory Wellbeing Centre Dubai. “There can be permanent loss of brain cells, diminished general motor skills, difficulties with memory, impaired concentration and focus, irritability, and the vicious cycle of anxiety that makes it difficult to fall or stay asleep, which in turn makes one feel more stressed and anxious.”
According to a widely cited 2014 paper on the role of sleep in emotional brain function, published in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology by University of California researchers, even one night of sleep deprivation can exacerbate a person’s emotional response to negative feelings by a whopping 60 per cent.
Perhaps most damningly, severely sleep-deprived parents can pose a safety risk to their baby’s life. “When parents are so exhausted, it is possible they might forget about safe sleep precautions, such as placing the infant in a crib free from any loose objects or falling asleep while breastfeeding and risking blocking the infant’s airways,” says Cirkelyte.
No, don’t panic just yet. While there’s no silver bullet solution to sleep deprivation caused by a baby, our experts reveal the hacks you can implement to try and make up for your sleep deficit.
Sleeping tips for babies
For the baby, Cirkelyte recommends keeping the baby’s room as dark as possible during naps and at night to encourage better sleep. “Do not leave the night lights on when trying to put babies to sleep,” she says.
Parents should also aim for full feeds, especially at night, so the baby is able to sleep for longer stretches. “This gives the mother a good stretch of time to rest and recuperate, too.”
Overtiring the baby is not recommended, says Cirkelyte. “A newborn can only tolerate about 45 minutes of staying awake, so trying to put them to sleep every 45 minutes will help them fall asleep faster and easier. A four-month-old baby can tolerate about two hours of staying awake, an eight-month-old can stay awake for about three hours and at the one-year mark, they can manage between four and five hours of staying awake. I suggest keeping an eye on the clock, so that the baby is not overtired and cranky by the time you put them down for a nap.”
Swaddling is another trick to master. “Some babies hate it initially, but come to love it later, especially as you get better at it. Find the perfect spot — not too tight, not too loose, just cocooned enough for your baby,” says Cirkelyte.
“Finally, keep what you need handy. Don’t break the sleep routine by wasting precious moments hunting for sheets, diapers, pacifiers etc when the baby is drowsy. Everything you need for the sleep routine should be within reach of the crib.”
Sleeping tips for parents
When it comes to yourself, Dharamshi stresses the need to have a routine, even if it’s difficult to always maintain. “Have fixed hours for when you, your partner or other caregivers will be on baby duty, so you can have a roughly consistent time of going to bed,” she says. “Have a set place to sleep, so your mind and body go into sleep mode quickly when you’re in that place.
“Similarly, doing a series of simple, calming things as a routine before bedtime will cue your mind and prime your body to relax. Have an evening relaxation routine that’s just for yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes long. It could be something as simple as taking a warm bath, moisturising the skin, listening to music or a sleepcast, reading a book or journaling. Writing down your worries and anxieties can help your brain to let them rest for the night instead of dwelling on them in bed.”
Like for the baby’s room, your space should be dark (blackout curtains are your friend), with the temperature and noise levels regulated.
Also avoid caffeinated drinks and large meals before bedtime, as well as steering clear of screens. “Avoid all screens — phones, tablets, laptops — for two to three hours before bedtime,” says Dharamshi. “Not only will the light from the screens affect your sleep cycle, but reading the news and even social media can also increase anxiety levels and interfere with sleep. If you do have to use a screen for some reason, change the settings to night mode. You’ll invariably end up spending lesser time on the phone and it will be less intrusive.”