Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dealing Realistically with Postpartum Sleep Deprivation Part I

Over the last 3 years, some of our most popular posts have been related to infant sleep and many of our new readers find us when they are searching for reasons why their babies are still waking (particularly at 6 weeks). We know you’re tired; we know babies take a long time to sleep "through the night." To make things worse, there are more news reports every day about the negative effects of losing sleep. What are new parents supposed to do? In today’s post, we’ll talk about the science and realities of sleep deprivation in the first 6 months postpartum and next time, we’ll share some ideas about coping with this inevitable challenge.

The Baby Side of Waking
We’ve already written quite a bit about how babies’ sleep patterns change over time and the reasons why babies need to wake, especially early on. The bottom line is that young babies need to wake to eat frequently enough to grow well and to ensure that they get the care they need (to be warm, clean, etc.). The first 6 weeks are especially brutal because newborns don’t have the hormones in place to know night from day, so they wake (literally) at all hours. Of course, babies differ a great deal in how much sleep they need but many babies take at least 6 months before they are sleeping 6 hours most nights.
If you are still reading because you think I’m going to tell you the “secret” of getting your baby to sleep longer, you’re reading the wrong blog. There isn’t a safe way to make your baby sleep longer until he is ready (remember we are talking about young babies here). This post is about your real challenge – you have a baby that needs to wake up but you have a life, responsibilities… and besides, being sleep deprived makes you feel awful!  
Baby versus Adult Sleep
While both babies and parents move through different types of sleep in "cycles," the cycles differ in some important ways. Both adult and babies' sleep cycles include periodic dreaming (light sleep) and time without dreaming (deep sleep) but they differ in the timing and duration of each of these types of sleep. Babies waking up at all hours can leave parents without the REM (dreaming) sleep they need for normal brain function and the non-REM sleep they need to feel refreshed.
Rethinking the Problem
Your most pressing problem is figuring out how little sleep do you need to get by. This is where understanding about light sleep and deep sleep comes in. You need both types of sleep every day and you need to find ways to get enough of each type in a 24 hour period even if your sleep is interrupted. While everyone is different in how much sleep of each type they need, most adults drift in and out of both types of sleep within a 90-minute period. That means that most adults will get some benefit from having at least 1.5 to 2 hours of sleep at once. If you normally slept 8 hours before the baby came, you’re going to need about 5 of those 90 minute cycles every 24 hours to feel rested. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that it isn’t the same as getting all 8 hours of sleep at once. As a new parent, you know there are lots of things that can get in the way of getting 2 hours of sleep at a time, even if your baby is sleeping that long. Here are some common barriers:
  • Inability to fall asleep quickly (especially after waking to care for the baby)
  • Hormone changes
  • Visitors
  • Daily routines and habits
  • Household chores
  • Returning to work and/or other responsibilities
  • Other children
  • Stress
Next time, we’ll share some ideas on how to get around these barriers and get more “quality” sleep even if the quantity is still a few weeks or months away.
Hunter LP, Rychnovsky JD, Yount SM.A selective review of maternal sleep characteristics in the postpartum period. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2009 38:60-8.
Soledad Coo Calcagni, Bei Bei, Jeannette Milgrom & John Trinder. The Relationship Between Sleep and Mood in First-Time and Experienced Mothers, Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2012 10:3, 167-179.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good reason to hire a postpartum doula. They can help with the barriers that keep parents with new babies from getting time to rest.