Bad News: Sleep-Deprived Parents Will Stay That Way Until Their Youngest Hits Kindergarten

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It’s absolutely no secret that new parents (and parents in general) are exhausted. My oldest is two, and I can count the number of nights of uninterrupted sleep I’ve had on one hand. Literally. And while we think “oh, I can catch up when the kids are at grandmas” or “once the baby starts sleeping all night I’ll be able to stop doing things like trying to hang my coat up in the fridge,” the science is in and…that’s just not true.

In fact, the science says it will take six whole years before parents get a decent night’s sleep after having a baby.

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It seems hard to believe – sure, night feedings end fairly quickly (in retrospect), but kids are sick and they have nightmares and they wake up for no apparent reason and need a drink or to come sleep in your bed. Parenting is 24/7, and we know that, but researchers were still caught a bit off guard.

Study co-author Sakari Lemola, a psychology professor at the University of Warwick, commented in The Guardian:

“We didn’t expect to find that, but we believe that there are certainly many changes in the responsibilities you have.”

Previous research estimated that parents lose about 44 days of sleep during their child’s first year of life, with mothers being hit harder than fathers. That said, more and more fathers are accepting larger parenting roles and, as they often go back to work sooner, have fewer opportunities to nap during the day.

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This study tracked the sleep of 2541 moms and 2118 dads over the course of six years. They parents reported births of children, as well as how well they slept on weeknights versus weekends. Women experienced the most lost sleep during baby’s first year, reporting a 1.7 point decline in sleep quality after their first children and another 1 point decline after the birth of each subsequent child. On average, moms lost about 40 minutes of sleep per night in that first year, and in the first three months they lost over an hour. Comparatively, dads lost only 13 minutes of sleep per night during their first year of parenthood.

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Regardless of the differences, it took up to 6 years for both men and women to return to their normal sleep schedule after having a child. The results were also similar regardless of income, whether or not both parents worked, and single parenting.

There is a reason that sleep-deprivation is used as a torture device, and more than a few health reasons parents should be concerned – and take care to minimize the effects of a poor night’s sleep on their life and body.

Insufficient sleep is associated with car accidents, poor concentration and performance at work, increased illness, weight gain, and a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

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Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it when you’ve got small children; if your little one needs you in the middle of the night you can’t really tell them to go piss up a rope and roll over.

But researchers did make a few suggestions.

“For parents, lifestyle management strategies might include stress management, exercise, enlisting help from family and friends and seeking the guidance of professionals such as therapists or physicians when needed.”

“Families benefit from prioritizing healthy sleep – this can be accomplished through limited caffeine intake, having a consistent and calming evening routine, keeping the bedroom dark, and reducing exposure to bright screens such as cell phones, tablets, and TVs close to bedtime.”

And take heart, mamas and daddies – six years will go by in a flash.