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Photo: Alex Green

How can sleep deprivation affect your relationship?

Sleep deprivation is a well-known side effect of bringing up children, particularly for new parents. We explore what effects this can have on the parents – in particular, how does sleep deprivation affect the parental relationship?

In his book ‘Why We Sleep,’ (2017) Matthew Walker PhD. states “the leading causes of all health issues in developed nations all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep. [1]

It is estimated that new parents lose out on 109 minutes of sleep each night during the first 12 months of parenthood. This equates to a whopping 663 hours per year.[2]  Unfortunately, this sleep deficit is not exclusive to the newborn stage – a small 2010 study suggested that over 60% of parents with children 24 months or younger get no more than 3 1/4 hours of sleep each night [3]. This is particularly alarming if we consider that the CDC recommends a healthy adult should achieve 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. [4]

“There is a clear link between lack of sleep and the quality of one’s relationships” 

The consequences of sleep deprivation on an individual’s health have been clearly established (see here, here, and here) – not only does it affect their physical and mental health as an individual, but there is a clear link between lack of sleep and the quality of one’s relationships. [5]

After polling 2000 parents, one study found that 30% of couples who had parted ways said that child-induced sleep deprivation had been a direct causative factor in the breakdown of their relationship. [6]

In light of this, one may not be surprised to learn that a fifth of couples experience a relationship breakdown within 12 months of welcoming a new baby – sleep deprivation can place major additional strain on relationships that are already under pressure in raising a child. 

“30% of couples who had parted ways said that child-induced sleep deprivation had been a direct causative factor” 

How does sleep deprivation affect new parents?

Sleep deprivation isn’t exclusive to parents – many of us know how it feels to get up after a couple of hours of disrupted sleep, with knock-on effects on both mental and physical wellbeing. Parents experience irritability and low mood after a broken night’s sleep, feeling less able to cope with everyday situations and minor stresses. One study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects limited to 4.5 hours of sleep a night for just one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, and sad.[7] It is easy to see how this impact on emotions can put strain on a relationship, provoking more arguments and exacerbating conflict on a day-to-day basis.

Further, important regulatory hormones are also significantly impacted, which can have profound effects on a couple’s sexual health. Men with poor sleep patterns were found to have significantly lower levels of testosterone which can lead to reduced libido and reproductive health. [8] Similarly, sleep deficit is associated with reduced sexual arousal and desire in women. [9]

Lack of sleep can also often lead to a lack of self-care, which combined with an increased risk of weight gain and loss of sex drive could be enough to douse the fires of passion in any relationship, and increase strain. It is easy to see how challenging these factors could be to even the most stable of couples, having clear detrimental effects on the health of a relationship. 

Unlike the body, the mind remains very active during sleep, carrying out many important functions. Adequate sleep is therefore essential to every single process in the body including our immunity, hormone health, metabolism, mental health, and risk of chronic disease. A chronic lack of sleep can therefore be the catalyst for a multitude of changes in all aspects of health and wellbeing. 

“Starting a family does not have to be to the detriment of your relationship” 

How can new parents improve their relationship? 

The good news for parents and parents-to-be is that starting a family does not have to be to the detriment of your relationship. It is possible to establish sustainable sleep associations for children, leading to reduced nighttime wakes, and quality sleep of up to 12 hours a night, reliably. This is addressing the problem at its root cause – good sleep for the whole family has countless benefits for the household.

Undoubtedly new parenting can bring about immense challenges but it also provokes intense growth and revelation. Understanding pediatric sleep and educating parents on what is possible beyond the many modern misconceptions could ensure that new families around the world are healthier and happier and more rested than ever.