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How can sleep deprivation affect your relationship?

Photo: Alex Green

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? And what about single parents? 

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. This is particularly alarming if we consider that the CDC recommends a healthy adult should achieve 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. [3]

“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. [4]

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. [5]

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.[6] 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. [7] Similarly, sleep deficit is associated with reduced sexual arousal and desire in women. [8]

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. 

The Sleep Struggles of New Mothers and Single Parents

Navigating the early stages of parenthood is a journey filled with joy, challenges, and, as referenced above, sleepless nights. While both moms and dads grapple with not getting enough sleep, the experience can differ significantly based on individual roles and circumstances.

The Unique Challenges Faced by New Mothers

In the initial months after giving birth, new moms embark on a multifaceted journey of recovery. Physically, their bodies are mending from the rigors of childbirth. Emotionally and mentally, they’re navigating the profound shifts that come with motherhood. Hormonal changes can sometimes lead to baby blues or even postpartum depression (PPD). While a lack of sleep doesn’t directly cause these mental health challenges, it can amplify their symptoms, making them more pronounced and harder to manage.

The consistent demands of a newborn, especially during nighttime, further compound the lack of sleep. Breastfeeding mothers, in particular, are often roused by their infant’s persistent feeding schedule. Introducing a bottle can offer some reprieve, allowing other family members to step in during nighttime feeds. However, this solution often isn’t immediate. The introduction of a bottle, whether it contains expressed breast milk or formula is typically postponed until breastfeeding is firmly established, a process that can span anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks. This timeline can be influenced by various factors, including a mother’s prior experience with breastfeeding, the baby’s health, birth circumstances, and potential breastfeeding challenges like sore nipples, engorgement, or mastitis. Consequently, mothers often shoulder the primary responsibility of nutrition during this period, leading to pronounced sleep disruptions.

Colloquial wisdom often advises new mothers to ‘sleep while the baby naps.’ While this advice sounds practical, it’s often unrealistic, especially in the early days. The hormonal and emotional shifts, combined with consecutive nights of sleep disruption, can trigger a stress response in a mother’s body, leading to increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol. This heightened state can make it difficult for mothers to relax and sleep, even when their baby sleeps. Essentially, the mother becomes “overtired,” making the simple act of resting a challenge in itself.

This advice also brings up a common question: “Can both parents sleep at the same time as the baby?” While it’s tempting, especially when both parents are exhausted, it’s essential to ensure that at least one parent is alert and available to attend to the baby’s needs, especially in the early months. As your baby grows and establishes more consistent sleep patterns, there might be opportunities for both parents to rest simultaneously. However, always prioritize the safety and well-being of your child.


The Amplified Struggles of Single Parents

Single parents confront an intensified version of sleep deprivation. Absent a partner to alternate responsibilities or step in during nighttime feedings, they grapple with unbroken cycles of sleep disturbances. This continuous lack of rest can have cascading effects on their overall health and day-to-day caregiving abilities. Beyond the physical demands, the emotional weight of single-handedly managing every aspect of childcare—from soothing a fussy baby to routine diaper changes—adds another dimension of fatigue. To navigate these challenges, single parents often craft unique strategies and lean heavily on support networks, ensuring they can meet the demands of solo parenthood.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on a Child

Just as a sleep-deprived toddler can become cranky and moody, long-term sleep deprivation can impact their overall mental health. Children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. While many expect sleep-deprived children to appear sluggish, they often exhibit hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and distractibility. This can sometimes lead to misdiagnoses, with clinicians struggling to differentiate between symptoms of ADHD and chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep deficits can also affect a child’s emotional processes, such as their ability to recognize emotions in others and interpret nonverbal cues.

Historically, child-rearing was a communal effort, with extended families and communities playing a role in supporting new parents. However, in many modern, industrialized societies, this “village” dynamic has diminished. Many parents find themselves isolated, without the broader support systems that once existed. In this context, finding a reliable source of guidance and support becomes even more crucial. One family described their experience with the Batelle Babies program as having “a friend who knows everything,” capturing the essence of what many parents seek in today’s world: a trusted ally in their parenting journey.

Navigating the Sleep Landscape: From Newborns to Toddlers and Beyond

Every new parent expects a few sleepless nights. But what many don’t anticipate is that sleep disruptions often extend far beyond those initial weeks, evolving with each developmental milestone your child reaches.

In the early days, those first 0-3 months, the world of your newborn is a haze of short sleep bursts, dictated primarily by hunger and the need for comfort. As the weeks progress, and you reach the 3-6 month mark, a semblance of a pattern might emerge. Their tiny tummies can hold a bit more, and the stretches between feedings lengthen. But just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the 4-month sleep regression which signifies the maturation of sleep cycles and the circadian rhythm might throw you a curveball.

By the time they’re 6-9 months old, solid foods start to complement their diet, and many babies begin to give their parents the gift of longer sleep stretches. Yet, developmental milestones like learning to crawl can shake things up, making some nights unpredictable. As they approach their first birthday, standing and early attempts at walking become the highlights of their days. But with these new skills, come new sleep challenges.

The toddler years, from 12-24 months, are a whirlwind of exploration and boundary-testing. While they might technically sleep through the night, challenges like resisting bedtime or early morning wake-ups can test a parent’s patience. And as they grow beyond the age of two, their sleep becomes more consistent, but transitions like potty training, moving to a toddler bed or the arrival of a new sibling can introduce new sleep disruptions.

As parents navigate these sleep challenges, many turn to sleep training as a tool to establish consistent sleep patterns and a bedtime routine. Sleep training methods vary, but the core principle is teaching your baby or toddler to fall asleep independently. This can be a game-changer for many families, ensuring that both parents and children get the rest they need. However, it’s essential to choose a method that aligns with your family’s values and comfort level.

Understanding your child’s sleep development is like piecing together a puzzle. Each stage brings its unique challenges and joys. As parents, it’s essential to arm ourselves with knowledge and strategies to navigate this ever-changing landscape. Before your baby arrives, immersing yourself in understanding typical sleep patterns can set the stage for realistic expectations. Creating a sleep-friendly environment in the nursery, with elements like blackout curtains and white noise machines, can be a proactive step as can cultivating an understanding of good sleep hygiene practices. Discussing nighttime responsibilities with your partner or support system can also alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with anticipating sleepless nights.

Once your little one is here, understanding their sleep cues and wake windows becomes paramount in helping the whole family get better sleep. This knowledge can be a game-changer in setting up a rhythm that aligns with your baby’s natural sleep patterns. Batelle’s guide on wake windows and sleep schedules is an excellent resource for this. For single parents and breastfeeding mothers, seeking support, whether from family, friends, or professionals, can make a world of difference. Remember, every parent’s journey is unique, but with the right tools and support these challenges can be navigated with confidence.

Embracing the Journey: Support in the Modern Parenting Landscape

The journey of early parenthood, while filled with moments of joy and wonder, is undeniably challenging. Sleep deprivation is a significant hurdle many face, impacting not just the well-being of parents but the entire family dynamic. It’s essential to understand that while these sleepless nights are a common part of the journey, they don’t have to define your experience.

Every parent deserves support, and in today’s fast-paced world, finding your “village” can be more challenging than ever. That’s where programs like Batelle’s Sleep School and Batelle Babies come into play. They’re designed to not only offer guidance and support but to empower parents with the tools and strategies needed to establish sustainable routines and healthy sleep habits. These programs aim to be the modern-day village, providing a community and expert insights to navigate the ever-evolving challenges of early childhood.

Remember, while the nights may sometimes feel endless, they are but a phase. With the right support, understanding, and strategies in place, you can confidently face these challenges, ensuring that both you and your child thrive. The journey of parenthood is a marathon, not a sprint, and with Batelle by your side, you’re well-equipped for the road ahead.

This article was written by Batelle – a team of sleep experts, lactation consultants, therapists, doulas, and early education specialists.

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