By Sara Westgreen
Many parents of young children are perpetually short on sleep. In fact, a recent study of 13,000 parents indicates that 1/3 of new moms get less than six hours of sleep a night. And 60 percent say they need more sleep than they are getting.
While losing sleep as a parent of young children is a fact of life, a lack of sleep can have serious effects on your health. Especially if you’re chronically short on sleep.
You may experience:
- weight changes
- even accidents and mental confusion
Anyone who’s accidentally put the remote in the fridge after a long night with a cluster feeding baby knows you’re just not functioning 100 percent when you don’t get enough sleep.
This too shall pass
There is good news: there may be sleepless nights, but they will pass. Running on no sleep is often just a stage you have to get through, especially if you have a newborn. When you’re in the trenches of young parenthood, it may feel like you’ll never sleep well again. But you may be just a few months away from sleeping through the night. Most children sleep through the night by six months of age and only one in three children have night wakings at age four.
What can you do now?
But if you’re a parent of young children running on empty, what can you do in the meantime? Establishing expectations, good sleeping habits, and finding time to get rest for yourself are all important ways to make it through the early years of rough sleep for parents.
Know what you’re up against
Dr. Umakanth Khatwa, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Sleep Center, encourages parents to become familiar with age-appropriate sleep patterns for children. Doing so can give you realistic expectations for your childs’ sleep. While you can’t expect a newborn to sleep through the night, for example, you can expect a more regular sleep and wake cycle to begin between three to six months.
Create a healthy sleep environment
A healthy sleep environment is safe and encourages good sleep. Your child’s room or sleeping area should be quiet, cool and dark. Young children sleep best on a mattress designed appropriately for their size. Usually a crib mattress that offers a safe, firm sleeping surface that fits in a crib.
Develop a bedtime routine
A sleep routine, no matter how simple, is effective in reinforcing bedtimes. Doing the same thing just before bed and going to sleep at the same time night after night sends signals to their brains and bodies that it’s time to sleep. Your routine can be an elaborate production of bathing, feeding, massage, reading, snuggling and signing. Or something as simple as brushing teeth, putting on pajamas and giving a kiss goodnight. What matters is that you repeat your bedtime routine every night at the same time to send the message that it’s time to go to sleep.
Avoid stimulants that can interfere with sleep
Sugar, caffeine, even screen time can make it difficult for children to get to sleep and stay asleep through the night. Sleep researcher Dr. Khatwa encourages parents to avoid sugar-sweetened food and beverages before bedtime. And stop screen time with electronic devices at least one to two hours before bedtime.
Sleep when the baby sleeps
You’ve probably heard this advice since you shared the news you’d be having a baby. Everyone loves to tell parents to get rest — while parents roll their eyes and fantasize about tackling that pile of dishes or laundry as soon as naptime hits. Hardly anyone heeds this advice. In fact, 65 percent of new moms don’t nap when their baby does. But sleeping when the baby sleeps truly is good advice you should take. Enjoy a snooze every now and then and you’ll reap the benefits: reduced stress, increased energy, mental clarity, and more. Even a 20 minute nap can work wonders.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep Foundation. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.