A lack of sleep is par for the course when you have a baby – new parents are braced for that. But it seems having children can impact your sleep patterns for much longer than you might expect.
It’s widely accepted the first three months are the hardest for new parents when it comes to sleepless nights. Now, researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK say both the amount and quality of sleep we get can be affected for up to six years.
From 2008 to 2015, they examined the sleep patterns of 2541 women and 2118 men who had experienced the birth of their first, second or third child. Parents were asked to rate their level of sleep satisfaction on a scale of 0 – 10. They also noted how much sleep they got on both normal weeknights and at weekends.
Women’s sleep affected more
Their findings showed that women’s sleep was affected more than men’s after giving birth. On average, they slept an hour less per night than before they were pregnant, while men reported an average change of around 15 minutes. Mothers who breast-fed also reported being less satisfied with their sleep than those whose babies were bottle-fed.
“Women tend to experience more sleep disruption than men after the birth of a child, reflecting that mothers are still more often in the role of primary caregiver than fathers,” explained Dr Sakari Lemola of the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology, one of the report’s co-authors.
While sleep duration increased over time, when their children were four to six years old women still reported sleeping around 20 minutes fewer per night compared with pre-pregnancy. Fathers continued to report a decrease of around 15 minutes.
Harder for first-time parents
First-time parents were found to suffer worse sleep deprivation than those who had had their second or third child, with the affects lasting longer.
The study, carried out in collaboration with the German Institute for Economic Research and West Virginia University, reports that the amount of lost sleep was unaffected by household income levels. There was also no difference between one or two-parent families.
Dr Lemola said: “While having children is a major source of joy for most parents, it is possible that increased demands and responsibilities with the role lead to shorter sleep and decreased sleep quality even up to six years after birth of the first child.”
How to combat lack of sleep
- Put your feet up. When baby sleeps, you sleep. This is especially important in the early weeks when deprivation is as its worst. You might say nappig during the day makes you sluggish when you wake – but with a new baby, ‘groggy’ is normal anyway. Even if your kids are older, try to rest when they do. Simply lying down and closing your eyes for half an hour will help. If you go out to work, follow your child’s pattern once you’re home.
- Share night-time feeding. If you’re a breast-feeding mum, express milk so your partner can help with night feeds. If your baby is on formula, agree a rota so you both take turns to get up. There’s no reason why one parent should be solely responsible for the night shift.
- Find ways to switch off. Even when you’re exhausted it can be impossible to fall asleep. Try taking a warm bath before bed, enjoying a milky drink or download a meditation programme. Explore different relaxation techniques to discover what works for you.
- Avoid too much caffeine. It’s tempting to mainline espresso when you’ve had a bad night and have a busy day ahead, but gulping down coffee in the morning can have a detrimental effect on your quality of sleep. Moderate your caffeine intake as much as you can.
- Step away from the screen. Put down your phone, switch off your laptop and unplug yourself from the games console at least half an hour before going to bed. Your brain needs time to power down and get into ‘rest’ mode.