By: Margo Schafer

family & sleepNobody places more value on a good night’s sleep than new parents. It won’t take long for them to discover that mom’s hormones are raging, the baby is crying, and nobody in the household is getting any sleep. Let’s face it, these people are tired.

While most parents understand that they will suffer from sleep deprivation after the baby arrives, many are unprepared for the stress, mental fatigue, and irritability that caring for an infant can cause. Couples are making major life and relationship adjustments while facing the sheer exhaustion caused by a lack of sleep.

According to many sleep researchers, a baby’s circadian rhythms-our body’s natural cycles of sleep and waking-generally do not begin to develop until the baby is six weeks old. Newborn babies wake up an average of every two to three hours during the night, which means mom or dad is getting up, too. Only after several months-usually six-will a baby sleep in long stretches of several hours through the night.

“Most people don’t know how harmful a lack of sleep can be, and the harm we can cause to those around us,” said Dr. Thomas Roth, health and scientific advisor of the National Sleep Foundation. Extreme fatigue can cause concentration difficulties, mood swings, forgetfulness and memory problems.

New mothers are particularly prone to severe exhaustion because in addition to not sleeping for most of the night, they are experiencing hormonal fluctuations, changes in weight, and possible postpartum depression. Thus, mood swings are to be expected.

So how can new parents learn to function under duress and adjust their lives to accommodate less sleep?

First, remember that the lack of sleep is temporary. “This too shall pass,” is a great maxim to remember when it’s 3 a.m., you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days, and your child is screaming to be fed. The most severe sleep deprivation occurs in the first three months. By the fourth month, your baby will probably have established a sleep routine and will be sleeping for longer stretches.

Try to make up for lost sleep, if possible. A 20- to 30-minute nap can work wonders for your outlook and feeling of exhaustion. Most new parents have heard that they should try to sleep when the baby sleeps, and this advice is frequently repeated for a reason: it works. Many experts have advised that taking a nap around 3:30 in the afternoon, when we are sometimes sleepy, can help as well, though you should try not to sleep more than an hour or you may have difficulty with insomnia later that evening.

You may also find that it is difficult to introduce naps into your routine, even when you are really tired. Don’t worry, like everything else, practice is required and your body needs to get used to a routine nap.

According to many sleep researchers, waking up four or fives times in a night can cause even more exhaustion than sleeping only a few hours each night because your body will not have enough time to get to the most restorative sleep stages that it requires to feel rested.

It takes about 90 minutes to move through four stages of sleep to get to the dream state of sleep, also known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep, along with “deep sleep,” the fourth stage of sleep just before REM, is what makes us feel rested upon waking. When new parents are getting up every few hours, the 90-minute sleep cycle is interrupted and must begin again each time the parent tries to sleep. The result is less time spent in the most crucial-and restful-stages of sleep.

Your baby’s sleep patterns; however, are nothing like your own. Newborns experience nearly half of their sleep time in REM and have much shorter sleep cycles. Even though they are waking up around the clock, they are not sleep deprived at all.

Your newborn may even make “night-time noises” during sleep: cooing, slurping, gurgling, or even whimpering while asleep. This is normal for the baby, but can severely affect your own ability to sleep if you use a baby monitor or sleep with the child in your room. This is often the most challenging thing for parents to negotiate. As a side effect to your insomnia after childbirth, mothers tend to spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep. During these periods we can still respond to the environment to some degree, and research has shown that nothing causes a more visceral reaction than a baby’s cry (even for those who do not have children). Consequently, parents are “hard-wired” to wake up at these cries and do so more often because of the increased time spent in light sleep. Negotiating ahead of time who will feed the baby and when during the night can be helpful as one parent can use sound muffling devices or have more “white noise” in the room for the parent who won’t be getting up with the baby.

Most sleep researchers agree that darkness is also a factor in how well or how often we sleep because it cues our body’s natural rhythms that it’s time to rest. Therefore, many experts advise that you not turn on a light during nightly feedings so you will not confuse your baby or your body about what time it is.

Finally, give yourself a break. It’s okay to experience highly emotional “meltdown moments” during extreme fatigue. Don’t expect to have the same energy level that you had before the baby was born, and let the housework slip. It will still be there when you are ready for it. In the meantime, catch some ZZZZZ’s, try to relax, and enjoy your baby. Before you know it, he or she will be ready for college.