I haven’t slept for almost three years. OK, maybe that’s a tiny exaggeration. But I haven’t had a solid, delicious, uninterrupted night of sleep since 2010.
My 9-month-old wakes up several times a night, sometimes many times a night. So does my 2½-year-old.
For me, the biggest shock of becoming a parent was feeling jet-lagged, moving in a different time zone, where night and day are all mixed up. For some of us, that jet lag stretches into weeks and then months.
A recent British poll of new parents estimates they lose an average of six months of sleep over the first two years of a child’s life. The National Sleep Foundation in the United States also polled parents, and found that two-thirds of them think they’re not getting enough sleep.
That’s no surprise to Bay Area mom and pediatrician Lee Atkinson-McEvoy. She put in 36-hour shifts without sleep as a medical resident, but said sleep deprivation as a new parent “was a thousand times worse.”
Atkinson-McEvoy said that, after her professional training, she thought she would adapt easily to having a new baby. “But I remember being completely shocked when I had my first child, that it was nothing like that,” she said. “There wasn’t a period for catch-up sleep.”
No clocking out or ending your shift. Parenthood is a 24-hour-job.
So many of us are walking around in a fog, clawing for caffeine, forgetting our car keys. Trying to make it through the workday without sliding under our desks for a nap. And losing patience with our partners...and our kids.
Everybody’s got plenty of advice about what to do with sleepless kids -- sleep-train them, let them cry, don’t let them cry, get them on a schedule … and we’ve tried it all. The truth is, some kids just don’t sleep as well as others.
Babies are very good at shredding the night into tiny shards. Constantly interrupted sleep means it’s hard for parents to sink down into deeply restorative REM, which not only helps us recharge but also helps with memory and learning. That’s why I sometimes feel like woodpeckers have drilled holes in my brain.
“I suggest that what we have is not disordered sleep. I think what we really have are disordered expectations of new parents,” said Dr. Hawley Montgomery-Downs of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
She runs the sleep lab at West Virginia University and has been studying maternal fatigue and sleep interruption for a decade. She has strapped special wristwatches onto new moms to measure how much their sleep is getting interrupted and how it affects them during the day. In one study, she asked tired moms to regularly test their reaction time using a hand-held device. They pressed a button each time a bull’s-eye popped up on the screen.
“What we find is that their reaction time is profoundly impaired,” she said. Like drunken drivers.
Montgomery-Downs said sleeplessness has affected parents throughout history. But with less family support and more intense work lives, exhausted parents today need longer paid parental leaves:
“We’ve got fantastic federal regulations now,” she said.
“National Traffic and Safety Administration regulations for truck drivers and air traffic controllers. And yet we have postpartum parents who are arguably in one of the most important jobs that anybody can have and we’ve not paid very much attention to their sleep or to its impact.”
Mongtomery-Downs is worried about the impacts of parents’ poor sleep on their children. Sleeplessness can lead to depression and anxiety in new moms. And she’s starting to look for links to shaken baby syndrome and forgotten baby syndrome, where parents mistakenly leave their kids in the car.
But most studies stop looking at sleep problems for new parents after babies turn 3 or 4 months old. There have been very few long-term studies looking at the lasting effects of interrupted sleep.
That leaves lots more questions for sleepless moms like me … things I ponder when I can’t turn my brain off at night after my kids wake me up … like will I suffer permanent memory loss? Will I eventually be able to sleep once my kids do, or will I have to retrain my brain to stop waking up every few hours?
In the meantime, I’ve hired sleep consultant Nicole Johnson [www. babysleepsite.com] She has written up a 28-page plan to help my kids adjust their schedules and nap times so we can all try and get more sleep.
For now, I still fantasize about checking into one of those sleep capsule hotels.