Sleep deprivation

The effects of sleep deprivation (on parents and babies)

Nov 2, 2021
5 min read

Here at Little Ones we are not solely focused on baby sleep - we care about YOUR sleep too. It is our firm belief that sleep is a necessity not a luxury. In fact, it is a scientific certainty that sleep is a biological necessity, for all of us.

These days there are heaps of socially constructed walls around parenting dos and dont's. There are a lot of strong opinions on either side of every wall: bottle or breast, pacifier or no pacifier, co-sleep or not, sleep training or no sleep training, routine or go-with-the-flow... 

BUT differences and controversies aside, one thing that ALWAYS holds true with babies and parenting is sleep deprivation. There is no world in which this doesn't exist to some extent for parents.

We all get thrown a tonne of well meaning but unhelpful advice like "it's just a phase" or "that's what babies do" or "all babies are different" or "you just have to expect you'll get no sleep when you've got a baby". None of these comments mean anything at 3 in the morning when your baby is screaming and you're bawling your eyes out.

Fact is, sleep is something we all DESERVE, we all need in order to function at a basic human level. It is not just something for the lucky or that you have to give up hope on until your kids start university. Sleep is absolutely achievable for everyone, if you know how and have the right tools. Because sleep deprivation, short or long term, can affect humans on many, many levels and the truth is, you simply don't have to put up with it - there IS light at the end of that very foggy tunnel. Our own first-hand experience with chronic sleep deprivation is one of the reasons this company was developed. 

What sleep deprivation is doing to you

Sleep deprivation, mood & depression

Scientists and doctors agree that sleep deprivation plays a massive role in your emotional stability, including mental illness and depression. This quite often leads to someone being medicated for these conditions, which are a direct consequence of a chemical and hormonal imbalance as a result of lack of sleep. We have experience with mothers who have been diagnosed with post-partum depression, whose symptoms disappeared after their baby started sleeping better while following our Sleep Programs. A review of over 100 international studies, conducted in Australia, found that one third of post-natal-depression is caused because the mother needs sleep. 

Canberra University researcher and reviewer Kerry Thomas said:

"there were a number of programs that had helped parents reduce night-time waking. These were often provided through residential sleep units and maternal and child health centres, but online programs had also resulted in babies falling asleep sooner and waking less often in the night, with improvements to their mothers' mood reported two weeks later."

She then concluded that: 

"Many new mothers underestimate the effect of disrupted sleep on their emotional health and would benefit from guidance on the impact of sleep deprivation, strategies for gaining more sleep in the postnatal period and early training in sleep strategies for themselves and their infants" - Kerry Thomas, researcher at the University of Canberra.

Sleep deprivation, marriage & relationships

We've all been here. It's not news to any of us that sleep deprivation takes perhaps it's biggest toll on your relationship. For some, this will mean your partner moving out of your bed so that you can share it with your baby who won't sleep in their own cot all night long. For others, it can mean constant arguing or, ultimately, separation as you both struggle to cope with the physiological and emotional effects of chronic sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation and health

If you're missing some much-needed shut-eye, it's not just placing strain on your relationship, but actually your entire body as well. While asleep, your immune system produces infection-fighting antibodies and cells. Sleep deprivation means your immune system doesn’t have a chance to build up it's forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, it’s more likely that your body won’t be able to fend off sicknesses and it can also take you longer to recover if you do get sick. Because your immune system is lowered, you are far more likely to pick up respiratory conditions like the common cold or, more seriously, the flu. Stating the obvious, no one wants to be more at risk of sicknesses like these when you've got a baby or young children around.

Sleep, growth & repair

During sleep, the brain rests active neurons and forms new pathways so you’re ready to face the world in the morning. In babies, children and young adults the brain releases growth hormones during sleep. While you’re sleeping, your body is also producing proteins that help cells repair damage. Sleep deprivation leaves the brain exhausted, so it can’t perform its duties well. For babies, between 0-12 months is the biggest growth period of their whole life - they need the chance to sleep deeply and well during this time to aid in all this growth. 

Sleep, hormones, weight & disease

According to Harvard Medical School, sleep deprivation increases production of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone has a massive effect on baby sleep (or rather, is often the reason they DON'T sleep), but it can really affect adults too. Cortisol acts like adrenaline, or like a giant caffeine hit, which can affect your central nervous system. Lack of sleep also lowers your levels of a hormone called leptin, which tells your brain that you’ve had enough to eat, leading to an increase in weight gain. Sleep deprivation prompts your body to release higher levels of insulin after you eat, promoting fat storage and increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Sleep deprivation, functionality & safety

Aside from the obvious physical effects of sleep deprivation, like excessive tiredness, fatigue and irritability, scientific studies have shown that your decision making and ability to think rationally are also significantly affected. Not something you want to hear when you're in sole charge of a delicate and dependable little baby... especially if you're often driving them or your other children around. Harvard Medical School has released their findings into the direct link between sleep deprivation and "costly preventable accidents". If you are, according to these experts, too sleep deprived to drive a car, how on earth are you supposed to cope with keeping another human being alive?!

This is what the research tells us, what the scientists and psychologists say and it's blimmin scary to see it laid out like that. But we all know too, that sleep deprivation means yelling at your older child for no reason, it means silent tears rolling down your face as you rock your baby at 4am, it means immense guilt that you're doing something wrong, it means fear that you'll never get it right. When we're sleep deprived we're far from our best as mothers, as spouses, as humans and that is in NO ONE'S best interests.

We all approach it differently. Maybe you sought professional advice really early on. Maybe you are happy with the status quo. Maybe you're satisfied that babies are supposed to wake multiple times a night and maybe you genuinely don't mind. And maybe, deep down, you admit only to yourself that you just can't do it anymore.

Maybe you've reached your breaking point. 

And that's why we're here.

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Bibliography

  • Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv : European journal of physiology, 463(1), 121–137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0

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