Wellbeing: Six tips for managing to cope with sleep deprivation as a new parent
Sleepless nights can be part and parcel of parenthood – but every little helps when it comes to topping up on rest, as experts tell Liz Connor
MOST parents know that the arrival of a new baby spells the end of those long Sunday morning lie-ins. Gone are the days of snoozing in bed with the weekend newspapers and a gloriously empty schedule – now your nights and mornings revolve around hourly feeds, nappy changes and running on adrenaline.
Experts frequently advise that we aim for eight hours of shut-eye per night, but if you have a newborn, it can be normal to go weeks or even months without getting more than a few hours of unbroken sleep at a time.
A recent survey, by sleep technology brand Simba, found that for the first year of their baby's life, new parents get just four hours and 44 minutes slumber a night on average. More than half of the poll respondents also report looking back at the first 12 months of parenthood and being amazed that they were able to function as well as they did on so little sleep.
We all know that just one night of bad kip can feel brutal enough, but when you repeatedly miss out on quality rest, you end up in a sleep-debt that can leave you feeling groggy, confused and miserable – not exactly ideal when you've got a baby to look after.
"Just like regular exercise and a healthy diet, sleep helps the body to function," says Ana Noia, senior clinical physiologist in neurophysiology and sleep for Bupa UK (bupa.co.uk). Getting enough rest is one of the most important things you can do for your health, particularly when you need to be alert to the needs of a child.
Noia explains that a good night's sleep improves your ability to learn, reduces mental fatigue, and helps form memories in your brain. And, of course, getting enough regular sleep is essential for keeping burnout at bay.
"Beyond physical fatigue, tiredness and low energy levels, not getting enough sleep for a long period of time can lead to serious health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, so it's really important that we give our bodies the chance to rest," she adds.
But, having the best intentions in the world isn't necessarily much help for new parents, with demanding little ones in the mix. So what can they do to help ensure they get as much sleep as possible? Here are six sleep tips for new parents...
1. Sleep when your baby sleeps
A good way to make up for lost slumber is to try and sneak in pockets of rest when your baby settles. "If you're at home and your baby is napping, try to lie down as well," says Noia. "Power-napping could help you recharge your batteries, boost your mood and reduce stress levels. Try to nap for 20 minutes, as this will help improve your alertness and mood." Any longer than this and Noia warns that you may hit the deeper stages of sleep, making you feel more groggy when you wake up.
"It might be tempting to make a start on the housework," says family wellbeing expert Dani Binnington (healthywholeme.com), "but there really is no need to rush around the house frantically while your little one is having a nap. There's always a wash to put on and bins to empty – especially with a new baby around – but remember: These chores are nowhere near as important as looking after your wellbeing."
2. Adjust your bedtime
Keep a sleep diary monitoring your child's resting patterns, as you might find that they have repetitive habits, such as waking up very early in the mornings. "If your child is an early riser, bring your own bedtime earlier to help you get more sleep," says Noia. "For example, if your child wakes up around 6am, try adjusting your bedtime to around 10pm."
Binnington adds: "Research suggests that every hour spent asleep before midnight is worth two hours spent asleep after midnight. So, don't worry about getting back to your old sleep routine – go to bed early instead for better quality sleep. And if you struggle to nod off, try plugging yourself into a meditation app or doing some guided mindfulness exercises, as this can really help distract you from any niggling parental worries that are on your mind."
3. Go for morning walks
If you're struggling to keep your eyes open during the daytime, getting outdoors could be the key to staying awake until you're next able to get some rest. "Try taking regular walks to get some fresh air, as sunlight in the morning [during spring and summer months] provides vitamin D that will help to keep you alert during the day," says Noia.
"When it comes to food, stick to lighter meals and snacks, as these are less likely to make you feel drowsy or affect your alertness," she adds. "Fruits such as bananas are good nibbles to have on hand, as they contain slow-release sugar which will give you energy over a longer period of time."
4. Improve your environment
Resting in a cool, dark room with no distractions can help you drift off quickly when you're sleeping between feeds. "Try to get as comfortable as possible and power down your phone for an hour before bed, as the blue light emitted from your screen can keep you awake," says Noia. "If you find yourself awake in the night with your baby, avoid switching on your digital devices and keep any light in the room to a minimum."
5. Ask for support if you need it
When you become a parent, it's tempting to put on a brave face and avoid showing any signs of 'weakness', for fear of criticism or feeling like a failure – but parenthood is challenging and a huge learning curve, and it's always a good idea to seek help if your sleep issues are becoming a burden.
"While feeling tired is normal during the early days of parenthood, if it is preventing you from carrying out day-to-day tasks and affecting your quality of life, you should speak with your GP," advises Noia. "They can discuss your sleeping habits and give you practical advice solutions."
6. Don't set unrealistic expectations
New parents have a lot of plates to spin; as well as caring for your baby, you might feel pressure to keep up old friendships, get back into shape or monitor work emails – but taking too much on can quickly lead to burnout. "Don't add on unnecessary stresses when you're already suffering from sleep deprivation," says Binnington. "You'll be back to your full routines soon enough, but until then, just allow yourself to listen what your body is telling you to do – and that's usually to rest up."