Dr Harvey Karp

Dr Harvey Karp

By Dr. Harvey Karp


Not getting enough ZZZs does more than make us groggy and grouchy—it greatly impacts our physical and mental health…and our ability to parent.

Whether you’ve got an infant snoozing in a cot at your bedside—or an older baby slumbering in the nursery—their frequent squawks, squeaks, and feeds are likely waking you every couple of hours…leaving you nothing short of exhausted. In fact, research shows that new parents lose 109 minutes of sleep every night for the first year of their baby’s life. And that sleep loss doesn’t stop there: Further research shows that mums remain relatively sleep deprived four to six years after their first child’s birth. So, yeah, parents are tired…and it’s wreaking havoc on their bodies, brains, and their ability to parent. Here’s how:

The Science of Parent Sleep Deprivation

It doesn’t matter if we sleep for eight hours or a paltry four, if our slumber is interrupted, we wake up feeling tired. That’s because sleep disturbances often fracture our sleep cycles, chipping away at our NREM sleep, which is deep, renewing “slow-wave” sleep, aka our sleep sweet spot. During NREM sleep, our brains busily erase non-essential memories, store must-know info, and prepare for a new day of learning. When robbed of NREM sleep, our bodies and brains simply aren’t adequately restored and refreshed. And that’s why new parents often wake up feeling tired and remain low energy throughout the day.

Sleep Deprivation & Mental Health

Prolonged fatigue sabotages moods. We get whiny, unhappy, demanding…and we drift from our loved ones. When compared to parents who clock eight hours of shuteye a night, those who get less than five are 15% more likely to feel distance from their partners. Research even shows that sleep deprivation ups our risk for depression…especially for new parents. That’s because the neurotransmitters (chemicals your neurons use to communicate with each other) that influence sleep quality also affect mood. Plus, sleep deprivation/neurotransmitters misfire leads to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception. It’s almost as if your sleep-starved brain is drunk!

Sleep Deprivation & Physical Health

From illness to injury, sleep deprivation can put us in danger. It undermines a key part of the body’s inflammatory response (called cytokines), which is essential for fighting off infections. That’s why sleep loss makes us three times more likely to catch a cold and 50% more likely to get pneumonia. At the same time, not getting enough ZZZs increases our risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more according to research. When sleep-time is reduced, so is the time that our cells, organs, and internal functions have to recharge and restore. For instance, when lolling in NREM sleep, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure drops, and our breathing stabilizes…all of which reduces stress on the heart, allowing for much-needed recovery from a day’s worth of strain. Finally, when sleep deprived, our bodies and brains are fighting to juggle three tasks at once: We want to sleep, but we also want to stay awake…and we want (or need) to perform a task. These competing desires muck up our attention, leading to cognitive lapses and delayed reaction time…which ups our risk of all sorts of accidents, including car crashes.

Sleep Deprivation & Parenting

It’s so much harder to be on your parenting A-game when exhausted…and studies prove this. For instance, research in the Journal of Family Psychology shows that caregivers who are lacking in sleep experience higher levels of stress. And that uptick in stress is associated with difficulty regulating emotions and embracing positive parenting. Even more worrisome, lack of sleep causes many groggy parents, even those who know the ABCs of safe sleep, to make the risky choice of bed sharing, which increases a baby’s risk of sudden unexpected death (SUDI and SIDS)

Sleep Deprivation Help

For many parents, their little ones are a key cause of sleepless nights. So, it stands to reason that tackling Baby’s sleep will enhance your own sleep. My favourite sleep-extender: Rumbly white noise. It works to prevent outside disturbances (passing cars, loud TVs) and internal irritations (teething pain, stuffy noses) from fully jarring babies awake when they enter light sleep. Swaddling and gentle rocking also work wonders at activating your sweetie’s natural “off switch” for crying and “on switch” for sleep. Incorporating all the above into a reliable, predictable bedtime routine, complete with dim light and zero screens for about an hour before lights out, will help bring on the sleep. For you? Simply remove swaddling and rocking and you’ve got a perfect bedtime routine!