Because sleep affects the entire family, and when you’re weighing the pros and cons of taking steps to improve your baby’s sleep, it’s super important that you have all of the information - all of the science backed research that can help alleviate your concerns and may give you the permission you may need to take that next step. Just like I did. These are my top 10 reasons why you should make improving your baby’s sleep a priority.
Now, as I’m sure you have felt personally, babies are not the only ones affected by sleep deprivation. So, I want to shift gears a bit here and discuss how sleep deprivation effects parents as well.
6. First, multiple studies in labs have shown that sleep deprivation is surprisingly similar to being legally drunk. This means that a sleep deprived parent can unknowingly put themselves or their baby in physical danger - increasing the likelihood that they’ll be in a car accident or make other tragic mistakes throughout their day. I am sure you’ve heard of stories of this in the news. But I also know this was certainly the case for me with my daughter. As I mentioned before, she was the kind of baby that would only sleep in my arms, and so as a first time mom and just all around desperate parent, I co-slept with her in ways I would never recommend. I would wake up in the middle of the night and have no idea where she was. I would fall asleep at the most random places because I was just that tired. It was unsafe and scary and we’re just so very lucky that nothing happened. By the time I had my son, I was much more educated in baby sleep and could empower myself with knowledge on the safer ways to co-sleep….even in desperation, because sleep also didn’t come naturally for him.
7. And to this note, rested parents are healthier parents overall. Sleep deprivation is linked to ALL sorts of health issues for parents. It starts off as irritability, fatigue and trouble concentrating but often leads to increased appetite, disorientation, apathy and even social withdrawal from friends and family. So, at a time when new parents may need their social circle the most, they often lose contact or are unable to keep in touch as much as they wish they could.
8. And when a person is deprived of sleep, the immune system becomes unable to perform it’s typical functions. The negative effects become much more intense when the person is already sick, injured, or (healing...for instance, from childbirth). But, because the body isn’t functioning as it should, whatever harm or damage that has been done to the body - or whatever germs the person is exposed to - will only get worse.
And finally, we want to discuss relationships - and how they are affected by sleep deprivation. Research has shown again and again that sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on work performance, relationships and marriage health. In marriage, it leads to communication breakdowns, feelings of disconnect...and even divorce. But I will touch on that a bit more later.
9. Because perhaps the most notable effect sleep deprivation has for parents is that of a mother’s ability to bond with her baby...and this alone can be devastating to a mother’s mental health. In fact, multiple studies have shown a connection between infant sleep problems and maternal depression. In fact, sleep deprivation actually has been proven to increase the risk of postpartum depression. And, one study showed that depression symptoms actually worsen in PPD patients when their quality of sleep declines. But, perhaps even more important - it's shown to IMPROVE as their sleep improves.
Having experienced postpartum depression myself, and then later working with mothers who were struggling with it, I know how challenging this can be for the whole family. It changes your entire perception of motherhood and shifts your thinking in indescribable ways. And this is one of THE biggest reasons why I am so passionate about helping remove some of the stigmas or negative perceptions of sleep coaching and about giving you the permission to make the changes need and to make sleep a priority for your whole family. I know that some of the naysayers will argue that sleep coaching can hurt your baby’s attachment, but based on the research I’ve shared, I would argue that in many cases, sleep coaching can actually HELP you and your baby to bond better by alleviating some of the typical stressors related to sleep deprivation and postpartum depression - and allowing for you to be more present - and to really enjoy being with your baby.
10. Finally, have you ever heard that the first year after a baby’s birth is the hardest year of marriage for couples? There is a reason why. Research shows that sleep deprivation leads to increased levels of perceived stress - leading to more conflict and bigger outbursts between you and your partner. And, in addition to increased stress levels, it also negatively impacts your sense of humor. It makes you both more likely to show negative emotions to your partner instead of positive ones and leads to both of you being less successful at conflict resolution - at a time when your identities and priorities are shifting - and when many couples need conflict resolution skills the most.
Meanwhile, just as healthy sleep habits help your baby to develop and handle daily stressors, it also helps increase your ability to have patience and to tackle day to day challenges in a more effective and healthy way. Leading to higher levels of satisfaction for everyone in the family.
So, that brings us to the end of the list and those are my “top 10” reasons why I believe improving your baby’s sleep should be a priority.
Now, I know this is a lot to take in. We’ve talked about several ways your baby, you as a mom and your relationship with your partner are all affected by unhealthy sleep habits and sleep deprivation - from physical health, growth and development to attachment and just general overall well-being. And, I’ve shared all of this research with you because I believe that the studies have shown over and over again that getting enough restful sleep is crucial to the mental and physical health of both parents AND baby and THIS is why it's so important to start off your baby's life with healthy sleep habits - even if that means they need a little help getting there.
And I know I’ve painted a pretty negative picture about sleep deprivation, but what I hope I’ve shared with you today is that making that choice to make your sleep (and your baby’s sleep) a priority is - in fact - NOT selfish. Sleep deprivation affects the entire family….meaning that improving your baby’s sleep can positively affect every single person in the family... for years to come. In the next show, I’m going to talk about 5 easy ways you can begin to improve your baby’s sleep right away - without sleep coaching. So stay tuned, it’s all going to be much more positive very very soon!
Armstrong K. L., Van Haeringen A.R., Dadds M. R. & Cash, R. (1998). Sleep deprivation or postnatal depression. Journal of Paediatric Child Health, 34(3): 260-2.
Evans, M.K., Watts, N., Gratton R. (2015). Erratum. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing. E28-E28.
Gordon, A. M. & Chen, S. (2014). The role of sleep in interpersonal conflict: Do sleepless nights mean worse fights? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 168-175.
Harrison, Y., & Horne, J. A. (2000). The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6, 236-249.
Pilcher, J. J., & Huffcutt, A. J. (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta-analysis. Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine, 19, 318-326.
Troxel, W. M., Robles, T. F., Hall, M., & Buysse, D. J. (2007). Marital quality and the marital bed: Examining the covariation between relationship quality and sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 11, 389-404.
Williamson, A. M. & Feyer, A. M. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup. Environ. Med. 57, 649–655 (2000).
Medina, A. M., Lederhos, C. L. & Lillis, T. A. Sleep disruption and decline in marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood. Fam. Syst. Health 27, 153–160 (2009).
Meltzer, L. J. & Mindell, J. A. Relationship between child sleep disturbances and maternal sleep, mood, and parenting stress: a pilot study. J. Fam. Psychol. 43 21, 67–73 (2007).
Tikotzky, L. & Sadeh, A. Maternal Sleep-Related Cognitions and Infant Sleep: A Longitudinal Study From Pregnancy Through the 1st Year. Child Dev. 80, 860–874 (2009).
Tikotzky, L. & Shaashua, L. Infant sleep and early parental sleep-related cognitions predict sleep in pre-school children. Sleep Med. 13, 185–192 (2012).
Disclaimer: Although Jennifer Howard is a licensed therapist, this podcast - or any information listed on this site - is not a substitute for therapy. If you are experiencing symptoms of postpartum or perinatal mental health disorders, please seek assistance from your local emergency room or schedule an appointment with a therapist licensed in your state. Postpartum Support International also has a wealth of information and local support for new parents. You can call their Helpline (1-800-944-4773) or text (503-894-9453) anytime for support.
Jennifer Howard, LPC, CLC, CHBE
A licensed therapist and pediatric sleep expert shares her infant and toddler sleep & maternal mental health expertise through weekly solo shows and interviews.