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Tired? Bright-eyed tips for sleep-deprived parents

Baby might be off in la-la land, but how dreamy have mummy and daddy’s nights been?

Many parents go from sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours each night to waking every two hours for a feed, nappy change and cuddle. But how exactly does sleep deprivation affect us and our daily lives – apart from the constant yawning and delirium?!

Dr Carmel Harrington, international sleep expert, founder of Sleep for Health and author of ‘The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep’, says “insufficient or poor quality sleep at any time is detrimental to our ability to perform simple tasks, such as driving, as well as our mood and emotional sensitivity. This is particularly so during the early stages of parenthood when there are usually considerable lifestyle, relationship and physiological changes.”

As a result of all these changes, Dr Harrington says many parents will struggle to get their 7-9 hours of sleep that is needed for optimal health and performance. “Consequently, parents are affected by both the short term effects of sleep deprivation (moodiness, poor concentration, focus and memory, irritability, increased appetite, relationship issues and lack of motivation), and if sleep deprivation persists, the long term effects (weight-gain, heart disease, and depression).

The tiredness you feel when you’re a new parent can also impact seemingly simple day-to-day activities, like driving a car. “Inadequate sleep impairs our ability to concentrate and increases the likelihood of microsleeps (a brief involuntary occurrence of falling asleep), which can lead to a crash when you’re behind the wheel,” explains Dr Harrington.

In 2016, 81 people died and more than 1,200 were injured in fatigue-related crashes. Centre for Road Safety Executive Director Bernard Carlon says it’s not just drowsy long-haul drivers working through the night who are affected. “Driver fatigue can occur on shorter, everyday drives as well. In fact, around half of all fatigue-related crashes happen on metropolitan roads.”

The simplest thing to do? Don’t trust your tired self when it comes to driving. Instead, plan ahead and opt for safer short-term solutions where you can. Can the trip wait until you’ve had a 20 minute nap? Can someone else help out with errands? Can you walk to the shops, catch public transport or order online?

There are plenty more solutions to new parent tiredness too! Dr Harrington explains some of the common effects of sleep deprivation, the main sleep-affected stages of early parenting and tips to help manage them…


The effects of sleep deprivation

  • Mood changes: Irritability, moodiness, crankiness and restlessness can impact on the new parent’s relationship.
  • Impaired judgement: Lack of sleep has a potentially serious impact for our day to day safety, including on the roads, as tiredness impacts people’s ability to think clearly.
  • Increase in health and mental issues: A sick mummy or daddy is no help to baby, so look after your health and get the essential sleep required.  “Physically, sleep deprivation increases your chances of succumbing to illness, such as colds and flu infections,” Dr Harrington explains. “If parents aren’t getting enough sleep, the body can’t heal itself.”

The sleep-affected stages of early parenting

There are a lot changes in baby’s routine during those early months, which will directly affect your routine and how you get around, so to make it easier, the post-partum period is divided into three stages – each have their own sleep challenges which can affect a parent’s ability to function day to day and drive safely.

Stage 1 is the first 48 hours post-delivery. The abrupt drop in hormone levels can affect the new mother’s sleep as much as the 24-hour care she needs to provide the newborn.  Maternal sleep in this period is often poor, especially if there has been a night labour. If you are leaving the hospital with your new bundle during the first 48 hours, make sure your driver is well-slept. Dads may also be sleep deprived during this period, particularly if they’re commuting between work, other children at home, and the hospital on minimal sleep.

Stage 2 is from two days to six weeks. The overriding cause of tiredness is the sleeplessness caused by the newborn baby’s numerous nocturnal awakenings.  As a result, tiredness is often a major issue at this time, significantly impairing a parent’s ability to enjoy the first few months of their baby’s life.

Stage 3 is from six weeks to six months and it is during this stage that the ongoing and cumulative effects of sleep deprivation may be seen.


Baby steps: Tips to manage new parenthood and sleep deprivation

Optimise your sleep opportunities with this bright-eyed advice by Dr Harrington to get the slumber you, your partner and your baby need …


Follow good sleep practices: Try to maintain your circadian rhythm – your natural body clock of wake/day and sleep/night patterns. “Avoid bright light at night (it can disrupt your melatonin levels, the ‘sleep hormone’), switch off all technology during the night hours and avoid other stimulating activities.”


Have 20 minute powernaps – but no longer: The common advice to sleep when the baby’s sleeping is counterintuitive when it comes to maintaining good circadian rhythm. If possible, practice the habit of ‘power napping’ when baby sleeps, particularly during the natural afternoon ‘dip’ in alertness at around 2-3pm, so that after 20-25 minutes of sleeping you feel refreshed and able to continue with the day without interfering with your ability to get to sleep that night.


Be aware of how much sleep you’re getting: If one parent has had less than 6 hours sleep for two nights in a row, they should try and get at least 8 hours uninterrupted on the third night.

By 22-26 weeks, your life may just change for the better, as a clear pattern of sleep between about 8pm to 6am develops in the majority of infants. “This is important information for new parents. It allows them to have realistic expectations for what’s possible with their baby’s sleep in the early periods.


Ask for help: If you’re feeling too tired to drive don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, relatives or neighbours for support. Little errands like grabbing bread and milk from the shops, or picking your other children up from school can make a big difference to your day. You may even be able to fit in a 20 minute powernap and avoid driving while tired.


To learn more strategies to avoid driving while tired and to test how tired you might be before getting behind the wheel, visit www.testyourtiredself.com.au now.