Sleep, Parenting and Health

We all know we feel so much better when we’ve had a good night’s sleep, and for most people a good night’s sleep is between 6 and 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Any less than 6 hours of sleep in a night and most people would agree that they feel groggy, irritable, and possibly lethargic the next day. A few nights of bad or little sleep and you may find you have headaches, trouble concentrating and are a little clumsy in addition to your already foggy, irritable demeanour. But what are the consequences of weeks or months of little sleep? Does sleep deprivation really hurt your overall health that much?

As a new parent (and a new parent to twins no less), I am all too familiar with the costly effects of sleep deprivation. For the first three months of Ginger Snap and Sweet Pea’s life, sleep was a fantasy, and good sleep was a joke. As all new parents know, in the first few months the baby rules all. During those first few months, with two babies and two random schedules, my husband and I found that for either of us to get any sleep at all and for my husband to be able to function at work each day, that taking turns sleeping at night worked best for us with my husband being allotted at least 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. At that point in time, my husband was getting home from work at roughly 8pm each night, so we would eat dinner and then I would sleep from 10pm till midnight. At midnight, we would switch and my husband would sleep from midnight till 4:30am and then I would sleep from 4:30am till 7am. And we did that for 3 MONTHS. Now, thanks to sleep deprivation I actually can’t comment on my state in those three months because I honestly cannot remember a single thing that occurred during that time. If I didn’t have pictures, I seriously would not have a single memory of that time period.

Lesson Learned #1: Chronic sleep deprivation dangerously impairs memory recall and working memory.

After three months, for better or for worse, we moved to sleeping at the same time and dividing the night’s tasks between the two of us. During this time we practiced co-sleeping by sharing our bedroom with the twins (something I highly recommend) and while the babies were still too young to be put on schedules they were at least feeding closer together than they had been the first three months. Regardless, my husband and I were now sleeping for a max 2 hours uninterrupted followed by being awake for an hour (to feed both babies and rock them back to sleep). We did this every night. For 5 months.
The lack of sleep at this point was causing not only memory problems, but speech problems as well. I had difficulty recalling simple words, communicating thoughts, and sometimes even slurred speech. Thank god I never drove much during this time period because I probably would have been mistaken for driving drunk or something. I was also randomly dropping and gaining weight, and encountering random periods of high anxiety and depression.

Lesson Learned #2: Chronic sleep deprivation causes prolonged confusion, challenges in communication, weight issues. Studies done on sleep deprivation and weight problems hypothesize that sleep deprivation could be disrupting hormones that regulate glucose metabolism and appetite (Van Cauter E, Spiegel K (1999)).

At seven and a half months old we were finally able to get Ginger Snap and Sweet Pea on the same strict schedule, and holy crap our world changed. We are now getting roughly six hours of sleep each night and often, most of that is uninterrupted. I have felt my memory slowly improving, my ability to string coherent sentences together is getting much better and I find I’m starting to have some real energy (I’m now measuring my day in cups of coffee rather than pots of coffee). However, what has been interesting is despite getting more sleep (I wouldn’t yet say we are getting good sleep), my husband and I have entered a new stage in experiencing the physical effects of sleep deprivation. Pain. Real and terrible physical pain, particularly at night. We’ve noticed that by late afternoon we both start to experience joint pain and muscle fatigue. And by joint pain, I mean all joints, all at the same time. Simultaneously, my wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, hips and neck start to scream in pain. Not joking, last night it was too painful to be awake. My body was literally screaming at me to sleep.

Lesson Learned #3: Chronic sleep deprivation causes real pain.

So as a new parent what can be learned from this?
Accept every single ounce of help that is offered to you. If someone offers to watch your child(ren) so that you can rest and sleep, ALWAYS SAY YES.
Ask for help often. There is a tendency as your baby gets older to turn down help or ask for help less, I have foolishly done it myself a few times. Until your baby is sleeping through the night regularly and is feeding less frequently, continue to ask for help.
Lack of sleep can affect you in ways you never imagined and you can continue to feel the effects of the lack of sleep long after sleep has returned to your life.
I’ve learned you can’t be a good parent if you aren’t taking care of yourself and getting as much sleep as you can is vital to leading a healthy and happy life :)

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