For many moms, constant sleep deprivation is a standard feature of motherhood -- just like blouses stained with spit-up and Cheerios crumbs in every purse.
And it's not only sleep-deprived mothers of newborns who are dragging. Whether you have a preschooler demanding encores of You Are My Sunshine at 4 a.m. or a high schooler thumping up the stairs an hour after curfew, sleep doesn't come easy to mothers -- regardless of how old their kids are.
Experts say that sleep-deprived mothers shouldn't be so blasé about the problem.
"Mothers really underestimate the importance of getting enough sleep," says Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of Sleep Deprived No More: From Pregnancy to Early Motherhood -- Helping You & Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. "Sleep deprivation has so many serious consequences for their health and their families."
Of course, you'd like to sleep better than you do. But a lot of the typical sleep advice is about improving your sleeping environment and calming yourself before bed. That's all well and good. It's just that adjusting the feng shui of your bedroom or buying a Soothing Ocean Tide Sound Machine won't help much when you're up six times a night replacing the pacifier in a squalling infant's mouth.
You know what's disrupting your sleep: being a mother. But is there anything you can do about it?
Mothers and Sleep Loss: It’s Not Just for Babies
"There's very little data about how parents sleep, but obviously there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that they don't sleep enough," says Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. While fathers probably don't sleep so well either, mothers are perhaps likely to suffer more.
The negative impact of being a mom on your quality of sleep starts before your baby is born (sleeping with the compressed bladder and beach ball belly of pregnancy isn't easy) and can last well beyond kindergarten. Studies indicate that almost 14% of grade school kids are still getting their parents up in the night, Mindell says.
Children waking up at night aren't the only reason for all of those sleep-deprived mothers shuffling through life. Part of the problem is that mothers put their kids to bed and then stay up much later than they should.
It's understandable, Mindell says. "A lot of moms see the night as their own quiet time to relax or as a chance to get things done that they couldn't during the day," she tells WebMD. So instead of going to bed earlier to compensate for the sleep they're losing in the night, mothers might stay up later -- further eroding the time they sleep.
Sleep-Deprived Mothers: The Health Effects
Of course, many sleep-deprived mothers just pooh-pooh the recommendations about getting more rest. Sure, it would be swell if they could sleep eight hours a night, but it just seems absurdly unrealistic.
It doesn't help that as a culture, we tend to look down on sleep. Getting too much -- or even just enough -- implies softness. Some sleep-deprived mothers take pride in doing too much and sleeping too little, trading war stories of sleepless nights with other moms at the park.
But sleep experts are trying to get people to change their attitude about sleep. "We really need to look at sleep as something that's just as important to good health as diet and exercise," Ronald Kramer, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a specialist at the Colorado Sleep Disorders Center in Englewood, Colo.
Roth agrees. "We have good data linking insufficient sleep with all sorts of problems," Roth tells WebMD. "It's connected to poor performance at work, obesity, diabetes, excessive risk-taking behavior, and heart disease." Honestly, if you pick a disease or health problem at random from a medical text, it's probably worsened by or linked to sleep loss.
The Impact of Sleep Loss on Mothers
If looking after your own health isn't enough to get you to change your habits, remember that you're not the only one affected. If you're constantly tired, your whole family will feel it.
"If you're getting enough sleep, it will help you be a more involved mother," says Mindell. "It's certainly a lot easier to play the 17th round of Ring Around the Rosie with your 2-year-old when you're not exhausted."
There are real risks to chronic exhaustion, too -- risks that many sleep-deprived mothers just don't take seriously.
"Not getting enough sleep really affects your ability to function," says Mindell. "You're more likely to make mistakes when you're tired. You're more likely to slip and fall, or cut yourself when chopping vegetables, or forget to fasten the straps of your baby's high chair."
Some of the scariest risks come when a sleep-deprived mother gets in the car. Studies have compared the risks of driving drowsy with the risks of driving drunk -- it's estimated to cause 100,000 auto accidents a year. And yet mothers who would never, ever drive their children after having a few glasses of wine drive exhausted every day.
"I worry a lot about all the moms out there who are driving drowsy," says Mindell. "They're struggling to stay awake with a 1-year-old sitting in the backseat. That can have terrible consequences."
Tips for Sleep-Deprived Mothers
What can a sleep-deprived mother do? Here's some advice.
- Be prepared. When you've got small kids, getting woken up in the middle of the night can be more the rule than the exception. Don't routinely go to bed at midnight, gambling on your two-year-old sleeping soundly. You're going to lose. In the long-run, you'll just keep piling on to your sleep debt.
"Moms should really expect that they will be woken up every night and plan accordingly," says Mindell. "They need to get to bed early enough to accommodate it." If you're not woken up on a given night, you got some bonus sleep. And if you were, at least you were prepared.
- Take naps. Although sleep experts advise against naps for most people with insomnia, they say sleep-deprived mothers should ignore that advice.
"It definitely doesn't apply to parents who were woken up six times in the night by their kids and today are falling asleep in their soup," says Roth. "For people like that, 'Don't take a nap' is stupid advice."
If your kids are still young enough to nap themselves, follow the advice you got on the maternity ward: Nap when your baby naps.
- Catch up on sleep during the weekend. Many sleep-deprived mothers -- stuck between their responsibilities as worker, parent, and home-runner -- feel like there's simply no way to get enough sleep during the week. If so, you have to use the weekends to atone, Roth says.
He recommends that you swap time with their spouse on weekends so that you can both sleep in one day. Or try to make a standing appointment with a relative or sitter to get a couple of hours of nap time during the weekend.
- Help your child sleep more soundly. Obviously, there's nothing abnormal about a newborn who wakes you up six times a night. It takes at least three to six months before babies adopt a sleep schedule that's even remotely civilized, says Kramer.
But if your older children have a consistent problem sleeping through the night, you might want to talk to your pediatrician. Occasionally, children can develop sleep disorders themselves. More often, making little changes -- like adopting a more consistent bedtime or putting up room-darkening shades -- can make a big difference. "If you can solve your child's sleep problem, you could also be solving your own," Mindell tells WebMD.
- Relax before bed. You might have elaborate bedtime rituals for your kids: a bath, story time, songs, hugs, a sip of water, one more song, a pat on the back, one more sip of water, and one last song. But you might have nothing for yourself, the sleep-deprived mother. That's a mistake, says Mindell.
"Bedtime rituals are important for everybody, not just toddlers," says Mindell. So don't try to go straight from washing dishes or checking email to bed. Instead, dim the lights and read for a while. Building in a little time to unwind before getting into bed will help you sleep more soundly.
Take Sleep Seriously
Of course, even if you are a sleep-deprived mother, it's hard to follow any of this advice in the moment. At 11:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, staying up for that last load of laundry to finish can seem much more important than the abstract benefits of an extra 45 minutes of sleep.
And there's the more general problem: many sleep-deprived mothers just don't feel like they have the eight hours to spare each day. If you don't stay up late washing the dishes and packing the lunches and sorting through the stacks of school artwork, how will it ever get done?
Think hard about what your sleep loss is costing you. Sure, you could spend more hours awake by shaving time off your sleep. But if you're a chronically sleep-deprived mother, just how enjoyable and productive will your time awake be? What's the benefit of reducing your sleep just so you can drift through the next day feeling like a zombie?
"What mothers need to remember is that if they want to be productive for those 16 hours a day, they need to sleep the other eight," says Kramer. "That's just how it is."