If you’ve got a newborn, we’re willing to bet you’re pretty exhausted. And while you know sleep is important for your baby, you might not realize that your own sleep deprivation can have some pretty serious consequences.
That’s why we spoke with Dr. Kristen Casey, Psy.D., who has a passion for helping those who struggle with sleep.
“I view sleep as our ‘life pulse.’ When our sleep is off, usually something in our life is off, too!”
Keep reading to learn why sleep is important, how much sleep you should be getting, and what to do if new parenthood has put a damper on your slumber.
Why is Sleep Important?
Dr. Casey said that sleep is a critical part of your life’s “pie.”
“It serves several functions,” she said. “Research shows that sleep contributes to important physical functions, such as maintaining metabolism, maintaining body temperature, releasing hormones, restoring energy, and repairing muscle, tissues, and cells.”
But sleep isn’t just vital for your physical health. It’s also a vital component to your mental health as well.
“Sleep helps with storing new information, mental reorganization, helping with attention and concentration, and contributes to mood regulation,” she said. “When we don’t achieve quality sleep, we still likely feel foggy, unmotivated, and irritable the next day.”
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Dr. Casey said the consequences of sleep deprivation include:
- Cognitive impairment
- Impairment in work performance
- Inpaired memory consolidation
- Less vitality
- Adverse changes in endocrine functioning
“It may also impact cell damage due to oxidative stress. What that really means is that the research shows that sleep is very important for our health and wellbeing,” she said. “You might notice you don’t function as well as you do when you get a good night’s rest.”
How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
Dr. Casey said sleep needs vary based on age, genetics, sleep habits, and comorbid medical and mental health issues.
“For example, someone with anxiety may have a tendency to sleep less than someone without anxiety,” she said. “It would be difficult to expect both people to sleep the same amount despite their obvious differences.”
That said, Dr. Casey noted that the National Sleep Foundation recommends between 6-8 hours for adults.
“What we should shoot for is quality rather than quantity,” she said. “Do you know those people who can sleep for five hours and feel refreshed? What about someone who needs more than 10 hours of sleep? Everyone is quite different, so it’s hard to put an exact number on it.”
Dr. Casey advises you gauge your body’s internal need for sleep. “Rest when you're tired, and be active while you’re awake.”
When Should New Parents Worry About Their Sleep Habits?
First, Dr. Casey said it’s completely normal to sleep less after bringing home a newborn.
“This is a period of change, worry, and stress–and of course–joy! It’s completely normal to sleep less when we have a new bundle of joy, and yet we should be mindful of our own internal sleep pulse.”
She said there’s no need to worry unless you notice it’s affecting your abilities during the daytime.
“Chronic sleep deprivation may have a cost for your health, but worrying about it may make it worse,” she said. “In that case, you might want to see your healthcare provider to discuss ways to achieve more sleep at night.”
Struggling with Sleep? Follow Dr. Casey’s Advice
Dr. Casey said sleep deprivation might be affecting your health if you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep.
However, with a newborn that’s not always possible!
She offered these tips to help struggling parents:
- Reduce sleep-related anxiety
- Stay on a consistent sleep-wake pattern (when possible)
- Manage your expectations about sleep
- Sleep when the baby sleeps.
Reduce Anxiety About Sleep
“Worrying about your health and sleep may make the sleep problems worse. We refer to this as arousal (aka, anxiety about sleep). Arousal will keep us up at night, because it’s our body’s internal system for fight-or-flight,” she said. “It basically keeps us safe. This alarm system is also enacted when we have a new baby – we want to be there, no matter the time at night. You might dart out of bed when the baby cries and be unable to fall back to sleep.”
She advised new parents learn “counter-arousal” techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation.
“It’s important to teach our body that the ‘threat’ is over and we can be calm again. It just takes time,” she said. “It’s impossible to sleep when we are anxious, but it is very easy to sleep when we are relaxed.”
Stay on a consistent sleep/wake schedule
If you notice increased irritability, fogginess, or concentration issues seek help from your partner or housemates.
Dr. Casey offered this script: “Hey, when will you be available to take over so I can have at least 3-4 hours of consolidated sleep?”
Getting 3-4 hours of consolidated sleep can make a world of difference, and sometimes all that stands in the way is a helping hand.
Dr. Casey said it’s not uncommon for you to feel frustrated that you aren’t sleeping like you were pre-baby.
“Managing sleep expectations is important: this period of lack of sleep will not be forever,” she said. “Your cognitive beliefs about sleep are just as important as the amount of sleep you’re getting, believe it or not!”
Sleep When the Baby Sleeps
Dr. Casey recognizes this is less than ideal but sometimes necessary for parents who are struggling.
“The key is to achieve a few cycles of sleep whenever you can,” she said. “It may mess up your circadian rhythm for a bit (meaning our body’s internal cues for your sleep-wake pattern) so you may need to reset it after the baby has more consolidated sleep at night.”
To Sum It Up
- Sleep is a vital component of your physical and mental health.
- Consequences of sleep deprivation can include anxiety, depression, and irritability, to name a few.
- The National Sleep Foundation notes that, on average, adults need 6-8 hours of sleep per night, but Dr. Casey said sleep needs vary based on several factors, and parents should focus on quality over quantity when it comes to sleep.
- If you’re struggling to get enough sleep after welcoming a newborn, Dr. Casey suggests reducing sleep anxiety, sticking to a consistent sleep/wake schedule, and tempering your expectations around sleep.
- When push comes to shove, sleep when your baby sleeps until your baby gets a little older.
Dr. Casey owns Evolve Psychological Services, a private practice that provides therapy and psychological testing to those struggling with insomnia, anxiety, depression, and gender/sexuality concerns.
You can follow her on Instagram at @drkistencasey.
And if you’re curious about how to help your little one get the sleep they need, check out our blog post all about sleep training.
As a reminder, these responses are not intended to be a substitute for therapy or professional advice/care. If you are struggling or believe you have a mental health or medical concern, please see your individual provider. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.