Sleep Week 2023: Opinion piece
Unpopular opinion ahead…
I stand against sleep martyrdom. Sleep is a biological necessity, not a luxury.
Time after time I read posts on social media about how a mum isn’t coping with lack of sleep and asking for tips. Time after time I see replies saying “this too shall pass” or “they’re only small for such a little while” or “it’s normal”. While all those replies are true, are they helpful? In my opinion, no. Solidarity can make us feel better about a situation, but it doesn’t change what’s actually happening.
Our bodies simply aren’t designed to cope with long term sleep deprivation! While the fourth trimester is tough, we know there is an end in sight. Once a baby is feeding efficiently - transferring milk well, taking full feeds and gaining weight, the period of frequent night feeds generally settles down. But it’s not uncommon for me to chat with a client with a 6 month old baby who has gone through the 4 month progression, who says “they’re feeding more frequently overnight than when they were a newborn!” Living with sleep deprivation for months and months on end is not sustainable.
Sleep is a biological necessity. During sleep, our bodies do all sorts of marvellous things - our heart and circulatory system is given a rest while these functions are taken over by the parasympathetic system. Our hormones are regulated, including the hormones responsible for hunger and circadian rhythm. Our immune system cells work at different times of the day, and quality sleep helps strengthen this. Our memory and learning relies on sleep, and without enough quality sleep, most people have trouble focusing and thinking clearly.
Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity, so why would we consciously choose to continue down the path of poor sleep?
While some may argue it’s not a choice, it’s just part of parenting, I believe accepting poor sleep is choosing not to make a change towards improving sleep. Weeks and months of fragmented nights sleep we experience when a baby wakes multiple times overnight leads to chronic sleep deprivation, which leads to us putting our babies in dangerous situations - driving while sleep deprived is comparable to driving under the influence of alcohol. Not many parents would take the risk of driving around with their baby in the car after a few drinks, but think nothing of driving while incredibly fatigued.
We also know that well rested people are more tolerant people, the flipside of this is tired people are less tolerant and more stressed. Research shows that sleep deprivation can also negatively impact positive parenting. Positive parenting involves being responsive and warm toward your child. Preliminary research shows that caregivers who sleep less experience higher levels of stress. Higher levels of stress are associated with difficulty regulating emotions. This difficulty may help explain why caregivers who have less or fragmented sleep, or who take longer to fall asleep, show less positive parenting in the hour before their child’s bedtime than caregivers who get more sleep.
There is a strong link between sleep deprivation and poor mental health. Statistics show that 1 in 7 women experience Postpartum Depression and/or Anxiety, and maximising sleep is necessary in the recovery process. Maternal wellbeing has such a huge impact on bonds and attachment, as well as child development, and sleep deprivation causing depression can be damaging to the dyad.
Did you know humans can go longer without food than they can sleep? The longest period recorded for a person to survive with no sleep is 11 days, and a human will starve to death after 6 weeks. Yet, we have a tendency to prioritise healthy eating and exercise far before we prioritise our sleep.
Making positive changes to sleep in your home will improve health outcomes for the whole family, babies, toddlers and preschoolers included! So the next time you read that challenging sleep is normal, will pass, and is a rite of passage to parenting, I encourage you to think past this and prioritise sleep. You don’t have to be a sleep martyr!