Health: How bad is long-term sleep deprivation for your health?


We are bombarded with messages that sleep is vital for our physical and mental health. Sleep allows the brain to process information, the body to recover from the day, our heart rate and breathing to slow down, and hormones to regulate, among other things – all of these seem pretty crucial to our survival. So if you are a new parent – or a parent or guardian of a young child with sleep issues – this post can make you feel pretty helpless.

“Sleep while you still can,” everyone told me, well-meaning, before I had a baby. We are conditioned to understand that “newborn is synonymous with fatigue,” so of course everyone expects several night and early morning awakenings. At least at the beginning. I didn’t really expect that I wouldn’t get a full night’s sleep for almost a year – and the impact that would have.

“Lack of sleep can be a huge surprise when you have a new baby, and you never know what it’s going to be like until it does,” says Lucy Shrimpton, sleep expert and founder of The Sleep Nanny. (sleepnanny.co.uk). “It’s another level of fatigue and can be a huge shock to the system for all new parents.”

“You get an idea of ​​what it’s like not to sleep – but in reality the reality is absolutely stark,” adds Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist at Bloss (Blossapp.com) and expert speaker at The Baby Show ( thebabyshow.co. United Kingdom).

There are also huge variations in how babies sleep, and the way they sleep – due to illness, sleep regressions, and developmental stages – can change along the way.

What is the impact on health?

In the short term, a lack of sleep can make you irritable, lack of concentration, and affect your mood. Krause says, “In the long run, new parents are at increased risk for anxiety, depression, general fatigue. [and] Burnout. If you are vulnerable to postpartum depression, this can highlight it. If you have a prenatal history of poor mental health, this can be very susceptible to long-term sleep deprivation. ”

Often the problem is a lack of REM sleep – the deepest type – because many new parents tend to sleep much lighter than before, because they are so aware of the little human now present, who will inevitably have them. need soon.

“It’s just not restful sleep,” Krause says. “You’re not going to process things in the best possible way, your reflexes may be slower, your memory may be disrupted (because a lot of our short-term and long-term memory storage occurs during sleep). a physical impact in terms of lower likelihood of immunity and delayed repair. ”

And psychologically?

“Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture and there is a reason for that,” notes Shrimpton, “it has you operating from a place that would be considered insane – where you are totally irrational.” Less than five hours of sleep in 24 hours, broken or not, is far too little to operate psychologically, she says.

There is an added mental torment of not knowing when your baby’s (and therefore your) sleep might improve as well. The impact of this particular unknown is “enormous,” says Shrimpton. “When you’re in it as a parent and your baby is four months old, you momentarily think, ‘This is my life now.’ You don’t understand that in a few weeks or a few months time you will be in another place. You see the here and now and the pain you are in. ”

Psychologically, I could deal with very little – if any – improvement in sleep night after night. But when setbacks did occur, it was especially difficult mentally. I began to dread the nights – which is not uncommon with new parents – and sleep became a bit of an obsession, an elixir far from solving all problems.

“One of the hardest things is the unknown,” agrees Krause. “We’ve all been through it a bit when we’ve been through the pandemic, but the unknown is something that’s almost hard-wired into our brains to be seen as a threat and it’s dangerous. So when you don’t know when you might get some normalcy, or what might be the new normal, it creates a heightened sense of anxiety.

“If the unknown lasts for a long time, people can start to feel really helpless, to lose confidence in themselves and [feeling] kinda beaten up, which is the last thing you want when you’re a new parent. Over time, this can lead to depression. ”

Can sleep deprivation cause permanent damage?

It all sounds pretty dire in the short to medium term, but does it do permanent damage, even when you finally start to get a full night’s sleep again?

“It will go back to normal,” reassures Krause. “I think at the end of the day our bodies and brains are absolutely hardwired to protect themselves – survival really comes into play. So while anxiety will say, ‘I’ll die if I don’t get enough sleep’, so you really don’t get enough sleep, your body will be forced into some sort of catch-up sleep at some point.

“Somehow your body will grab what it needs, and I think it’s absolutely important that parents don’t worry too much about not getting enough sleep – it might make you feel out of touch. control, but that doesn’t mean you will go out of control. ”

What can really help?

Between six and eight months, some parents choose to call in a professional for difficult sleep, if they have the budget, although there are never any guarantees.

Krause acknowledges that the advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” is “really irritating – because it’s not that easy.” Between work, other kids, extra responsibilities, and babies napping (on you), this is often just not possible. But, she says, “a nap here and there really helps, even 10 to 15 minutes seems to help a little bit, [even though] we might still feel groggy and irritable. ”

Shrimpton says, “Don’t put pressure on yourself to sleep. If you can just lift your feet up and rest, put your phone away, don’t read anything, don’t do anything physical, just listen to music or meditate and that will make a huge difference. difference.”

Asking for help is crucial, however. “There’s something about the new parenting and the thought, ‘I can’t [get help] because people will think I’m not a good enough mom or dad, ”Krause says. But we don’t have to do everything on our own – especially with very little sleep. We’re almost conditioned to exude an image of total control (and blissful happiness) as new parents, and that’s neither realistic nor healthy.

Also, try a shift type pattern with your partner and pump or stir foods as needed. Shrimpton suggests “two nights in a row, two nights off – better than alternating, because you get good rest that way and you recover.”

It may also be helpful to reassess your perception of time, at least in the short term. You might be used to evenings being “your time,” but you could use them for sleeping instead. So go to bed at 7:00 if you can.

Krause advises analyzing what is really disturbing your sleep. “You can just have a baby that is really demanding and is constantly getting up and there is no way around that, but sometimes the sleep gets disrupted because you anticipate the baby’s crying and somehow wake up in. your diligence So how could you find a way to go a little further with the flow?

“Are you worried about the baby’s safety? How could you be sure before going to bed that the baby is safe? If you’re having trouble falling back to sleep after a nighttime feed, consider what you can do as a little more of a routine, ”Krause adds. “Personalize it so that you then address your own concerns, along with the baby’s needs.”


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