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Sleep deprivation: how to manage life as a new parent

Sophie Pickles

Written by Sophie Pickles

8 min read

Sleep deprived mum holding her baby against her chest

There’s really nothing that can prepare you for the simultaneous joy and sheer exhaustion of looking after a tiny baby day in and day out. It can feel like a seemingly endless cycle of feeding, changing and more feeding!

In those bleary newborn days, I remember staring at my husband with glazed eyes and unbrushed hair, my clothing streaked with baby sick. “There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture,” we both agreed.

27 months later we were fast approaching the birth of our second child. I braced myself for the sleepless nights and endless days of walking through air which feels like syrup. Somehow, it was different the second time round.

Yawning tired baby

Six months on, does my child sleep through the night you ask? Far from it, but I have happily discovered not only how to survive those night wakes and the bleary-eyed days, but know how to handle them. This post gives you some parenting hacks to try out.

And for extra support, our new EasyPeasy parenting app is here which will give you tips and ideas to handle this exhausting new phase!

EasyPeasy parenting app on an iPhone screen

Your child wakes up at night for a good reason

We often think about the ‘why’ behind night wakes but don’t always stop to appreciate the benefits. Frequent night wakes reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

There have been various studies showing a correlation between a baby’s failure to arouse from a deep sleep and SIDS. Each time your baby wakes in the night, they are actively reducing their SIDS risk - even more so if they are sleeping in the same room as you.

Mother breastfeeding her baby girl in bed

Dr. McKenna, Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioural Sleep Laboratory (University of Notre Dame) believes that the more a baby wakes to breastfeed throughout the night, the more they are helping to protect their mother from a variety of diseases, including breast and ovarian cancer.

He also says that the more time babies spend in light sleep, or “safer sleep”, the less likely they are to succumb to life-threatening sleep apnea, meaning the more frequently they wake, the safer their sleep.

Feeding your baby at night has a world of benefits

If you are breastfeeding, then feeding during the night will not only provide your baby with essential nutrition but it will also help to regulate your milk supply. What’s more, breast milk produced at night contains melatonin - a hormone designed to help your baby drift back off to sleep after the feed.

These night wakes can be an incredible bonding experience. That feeling of the two of you, snuggling together, safe and warm in the dark, is something that you will be guaranteed to miss when it’s gone!

What helped me survive the night feeds

Mum managing sleep deprivation while holding her baby boy during the night

Waking up several times a night isn’t easy - it’s not how we are meant to sleep as adults and can be physically and mentally draining. Nevertheless, there are several different things you can do to ensure that those times spent awake are peaceful, enjoyable and won’t cause you to feel overly tired the next day.

Try not to look at the time or keep track of how many times you have been up. When I had my first son, I became slightly obsessed with looking at the time each time he woke, and then frantically calculating how long I may have left before he was going to wake again.

Instead of helping me to feel in control of a situation I had no control over, it just made me feel depressed and even more tired. If you choose to use a phone or music player (more on that below), try not to look at the time or keep track of how long you’ve been awake as you use it.

Put a plan in place

woman stood still holding her hands over her heart

Create a ‘night time self-care basket’ and place it next to your bed or feeding chair so that everything you need is easy to grab, especially when it’s dark! You might like to include: snacks, a warm blanket, your phone or mp3 player, wireless headphones, a bottle of water, moisturiser, lip balm and some tissues.

Fill a nappy caddy or basket with everything you may need for your baby during the night, and make sure it is easy to access. You may like to include: nappies, wipes, nappy sacks, barrier cream, Calpol or similar, teething powder, hand sanitiser, muslins and a spare outfit.

Create a chat group with other parent friends who have babies of a similar age. Having someone to talk to at 3am will not only provide entertainment or advice but a feeling of comfort at knowing you are not alone.

Be careful of too much screen time

Avoid looking at digital devices or watching television for a prolonged period of time. The light and noise (unless you wear headphones) may not only disturb your baby but will also cause you to feel more awake, meaning that even after your baby has fallen back into a peaceful slumber, you are left staring at the ceiling unable to fall back to sleep.

If you really feel that you can’t survive without some form of entertainment, try wearing blue light glasses or turning off the blue light setting on your device. Wireless headphones will also prevent annoying and unnecessary tangles.

The effects of sleep deprivation

New mum suffering from exhaustion and holding her sleeping baby

One of the most difficult aspects of frequently waking throughout the night can be how difficult it is to manage the next day. Lack of sleep affects us both physically and mentally and you aren't wrong if you feel like your brain isn’t working properly after a bad night.

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation affects memory and decision-making, as well as making us irritable and even more prone to infection and illness. It’s really common to start feeling down - everything seems harder when you’re short of sleep.

How to cope in the day

1. Make a plan to leave the house each day and try to follow through.

Going out and about can truly be the last thing you feel like doing when you are tired, but it's vital for your well-being. Not only will it improve your mood and ‘blow away the cobwebs’ but it will probably make your baby more happy and easier to manage, too. Your plans don’t have to involve big social gatherings or fancy outings to the zoo or local soft play. Just walking to your local shop or post office will have the same positive effects.

2. Join a baby class or playgroup.

Making and meeting friends will not only help to lift your mood but will also provide you with a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand if you are having a particularly hard day. To find free or low-cost baby groups, check out your local children’s centre or community hub.

3. Drink all the water and eat all the snacks!

OK, the last point may not be entirely true, but keeping hydrated and sipping water throughout the day (especially if you are breastfeeding) will help to combat the negatives of sleep deprivation. And on the snack front?

While maintaining a healthy, balanced diet will help you to feel less tired, treating yourself is not a bad thing. After all, what’s a playgroup without a slice of cake?!

When will it all end?!

smiling toddler wearing a pink t-shirt and building a LEGO tower

If you are reading this article, there is a very good chance that this is the one question that is truly playing on your mind. It’s what every sleep-deprived mother and father wonders and what sleep experts charge a fortune to help you achieve: a perfect night of sleep. It will come!

"Don’t worry, it doesn’t last forever" is often the unsolicited advice given to those of us longing for a full night’s sleep - which can prompt an internal eye roll. While the advice is technically true, it’s not very helpful when you are in the thick of it.

The bare facts (listed below) are a little more comforting!

  • Babies will start sleeping for longer stretches at night from 3 months old.
  • Most babies will drop down to just one wake a night from 6 months old.
  • Most babies will start sleeping through the night from 9 months old.
  • Sleep regressions (where sleep quality takes a nosedive and wake-ups increase) only last two weeks on average, some only a few days.

Of course, these very much depend on your individual child. If your baby achieves these milestones sooner - that’s fantastic! And if not, it's not your fault. Like adults, some children are just genetically disposed to be light sleepers.

The important thing is sleeping when you can, wherever you can, for as long as you can. And above all, believing you have what it takes to handle this time of life while getting as much support as you can.

Baby in a white bodysuit resting peacefully

Get the EasyPeasy parenting app!

The first year of parenting can be the toughest! From weaning tips to sleeping struggles, we're on hand to help. Our new EasyPeasy parenting app is ready for you to download.

It's full of ideas, hacks and tips to help you in meltdown moments and make life a little easier (and more fun!) as a new parent. From NCT to Scouts to LEGO, we've rounded up the very best content which you'll love. 

Download Free App  EasyPeasy App on a smart phone

In partnership with LEGO, Department for Education, BBC etc.