How to Survive (and Thrive) When You're Sleep Deprived

Surviving Sleep Deprivation

sleepy mother
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Everyone knows that being the parent of a baby comes with a certain amount of sleep deprivation, especially at in the beginning. But until you’re actually in it, it can be hard to predict just how much sleep deprivation you will experience – and most importantly, what it will feel like or how you will manage.

Some babies seem to sleep like angels from the beginning … others, not so much. If you are one of the unlucky ones, know that you are not alone (it’s the “easy” sleepers that are unicorns, in most cases!). Yes, it’s normal to be as ridiculously tired as you feel. Yes, it will pass. And yes, you will get through it.

All that said, sleep deprivation isn’t just something you should “grin and bear.” Sometimes being sleep deprived can make you feel downright awful and make it very difficult to function and be the parent you want to be.

Looking for ways to survive sleep deprivation – and maybe even find some ways to catch some extra shut-eye? We’ve got you covered.

Sleep Deprivation: What to Expect

Baby Sleep Facts

Babies are not biologically programmed to sleep very soundly. It’s just a fact. It’s extremely common for babies to wake multiple times each night for the first three months, and often much longer than that.

  • All babies are different, and some seem to be born with the ability to sleep more soundly than others. In general, this is what you can expect in terms of how your baby will sleep:
  • For the first six months, babies spend about 50% of their time in active sleep (REM sleep), during which they are much more likely to wake up easily.
  • Babies wake up to eat, even in the middle of the night, for at least the first 3-4 months, usually longer.
  • Till preschool age, children have shorter sleep cycles than adults–50 minutes as opposed to 90 minutes.
  • Until about six weeks, babies do not have regulated circadian rhythms, meaning sleep happens in uneven chunks, and babies are often wide awake in the middle of the night.

Stats on Parental Sleep Deprivation

Almost all parents will experience sleep deprivation in the first six weeks or so after a baby is born–after all, babies don’t even know night from day at that point. But even once babies consolidate more of their sleeping to the nighttime hours, sleep deprivation is still an experience most parents have during the first year of parenting, and usually beyond.

In fact, a 2019 study published in the journal Sleep found that parents experienced some sort of sleep deprivation for the first six years of their children’s lives!  Of course, this doesn’t mean that the magnitude of sleep deprivation was the same throughout, but it is very common for young children not to sleep as soundly as we hope and expect them to.

Here are some other highlights from the study:

  • Mothers reported an average of 40 minutes lost sleep per night in the first year of their baby’s life.
  • Mothers were the most sleep-deprived during the first three months of their baby’s life, reporting an average sleep loss of about an hour.
  • Fathers experienced sleep loss as well, but not as intensely as mothers, averaging a sleep loss of 13 minutes per night during the first three months.
  • Mothers reported lingering sleep deprivation for the first four to six years after the birth of their first child, though similar results were not reported after the birth of subsequent children.

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Health

Anyone who has ever lost a few hours’ sleep knows that sleep deprivation can make you feel a little extra forgetful, unmotivated, spaced out, and well … exhausted. But sleep deprivation that is chronic, as if often the case when you are a sleep-deprived new parent, can actually have significant effects on your physical and mental health.

Physical Health

All of us react physically to sleep deprivation in different ways, and experiencing a few months or weeks of sleep deprivation isn’t going to set us up for lifelong medical issues. However, it’s important to be aware of the fact that sleep deprivation does have negative consequences for health and wellness.

  • Sleep deprivation can impact your immune system, making you more vulnerable to getting sick.
  • Sleep deprivation can change your body’s metabolism and appetite cues, leading to weight gain.
  • Sleep deprivation can change your hormonal balance, and decrease your sex drive.
  • Long term sleep deprivation increases your chances of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Mental Health

You expect sleep deprivation to make you moody and generally unhappy. But sleep deprivation can also lead to the development or exacerbation of mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety.

This is especially important when considering the mental health of new mothers, who have a 1 in 7 chance of developing a postpartum mood disorder such as postpartum depression.

While it’s true that postpartum depression and anxiety can have more than one cause, extreme sleep deprivation is a top factor to consider.

For example, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, mothers who experience sleep deprivation were 3.34 times more likely to experience postpartum depression. 

How Parents Can Get More Sleep

While it’s true that sleep deprivation is basically a fact of life—especially when you have a brand new baby at home—that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do the maximize the chances that you will get enough sleep… or at least close to enough. It takes a little planning, creativity, and support from others, but it can be done.

Sleep When the Baby Sleeps

Many parents hear this age-old device and want to implement it. But when the baby actually arrives, it can be very difficult to catch shut-eye while your baby snoozes. Many parents feel the need to get things done at this time or take some time to “just be,” and that is understandable. But your baby’s naps are a prime time to catch up on sleep, so take advantage of them.

Keep Your Baby Close

The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) advises that babies sleep in the same room with their parents for the first year of life. Keeping your baby near you has major advantages in terms of you getting enough sleep. If you don’t have to go down the hall to tend your baby, your baby won’t wake up as fully and you’ll both have an easier time falling back asleep.

Encourage Good Baby Sleep Habits

There is almost nothing you can do to help your baby sleep more soundly in the first few months of life beyond keeping the room dark and soothing your baby. As they get older, though, you can help set the stage for healthy sleep by having a calming bedtime routine, employing regular bedtimes, and encouraging daily naps.

Make a Postpartum Survival Sleep Plan

Just like some moms make a birth plan, or a plan for how to decorate the nursery, you can make a plan for how you’ll deal with sleep deprivation once your baby arrives. Usually, this involves getting your partner involved (they can take some of those night feedings, or bring the baby to you if you are breastfeeding). You can also consider having extended family or a postpartum doula/baby nurse come over regularly so you can catch up on zzzz’s.

Sleep Doesn’t Have to Happen All at Once

Think of it this way: your goal is 7-9 hours of total sleep (depending on your needs), but it doesn’t have to happen all in a row, or all at night either. A couple of 20 minutes catnaps can add up and help you get the sleep you need. Make your goal to get sleep wherever it may come. It all counts.

Get Your Partner Involved

If you have a partner who is available at night or even during the day, make sure they understand that baby sleep care isn’t a one-person job. While your partner can’t birth your baby or breastfeed them, handling night waking and letting you catch up on sleep during the day (or letting you sleep in on weekends!) is most definitely a job they can and should take on.

Practice Healthy Sleep Habits Yourself

Sometimes the very fact of being chronically sleep-deprived can make it difficult for us to fall asleep even when an opportunity presents itself. Now is a good time to acquire a toolbox of things to try when you are having trouble sleeping yourself. Meditation, having a daily sleep-inducing ritual, journaling before bed, and breathing techniques before sleep can be very helpful.

A Word from Verywell

Even when you make an effort to do things like “sleep when the baby sleeps” and accept any support that’s being offered, you are still going to have many days as a parent where you feel absolutely knocked over by sleep deprivation. It’s happened to all of us, and somehow the human race has survived all these years.

On those days when sleep deprivation is making it hard for you to do much of anything, try to cut yourself as much slack as possible, and give yourself a ton of grace.

It’s so easy to have a picture perfect idea of how we are supposed to be as parents, and when sleep deprivation hits, it often means that all we can accomplish is the minimum – and we need to know that this is just fine!

So, forget about an orderly house when you are sleep deprived. Let the laundry pile up. Let yourself live your life as a sleepy person would. If you end your day with fed, happy kids, you are doing great. And we promise: you will sleep again … someday.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. D Richter, M Krämer, N Tang, H Montgomery-Downs, S Lemola. Long-term effects of pregnancy and childbirth on sleep satisfaction and duration of first-time and experienced mothers and fathers. Sleep. 2019 Apr 1;42(4). doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsz015.

  2. S Iranpour, G Reza Kheirabadi, A Esmaillzadeh, M Heidari-Beni, M Reza Maracy. Association between sleep quality and postpartum depression. Journal of Research in Medical Science. 2016; 21: 110. doi: 10.4103/1735-1995.193500.

Additional Reading

  • Children and Sleep. National Sleep Foundation website. 

  • D Richter, M Krämer, N Tang, H Montgomery-Downs, S Lemola. Long-term effects of pregnancy and childbirth on sleep satisfaction and duration of first-time and experienced mothers and fathers. Sleep. 2019 Apr 1;42(4). doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsz015.

  • S Iranpour, G Reza Kheirabadi, A Esmaillzadeh, M Heidari-Beni, M Reza Maracy. Association between sleep quality and postpartum depression. Journal of Research in Medical Science. 2016; 21: 110. doi: 10.4103/1735-1995.193500.

  • Sleep and Disease Risk. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School website. Updated December 18, 2007.