Parents, Children, and Sleep Deprivation
- The younger the children, the more sleep parents lose.
- Sleep deprivation can damage a parent’s physical and psychological health, work productivity, and relationship quality with the child.
- Cultural context should be considered when addressing parent and child sleep arrangements.
As a mother of three growing boys—ages 9, 5, and 3 years—I can honestly say that my husband and I have not had an uninterrupted night of sleep since 2007, when our first child was born. Sound familiar? Even as I write this article at 5:01 a.m., our bed through the night has been crowded with four people—my husband, myself, and our two younger sons. I haven’t been able to get back to sleep since being awakened twice—at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. to be precise—by our 5-year-old, first for a glass of water, and then because he was hot and could not sleep. So all around we seem to be having sleep issues as a family. While the other three in our bed have successfully gone back to sleep, I successfully remain awake and have decided to get up and get writing! Perhaps there is an upside to disrupted sleep after all, although a majority of research suggests otherwise.
Studies reveal that parents of young children have a shorter duration of sleep (less than the recommended duration) and high levels of sleep deprivation (Hagen, Mirer, Palta, & Peppard, 2013). Furthermore, the presence and absence—as well the age and number—of children in a family determines the amount of sleep parents will have. Hagen and colleagues (2013) reported that 41% of parents of young children, compared to 33% of adults with no children, slept less than 7 hours. As children age into adulthood, the sleep duration of parents with more children comes within reach of those parents with fewer children. So how much sleep do adults need? According to Hirshkowitz and colleagues (2015), the appropriate sleep duration for an adult (age 18–64 years) is 7–9 hours. Research reveals that parents of children younger than 2 years on an average received 13 fewer minutes of sleep, those with children between 2 and 5 years of age received 9 fewer minutes of sleep, and those with children aged 6–18 years received 4 fewer minutes of sleep (Hagen et al., 2013). Even though the difference in minutes might seem small, it adds up: The researchers found that parents lost an approximate 645 hours of sleep in raising a child from infancy through the end of the child’s 18th year, relative to those with no children. Given this information, what are some implications of sleep deprivation for the health and well-being of parents, especially those with young children?
Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Parents
Sleep is essential, because it affects physical and mental health as well as daily productivity and longevity, among other things (Hagen et al., 2013; Plage, Perales, & Baxter, 2016). A lack of sleep might therefore cause health challenges for parents, particularly those with toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children. Some studies have indicated that sleep deprivation causes psychological distress among mothers and overall poor health among fathers and mothers (e.g., Meltzer & Mindell, 2007). Meltzer and Mindell found that frequent sleep disruptions resulted in poorer sleep quality for mothers, which in turn increased the risk for negative feelings toward the child as well as toward their own parenting role. Other studies indicated that a lack of sleep restricted parents’ ability to spend quality time with their children and interfered with the transfer of human, social, and cultural assets to them (Plage et al., 2016). Sleep deprivation has also been known to cause a reduction in productivity and a greater tendency to miss work, and it affects subsequent advancements in employment (Plage et al., 2016; Rakhonen et al., 2012).
When Less Sleep Could Have a Good Outcome
Although Hirshkowitz and colleagues (2015) recommended a range of sleep durations for varying age groups, the authors also indicated that minor variations within the suggested sleep range could be experienced without any adverse effects. A restricted sleep schedule in healthy young adults who are able to withstand sleep deprivation for extended periods of time even has the possibility of certain positive outcomes, such as productivity, creativity, and alertness (Patrick, 2005). To the best of my knowledge, however, there is no research to date that highlights positive outcomes of sleep deprivation in parents with young children. It might be interesting to study parents—mothers and fathers—who have found ways to receive support, cope, and stay resilient despite a lack of sleep.
Cultural Context and Sleep
All of these sleep outcomes and arrangements in families could be a reflection of cultural values and beliefs in addition to factors such as climate and space restrictions. And all the practices could affect the amount of sleep everyone receives. Co-sleeping or bedsharing is practiced in many countries around the world (Jenni & O’Connor, 2005). In Sweden, co-sleeping is perceived as a normal family activity (Welles-Nystrom, 2005). Murthy, Bharti, Malhi, and Khadwal (2015) found that, in India, 85% of healthy preschoolers in their study co-slept despite the availability of additional bedrooms. Growing up in tiny apartments in India, my husband and I each shared a bed with our parents and siblings well into our school years. The lack of space and the presence of additional family members made it impossible to claim our beds or rooms. Sharing a bed with our parents and siblings gave us a sense of security and strengthened our emotional ties. Research has revealed that co-sleeping can be beneficial to increase breastfeeding and the development of a close attachment with parents (Brooks, 2013). According to Levine and Levine (2016), some surveys found that children were taken into the parental bed because of sleep disturbances. This could perhaps suggest that bed sharing might decrease sleep deprivation for some parents. More research needs to done in the area of co-sleeping and sleep deprivation, particularly in a cultural context.
As we raise our own children here in the U.S., my husband and I attempt to foster values of both independence and interdependence. Our children shared a room with us for the first 6 months of their lives, but as they grew, they began sleeping in their own beds. They currently share a room with each other and occasionally get into bed with us. As I reported at the beginning of the article, those arrangements have not always prevented sleep deprivation in our family.
Recommendations to Reduce Sleep Deprivation in Parents and Children
Research studies (e.g., Mindell, Li, Sadeh, Kwon, & Goh, 2016) have highlighted the benefits of a consistent bedtime routine for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, including increasing their amount of sleep. Similarly, bedtime routines also may benefit parent health and wellness. Mindell, Telofski, Wiegand, and Kurtz (2009) found that having a bedtime routine with children has been associated with decreased maternal tension, anger, and fatigue. In addition, bedtime routines can give parents an opportunity to spend time with their children (Konkes, 2001). Reading a book with one’s child at bedtime allows parents to unwind and drift away with the stories. It is also advantageous for parents who might be too tired to play (Konkes, 2001).
Given the cultural differences in sleep practices, Family Life Educators (FLEs) and health-care professionals need to keep those variations in mind when recommending sleep practices and routines to parents. Families should be allowed to choose sleep arrangements that are (a) safe and beneficial to their family lifestyle and well-being and (b) based on information shared by FLEs and other professionals.
Meltzer and Montgomery-Downs (2011) encourage Family Science professionals to think about sleep in the context of a family and how parent behaviors and internal and external stressors (e.g., marital conflict, work problems) might cause child sleep issues, which in turn affect parents’ sleep patterns and day-to-day functioning. (See also other articles in this publication.) It is important to attempt to reduce those stressors. Spouses and parents might consider talking through challenges and exploring alternative solutions; some families may benefit from therapy and behavioral treatments to achieve better sleep for both parents and children.
Because the lack of sleep affects productivity at the workplace, employers might consider providing parents with flexible work hours, allowing them to work from home, or providing sleep areas at the work site for taking short, restorative naps. Napping during the day (replacement napping) to make up for sleep loss, whether for 10 minutes or 30, has been found to be beneficial to one’s mood, alertness, and cognitive performance (Milner & Cote, 2009). Finally, parents can gain support by involving family members and close friends in caring for children from time to time to allow young parents to get some sleep and relieve some parenting stress.
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