Interrupted Sleep Can Be As Harmful As No Sleep

Jennifer’s Take:

As a mother of a one-year-old I can emotionally relate to everything in this study!  Unless you are a new parent, it can be difficult to understand the chronic stress that occurs with not only adjusting to a newborn, but to the ongoing sleep disruption and deprivation.  The first few months of my daughter’s life were some of the most challenging I have ever had, and although I would not trade them for the world, it was at times overwhelming. If you are a new parent, you have such a steep learning curve in adjusting to taking care of this tiny human being who has limited means of communicating with you, and  you are doing it while unbelievable exhausted and never being able to catch up on lost sleep for weeks or months at a time.  Studies show that new parental sleep deprivation can increase depression, anxiety, marital conflict, and parental guilt.

First and foremost, I would say, IT GETS BETTER. And quickly.  Newborns and infants develop and change so quickly that the sleep patterns of a 5 month old barely resemblance those of a 2 month old, even if you do not notice it on a day to day basis.  And although all babies are different, your baby will eventually settle into a routine, and so will you, even if it is still difficult and you are not getting as much sleep as you would like.

Second, ask for help.  Often.  No one can raise an infant alone, even as a couple, and the more help you can get, the better.  A couple hours of sleep can make a huge difference in mood, perspective, and ability to attach to the baby.  For most of human history we have raise children in large familial or social groups- you need a village, too.

Finally, trust your instincts.  Every new parents receives all sorts of advice, often conflicting, from well-meaning friends and family, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. These well-intentioned individuals are not YOU and are not caring for YOUR baby. Educate yourself, taking in advice, and make your own decision. Whether you are for Attachment Parenting or Sleep Training, you have to ultimately decide what is best for your situation, disposition, and baby.


New parents often have a low quality of life as they tend to necessities such as a feeding, a diaper change, or just a fussy baby, for every hour on the hour.

Parents often report feeling more exhausted in the morning than when they went to bed the night before.

A new study, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, explains why interrupted sleep can be as physically detrimental as no sleep at all.

In the research Avi Sadeh, Ph.D., and a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) establish a causal link between interrupted sleep patterns and compromised cognitive abilities, shortened attention spans, and negative moods.

The researchers discovered that interrupted sleep is equivalent to no more than four consecutive hours of sleep.

“The sleep of many parents is often disrupted by external sources such as a crying baby demanding care during the night.

Doctors on call, who may receive several phone calls a night, also experience disruptions,” said Sadeh.

“These night wakings could be relatively short — only five to ten minutes — but they disrupt the natural sleep rhythm. The impact of such night wakings on an individual’s daytime alertness, mood, and cognitive abilities had never been studied.

Our study is the first to demonstrate seriously deleterious cognitive and emotional effects.”

“In the process of advising these parents, it struck me that the role of multiple night wakings had never been systematically assessed,” said Sadeh, who directs a sleep clinic at TAU, where he advises exhausted and desperate parents on how to cope with their children’s persistent night wakings.

“Many previous studies had shown an association, but none had established a causal link. Our study demonstrates that induced night wakings, in otherwise normal individuals, clearly lead to compromised attention and negative mood.”

The study was conducted on student volunteers at TAU’s School of Psychological Sciences.

Their sleep patterns were monitored at home using wristwatch-like devices that detected when they were asleep and when they were awake.

The students slept a normal eight-hour night, then experienced a night in which they were awakened four times by phone calls and told to complete a short computer task before going back to sleep after 10-15 minutes of wakefulness.

The students were asked each following morning to complete certain computer tasks to assess alertness and attention, as well as to fill out questionnaires to determine their mood.

The experiment showed a direct link between compromised attention, negative mood, and disrupted sleep — after only one night of frequent interruptions.

“Our study shows the impact of only one disrupted night,”  Sadeh.

“But we know that these effects accumulate and therefore the functional price new parents — who awaken three to ten times a night for months on end — pay for common infant sleep disturbance is enormous.”

Investigators explain that for the last 50 years, a majority of sleep research has focused on sleep deprivation, and practically ignored the impact of night-wakings, a pervasive phenomenon for people from many walks of life.

Besides the physical effects of interrupted sleep, parents often develop feelings of anger toward their infants and then feel guilty about these negative feelings.

Sadeh believes the new study will help scientists and clinicians recognize the price paid by individuals who have to endure frequent night-wakings. His new research involves evaluating interventions for infant sleep disturbances that may reduce the detrimental effects of disrupted sleep on parents.

I would say to new parents, first and foremost, IT GETS BETTER. And quickly.  There is a significant difference between the sleep habits of a 2 month old and a 5 month old, even if it does not feel like it.  You and your baby will settle into a routine, even if it is slowly.  For now, it is just going to be hard.  It will not last forever.

Second, never, ever, ever turn away help, and ask for it when you need it. Alway.

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Tired mother holding her baby photo by shutterstock.


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