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Managing your sleep as a parent

While all experiences of parenthood are unique and different, a common theme is that once you have children, you can say goodbye to restful nights and lie-ins. Juggling endless tasks, tears, and the tantrums of a small human (and sometimes your own!) will leave anyone feeling exhausted. Yet, many parents agree that exhaustion doesn’t even begin to describe the struggle. A lack of sleep can magnify the already-difficult challenges of life as a parent.

Add to this the expectations placed on modern parents — mothers in particular — and parents who manage a workload in addition to their caring responsibilities, and many expecting parents fear that good quality sleep will become a thing of the past. Yet, all is not lost. There’s plenty that expecting or new parents can do to support themselves and adapt to the changes that parenthood can bring.

Sleep deprivation can lead to all kinds of health implications, from daytime sleepiness to weight gain or even more chronic conditions. Ongoing sleep issues can begin to affect our work and relationships. So, what can you do to manage your sleep as a parent? Let’s take a look at some key tips to get you sleeping soundly and enjoying this special part of your life!

Make sleep a priority

You’re already taking a good step by researching how you can improve your sleep as a parent. Finding ways to fit sleep into your life as a parent is crucial to making a real change. If you’re constantly telling yourself you’ll sleep when the child is older, or you’ll catch up when the baby sleeps, or you’re negotiating with yourself about what other tasks you need to get done before you can consider going to bed, you’re not making sleep a priority. 

By recognising the benefits that good sleep can have on how productive and efficient you are during the day, the impact it has on your decision-making and your ability to regulate your stress and emotions, you’ll start to realise that sleep must become a priority. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important influences on how much time and energy you feel you have the following day.

Set a consistent sleep routine for you and your children

One of the most critical and effective ways to increase your chances of getting good, restful sleep on a regular basis is to set a consistent bedtime and wake time. Consistency is the key, even on weekends. Regular bedtimes are even more important for children, as they’re much more susceptible to circadian dysregulation.

Of course, if you’re introducing a new bedtime routine after a long period of irregular schedules, you might meet some challenges. Stick with it, stay consistent, and you’ll be thankful you did. Make sure to get any partners or older siblings on-board with the new routine so that you’re not alone in your mission, and don’t forget to stick to your own schedule, too!

Introduce a curfew on screen time

Exposure to different kinds of light during the day and in the evening can have a big effect on how we sleep, both as adults and children. One of the keys to getting enough sleep is to make sure you have exposure to daylight during the day. 

While getting enough daylight isn’t generally a challenge for most parents — often taking children out for walks and outdoor play — another form of light exposure can be very detrimental and override any benefits of daylight: blue light.

Blue light has a short wavelength and is made up of many LED lights. Studies have shown that blue light has a significant effect on melatonin and the circadian rhythm, and keeps your brain stimulated and alert. The later you or your child is exposed to blue light, the more likely you are to experience sleep disruptions. 

To improve your sleep, stop using your smartphone, tablet, or computer before bedtime! It’s crucial that parents prevent their children from using tablets or screens before bedtime, but it’s also key for parents themselves to avoid tuning out in front of Netflix once the kids are in bed. Introducing a curfew on screen time will not only improve your sleep, but also set a healthy boundary for your children about when and where to use screens or tablets.

Accept that sleepless nights do happen

Let’s face it, there are going to be nights when you stick completely to your routine and healthy sleep habits, but nobody in the house gets a wink of sleep. This is the case for parents of newborns and small children in particular, but even for parents of teens!

Spending too much time worrying about a lack of sleep can become a problem in and of itself, further perpetuating a problem that otherwise may have passed. Your body and all its systems and regulations is robust and resilient and can recover from a short-term period of poor sleep. If you find yourself worrying about your sleep, try shifting your focus to relieving stress. Work with your partner or support network to create some moments for relaxation and time to yourself. By focusing on your own wellbeing, you’ll be better able to handle the challenges brought on by sleep problems.

Set realistic expectations

New parents especially often feel that they need to maintain the level of energy they applied to their job, friendships, relationships, and other responsibilities as they did before they had children. While it can be possible to balance things once you’ve established some routines and your children are a little older, it’s just not realistic to expect that you’ll be able to keep up your previous priorities and lifestyle.

If your attempts to get into shape or keep up with child-free friends are leaving you feeling completely burnt out, listen to your body and make some adjustments. They may feel like sacrifices, but trust that you’ll be able to hit the gym again or catch up with friends once you’ve regained some energy. Setting realistic expectations and boundaries for you and those around you will help relieve some of the pressure as well as give yourself permission to prioritise your health.

Check in with yourself — what is causing your fatigue?

Sleep deprivation is not the only source of a parent’s tiredness. Sometimes, parents who constantly feel fatigued are suffering in other areas of life that cause additional stress or exhaustion. Check in with yourself and see if there are other lifestyle factors that you can change to help put a pep back in your step.

Stress and emotional exhaustion can wreak havoc on your body and mind, causing you to feel exhausted even when you’ve been getting plenty of sleep. Parents who are introverted in particular, can feel easily drained by their role as parent, constantly providing emotional comfort and regulation to a needy youngster. 

Frustration and disappointment when aspects of parenthood don’t go as planned, arguments with a spouse about how to parent, and pressure from family or external influences can lead to overwhelming or persistent stress, which will leave you feeling tired, whether you’ve slept or not.

In order to address feelings of stress, pressure, or emotional exhaustion, it’s crucial to build up a support network of people who can help calm you when you’re not able to calm yourself or your child.

Seek support when you need it

Parenting can be tough, and we often feel we need to make it look easy. If you’re good at making it look easy, chances are people won’t be proactive about offering help or assistance. Hiding your struggles and going through it alone can be detrimental to your health and your relationships, so be sure to seek the support of friends, family, or a network of professionals when needed. Whether it’s a friend you can call to unwind and laugh with, or a friend or family member to help babysit or assist with some everyday tasks — those extra helping hands can be the key to you going to bed an hour earlier.

Of course, oftentimes the things that disrupt your sleep are beyond your realm of control. Even by setting up sleep as a priority and working hard to establish routines and healthy habits, there might be nocturnal awakenings, such as when your child can’t sleep. Try not to be disheartened, there are ways to help your child sleep better, too. Working with a child or family sleep coach might be just what you need to get tailored help.

If you find that you, your partner, or your child is suffering from ongoing sleep deprivation or disruption, seek the help of your doctor for medical advice.

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