Sleep deprivation and parenting



Key points about sleep deprivation and parenting

  • You’ve been looking forward to the arrival of your little bundle of joy for months, well aware that Sunday sleep-ins and nights of unbroken sleep will soon be a thing of the past.
  • But no matter how prepared you are, sleep deprivation in the first year of having a child may be far greater than you expected.
  • If you're an exhausted parent, there is a way through.
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For many mums, sleep debt actually begins in pregnancy, when sleep needs may increase but discomfort and frequent trips to the bathroom interfere with a full night’s sleep. 

However, compared with late pregnancy, in the first week of the baby’s life, mums get 1.5 hours less sleep and the sleep they do get is broken. New dads are also at risk of sleep disturbance and fatigue during this time. 

If you’ve had 4 or 5 nights of broken sleep, you'll feel sleep deprived. Looking after young children can be tough, but when you're sleep deprived and exhausted it can be a serious struggle. So what can you do? Here are our top tips for exhausted parents.

1. Cut yourself some slack

Just because someone else’s baby is sleeping through the night and yours is still up 2 or 3 times, don’t think you’re doing something wrong. All babies are different; all parents parent differently. It’s normal for babies to have erratic sleep patterns. Try not to compare yourself with others. This parenting job is hard enough as it is. Doing it on little sleep every day? It’s an enormous task, and yet you’re doing it.  

2. Prioritise sleep

Sleep is so critical to health and happiness, yet if you’re busy looking after a baby and running a household, it can become your lowest priority. If you’re not getting enough sleep, be gentle with yourself. Use any opportunity you can to get a little bit of extra rest. Take the often given advice to “sleep when baby sleeps”. The washing and dirty dishes can wait.

3. Tag out

If you’ve reached the end of your physical and mental reserves – or preferably well before this stage – ask someone to look after your baby so you can have some downtime. Can your partner or someone else take over the night feeds so you can put your earplugs in and try to get a few hours' solid? Or is there someone who can watch your baby for a few hours during the day?

4. Try some gentle exercise

Being cooped up inside with a baby when you’re really tired can make things start to feel overwhelming. Take your baby out for a walk in the buggy or see if there are any ‘baby and mum’ exercise classes you can join. Getting out in the fresh air and natural daylight will make you more alert and is a good distraction from your tiredness. Raising your heart rate can also boost your mood – which can make you feel less tired.

Mums pushing prams in the park

Image credit: 123rf

5. Stretch and breathe

When you’re overtired it can be hard to sleep, even when you get the chance. You may feel panicky when you’re given a few free hours to rest and be too wound up to relax. Yoga is wonderful for exercising your body and relaxing your mind. Try practicing at home so you can stay resting in shavasana (the rest period at the end of a yoga class) for as long as you can. Walking meditations and mindfulness exercises can also help focus and relax your mind when you are busy looking after baby.

6. Give yourself a bedtime

We know our kids don’t function well if they’re short on sleep. We don’t either – we’re just a little better at hiding it. Avoid screen time before bed. It gets in the way of melatonin release, confusing the biological clock that keeps time in your brain and prepares you for sleep. Yes, your social media feed may be your lifeline to the world, but it could also be keeping you up at night.

7. Find your people

Coffee mornings and mum’s groups can be a great source of support. You can bond over who is the most sleep deprived and rally each other to get through the next few days. There are also excellent online groups where you can join a community of parents for mutual support. 

Parents nearly always say that having children was one of the best things that ever happened to them. But being exhausted can take the shine off your parenting experience. If you’re really struggling and are not able to get the rest or support you need, seek help. Ring Plunketline 0800 933 922 anytime day or night for free support for advice and support.


  1. Signal TL, Gander PH, Sangalli MR, Travier N, Firestone RT, Tuohy JF. Sleep duration and quality in healthy nulliparous and multiparous women across pregnancy and post-partum(external link) Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol. 2007 Feb;47(1):16-22.
  2. Gay CL, Lee KA, Lee S-Y. Gay CL, Lee KA, Lee S-Y.Sleep patterns and fatigue in new mothers and fathers(external link) Biol Res Nurs. 2004 Apr; 5(4): 311–318.

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