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A version of this story was published February 2019. It has been updated.
No one expects to get a ton of sleep when they have a newborn at home, but most of us believe that we'll get more sleep when the kids are older.
Research suggests that's a myth that sets parents up for frustration because parents (particularly mothers) are still sleep deprived four to six years after bringing a baby home.
The 2019 study examined the sleep patterns of 4,659 German parents who had a child between 2008 and 2015 and found that parents' sleep duration and satisfaction don't recover to pre-pregnancy levels until the first child is in first grade.
Parents of older children often feel like they shouldn't be as tired as they are since they no longer have a baby at home, but this study proves that sleep deprivation doesn't end when your child starts sleeping in a big kid bed. It continues, and we can't address the problem if we don't acknowledge it.
"While having children is a major source of joy for most parents it is possible that increased demands and responsibilities associated with the role as a parent lead to shorter sleep and decreased sleep quality even up to 6 years after birth of the first child," says Dr. Sakari Lemola, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick.
And moms get less sleep than dads, a trend that starts right away and lasts until elementary school. Researchers found that in the first three months after a baby is born, mothers sleep on average one hour less than before pregnancy. In those first three months, dads lose out on about 15 minutes.
"Women tend to experience more sleep disruption than men after the birth of a child reflecting that mothers are still more often in the role of the primary caregiver than fathers," says Dr. Lemola.
By the time the kids in the study were 4 to 6 years old the moms were still missing out on about 20 minutes of sleep, while dad's sleep deficiency remained steady at 15 minutes below the pre-kids duration.
"We didn't expect to find that, but we believe that there are certainly many changes in the responsibilities you have," Dr. Lemola told The Guardian, explaining that kids may stop crying at night as they grow up, but they may wake up feeling sick or due to nightmares, and that stress related to parenting can also keep parents up at night.
First-time parents lose the most sleep compared to more experienced parents, the research notes, and in the first one and a half years of a child's life, breastfeeding moms lost more sleep compared to bottle-feeding moms.
It may seem kind of bleak to think that you'll still be losing sleep when your child is in kindergarten, but it's important for parents to know this so we can set realistic expectations and give ourselves grace when we need it.
You can have a 4-year-old and be almost as tired as you were when they were 4 months old. It's okay if you need to sneak in a nap today, or if you fall into bed tonight with your mascara on.
There's nothing wrong with you, there's nothing wrong with your kiddo. It's just a part of parenting.
The good news is, parents don't get more sleep deprived the more kids they have. Whether you have one under six or three under six, you're still only going to lose 20 minutes.
If you are feeling really sleep deprived, don't be afraid to ask your village for help. If your partner, co-parent, a grandparent or trusted babysitter can stand in for you overnight, let them help you and get the sleep you need.
One day your kids will sleep through the night, but it's okay to ask for help until that day comes.