My son doesn’t always want to take a nap, but I always do. It’s a feeling that’s been hard to shake ever since I became a parent nearly two years ago. And while I’m persistently tired now, my fatigue levels were downright dangerous during those earliest days when I knew I was too sleep-deprived to operate a car. After all, if I was putting coffee in the fridge and milk in the cupboard, my reactions on the road were worthy of questioning.
For better or worse, sleep-deprivation is inevitable for new moms—even though the extent of it is something few of us fully comprehend before baby arrives. But as hard as it may be to imagine with groggy eyes, science shows new moms will sleep again.
“Studies have examined the sleep loss associated with having an infant and determined parents lose an average of two hours of sleep per night for the first five months and then one hour per night until the age of two,” says Kelly Sullivan, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University.
Sullivan studies sleep deprivation in parents and says that when the sleep patterns of women without kids are compared to those of moms, the differences are obvious—even after baby has outgrown newborn clothes.
Indeed, an informal survey of new parents in the United Kingdom found parents lose 44 days of sleep during the first year of a baby’s life as they only get 5.1 hours of shut-eye during the average night.
According to Sullivan, chronic sleep deprivation can result in consequences far worse than cold coffee and spoiled milk: It is associated with increased accidents, problems concentrating, poor performance on the job and in school, and possibly, increased sickness and weight gain.
“It’s important for individuals, especially those in caregiving roles, to recognize issues that increase their risk of health problems and work to maintain optimum physical and mental health in order to continue functioning at the high level that caregiving often requires.”
Moms are more affected than dads
Getting the sleep we need may involve getting some help from our partners, especially as Sullivan’s research of more than 5,800 adults showed dads aren’t as afflicted by sleep loss as moms.
“The only factor that was independently associated with insufficient sleep for women was having children in the household,” Sullivan says. “In fact, each child in the household was associated with a nearly 50% increase in a woman’s odds of insufficient sleep. Conversely, men’s sleep was not associated with having children in the household.”
She says the reasons for the gender disparity are beyond the scope of her study, but biological factors like pregnancy and the demands of breastfeeding could play a role in why women get less rest.
It’s important to start healthy sleep habits—for everyone
Sullivan notes that while infancy is a particularly challenging period for parents, the demands of parenting aren’t limited to those early days. She says that’s why moms should prioritize rest even as the kids outgrow the newborn phase and head into childhood.
“Sleep needs and challenges differ and the approach to address sleep challenges needs to be individualized,” she says. “For some women, that will include enlisting the help of friends and family. For others, stress management techniques and exercise may help.”
Remember: You will sleep again
I started feeling better when my husband began taking every other night with the baby. This allowed me to spend three or four nights a week sleeping alone in my room, wearing earplugs and knowing my baby was safe with his dad.
Eventually, my son started sleeping through the night, and taking shifts was no longer necessary. I’m not the only one with a story of hope: Self-described new dad and data nerd Reddit user jitney86 shared his personal journey with parental sleep deprivation in the form of a graph after he and his wife meticulously tracked their baby’s life in 15 minute increments from three months to 17 months old.
When the data was plotted visually it showed a shift from erratic newborn behavior to more consistent sleep patterns.
“This is so affirming of my own experience as a parent!” another Reddit user replied. “It’s anarchy! And you simply have to surrender to the chaos. Then close to around a year they become a normal human, and then [you] return to being a normal human.”
Those extended sleep periods—for parents and babies—were also demonstrated in a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics, which found babies’ sleep habits rapidly improved in the first months of life. The researchers also found that by baby’s first birthday, 85% of parents could also celebrate consistently uninterrupted nights of sleep.
That’s further proof that sleeping soundly doesn’t happen overnight with a new baby in the house—but it will happen.