Editor’s note: Dr. Neha Chaudhary is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, chief medical officer at BeMe Health, and on the faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
When I found out I was pregnant with my son a few years ago, my biggest fear wasn’t the labor process—it was the knowledge that I’d be facing sleep deprivation with a newborn for months on end, with no respite.
As a doctor, I spent 10 years working through nights, 30+ hour shifts, and nights interrupted by the cringe-worthy beeping of a pager. I know how my brain works with me on the other side that doesn’t sleep. We’re stressed, jittery, and slow to process information; we’re sluggish, we crave food that’s as unhealthy as possible, and we feel like everything is a mountain.
However, I was not prepared for the sleep deprivation unique to parenthood. Being a new parent means that, unlike those on-calls and overnight shifts in training, there’s no time afterward to just crash and rest. I will not sleep well until my child sleeps well.
I wondered, like all parents and caregivers, if I was the only one feeling so bad after lack of sleep. (I did end up on the other side.)
As it turns out, that’s not the case. Both a parent’s disrupted sleep and their child’s disrupted sleep have been linked to increased parental stress, according to a new study. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether the parents have a sleep disorder or whether the child has one. Both also affect parental stress levels.
The real kicker? Stressed parents can’t sleep well. Neither will stressed kids. So the more sleep-deprived everyone in the family was, the more stressed they were — and the more stressed they were, the poorer their sleep. Sometimes, all the stress can even lead to anxiety and depression. In the study, the stressed people had approximately four times higher rates of anxiety and depression. (We know that anxiety and depression can also affect sleep.)
These results should come as no surprise to any sleep-deprived parent or caretaker. But as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I firmly believe that seemingly never-ending patterns can be broken and conditions treated.
If you and your family fall into the “can’t sleep” trap, the number one thing you can do is invest in sleep for the whole family. Because whoever is not sleeping well, if you are under the same roof, it is likely to affect everyone.
Make sure you focus on good sleep hygiene, including consistent and soothing bedtimes with the right sleep environment (think: cool, dark, not just finished eating) and no screen time. I highly recommend mimicking these behaviors even with very young children. They’ll thank you later, and given the link between your stress and their sleep, you’ll thank yourself now.
Remember, it doesn’t just start and end with sleep—it also involves stress. So focus on reducing the stress levels of everyone in your family. You can try mindfulness meditation or sensory experiences such as aromatherapy, candles, soothing music or a warm soak in the bathtub – or your own way of calming you down.
Practice coping skills during stressful moments, such as taking deep breaths, calling a friend, or distracting yourself with a conscious, everyday activity (even a boring one, like folding laundry).
There are many apps you can download to help you and your child navigate stressful times and develop healthy sleep habits. If the problem persists, seek professional help, whether it’s for sleep challenges or stress. Many sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can go undiagnosed for years, affecting the quality of life of both parents and children. The same goes for conditions like anxiety or depression.
Whether it’s your primary care physician, your child’s pediatrician, therapist, or psychiatrist, if you’ve been falling into the “no sleep” trap and it’s really taking a toll on your family’s health, make an appointment. You may sleep better tonight.