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Why Parental Sleep Deprivation Is a Serious Problem

When I first became a parent, I did a lot of mental preparation on how I was going to juggle sleepless nights and a career that entailed I be at work early in the morning. I was fortunate to have 4.5 months home with my oldest daughter, and even more blessed that she was a great sleeper, for the most part.

I knew though, as my due date with my second approached, that I was probably in for it—that’s how Murphy’s Law works. And of course, being lucky with a great sleeper the first time around meant that my second daughter would not fare so well. She was an awful sleeper, not only during the night, but also during the day. I once again was able to stay at home with her for about 4.5 months before returning to work, but once I was back, I couldn't figure out how to get her to sleep for extended amounts of time sans being held, and it was a huge struggle.

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On a good night, I would get maybe three consecutive hours of sleep before baby would wake up wanting to nurse, and that was after spending one to two hours getting her to fall asleep in the first place. Yet more times than not, I was lucky to get four hours of non-consecutive sleep during the workweek. It was awful because no more could I fall asleep in the middle of the day in the rocking chair holding her as I did when on maternity leave. I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning, leave my house by 6 a.m., drive 45 minutes to work, teach the youth and then drive that long commute back home to a cranky baby who wasn’t getting enough sleep, not to mention an almost-5-year-old demanding my attention and all the things that needed to happen for a functioning home to occur. Of course my husband was there by my side, but he was just as sleep deprived as I was.

I was clamoring for whatever sleep I could get. And it pains me to say this, but I was putting myself and others in danger because of my lack of sleep.

Recently, when I read about how sleep deprivation of parents needs to be taken more seriously, I was shouting “YES!” to anyone who would listen. In this article, it talked about how sleep deprivation was responsible for 1,000 deadly traffic accidents a year in the U.S. I had flashbacks to those 2.5 months at the end of last school year when I was groggily climbing into my car for my long commute to work, struggling to keep my eyes open. I often had visions in my head of not only seriously injuring someone else, but also myself. It’s hard for me to admit this, but what was I going to do? I had to go to work, and the thought of sleep training the baby—which meant I would be up even more throughout the night—did not seem feasible. I was clamoring for whatever sleep I could get. And it pains me to say this, but I was putting myself and others in danger because of my lack of sleep.

I feel very privileged, though, that as a teacher, as soon as school was out for the summer, I got on the sleep learning train and taught my youngest how to sleep, and there were not as many tears for both of us as I thought would happen. It took a month of gentle coaxing and soon baby was sleeping a solid 10-12 hours at night and taking naps like a champ.

As I went back to work this past fall, I noticed a huge difference as a result of everyone sleeping better. My commute was a breeze and I no longer had fears of car accidents contributing to my anxiety. I was a better worker and colleague, which I believe both the adults and students appreciated. I worked better and harder, and was just happier. But the most important thing was the positive outcome on my family. The baby was more pleasant throughout the day because she was sleeping more. I was more content and readily able to deal with stress at home, which meant that my family was happier, and that’s all a mom really wants.

I feel that parental sleep deprivation in the 21st century is more of a systemic problem.

What got me thinking, though, is that I knew how to seek out resources to help conquer my sleep and baby’s sleep, while other new moms aren’t as equipped. Some parents even see it as a failure if they can’t figure out how to help their children. I feel that parental sleep deprivation in the 21st century is more of a systemic problem. When more and more both parents are—whether by choice or necessity—working full-time, there needs to be more resources out there. It shouldn’t seem taboo to seek help.

Every milestone my child reaches, the government sends me a pamphlet in the mail to let me know what goals she should be reaching or working towards, whether it’s learning to crawl, or starting solids. What I don’t see in there, though, are tips for parents on how to deal with difficult situations like not getting enough sleep. The Affordable Care Act has done so much for the working parent, but I feel like more can be done. Seeking a sleep specialist, which I was researching and ultimately didn’t do, is expensive. As a middle-class woman, I couldn’t even afford their services, but I wonder what would happen if it became a norm that insurance would cover one to two consultations with a sleep specialist, just as it’s helping to provide breastfeeding support to working moms by covering breast pumps.

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More can be done. More has to be done. Because I hate to think that there are other parents who are risking themselves and others by climbing into their cars when they shouldn’t be. I was the mom putting others in danger, and at the time, even as a second-time parent, I felt ill-equipped to deal with the sleep deprivation going on, and I’m sure there are more people out there feeling the same way. And I’m hoping that sooner than later, this universal problem becomes one that can be solved with the government paying more and more attention to the working mom in the workforce.

Image via Flickr/Ben Raynal

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