“Basically, I look back at the last four years as a just one really long ass night, ” my friend told me about raising his children, now four and two years old. This was his pitch to convince me and my wife to have another child.
Honestly, it wasn’t much of a pitch.
I’ve never been much of a sleeper. Six hours and I’m usually wide awake. But being a new parent taught me what real sleep deprivation actually is like. And all new parents joke about the lack of sleep. Like it’s a badge of honour, a baptism of fire where we come out the other end fully fledged parents with the eyebags and cognitive decline to prove it.
But lack of sleep isn’t a joke.
A couple months into having our baby, getting two hours of uninterrupted sleep felt unbelievable. My wife and I mused about how rested we would feel. Then we would go about our day, amazed at how well we were functioning despite being so tired we could collapse at any time. The truth is, we just got used to feeling fatigued. We were not functioning well. We just thought we were. It’s like a drunk person marvelling at how well coordinated he is just before he smashes his car into a tree. When you’re drunk you’re not a good judge of your abilities. The same can be said when you’re tired.
Indeed, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles has determined that sleep is one of the most important factors in keeping not just humans but most living things alive. “Sleep is as important as food and it’s miraculous how well sleep matches the needs of our nervous system. From jellyfish to birds to whales, everyone sleeps. While we sleep, our brains are not resting, ” says head researcher Prof Gina Poe.
For adults, what the brain is doing while we’re sleeping is maintenance, because during waking hours all animals suffer neurological damage that can build up and cause brain disease. Sleep repairs this damage by decluttering the brain.
Before the age of two, though, sleep plays a different role. For babies, sleep helps build the infrastructure of the brain. This is why babies spend a lot of time sleeping. Their brains are developing and they need sleep to make sure it happens. (Maybe that explains my behaviour: My mother always tells me I didn’t sleep for the first three years of my life. Brain development screwed.)
This study is both reaffirming and a warning to parents, as it confirms that we are correctly focused on making sure our young ones get as much sleep as they can – but part of doing that means we sacrifice our own sleep and hurt ourselves to do it.
Welcome to parenting, I guess.
But what negative effects can lack of sleep cause?
Eyebags are an obvious one. But also weight gain, as we make poorer food choices because our bodies are craving nutrient-rich food, which translates into snacks or things we shouldn’t be eating too much of. I can confirm that my ice cream consumption increased 7,000% during my son’s first couple of months of life.
A 2011 study in the Behavioral Sleep Medicine journal found that new parents could experience the “zombie effect”, where they have an impaired ability to show joy in their facial expressions. Also because when your baby is screaming at you nonstop, there’s not a lot of joy to be had....
People who sleep less have higher blood pressure, can experience dizzy spells, blurred vision, and eye twitches, and it’s easier for them to fall sick as their immune systems get weaker when they don’t sleep.
But the mental effects are more damaging. Anxiety and depression increase with lack of sleep. Our ability to control our emotions and to cope are impaired, which means we become irritable and short-tempered. Not a good combo when teamed with the aforementioned screaming baby.
What can new parents do to avoid becoming zombies?
Basically, try to sleep as much as possible. Steal back sleep with any little naps you can grab. A good general rule is when baby sleeps, you sleep. Which will lead to an unkempt house and unshowered you, but at least you can avoid zombie face.
In the end, unless you’ve got help, as a new parent you’re going to be sleep deprived. But hopefully, if you’re getting baby to sleep a lot, you too can get your rest in.
Because experiencing four years that just feels like one long ass night, is a night nobody wants.
Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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