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A Guide to Prioritizing Rest for Parents and Families

Sleep and proper rest can feel impossible to come by for new parents. Here's why it's important to prioritize and how to set up the most effective routines and sleep spaces.

By Matthew Celestial
A Guide to Prioritizing Rest for Parents and Families

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Sleep is such a valuable resource that deeply affects parents' general health and plays a big part in showing up as the parent you want to be. To help families prioritize rest and get better sleep, we sat down with two experts who, as parents, know firsthand the struggles of a lack of sleep.

Alanna McGinn is the Founder and Lead Sleep Expert at Good Night Sleep Site, a team of sleep consultants who have helped thousands of families overcome their sleep challenges and establish healthy nighttime habits to get the sleep they need to feel healthy, happy and at their best. Dennis Hancock is the president and CEO of Mountain Valley MD, a biotech company focused on advancing sleep solutions to optimize human health.

The impact of sleep on parental well-being

Quality sleep is the cornerstone of good physical and mental health. For parents, the effects of sleep deprivation can be particularly pronounced. Alanna explains that whether you're a parent or not, sleeping against your natural body clock doesn't promote the best quality of sleep you can get. Because of that, we run the 'sleep debt' and become sleep deprived.

"Sleep deprivation affects many things," she said. "It affects our cognitive abilities, mood and temperament, immune system, and motor skills. When we're dealing with a new parent, especially a mom who is running on a sleep debt and experiencing sleep deprivation because they have a child who isn't sleeping, our main concern with that mom is the temperament."

While sleep deprivation can heighten any symptoms of postpartum depression, as well as any mental health symptoms that an individual might be feeling, finding ways to incorporate quality sleep can really help.

tired mom sitting in a bed napping iStock

Establishing a consistent sleep routine for parents and families

"If parents could just get the normal amount of sleep every night, they wouldn't need more sleep than the average adult. A new parent can't get the appropriate amount of each night that an average adult, but realistically, it's just not going to happen, and that's okay." Alanna assured us.

"That's what I try to tell new parents: you need to take the pressure off. It's normal to lose some sleep when you first have a child, but you don't need to lose that sleep for the next five years. That's what is not normal. That's where I come in, but in the beginning, you can't expect to sleep well. There's nothing you can do about that."

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A regular sleep schedule benefits both parents and kids because it helps control circadian rhythms and encourages deeper, more restful sleep. Establishing a nightly routine incorporating soothing pursuits like reading or lowering the lights can cue kids and parents alike that it's time to retire.

"Each of us has a chronotype that is directly related to our optimal sleep schedule that presets your body's daily rhythms for digestion, alertness and hormone release, among others," Dennis explained. "Our motor skills and reaction times are critical in ensuring our safety and better capable of supervising the safety of our children."

The importance of a proper sleep space

Parents often face unique challenges in maintaining healthy sleep patterns that can disrupt sleep, whether it's the demands of a newborn, the juggling act of multiple responsibilities or the stressors of everyday life. "Our sleep environment is an amazing tool that we can utilize, and one that often gets overlooked to help us sleep better," Alanna explained.

"For adults, really focusing on creating that sleep sanctuary, protecting the bedroom for sleep only, and creating whatever kind of calming and relaxing environment works for you. Think about colours on the wall, colours and patterns in your bedding. Focus on your five senses; what are you seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling? Work to make a relaxing environment and protect the space for sleep only."

She added that things like working in your room, working out, and even folding laundry should be off-limits. A supportive mattress and pillows are good purchases as well. However, trying your best is most important—incredible sleep isn't always in the cards for new parents.

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Ensuring their sleeping space is safe is the most important thing for children. Follow the steps of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society by following the ABCs of safe sleep: having baby sleep alone, on their back and in their crib.

"Focusing on creating cave-like settings, darkening up the room as best you can and drowning out external sounds with things like white noise machines is important," Alanna continued. "For both adults and children, in terms of temperature, make sure that it's a cooler temperature; we all sleep better in cooler temperatures."

baby sleeping Daniela Jovanovska-Hristovska / Getty Images

Identifying sleep disorders

Persistent sleep issues may indicate underlying health concerns that require medical attention. Striking a balance between incorporating natural remedies into a routine and seeking professional guidance ensures a comprehensive approach to addressing sleep challenges. But how can parents identify signs of sleep disorders, both in themselves and their children?

Alanna told us that "the main two sleep disorders are insomnia and sleep apnea for adults, for the most part. Sleep deprivation and insomnia often get confused, but someone who perhaps is sleep deprived often blankets themselves as saying 'I have insomnia' because they haven't been sleeping well, but they're not hyper-focused on their sleep."

Someone who's experiencing insomnia experiences three or more poor nights of sleep per week for three months or longer—and they want to and are trying to sleep. Essentially, insomnia is the inability to fall asleep when you want to or fall back asleep if you do wake up in the middle of the night.

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"Sleep apnea is another pervasive sleep disorder," Alanna continued. "It is often undiagnosed because people just equate it to snoring, but it's loud, rattling snoring and stopping breathing throughout the night. I would say it's best to ask the person sleeping beside you because often the person with sleep apnea doesn't even realize that it's happening."

She also told us how "this causes not just fatigue and low energy during the day—you're falling asleep at red lights, you're falling asleep and even like you cannot keep your eyes open. That signals you're not getting the right sleep quality overnight."

For children, sleep apnea does not discriminate. For children, Alanna suggested asking yourself: Does my child snore? Is my child a mouth breather? Is my child taking longer to night train? In terms of potty training, is my child now four or five years old and still unable to hold their bladder throughout the night?

These symptoms could also be signs of enlarged adenoids or enlarged tonsils that obstruct their breathing, making them unable to get quality sleep throughout the night. If this is the case, consult with your child's doctor on the next steps for further assessment.

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