Study: Interrupted sleep can be damaging to parents

A new study highlights the effects of interrupted sleep, especially in parents with babies who wake up several times a night.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

When my son Isaac was just a few weeks old, I felt like I was losing my marbles. While he was generally a very happy baby, he woke up several times a night to breastfeed and the lack of sleep started to take its toll on me. I was irritable, forgetful and, did I mention, irritable? At the end of my rope, I begged my husband to take on our baby’s diaper changes and feedings for just one night so I could catch up on some much needed ZZZ’s. Until then, I’d handled 100 percent of nighttime wakings since my husband had started a new job and really did need the sleep more than me.

That night, I set several bottles of pumped breast milk, diapers, wipes and, most importantly, the baby monitor (with the volume set to full blast), on his side of the bed. I tucked myself in, anticipating that I’d wake up 10 hours later, feeling refreshed—or least with a better disposition.

Of course, when I heard our baby start to fidget and squawk in the middle of the night, I shook my husband awake so that he could go and feed Isaac.

“I need my REM sleep,” he groggily muttered, promptly collapsing back onto his pillow. Fast asleep.

I know my husband was half asleep—and when I told him about his “REM sleep” comment the next morning, he said he didn’t even remember saying anything and didn’t even hear the baby wake up. Needless to say, I’ve never let him live that one down—and it pretty much doomed me to the nighttime feeding and diapering of both our babies, leaving me in a state of chronic exhaustion while both kids were eventually potty trained and weaned from nighttime breastfeeding.

Indeed, nothing prepared me for the fatigue I felt after our babies were born. I found this puzzling, since pulling all-nighters wasn’t uncommon throughout my college and career years. How could it be that going all night without sleep was easier than eight hours of sleep, albeit in 45-minute chunks?

A landmark study out of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences now sheds some light on why interrupted sleep is more damaging than no sleep at all. The results were recently published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

Researchers monitored the sleep patterns of student volunteers at home using wristwatch-like devices that detected when they were asleep and when they were awake. First, the students slept a normal eight-hour night, then experienced a night in which they were awakened four times to complete a 10-15-minute computer task before going back to sleep. The students were asked the next day to complete certain computer tasks which assessed their alertness and attention, including a survey about their moods. The results: the students who were woken frequently suffered from compromised attention and negative moods.

“Our study shows the impact of only one disrupted night. But we know that these effects accumulate and therefore the functional price new parents—who awaken three to 10 times a night for months on end—pay for common infant sleep disturbance is enormous,” Professor Avi Sadeh says. “These night wakings could be relatively short—only five to 10 minutes—but they disrupt the natural sleep rhythm. The impact of such night wakings on an individual’s daytime alertness, mood and cognitive abilities had never been studied. I hope that our study will bring this to the attention of scientists and clinicians, who should recognize the price paid by individuals who have to endure frequent night-wakings.”

Now that my kids are older they do sleep much better, and those groggy and grouchy newborn days are a distant memory. Me on the other hand, I’ve resumed my pre-children habit of reading or working into the wee hours of the morning. But that’s what coffee is for, right?

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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