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Returning to work after parental leave? You don’t have to be sleep-deprived!

When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I was overwhelmed, to say the least. I’m sure I had a deer in the headlights look on my face for the first couple of weeks. I hired a nanny, negotiated my a** off to work from home on Fridays, and was having a hard time keeping up with my milk supply. In hindsight, I wish I had given myself permission to supplement with formula before my return to the office, because my milk supply was fast dwindling and I could barely keep up. There was no pumping room at my office, so I was pumping in the bathroom (often in tears). The only thing that felt “good” was that my baby was sleep trained, sleeping 11-12 hours through the nights, and on a good 3-nap schedule during the days. I can’t imagine being sleep-deprived on top of all I had to juggle going back to work! Because being a new parent and sleep deprivation go hand in hand. 

Understanding parental sleep deprivation

The research on how much sleep parents lose in the first year of their baby’s life is mixed, but based on my research, I estimate that parents lose nearly 1,000 hours of sleep in their first year. That’s equivalent to six weeks – or 44 days – of lost sleep. Not to mention that the remaining hours of sleep are broken by having to care for crying babies during the night, sometimes every hour. With broken sleep, REM cycles are disturbed, compounding how the sleep deficit feels for new parents.

What is parental sleep deprivation?

Parental sleep deprivation can feel like torture. Imagine finally drifting off to sleep only to be awakened by a crying baby repeatedly, every 45 minutes, all night long. Imagine your baby is wide awake in the middle of the night, and there’s nothing you can do but be awake with your baby from 3-5am. And then imagine after a night of very broken sleep, your baby wakes at 5:30am, ready to play! Repeat over weeks or months, and your sleep debt racks up. 

How much sleep do new parents get?

Studies show that parents get roughly 5 hours of broken sleep per night in their baby’s first year of life, 3 hours less than the recommended 8 hours. One study concluded that parental sleep deprivation remains fairly consistent until a child is 6 years old! Simply put, 5 hours of broken sleep each night for weeks, months, or years is not enough for parents to function properly. If this is you and you feel like you’re losing your mind, you’re not alone!

 

Family Sleep Patterns

When you become a new parent, you know sleep is going to be a challenge, but how LONG you allow it to be a challenge is up to you. Sleep training can be controversial and some parents just aren’t comfortable with it. Other families prefer a family bed, which is perfectly fine as long as parents consciously choose that path, and if it works for everyone! (Spoiler alert: If you opt for a family bed, your children will likely be dependent on you for sleep until they hit puberty and want more independence.) But if you don’t want children in your bed, you have a choice to get your baby sleeping independently early on. When to sleep train is a very personal decision but my professional opinion is that your baby CAN be sleeping independently through the night by the time they’re 12 weeks and 12 pounds. 

Baby Sleep Dynamics

When you’re first home from the hospital, your baby will likely be pretty sleepy and you may need to wake them up to feed. By about 8 weeks, you may see longer stretches at night, maybe even up to 6-8 hours! But as your baby grows and becomes more alert, by 12 weeks, you may experience more night wake-ups and naps may become shorter, like 30-40 minutes. This is the beginning of the “four-month sleep regression” which lasts for a month or until you teach your baby to sleep independently. 

 

How sleep deprivation affects parents at home and work

The ripple effect of sleep deprivation is huge. Ask any sleep deprived parent how they feel about their work, parenting, and relationships, and you’ll learn that there are common denominators with all of them. The first is a feeling of not being able to handle normal life, and feelings of failure. I speak with chronically exhausted parents every day and what I hear are statements like: 

  • “I’m not the mom I want to be.” 
  • “I can’t focus at work.”
  • “I have a short fuse and snap at my partner/toddler.”
  • “I’m in the dark holding my baby for naps all day, I can’t get anything done.” 
  • “I miss evenings with my spouse.”
  • “I can’t be this tired and go back to work.”

Breastfeeding sleep deprivation

If you’re breastfeeding, you may find yourself taking on the majority of the nighttime parenting duties because it’s easier to nurse your baby back to sleep through the night. But here’s the thing: sleep and milk supply are related. If you’re chronically overtired, (which we’ve established that basically all new parents are unless you’ve hired overnight help or already sleep trained), then you’re at risk of struggling to keep up with milk supply. The more exhausted you are, the more stressed your body is, and that makes lactation harder. 

You can sleep train your baby and have a successful breastfeeding relationship; you just feed your baby when they’re awake! For example, a 3-month old baby could be on a 4-hour feed schedule eating at 7am, 11am, 3pm and 7pm. If you don’t think they’re getting enough calories during the day, you can add one dream feed before you go to sleep at 10:30pm, and let your baby sleep for the rest of the night! That is totally realistic for a 3-month old that’s getting enough calories during the day. 

Night time anxiety with newborn

There’s no shortage of anxiety at night with a newborn. At first you may be watching your baby sleep because you’re paranoid about SIDS and you might find yourself obsessing a little bit. If your baby is 12 weeks or older, you might still be in the habit of watching your baby on the monitor to check for breathing. Or, you’re just anxiously waiting for bedtime to roll around, because you don’t know what your night is going to look like. Or maybe you’re wide awake at night even if your baby is sleeping because you’re just waiting for your baby to wake up. It’s a painful cycle but easy to transition out of after your baby is sleep trained and sleeping through the night!

Workload, productivity, and performance

Have a job? Need to use your brain for your job? Try working on 5 hours of broken sleep every night for weeks or months, and see how that feels. You start breaking down physically and mentally. Productivity and work performance suffers. You may be able to fake it for a while, but eventually you will need to sleep in order to keep up with your workload and advance in your career. 

Work-Family-Life Balance

There’s this elusive thing called work-family-life balance. Being a full-time parent is a tough job. Being a working parent is a bit of a juggling act, and you may find yourself feeling like you’re failing at everything for a while. But I have good news. It IS possible to find work-family-life balance. Once your baby is sleeping through the night, you can choose to get up early to go to the gym. Your evenings will be free to spend time with your partner and friends. You can still travel, you’ll just bring your little one with you! With sleep, anything is possible and I promise you can find your balance. 

 

How sleep training can help you return to work

We’ve already established that you need sleep to be the parent and partner you want to be, and you need sleep to function at work. Some equate chronic sleep deprivation to being legally drunk. Like, you shouldn’t drive a car on no sleep because it’s not safe. When you return to work you’re at a perfect junction for sleep training, and it will help with SO much. First, sleep training will give your baby the ability to sleep through the night. It will also give your baby the ability to nap longer than 30 minutes at a time, or in your arms. Through sleep training, we help parents (and babies!) go from chronic sleep deprivation to sleeping through the night in a few days. We also get babies into a new feeding and napping schedule, that other caregivers can follow. Bonus: after your baby is sleep trained, anyone can put your baby down, and you can return to work with the peace of mind knowing that your baby is getting the rest they need to grow and develop. And you can return to work fully rested yourself! Reach out to us if your parental leave is wrapping up. With our support, you’ll be ready to face the challenges ahead with a clear mind, and find your work-family-life balance! 

 

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Natalie Nevares

Natalie Nevares

As Mommywise Founder, my mission is to help families grow and thrive, provide sustainable income for women and mothers, raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders, and make treatment more accessible. As a mentor and parent, my mission is to role-model a strong woman, parent, and leader who endeavors to leave a legacy of positive change through service and humility.

Natalie Nevares

Natalie Nevares

As Mommywise Founder, my mission is to help families grow and thrive, provide sustainable income for women and mothers, raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders, and make treatment more accessible. As a mentor and parent, my mission is to role-model a strong woman, parent, and leader who endeavors to leave a legacy of positive change through service and humility.

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