Sleep Deprivation


Ask any parent what they find most difficult in their 24/7 job and they are guaranteed to mention sleep. The severe lack of it, that is.

Sleep is an essential requirement of life, and we would die without it. However, sleep can become an intense preoccupation for parents, in the same way that puddings become even more appealing when you’re on a diet.

However overwhelming the task of functioning with little sleep may feel, it is possible to get through it intact and even with an enriched knowledge of yourself and your family. But, to win a battle, you need to know what you’re dealing with.

Why is sleep important?

Lack of sleep can change the way you think and feel, as the part of the brain that is involved with sleep is linked to the part of the brain that regulates attention and arousal. Sleep deprivation leads to problems with concentration, memory and making decisions and can also affect our mood. We are more easily frustrated and irritable when we’re tired, leading to high levels of stress and more arguments. Our need for sleep changes throughout our life. The average newborn will require 1 to 17 hours sleep a day, a five year old will need 11 hours, a teenager eight to nine hours, an adult in their 30s less than eight hours and someone in their 70s less than six hours sleep a day.

How do we sleep? 

As nights of watching your baby will show you, sleep isn’t a solid, quiet block of inactivity. Humans go through sleep cycles of roughly 90 minutes long, during which they can snore, move, twitch and blink rapidly. The cycle takes us from the beginnings of light sleep, through deep sleep, into dream sleep (the nourishing REM sleep), before moving our way back up and starting all over again. It is when you reach the top of the cycle, that you’re more likely to wake up, momentarily, to turn around, or for a longer period, eg to go to the toilet. Babies share the same cycle and can therefore awake up to five times a night. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you and your baby will be at a similar phase of the cycle at the same time. Rather, while you’re settling into your REM sleep, baby will be reaching the top of their cycle and wanting some comfort. Their crying will drag you out of your greatly needed REM sleep, making concentrating and feeling ok very difficult the next day.

Why do some babies not sleep?

One in three babies wake regularly throughout the night in the first 12 months. More than half of one to two year olds and a third of three year olds have problems settling or wake up frequently

A baby’s body cycles are constantly changing. While a baby may sleep soundly for the first three months, they may then become very fitful sleepers. Similarly, a baby who has been awake many times in the night since birth, may, just one wonderful night, start sleeping all the way through. A baby’s sleep will depend on many things including age, weight, health (eg colic is a notorious culprit of poor sleep), temperament and environment. Even TV watching has been shown to affect sleep patterns in babies and toddlers.

How can I make my baby sleep?

There are many tried and tested methods of helping your baby to sleep. The important thing to remember is that you are the expert on your baby. Only you and your family will be able to work out the best method for your little one. However, in general, leaving the baby crying for long periods of time is not recommended as it may lead to prolonged high levels of stress. Sleep is one of our most habit-forming behaviours. So, providing baby and you with a consistent and predictable bed-time routine, about 20 minutes long, can improve the chances of settling well. This routine will allow baby to develop sleep associated cues which can then be used throughout the night, for example special teddy in the cot, musical mobile.

As babies grow, they become more able to make links between their behaviour and consequences. By about 3 months, babies will learn that crying will either get them quality play time with mummy in the middle of the night (so they’ll do it more) or that crying will get them a kiss, and a tuck up only (making them less prone to doing it). Agree with your partner what the plan is going to be and keep a diary so that you can see changes over time.

How do you look after yourself?
As with many of the experiences of bringing up children, sleep problems can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Thoughts of “I’m an unfit parent”, “I’ve done something wrong” or “I’m useless” are common. When the secondary effects of sleep deprivation emerge – rows with your partner, withdrawing from social occasions – thoughts can become even more self-critical. But remember, our thoughts are opinions only, not facts. While it’s difficult to keep a check on our thoughts when we’re tired and stressed, trying to challenge them can quickly lead to more positive feelings which, in turn, will help you to feel more in control and able to cope. Ask yourself what evidence there is that you are a bad mother? What are the chances of many other parents feeling like this? So what is it that you think you’ve done to create this problem? Think about times when you have overcome difficulties in the past and focus on all the things you have done well so far. The nagging guilt of motherhood is rarely far away, but by learning to take control of it rather than it take control of you, it can become a distant irritant rather than a harsh bully. With any new programme for helping your baby sleep, the fourth and fifth nights have been found to be the most difficult to get through.

Getting help
Remember that you are not alone and there are many people around to help. Keep talking to your friends and other mothers. Talk to your own parents or grandparents about how they dealt with it (bearing in mind the changing cultures of childrearing). Health visitors are a valuable source of advice, as is the Internet. For example, Cry-sis ( offers a helpline for parents of crying babies on 08451 228 669. Dr Angharad Rudkin is a clinical psychologist working with children and families.