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Desperately Seeking Sleep

A Wake-Up Call

Yes, just about everyone goes through this  -- but that doesn't mean it should be ignored or dismissed. "One of the biggest challenges and surprises to new parents is the impact of sleep deprivation," confirms Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night. "Whenever I talk to groups of physicians or medical students who aren't parents, they say 'What's the problem?' They find it difficult to understand why a newborn who sleeps 16 to 20 hours a day would be so disruptive to a family. But as adults, what we need is uninterrupted, prolonged sleep. Even if you're lucky enough to get your eight hours, if it's interrupted frequently throughout the night, then it's not high quality rest."

What makes the sleep loss that comes with new parenthood particularly challenging is that, unlike an all-nighter for work or a bout of insomnia, it often stretches on for months. "Adults can typically tolerate one or two nights of sleep loss," Mindell says, "but when you get chronic sleep debt, it gets more and more difficult. Your memory, reaction time, decision-making, and creativity are all impacted." The most powerful effect may be on what researchers call "emotional regulation." In layperson's terms, Mindell explains, this means that it's a lot harder for a person to keep it together. For a new mother, this feeling is compounded by the fact that her hormones are fluctuating. "No wonder new parents are more likely to be tearful or to fight with their partner," says Mindell. She adds that she sees many couples who argue bitterly over how to handle their infant's sleep issues, disputes that are often triggered by the parents' frustration over their own sleep loss. "I jokingly tell parents, 'Don't consider divorce yet. Wait until you're getting more sleep yourselves.'"

Sleep deprivation may be connected to health conditions such as postpartum depression as well. The symptoms of both, Mindell notes, are nearly identical: irritability, moodiness, and not feeling like yourself. This correlation may start even before the baby is born. Amy R. Wolfson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, and author of The Woman's Book of Sleep, recently tracked a group of women from their third trimester through 13 months postpartum. The women who had the most difficulty with sleep late in their pregnancies, she found, reported higher levels of depressed moods throughout their baby's first year. That shouldn't be surprising, she says. "If you're chronically sleep-deprived going into the postpartum months, and then your sleep is further disrupted, there's more risk of mood disorders striking."

Accidents also increase as sleep loss accumulates. The sleep-deprived, says Mindell, are likely to cut themselves or trip and fall. The greatest risk may come from driving while sleepy  -- especially when it's compounded by the distraction of a crying baby in the backseat. "Driving drowsy is like driving drunk," says Stephanie Faul of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In 1997, researchers at the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia released the results of a study that proved exactly that. Forty subjects performed a test designed to measure psychomotor performance  -- once after they had been given a potent mixture of alcohol and orange juice, and once after they had been kept awake for a sustained period. After 18 hours awake, their performance was the same as when their blood alcohol level was .05 percent, the same as after a woman has about two stiff drinks. After 24 hours, impairment almost doubled, to the equivalent of being legally drunk in most states.

"You cannot control your sleep," cautions Faul. Military studies of soldiers who suffered extreme sleep deprivation found that they literally fell asleep between steps. "Sleep is like food and water," explains Faul. "If your body needs it, it will try to get it somehow."