Health & Science

New Risks Uncovered Associated With Parental Sleep Deprivation—For Parents and Their Kids

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It’s no secret that one of the pain points of new parenthood is sleep deprivation. In fact, one 2018 study found that most new parents get less than five hours per night on average, and a recent survey revealed that parents get up earlier and stay up just as late as their peers without kids. Now even newer research shows exactly how dangerous it can be, both for parents and kids. 

After conducting one of the largest studies on sleep deprivation ever, researchers at Michigan State University found that the dangers of it are much greater than previously realized. It affects us in cognitive ways that make it all but impossible to perform basic functions, especially in any kind of sequence.

“Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals,” said study co-author Michelle Stepan. “But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

Researchers hope the news is a wakeup call for parents who too often cook, drive, and care for their children under extremely sleep-deprived circumstances. 

It’s particularly difficult on new mothers, who recent research says experience more sleep disruption than men, in part because in many cases they’re still the primary caregiver. 

The risk becomes even greater if you’re a parent of a child with special needs who requires an even higher level of alertness. 

Things don’t necessarily get better as children get older. 

The same research found that even by the time children are between 4 and 6 years old, sleep duration is still 20 minutes shorter for mothers and 15 minutes shorter for fathers when compared to how many ZZZs they enjoyed before getting pregnant. It isn’t until the kids hit 6 that most parents surveyed said sleep levels returned to pre-baby levels. (Ever wonder how sleep deprived you really are? This new calculator will tell once and for all how much sleep you’ve lost.) 

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect parents, it affects children, too. One University of Illinois study found that mothers who don’t get enough sleep or who have trouble falling asleep tend to engage in more permissive parenting, marked by lax or inconsistent discipline. “It may be that they’re more irritable, experiencing impaired attention, or so over-tired that they are less consistent in their parenting,” explained Kelly Tu, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. Researchers found a link between this type of permissive parenting and kids’ tendency to engage in risky or delinquent behavior, particularly in adolescence.

Whether it’s trading off nights with a partner, asking an in-law to spend a night once or twice a week, or another solution, experts say it’s important that parents make sleep as central to their health as eating well. When all else fails, try one of these exhausted parent survival hacks until you can finally get some much-needed rest. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.