Wondering why sleep deprivation feels like torture? That's because it is

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Parents are often told that sleep deprivation is a form of torture and it sure feels that way when you're in the thick of it with no end in sight. Sleep is critical to ensuring our brains and bodies function properly, but whilst the United Nations has condemned the use of sleep deprivation as torture that message is not getting through to our children!

For parents, what makes the lack of sleep harder is that we suddenly have a whole load of new tasks to learn and complete every day, so our energy levels are at zero and our ability to do our parenting tasks effectively has decreased because of the lack of sleep, which just adds to the mental and physical exhaustion.

Director of the Australian Paediatric Research Network and the Unsettled Babies Clinic, Professor Harriet Hiscock, says parenting effectively when you're sleep deprived is difficult. "Lack of sleep impairs concentration and focus and that has real implications for people doing simple things such as chopping the vegetables. I've had mums say to me I feel so tired I'm worried I'm going to cut myself."

Added to this is the change in mood that sleep deprivation causes. Irritability, impatience and getting overly emotional are all common feelings for parents of sleep thieves and if sleep disruption continues it can lead to anxiety and depression.

Parents can also find it difficult to bond with their children because they become easily irritated and angry. "Parents' patience runs out, so toddler tantrums and those normal toddler behaviours can become very challenging," says Professor Hiscock. "Parents are quick to get angry and can then become annoyed with themselves."

Having trouble finding your keys or remembering your name lately? You can thank not getting enough z's for that. When you sleep your brain gets rid of clutter and files all the useful information that it has acquired throughout the day, so when your sleep is disturbed, so is your memory.

If you find you're always getting sick and you just can't shake it off, that's because sleep deprivation has lowered your immune system. So, you're more likely to get every virus going and will find it harder to recover.

Other health issues associated with loss of sleep are high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Tired parents might also find their waistlines growing. This is because the hormones your body produces that control your feelings of hunger and fullness are affected, so you're feeling hungrier and your body is taking longer to tell you when you're full. You're also more likely to eat fatty foods to make up for the energy you're losing out on at night.

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So, it goes without saying that for our health and sanity we parents need more sleep. But when our littles ones are constantly up with the owls, how are we supposed to pack a few more minutes of shut-eye in and what can we do to make it through those sleep deprived days?

You may be sick of hearing people to tell you to 'sleep when baby sleeps', but a nap during the day really will help you get through it. If you struggle to nap, then leave the cleaning, put your feet up and rest, it's the next best thing.

Make the most of family support and if you don't have any family nearby, and can afford it, book a babysitter once a week. Don't then go and drag yourself round the supermarket, save your energy and shop online.

When it comes to bedtime, maximise sleep by staying away from screens late at night, dim the lights an hour before you go to bed, use block-out blinds in your bedroom and make sure your bedroom is cool (about 18-20 degrees Celsius).

Don't drink coffee after 2pm and avoid alcohol – you may think a few glasses of vino will help you sleep better but, unfortunately, they don't. Booze acts like a sedative, so it knocks you out, but you will then wake up throughout the night and find it harder to drop off again.

Make sleep a priority, says Professor Hiscock. "The most refreshing sleep for all of us, including babies and children, is the first few hours. I see a lot of parents who finally get their babies to bed and then they stay up for another two hours, then go to sleep and just as they're getting into their deep sleep the baby wakes up and you feel like you've been woken from the dead."

Don't wait to sleep when you're dead… Dim the lights. Switch off your phone. Get your jim-jams on. It's time for bed… "me time" can wait.