Why sleep interruption as a new parent totally messes with your moods

If you're constantly jolted awake before sinking into that slow-wave sleep, you're not going to wake feeling refreshed.
If you're constantly jolted awake before sinking into that slow-wave sleep, you're not going to wake feeling refreshed. Photo: Getty Images

Before having my first baby, I only had one good friend who was already a mother. One day, when I was heavily pregnant, she asked me how I thought I'd cope with the exhaustion of being a new mum.

"I've done heaps of night shifts before, so I'm sure I'll be fine," I said (completely naively, I must add).

My close friend, bless her sweet soul, did not burst out laughing when I said this.

She didn't smack the table while stifling guffaws, either. Nor did she smirk, or even raise her eyebrows. (Like I said, she's a good friend).

She simply smiled and said, "I'm sure you'll be fine, but it's not really the same."

She was right; it's not the same at all.

While night shifts are disorienting, the huge difference I didn't take into account was that, at the end of my shift, I drove home to sleep.

Let's just say that, since having that conversation, I now know how different the tiredness is as a new mother.

If you've worked night shifts, or pulled 'all nighters' or functioned on little sleep in the past, you may have harboured the same belief I did that I 'knew' what sleep deprivation was about before becoming a mum.

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What I didn't know was what it was like to have sleep that was constantly interrupted. Ask any parent; it's the worst.

It's not only rough on your body, it messes with your emotions, too. Such were the findings of new research released this week that looked at whether sleep interruption interferes with mood.

The researchers studied 62 healthy men and women after subjecting them to either 8 sleep disturbances a night (ouch), a later bedtime, or no sleep interruptions, for three nights in a row. Participants were then asked questions about their emotions.

There are no prizes for guessing what happened next.

Those that had interrupted sleep had less positive emotions than the other groups, and those positive emotions (like cheerfulness) kept going down with each additional night of interrupted sleep.

"When your sleep is disrupted throughout the night, you don't have the opportunity to progress through the sleep stages to get the amount of slow-wave sleep that is key to the feeling of restoration," said lead author Dr Patrick Finan.

In other words, if you're constantly jolted awake before sinking into that slow-wave sleep, you're not going to wake feeling refreshed.

Not only that, but you're also less likely to feel happy.

While that makes sense, it's hard to deal with when you're a new parent. After all, when you've just had a baby you expect to be flooded with happiness. Everyone around you is excited and you're excited too. But when you throw in night after night of interrupted sleep, it's harder to tap into those good feelings.

This leaves many mums feeling 'ungrateful' or 'like a failure' if they're not as happy as they think they should be. Not feeling that happiness 24/7 is not a sign of either of those things; it's more likely to be a sign that your sleep is highly interrupted.

It's important to note it may also be a symptom of depression or another mental health disorder. If you're concerned about these issues, see your GP. If you feel you could harm yourself, your baby or someone else, seek urgent medical attention.

But if you're feeling fine, just less able to access your happy feelings than normal, your constant sleep disturbances may be to blame.

One way to reduce your number of sleep interruptions is to enlist the help of your partner (if you have one).

For instance, one parent might choose to do the feeding/resettling 'shift' until 1am, with the other parent then taking over for the rest of the night. (If you're breastfeeding, your partner can perhaps bring you the baby then, once you're finished she or he can burp, change and resettle). You can then change 'shifts' each night.

If you have the finances and the desire, a night nurse can help. Sleep training may also be an option if your baby is old enough (though the topic remains controversial). Of course, going to bed early also helps.

Remember, as your baby grows, your nights are likely to become less interrupted. When they do, you won't only wake feeling more refreshed, you'll be more likely to feel those good feelings again.