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Sleep Deprivation and Your Baby's Cries

Baby crying

I remember the exact moment I found out how little sleep I was about to get as first time mom. I was sitting in the prenatal class at our local hospital, glowing with first-pregnancy excitement, when the instructor casually said, "Your newborn baby will need to eat about every 3 hours. Around the clock." Seriously? Day and night?

Before I knew it, I had a newborn baby in my arms who did indeed need to eat every 3 hours. And the sleep deprivation began...

Along with regular feeds, many new babies have their nights and days mixed up which means they are ready to party in the middle of the night. And don’t forget about all those diaper changes. Needless to say, everyone is right. Quality sleep goes out the window with the birth of a baby, at first...

Then your baby is no longer a newborn.

Now it’s worth mentioning the babies out there who have been sleeping well from the beginning (I call those unicorn babies). I'm sure you have that one friend who shared with you that their 6 week old just slept a full 8 hours without waking. If you have a unicorn baby yourself, congratulations! But I'm guessing if you are reading this blog, you have a child who falls in a different category when it comes to sleep...

Babies who struggle with sleep.

Whether it felt like your baby's sleep was poor from day 1, their sleep derailed around that 4 month mark, or it even got off track later on, many babies continue to wake several times per night far beyond the "Fourth Trimester". And, as the cherry on top, most babies who struggle with sleep will continue to sleep poorly for years if there is no intervention.

This goes without saying, but when our babies aren’t sleeping well, we aren’t sleeping well. We all know that when we are sleep deprived we are not the best versions of ourselves. Now I’ll just speaking for myself here, but when I was sleep deprived, I was short tempered, I lacked patience, I struggled to lose the baby weight, I was more easily upset, quick to get anxious and even depressed. The tone of voice I used with my toddler would startle me. I'd think to myself "that's not me, I don't talk that way!" Most definitely not the best version of myself.

I’m going to get a bit scientific on you here, but I promise I’ll climb out of it again if you can bear with me. There has been some research done on the effects of sleep deprivation on our brain.

Did you know that lack of sleep can impact your cognitive functions, including emotional processing and perception?

Research has established a link between sleep deprivation and emotional processing, especially when it comes to the way we perceive and respond to negative emotional stimuli.

In 2007, a study conducted by Yoo et al. showed that when sleep deprived, the amygdala (area of your brain involved in processing emotion), reacts more to negative emotional stimuli. For you as a sleep deprived parent, this means that your emotional response to something negative (such as your child’s cries) could be more extreme than it would be if you were well rested.

In 2010, a study by van der Helm et al. showed that sleep deprivation could impair emotional regulation. This is caused by a disruption in the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays a major role in controlling emotional responses. This implies that sleep deprivation could aggravate negative perceptions, such as your response to the sound of your baby crying.

Basically, when you are sleep deprived, your reaction to your baby’s cries can be exaggerated.

I know for a fact that mine was, even with all of my baby sleep knowledge, a certified and experienced sleep consultant. When my youngest was a newborn and I was sleep deprived, I could not think clearly when he started to cry. It’s like alarm bells were going off in my head.

So I know the feeling of panic when your child cries, the strong urge to do anything possible to stop that cry, as well as the longing for better sleep. This is where my role as a sleep consultant comes into play.

I help families navigate the tricky days (and nights!) of teaching their child independent sleep. I can’t tell you how many families have told me, “I just need someone to tell me what to do!” It’s because they are too tired to reason when their child is crying throughout the night.

Once families start getting the rest that they need, they have more balanced reactions, enabling them to respond to their child’s needs effectively.

Now beyond stable emotional reactions, adequate sleep can improve mental health, give you more energy, boost your immune system, help with weight loss, etc. (I could go on and on but I’ll spare you. Curious about what benefits good sleep can give you? Just Google it.)

If you are struggling to get the sleep that you need, please reach out for help. If it’s your child’s sleep that is the culprit and you are struggling to see past their cries, let’s chat! If you’ve got some sleep struggles of your own, I’m happy to point you in the direction of an adult sleep specialist.

Take care of yourself friend.

Photo by Laura Garcia


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