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Sleep-Deprived New Parents Don't Have To Hit The (Sleeping Pill) Bottle

Sleep researchers say parents of a new child can be a risk for long-term insomnia.
Timothy M. Black
Sleep researchers say parents of a new child can be a risk for long-term insomnia.

Having a young child can wreak havoc on sleep patterns. So much so that sleep researchers say parents, and especially mothers, of a new child can be a risk for long-term insomnia.

There are the remedies parents whisper to each other on the playground: a spare bottle of Ambien, Tylenol PM or brandy. But for those looking for an un-medicated solution, Dr. Rafael Pelayo at Stanford University's Sleep Medicine Center has some ideas.

"Once you're worried or scared that you can't get back to sleep, then you've developed a pattern of chronic insomnia," which means having it for three months, says Pelayo.

Parents often think poor sleep is their cross to bear, but bad sleep, night after night, can be so bad it can change brain chemistry. For example, Pelayo says, insomniacs have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"Normally, cortisol levels rise for most people in the morning hours," he says. "But people with insomnia have elevated cortisol levels at night. They're in a hyper vigilant state."

Sleep experts say most adults need between seven and nine hours of shut eye each night, and as many as a third of Americans may not be getting enough. Insufficient sleep is linked to car accidents, work injuries, even heart disease and depression.

Pelayo says that many parents set their bedtimes based on what's happening around them, but instead, they should set the time they want to wake up and then count backward.

For example, he says, if you want to wake up every day at 6:30 a.m., go to bed around 10:30 p.m. If your mind is racing and you're having trouble falling asleep at bedtime, Pelayo suggests sitting down with a notebook – not a computer – and writing down your to-do list or whatever is in the back of your mind. He suggests writing for 15 to 20 minutes and then setting the journal aside.

"Tell yourself, I'm done with my day," he says. "Basically you're tucking yourself in. You're giving your day closure."

Above all, though, Pelayo says be consistent, even on the weekends. If you do wake up in the middle of the night, Pelayo says resist the temptation to be productive. Instead of sending e-mails or paying bills, read the refrigerator warranty. Do something that has absolutely no value.

And how long does it take parents to get back to normal? Pelayo says about two months. When the kids get older and won't go to sleep themselves, parents can resort to Go The [Expletive] To Sleep.

Copyright 2020 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Sarah Varney