The Recipe for Better Parenting? Just Add Sleep!

mom and baby sleeping

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a magic elixir that would make you an even better parent? One that would make parenthood feel easier and more fun…something that boosts your mental and physical health, makes you more productive, and improves your relationships.

Well, such a magical solution does exist…but it’s not magic at all. It’s accessible at home, and it’s free. It’s sleep!

Sleep has the power to improve just about every part of our lives, and on the flipside, exhaustion can be downright hazardous to our health.

Prolonged fatigue wreaks havoc on our well-being. Our mood drops. We get whiny, irritable, and demanding. Our coordination flops. We become clumsy and accident-prone. We get forgetful and confused. In fact, research shows that the brain of a sleep deprived parent is basically drunk! As with drunkenness, lack of sleep causes poor judgment, slow reaction time, and impaired memory.

When we’re exhausted, our resilience crumbles. It sets off a chain reaction, battering our physical and mental health. Ever notice that you’re especially susceptible to the sniffles and other sickness when you don’t catch enough shuteye? It’s not in your head! Studies tell us that being sleep deprived can weaken the immune system, and that getting enough sleep makes it stronger! And let’s face it, no Mom or Dad is at their best when they’re fighting a cold or flu.

Sleep deprivation also makes us prone to mental health issues. It tends to make us more anxious, worried and even depressed and paranoid. It can take a toll on our relationships. Exhaustion is linked to marital tension and fighting, and it makes us quicker to lose our cool. That’s why, when you’re running on only a couple of hours of sleep, your toddler’s dawdling may cause you to totally fly off the handle.

So, even though parents tend to treat sleep like a luxury, it’s really a necessity. The problem is, busy parents may feel like it’s too difficult to squeeze in a good night’s sleep…and I get it! Parents today are saddled with more work and less help than any prior generation. Still, there are a few ways parents can get more sleep…and make the most of the sleep they do get…

Prioritize sleep over other ‘essential’ duties

For example, could that last load of laundry or the dishes wait so you can get an hour of shuteye?  A heap of clothes may be unsightly, but think of how much more tolerable your 20th toddler tea party of the day will feel after a full night’s sleep?

To make sleep a priority, it’s important to get help where you can. Maybe that means more equitably dividing duties with your partner. Or, if it makes sense financially, it could mean hiring someone to assist with cleaning or childcare. Or, you could rely on a virtual helper, like SNOO. SNOO is a smart bassinet that automatically senses when a baby is restless and settles them to sleep using gentle rocking and white noise, giving new parents about an hour or two of extra sleep each night, acting like an extra set of hands to help reduce sleep deprivation.

Stick to a bedtime

We put a lot of energy into creating sleep routines for our kids, but routine is just as important for grownups. Having a consistent sleep-wake schedule helps adults feel better rested, too. This means it’s a good idea to set an alarm clock…maybe even go as far as to set a wake-up alarm and a turn-down alarm that reminds you it’s time to turn off the Netflix or step away from the dirty dishes in the sink and head to bed.

Prepare your body and brain for sleep

Try to avoid caffeine and alcohol for at least four hours before your head hits the pillow and turn off screens at least an hour before lights out. Not only can endless scrolling snatch minutes that could be better used to catch precious zzz’s, but the blue light emitted by screens also makes it harder to nod off at night. Try charging your phone in another room…or at least not within arm’s length of your bed!  Keep a notepad by your bed if you have ideas you are worried you will forget. Finally, focus on your breath (the key is to breathe in for four counts and out for eight counts…and make sure you relax your face).

Prepare your room for sleep

Make sure your room is on the cool side and has good ventilation. Use blackout curtains that block out the light (even the glow of a streetlamp streaming through the window could penetrate your eyelids and keep you awake longer). And turn on some white noise. Our brains have trouble paying attention to two things at once, so white noise masks disturbing sounds. Even better, white noise tends to cover the flood of worries that may prevent sleep from coming, allowing your tired brain to ignore heavy thoughts and slide more easily into much-needed sleep.

doctor karp
Dr. Harvey Karp is a world-renowned pediatrician and child development expert. His celebrated Happiest Baby/Happiest Toddler books and videos have guided millions of parents and are translated into 30 languages. In 2016, Dr. Karp debuted SNOO Smart Sleeper, a new class of responsive infant bed designed to add 1-2 hours to a baby’s sleep, quickly soothe crying and to improve safety by preventing dangerous rolling. SNOO won the National Sleep Foundation Innovation of the Year award as well as 20 other top national and international honors. Medical studies are underway to evaluate SNOO’s potential to reduce postpartum depression, infant sleep death and to improve the care of infants withdrawing from opiates. Dr. Karp is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the AAP. He is an advocate for children’s environmental health and a board member of EWG, whose mission is to protect our nation’s public health and the environment.

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