The Wee Hours
Last July, Amy Tetta was living the dream of every parent of a newborn: Her 3-month-old daughter was finally sleeping, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night.
Then suddenly, “it all fell apart,” says the Baldwinsville mother of three: Will, 11, Olivia, 8, and Victoria, now 8 months old. The baby started waking up sporadically, sometimes fussing for 45 minutes at a time.
“As soon as you seem to have things figured out, kids change on you,” Tetta says, adding that Victoria’s habits have since returned to a more regular pattern of nighttime wakings to nurse.
Sleep loss is a rite of passage for parents of young children that can cause negative physiological effects.
“Someone caring for a newborn is losing sleep and it’s something that’s ongoing, so they would fit the model of chronic sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Edward Downing, director of St. Joseph’s Sleep Lab. Downing defines chronic sleep deprivation as when sleep is curtailed to four to six hours a night for multiple nights in a row. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, he says, but that can vary.
“Chronic sleep loss builds up over time,” Downing says.
At the Sleep Lab, one test measures patients’ reaction times; when they see a light they must immediately press a button. A person who has had only four hours of sleep for 14 nights in a row performs at the same level as someone who has not slept at all for 24 hours.
Another test involves a driving simulator. The sleep-deprived participants perform worse and have more accidents then those who are not sleep deprived. Rumble strips were installed on the shoulders of expressways to awaken drivers who have nodded off, Downing points out.
Chronic sleep deprivation can lead the body to forget how to sleep, even when it’s quite tired. When Bethany Beyer’s son, Frederick, was born, her sleep schedule changed dramatically. “He didn’t want to sleep at all,” the East Syracuse mother says.
Michael Davis Photo
She and her husband, Jeff, tried swaddling the baby, putting him in a swing, placing him in a crib, trying him in the Pack ’n Play—nothing worked. After a month, they put Frederick in the car seat, the one place he seemed to sleep well during the day. “That was when he first started sleeping a few hours at night,” she says.
But her son’s improved sleep schedule had an adverse effect on Beyer’s own sleep schedule. Beyer began to suffer insomnia. “I couldn’t fall back asleep after he fell asleep,” she says.
She went to her doctor, who prescribed medication.
“I was almost ashamed to see my doctor because I thought maybe I wasn’t being a strong mom, but not sleeping made me nervous that I was going to do something careless,” she says.
Joseph Kieffer, a supervisor at Crouse Sleep Services, says short-term memory skills suffer when people are sleep deprived, as do motor skills such as driving or using tools.
Tetta believes her short-term memory loss is an effect of long-term interrupted sleep. “There’s definitely an effect on not getting enough sleep night after night, when you don’t get to have that six- or eight-hour stretch,” she says.
Since Victoria was born, “My memory hasn’t been the greatest. Sometimes I’ll walk into a room and forget why.” Tetta, who works from home, says she’s famous for sending an e-mail referring to an attachment but forgetting the attachment. “That’s not something I dealt with before, so I blame it on the sleep deprivation.”
Sleep loss can also affect the emotions, causing people to lose their tempers more easily. Tetta recalls talking to a woman who didn’t get a good night’s sleep for nearly four years because of her two young children. The woman claimed to yell at her children often and, after her children began sleeping through the night, realized it was a result of sleep loss.
Tetta learned a lesson from this. “I try to avoid taking out sleep deprivation on my kids and husband.”
Crouse’s Kieffer says lack of sleep also can lead to weight gain. The enzyme that tells your body to sleep is very active in sleep deprivation, he says, which causes people to eat more and gain weight. “People wonder why they gain weight when they don’t sleep,” Kieffer says.
To stave off any late-night snack attacks, Kieffer encourages people to maintain the best diet they can, eat vitamins, avoid foods and drinks loaded with sugar and caffeine and, when hungry late at night, aim for lean proteins. Also, he says, “Try to avoid a large meal a couple hours before sleep. You could offset your sleep rhythm by eating close to bedtime.”
Downing recommends a regimen of good “sleep hygiene,” including having a regular bedtime and a regular wakeup time, avoiding oversleeping, and maintaining a comfortable room that is neither too hot nor too cold, with minimal noise. (The last standard, Downing admits, would “obviously be difficult with a newborn.”) He also advises avoiding caffeine, alcohol and exercise late in the day.
Napping can help make up for lost sleep, Downing notes, as long as a person does not suffer from insomnia. “People with insomnia should not take naps.”
When coping with the seemingly unending demands of a newborn, Kieffer suggests parents take shifts to care for the baby, with mother and father each aiming for a six- or seven-hour block of sleep. “People will complain that their house is a mess,” Kieffer says. “Too bad.”
Tetta’s baby is exclusively breastfed, so that limits Victoria’s father’s ability to help with middle-of-the-night feedings. But Tetta says her husband knows when he’s needed. “If it’s been less than three hours since she last woke up and I know she’s not hungry, he’ll get up with her, give her a pacifier and walk with her while trying not to bother me,” she says.
The Tetta family also struggles with varying bed times and waking times for each child. The older children are in bed by 9 p.m., Victoria is put down at 10 p.m., and Tetta and her husband, Chris, finally go to sleep at about 11 p.m.
Her husband and son wake up at 6:30 a.m., her daughter at 7:30 a.m. Because he’s in middle school, Tetta’s son’s bus comes at 7:15 a.m., while her daughter’s comes at 8:15 a.m. Then her husband leaves at 9:30 a.m. to be at work by 10 a.m.
If she’s lucky, Tetta and the baby wake up at about 8 a.m. However, when Victoria decides every now and then to rise at 6 a.m., there’s no point in mother and baby then going back to sleep. “By then, the chaos has already started,” Tetta says.
Bethany Beyer puts 5-month-old Frederick down at about 8 p.m., and between then and 6 a.m. he usually awakens three times to nurse, then falls right back asleep. Beyer, who tries to be in bed by 9 p.m., now finds nighttime nursing a pleasant bonding experience.
“I know it’s not going to last forever and people say enjoy it while you can,” she says. “Besides not sleeping at all, he’s a wonderful baby.”
Tetta says after she and her husband decided to have another baby, she was prepared for the exhaustion. With her first child, she didn’t know what to expect. With the third, “it gives you the ability to make it through and your expectations are a little more realistic. You don’t get too complacent, but that’s part of what makes it fun.” ■