Parenting • May 06, 2013

Tired? What Sleep-Deprivation does to Parents

I’m an expert in sleep deprivation—I’ve worked night shifts for almost a decade while watching my four (soon to be five) kids during the day.  Three of those years I worked 80+ hours per week as a pediatric resident.  I’m convinced now that sleep-deprived parenting does not make me any kind of a martyr, but only a bad parent.  I was a research subject in the Harvard Work Hours study and I’ve followed the medical research on sleep deprivation for many years, trying to figure out how best to manage my circadian rhythms and clear my brain of what seemed like constant fog.  I worked nights out of necessity, first because it was a requirement of residency and later because it was the only way my husband I could balance our two careers and growing family.  For years, I thought giving up sleep to take care of my children was what made me a dedicated mother.  If I could work 30 hour shifts in the hospital, surely I could take care of kids in an equally sleep-deprived state.  Not so.  It’s much harder to be a sleep-deprived mom than a sleep-deprived doctor.

Sleep deprivation steals your patience towards your children.  Without patience, apathy and anger easily replace love and gentleness. 

Nothing will steal your sleep like children do.  It’s not just the total number of hours slept that suffers, but the quality of sleep.  Infants can awaken parents every few hours.  Parents of toddlers and older children seldom get a night of uninterrupted sleep.  One groggy day I asked a table full of pediatricians  when their kids stop getting in bed with them at night.  A senior colleague of mine laughed and said his sixteen-year-old came into their room the other night.

There is tons of medical research about how terrible sleep-deprivation is for kids and adults.  My colleague, Dr. Kelly Ross, has described how helping your kids get enough sleep can decrease obesity, improve school performance, and help your kids succeed socially.  It’s a great column that quantifies how much sleep your kids need by age, etc.  But what does sleep deprivation do to parents?

There’s also lots of research about adult sleep-deprivation, and its association with everything from obesity and cancer to memory loss and early death.  Some research even claims that driving sleep- deprived is worse than driving drunk.  I have not, however, found any medical research that associates sleep deprivation with poor parenting or increased incidence of child abuse.  I think this research doesn’t exist because the studies would be very hard to do.  I could design a study of night-shift workers and incidence of child abuse, but who would agree to participate in this study?


I remain convinced that sleep-deprived parenting is very dangerous.  Without sleep it’s very hard to be attuned to kids, to provide them with the attention and positive parenting they need, especially in stressful situations.  If my kids are watching TV when they’re not supposed to, I don’t feel like making them turn it off and dealing with the complaining that follows.  If my toddler starts throwing a fit, it is easier to give her my phone or a food treat than to give her the attention she needs.  I try to read my four-year-old a story, but fall asleep while he’s asking me questions.  He gets mad and starts hitting me.  It’s hard to come up with creative ideas for redirection and use humor.  It’s hard to enjoy parenting.

When I’m sleep-deprived, it is very tempting to turn to spanking, corporal punishment, scolding or anger.  These methods of parenting provide immediate solutions yet cause long term harm.  We stopped spanking our kids several years ago. Dr. Rachel Metheny, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, writes about the history of spanking throughout the world and its negative effects on child development.

Rather than corporal punishment, children need attuned parenting for healthy brain development.  Dr. Joan Luby is a professor of child psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.  Her research shows that positive parenting of toddlers in stressful situations, rather than scolding or corporal punishment, is actually associated with an increase in the size of certain areas of the brain.

Attuned parenting is hard.  It’s even harder for sleep-deprived parents.  As for me, my husband and I have made hard life choices to allow both of us to sleep more, so that we can be the present, attuned, and positive parents we want to be.  I still work night shifts because ultimately it allows me to spend more time with my family, but I sleep when I get home.  My husband quit his job to be a more dedicated father.  We re-arranged our family schedule to fit around my work schedule by switching to homeschooling.   Ultimately, we’ve become a happier family together.  We couldn’t have done it without sleep.