Working Parents Are Sleep Deprived When It Matters Most for Their Career: Here’s How to Cope

Working Parents Are Sleep Deprived When It Matters Most for Their Career: Here's How to Cope

It’s a story that probably sounds familiar: I became a mom, and so began several months of operating on no more than three consecutive hours of rest. I felt like a sleepwalker, rarely getting shuteye but never being quite awake either. When I was on maternity leave and my only job was caring for my newborn, these zombie-like tendencies weren’t a big deal. My performance goals were low—putting on a clean pair of pants was promotion-worthy. And since my boss stayed alert for only a couple of hours at a time, I could usually get away with dozing during the workday.

However, returning to my actual workplace 12 weeks postpartum was another story. I fought drooping eyelids and mental fog as I tried to write emails to colleagues. Emails that mattered. Emails that people would read. And despite my brain sputtering at half speed, I had to work faster than ever in order to dash out the door on time for day-care pickup.

It’s not just new moms who need a lot of coffee, though. Research has shown that parents face disrupted sleep for up to six years after the birth of their first child. (Just when things seem OK, your preschooler’s sleep regression can land you back at square one.) Being exhausted isn’t just a nuisance; it can make you more irritable and affect your relationships at work, says Shalini Paruthi, M.D., medical codirector of St. Luke’s Sleep Medicine and Research Center, in St. Louis. You may start moving more slowly and take longer to perform even basic tasks.

“And if the deprivation increases, the next thing to go is accuracy—you start to make mistakes,” says Dr. Paruthi. “You might catch some before they cause trouble, but others may be harmful, especially if you operate heavy machinery,” including a car. “If you cut out an hour of sleep every night for a week, by the end of the week you’re no more alert than a person who is legally drunk,” says James B. Maas, Ph.D., author of Power Sleep , Sleep for Success! , and Sleep to Win! When Ashley Jacobs, a former morning news anchor, was balancing early motherhood with the 1:30 a.m. wake-ups required for her job, she realized her lack of sleep had reached dangerous levels after she was pulled over for swerving. “I was falling asleep at the wheel. I didn’t know what exit I was at,” she says.

Aside from your own safety, not to mention others on the road, you may be worried about the health of your career. It’s a bitter coincidence that a woman’s prime childbearing years coincide with some of the most pivotal years for her professionally. So how do you lean in when all you really want to do is lie down? Try these expert-backed tips for feeling more awake at work. That gleaming orb in the morning sky is one of your best allies for feeling human again. Enforce an Early Bedtime Routine

As tempted as you may be to squeeze in all the chores (or all the Netflix) in those precious hours between your kid’s bedtime and your own, don’t. “Go to sleep as early as possible, even if it’s a time that seems comically early,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think . “Even though there are a million things you could be doing, just go to bed.” You may be destined for wake-ups later in the night, but getting a few continuous hours of sleep earlier is especially crucial when it comes to feeling refreshed come morning.

A consistent sleep routine—going to bed and waking up at the same time within an hour or so every day—is key to feeling rested. “We almost always have a wake-up alarm to tell us it’s time to get out of bed, but I think it’s also important to have a bedtime alarm. We get caught up in whatever we’re doing, and before we know it, it’s way too late,” says Dr. Paruthi. She suggests setting an alarm 15 to 30 minutes before you intend to hit the sheets so you have time to wind down. (FYI: iPhone has a 15-minute bedtime warning when you use the bedtime alarm.) Then keep your phone and tablet out of sight because the blue light they emit can stimulate your brain, making nodding off trickier.

Whether you’re dealing with wee-hour feedings or night terrors, getting uninterrupted sleep may be out of the question. But if possible, don’t bear that burden solo. You shouldn’t be “on duty” more than three nights in a row if there is a partner who can help. One of you should be on call for wake-ups for three nights and then off for three nights, recommends Dr. Maas. (If you breastfeed, you can pump for your nights off or at least have your partner bring your baby to you and handle any diaper changes.) A system of three on, three off gives your biological clock a chance to reset, whereas switching off every other night puts your body into a jet lag–like state every two days. And if single, consider asking a relative or friend to sleep over if possible.

That gleaming orb in the morning sky is one of your best allies for feeling human again. As soon as you wake up, flood your room with as much sunshine as possible, suggests Whitney Roban, Ph.D., a sleep specialist at . “This signals to your body that it should suppress production of melatonin, and it resets your circadian rhythm for the day, giving you energy immediately.” Aim for about 15 minutes of bright light in the a.m., which you can achieve while walking the dog or taking your child to day care.

When you get to work, make your office as bright as possible, and try to go outside for even a minute or two of sunshine anytime you start to get sleepy. While gray skies may make you feel drowsy, you’ll still receive the daylight-spectrum light […]


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