Parents

Does mommy brain really exist? Help for sleep-deprived parents

Follow TODAY's weeklong series "Snooze or Lose" exploring why Americans can't sleep and how to get a better night's rest.

As a new parent, TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie is finding out just how exhausting too many nights of interrupted sleep can be.

“Three months into being a mom, I'm definitely feeling the consequences of a newborn baby in the house,” she said. “Getting up every couple of hours really starts to wear on you.”

Read more: Savannah's new mom confessions

More than half of adults with a newborn — 54 percent— said sleep deprivation makes it difficult to function, according to the TODAY "Snooze or Lose" Sleep Survey.

Meanwhile, 84 percent said it's a huge relief when the baby starts sleeping through the night.

But before that happens, many new parents report having “mommy brain” — a shell-shocked, sleep-deprived, zombie-like state that can make it difficult to concentrate. Guthrie reported having trouble finding the right words, for example.

Dr. Anne Mooney, a sleep expert at the NYU Langone Medical Center, said the phenomenon is real.

“A large amount of it has to do with the sleep deprivation that the mother has experienced,” Mooney noted.

“It could be focus, attention, mood, depression, depressed mood, irritability, just the ability to find that word on the tip of your tongue. There are many different ways that sleep deprivation manifests.”

It takes a lot of time for new parents to catch up on the lost sleep and get continuous sleep, not just fragmented slumber.

Nap when the baby naps

Guthrie is experiencing “a significant amount of sleepiness” and carrying a sleep debt, Mooney said. New parents like Savannah should try to make sleep a priority and nap when the baby naps. If possible, take a night off by enlisting a spouse or family member to take care of the baby while you catch up on your “zzz’s.”

“Sleep debt can be repaid. It just takes dedication and time getting the sleep that you need,” Mooney said.

So how do you raise a good sleeper who will snooze soundly through the night? 

Dr. Alanna Levine, a New York based pediatrician, offered these tips for kids of different ages:

Infants:

Newborns should sleep 9-12 hours, plus naps.

Establish a sleep routine: Make sure you have a calm, soothing place for your child to go to sleep and you do the same thing all the time.

Look for your baby’s sleepiness cues: When your baby starts to rub his eyes and yawn, capitalize on that opportunity, Levine said. Don't try to keep the baby up when you see those signs.

Put your baby to bed while she is awake: This could be the hardest thing for new parents, Levine said. Rock your baby, sing to her and soothe her. "If you can get into the habit of putting your baby down awake, then when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, he or she can get back to sleep again," Levine noted.

Toddlers:

Toddlers should sleep 12-14 hours, plus naps.

Consistency is key: You need to do the same thing all the time, Levine said. So if your child wakes up in the middle of the night, you can’t bring your child into your bed once and not expect them to demand the same treatment every time. 

Provide positive reinforcement: Even negative attention is attention, so if you’re in the middle of the night yelling at your child and stomping your feet, that’s still giving attention, Levine said. "I’d much rather you made a sticker chart and give a reward in the morning for a full night’s sleep in bed," she noted.

Teens:

Teens should sleep 8.5 -10 hours.

Turn off electronics 1-2 hours before bed: This is Levine's top recommendation for parents of teens. "It’s a hard thing to do but that screen, the beep of the texting, it really is very stimulating and really interferes with sleep," she said.

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