The Evolution of Sleep: How Parental Sleep Changes as Children Grow

Learn how parenthood can affect sleep, how parents can help their child sleep through the night, and the habits parents should adopt to sleep better.


Parenthood brings with it a plethora of changes. Alongside changing diapers and watching your child hit crucial milestones like rolling over, walking, feeding themselves, and going to school, parents can expect to experience physiological, psychological, and social changes.

One area, in particular, that is inevitable with parenthood is poor sleep—especially during the child’s first few years—because with each time that they wake during the night, so does their parent.

Even though poor sleep is inevitable in parents, this sleep deprivation has a significant impact. Still, this doesn’t last forever; parental sleep evolves over the years, and there are steps you can take, even now, to improve your nights.

Causes of Poor Sleep in Parents

There are many reasons why parents are more likely to experience sleep deprivation, and they can begin during pregnancy, with sleep disorders such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and sleep-disordered breathing common.

After birth, mothers experience physical and physiological changes that return their bodies to a pre-pregnancy state. This includes hormonal changes, which can affect a mother’s production of melatonin, the sleepiness hormone.  

Beyond the changes the mother’s body is experiencing, poor sleep is also reliant on the child’s sleep schedule. For example, newborns spend an average of 63.8% of their time sleeping, with awake periods spread during the day and night. However, newborns do not spend a large chunk of their night asleep, like we are accustomed to, which leads to parents also missing out on this long period of rest as their sleep duration decreases.

New parents also experience social changes that can affect their sleep. For instance, returning to work can be stressful, which is a large contributor to poor sleep quality and can make it difficult to fall asleep in the first place.

Evolving Sleep: Sleep Loss Through Children’s Ages

A study of almost 5,000 mothers and fathers found that sleep satisfaction and duration declines sharply following childbirth and then does not recover for up to six years after birth. However, there are gradual improvements over the years, and for repeat parents, the effects are not as dramatic as they are for the first child.

Another study revealed that, over a child’s first two years, the loss of sleep that parents experience is equivalent to an average of 6 months. And this isn’t entirely from being awoken during the night—the initial months with a child can disrupt a parent’s sleep patterns, leading to the development of a longer-term insomnia problem.

Overcoming this insomnia and creating good sleep habits is critical to parents seeing better sleep.

Sleep loss, while greatest when children are less than a year old, may experience other dips. One study even found that fathers of teenagers experience just as little sleep as parents of infants, although the reasoning behind this is unknown.

Surprisingly, while parents may see a decline in their sleep when their children are young, they still get more sleep than nonparents. However, parents have less consistent sleep schedules, which can impact their sleep quality.

Parents can expect sleep loss during their child’s first 6 years, but it lessens over time. Of course, after those six years there may still be nights of poor sleep, such as nighttime wakings from nightmares or illness, but it is much improved from the awakenings experienced when the child is a baby.

To regain control of your night and limit your sleep deprivation, even during these first 6 years, helping your child sleep through the night should be your top priority.

How to Help a Child Sleep Through the Night

The longer a child can sleep through the night, the longer you, as their parent, can.

Create A Consistent Bedtime Routine

It’s never too early to start creating a bedtime routine. Humans are creatures of habit who like knowing what to expect next, and infants are no different. So, enact a bedtime routine and follow it the best you can.

Just as important as following a consistent bedtime routine is what is a part of the routine, as these activities need to help promote sleep, not energize your child.

Try the following as part of your bedtime routine:

  • Walk around with your baby or rock them gently
  • Dim bright lights and eliminate loud noises
  • Put your baby to bed while they’re sleepy but not deeply asleep
  • Read your child a story

Keep Nighttime Feedings Brief

As your baby transitions to longer periods of nighttime sleep, they may still experience hunger that needs your attention. If you’re trying to increase the amount of time your baby sleeps at night, keep the feeding interaction brief and avoid playing with your baby—save that for during the day. Doing this will encourage your baby to go back to sleep quickly, which means you can do the same.

Try Bedtime Fading

Bedtime fading is a strategy where you gradually put your baby to bed later to compress their sleep and limit nighttime wakings. Each day, push their bedtime back by 15 minutes and check on them after they’ve been in bed for 15 minutes. Once they are no longer awake at this 15-minute check, this is the bedtime to stick with.

Give Your Baby Time to Self-Soothe

One of the biggest tips for helping your baby sleep longer through the night is having them learn to self-soothe. This skill means that, when they wake during the night, they will be able to get themselves back to sleep without crying out for you, meaning you won’t get awoken.

One way to help is by lengthening the time before you respond to a cry from your baby. You may start with 2 minutes, then increase to four, then six, and so on.

Furthermore, when comforting your baby, try to talk to your baby or touch their head or back gently instead of cuddling and rocking. This can help your baby learn that you’re nearby, which can ease their separation anxiety.

Remember, though, that this strategy may not work for all babies, and it’s always recommended to consult your pediatrician for suggestions that are best for your child.

Parents Need Sleep, Too

While parenthood is often synonymous with sleep deprivation, it’s important to minimize it as much as possible to prevent its consequences, such as difficulty focusing, delayed reaction time, and feelings of irritability. It’s important to remember that, to be in the best headspace for parenting, you need sleep.

Parents experience physical, emotional, and social changes that can affect their sleep, especially when their child is first born. However, working on these areas and instilling healthy habits in both you and your child can help everyone get the much-needed nighttime sleep that makes days much more pleasant.

For more guidance on healthy sleep habits, such as how to promote better sleep through your environment, Pillow has resources that can help you improve your nights.


Written by

Jessica G

Medical writer freelancer who has written hundreds of articles on varying topics. Masters of Engineering degree in Biomedical Engineering.

Copyright © Neybox Digital Ltd.