Can sleep deprivation kill you? – Are you even a mother if you’ve not Googled that term at least once? When you’re going through the torture of sleep-deprivation those words which may sound like a joke to anyone else are not funny. At all.
Because that’s the truth: sleep deprivation has such severe health implications and takes its toll to such an extent that it’s considered torture. But can it actually lead to your demise?
If you’ve found this article then chances are that you’re a parent really, seriously beginning to struggle with a prolonged and unendurable period of sleep deprivation, thanks to a newborn or older baby or toddler. I’ve been there, many times, and the torment cannot be understated – I know:
But, misery aside, is a lack of shut eye harmful – or even dangerous? Should you be concerned about caring for an infant whilst in the grip of a debilitating lack of adequate rest? Can sleep deprivation kill you? Let’s take a look.
What Is Sleep Deprivation?
Sleep deprivation is insufficient sleep initially causing fatigue, and in ongoing cases potentially resulting in poor health. It may be chronic (less severe, occurs over a long period), or acute (sudden and extreme).
Whilst sleep-deprivation is a serious issue with many negative consequences, there is a period in most adults’ lives when it is very common to experience the problem, ie. during the early years of parenting. As if you didn’t already know that…
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
A chronic sleep-restricted state adversely affects the brain and cognitive function, as well as having physical implications and also affecting moods. Following is a list of the various symptoms associated with sleep deprivation, broken up into initial symptoms and advanced symptoms caused by an acute or ongoing lack of sleep:
Initial Physical Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
Initial Biological Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
- Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
- Reduced sex drive
- Reduced immunity
Initial Cognitive Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
- Inability to concentrate
- Impaired learning
Initial Emotional Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
Advanced Physical Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
- Visual Misperceptions
Advanced Biological Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
- Increased weight
- Increased blood pressure and risk of heart disease
- Increased blood sugar levels and risk of diabetes
- Disrupted hormone production
Advanced Cognitive Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
- Lack of motivation
- Poor judgement
- Disordered thought
- Incoherent speech
Advanced Emotional Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
- Social incompetence and/or withdrawal
Can Sleep Deprivation Kill You?
Well, the short answer is yes. But it’s more complex than that:
Did you hear about the poor mother who was so exhausted from getting only five hours broken sleep every night for three years that she eventually keeled over and died? Me neither. It just doesn’t work that way.
So how can sleep deprivation kill you?
For ethical reasons professional researchers have not conducted studies of prolonged sleep deprivation in humans, but research has been carried out on animals. The inevitable result is that an ongoing back of sleep will eventually lead to death, and research shows that rather than there being a single cause, this is due to widespread physiological failure in all functions of the body.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the studies referred to involved subjecting animals to a total lack of sleep for upwards of two weeks, at which point they invariably died or were destroyed when it became apparent they were going to die.
This bears a key difference to humans suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, and means that exhausted mothers don’t need to panic about their mortality just yet.
Of course, that’s not to undermine the hideousness of insufficient sleep which, while not fatal in itself, definitely has health consequences and likely impacts safety too.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on New Mothers
The reality of chronic sleep deprivation for new mothers is so commonplace it’s almost banal – yet we shouldn’t undermine the potential harm it can cause.
Women who have recently delivered babies are already vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. Adding a chronic lack of sleep into the mix might not kill anyone, but it can nonetheless be disastrous.
Physically, women are likely to become forgetful and clumsy, and can expect their appetites to go into overdrive, contributing to weight gain at an already difficult time. This in turn may well have knock on effects to self-esteem – again during an already gruelling period of their life. It’s also normal for libido to drop off at this time, in part due to having a new baby and the hormones rushing around the new mother’s body – and fuelled by exhaustion.
Of course, in addition – or because of – these existing physical symptoms, mothers can also become accident prone. And a lack of focus when driving can obviously have very grim consequences. It’s an issue which should be taken seriously, and yet another way to make mums feel isolated and detached, which is instrumental to poor mental health.
Emotionally this is a delicate time for new mums, during which they’re already second guessing their decisions towards their new charge. Indecisiveness, poor judgement, irritability and feeling emotional are escalated thanks to tiredness and, with a proclivity towards anxiety and/or depression already present after birth in many women, sleep deprivation can provide the perfect storm to tip that scale.
New mums may then have to battle reduced immunity and their relationship suffering on top of everything else. It’s really no wonder that so many new parents feel so desolate.
So Just How Little Sleep Can Humans Survive On?
Humans can survive on little sleep, sure. I know even as I type I’m averaging around only five or six hours per night, and until recently it was significantly less. I’m functioning; I’m even keeping my children alive, maintaining a good relationship with my husband and running a business.
But it’s not healthy.
It’s something we do while we have no choice, but it’s also something to seek to improve upon, as soon as reasonably possible. For all of the above reasons, we will be so much brighter, healthier, and more successful when we’re getting the recommended 7 – 9 hours a night.
That said, it is possible to adapt to less sleep when necessary – it’s just not ideal for the longterm:
Even when we feel that we’ve successfully adjusted to our new schedule *raises hand*, the truth is that sleep deprived people routinely misjudge how impaired they are – just like being intoxicated with alcohol.
How to Cope With Normal Sleep Deprivation as a New Mother
Okay, we’ve established that sleep deprivation is the pits. It feels hideous, it’s harmful personally and potentially endangers our babies when we’re in sole charge of them too; not to mention the negative impact it can have on relationships with our partners, friends, and ourselves too in terms of self-esteem.
So how can you best manage sleep deprivation as a new mother? Because let’s face it – it’s not a choice, it’s a necessity.
I know you’re desperate, I’ve been there. But before you turn to professionals for help, remember that your baby is doing everything they’re meant to. Lack of sleep might be due to a leap or normal and expected sleep regression, which happens as a direct result of their little brains developing – read more about this in my post about sleep regression by age and how to survive.
To an extent, you have to suck it up. But there are some steps you can take to improve your situation. You may look to help your baby sleep better, or find a better sleep solution that works for your family.
Check out my post for coping with lack of sleep when you return to work from maternity leave for more tips! And while you’re dealing with feeling constantly exhausted, try to take care of yourself in the little ways you can.
This won’t last forever and in the meantime, there’s cake.