A Primer on Sleep Deprivation for New Dads, Debunking Common Advice, How the Navy Seals Push Through

July 18, 2017

As I write this, my son is sleeping blissfully in his rocker, swaddled up and catching the shut eye he missed last night.

While he pauses from his routine of napping, eating and pooping, my life marches on. From the day he was born, my sleep deficit has only increased.

New parents encounter an abundance of advice for coping with sleep deprivation: For example, “For New Parents, Dad May Be the One Missing the Most Sleep” writes NPR and from U.S. News and World Report: “A New Dad’s Advice on Coping  With Sleep Deprivation.”

Unfortunately the common wisdom on coping with sleep deprivation misses the mark. The common refrain is “sleep when the baby sleeps.” There are two problems with this advice. First, when the baby is awake, we – my wife and I – take care of the baby. Even though he is seven weeks old already, this effort consumes all of our energy.

Second, when the baby sleeps we find time for everything else necessary to sustain the family: washing dishes, cleaning the house, prepping bottles, doing laundry, getting groceries.

Feeling frustrated, I thought that given the recent history of humankind and modern science there would be realistic advice available to new parents that reflected both the reality of modern parenting, and the insights of scientific research.

To date, I have not found this advice.

I decided to conduct my own research on sleep deprivation to better learn how it affects me – both mind and body – what I can do to cope in the short term, and how I can recover in the long term.

In an attempt to uncover strategies that work, I review below what I have learned about sleep deprivation, what strategies I find helpful to cope, and look at how the Navy Seals manage and recover from sleep deprivation.

Research on Sleep Deprivation

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to intuit that sleep deprivation is hard on the mind and body. Pull an  all nighter, or have a bad night’s sleep and you will feel it.

Prior to the birth of my son, however, these episodes were sporadic, and usually involved some type of option for recovery sleep in a later date.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends “7 hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health,” and notes:

“Sleeping less than 7 hours a night on a regular basis is associated with adverse health outcomes, including weight gain and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, and increased risk of death. Sleeping less than 7 hours per night is also associated with impaired immune function, increased pain, impaired performance, increased errors, and greater risk of accidents.”

I had a gut reaction on several points to reading this: 1. I can tell you right now I am not getting 7 hours a night consistently, haven’t since my son was born, and do not see this as an option anytime soon. 2. These health effects sound alarming; what can I do to offset them? 3. How can I manage the decrease in cognitive ability?

Beyond increasing the risk of diseases and adverse health outcomes, sleep deprivation also negatively affects brain function.

An article in the Journal of Sleep details how sleep deprivation affects the brain. Sleep deprivation reduces performance in the thalamus, a part of the brain involved in alertness and attention. It also affects the prefrontal cortex which, in addition to alertness, attention and alertness,  also factors into higher order cognitive processes.

Sleep deprivation affects mundane tasks. In the short term, however, rule-base complex tasks requiring greater cognitive ability are not affected. But sleep deprivation affects “decision making involving the unexpected, innovation, revising plans, competing distraction, and effective communication.

The Harvard Business Review has an enlightening article on sleep deficit as a performance killer.

Management and Recovery

Despite frequent naps and a baby who sleeps well at night, on most days I still feel exhausted. Given the effects of sleep deprivation, how can a new parent manage? I am interested in practical actionable steps that make a real difference.

Much of the common wisdom of coping with sleep deprivation contradicts itself.

For example, “Helpful tips” from parents.com contradicts guidance from the NIH on recovering from sleep deprivation: “Sleeping a bit more on the weekends — say, two or three hours — can be beneficial. But don’t let a little extra dozing turn into a sleep binge. Overdosing on sleep can start a whole new cycle of deprivation, because then you won’t be tired at bedtime.”

Info from the NIH, however, paints a more fatalistic picture of the consequences of sleep deprivation: “There are no formal treatment guidelines in primary or specialty care for dealing with sleep loss (Dinges et al., 1999). The most effective treatment for sleep loss is to sleep longer or take a short nap lasting no more than 2 hours (Veasey et al., 2002), and to have a better understanding of proper sleep habits. Catching up on sleep on the weekends—a popular remedy for sleep loss—does not return individuals to baseline functioning (Szymczak et al., 1993; Dinges et al., 1997; Klerman and Dijk, 2005; Murdey et al., 2005).”

Another advice article from parents.com includes the following advice highlighted in bold. To emphasize the deficiencies in each, I outline my objections with each:

Make up for lost sleep. I’m not sure when this is supposed to happen. The newborn child still needs to eat every two to three hours. Of these strategies, I found one hour power naps to be the most effective, if you can find the time. At seven weeks in I am more rested than I was four weeks ago. Each week seems to bring incremental progress and a bit more sleep.

Catch a nap. Same problem here as above: When to nap? Although you may find time for naps when baby is sleeping, in most cases when baby sleeps there are more pressing tasks to tackle.

Trade off middle-of-the-night feedings. Whoever wrote this cannot have been breastfeeding the baby. When the baby is awake, all attention shifts to meeting the baby’s needs. Only once the baby is asleep during the day can find time for everything else in life: paying bills, cleaning, doing (baby) laundry, going to the grocery store, and fixing food.

Turn down the monitor. This advice seems dated. The baby monitor is not the source or cause of my sleep deprivation. When I am able to lie down, I fall asleep quickly. The pleasant ocean sounds and white noise the baby monitor provides actually hastens sleep.

Since all of this advice leaves something to be desired, I found it helpful to look at one elite group to understand how they manage sleep deprivation.

What We Can Learn from Navy Seals

The Navy Seals famously operate on little sleep. This skill begins as early as the indoctrination and training of new SEALS – BUD’S, or Basic Underwater Demolition (school). The training to become a Navy Seal consists of seven phases. At the end of phase one recruits go through a Hell Week,” a period of intense physical training during which they are only allowed eight hours of sleep – for the whole week.

Grit. Determination. Mental Strength. These are all things that come to mind in the world of special forces operators. A recent Business Insider article by a former Navy Seal offers the most actionable advice I have found yet, summarized below:

Headspace: Keep your mind in the game. Re-focus and stay on point as you are able.

Teamwork: Coordinate with your spouse and partner. Don’t be a martyr. Your most important focus should be the health and safety of the baby.

“Put the oxygen mask on yourself first” Mr. Maguire references the common guidance in every airline pre-flight spiel: in essence, you have to take care of yourself before anyone else.

Limitations: His advice on limitations – that you should be mindful of yours when you are sleep deprived – seems most practical for high risk activities such as driving, or bathing the baby. The best he can offer here is “you’ve got to take care of yourself” to which I had the thought, taking care of myself would mean catching up on sleep, but when? Better advice I think would be to simply limit the amount of driving needed, and limiting essential driving to when you are most awake.

Insanity: “Embrace the insanity”

Of the tips Mr. Maguire offers this is my favorite. Essentially it is this: This too shall pass, embrace the insanity of the moment, and don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.