If there's one postpartum relationship topic that's addressed in the media with some regularity, it's sex: Are you getting any? Do you both want it?
There's no doubt about it: Sex is important to relationship satisfaction.
But the more I talk to new parents, and the more I learn about the impact of newborns on relationships, the more convinced I become that, in focusing on sex, we've downplayed a far more important postpartum priority: Sleep.
If new parents can take precious time to better understand, and find ways to decrease, sleep deprivation, I believe we not only can enhance our relationship satisfaction, we might also have more energy for sex!
Plus, adequate sleep is good for our health. Put another way, the scientific community has been drawing causal relationships between lack of sleep and daunting health risks, like heart disease, accidents, cancer and diabetes.
The importance of sleep is underscored by the primary finding of a 2010 study of 22 postpartum couples conducted by West Virginia University, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development:
"First-time parents' relationship satisfaction is related to the amount of sleep they get while caring for an infant."
Given that the connection between sleep and relationship satisfaction is, what's called, bi-directional--meaning, sleep quality impacts relationship quality, and relationship quality impacts our sleep--it's hard to overestimate the importance of slumber to new parents.
It's also important to pay attention to the sleep patterns we establish as a couple after our babies are born. Here, data from a 2010 University of Michigan study offers important insights, as working moms were 2.5 times more likely than dads to interrupt their sleep to care for babies and kids. More than that, on average moms' sleep interruptions last longer. This discrepancy is especially acute for those with children under age 1 (a.k.a., new parents).
Once we acknowledge the importance of sleep to our relationship satisfaction (indeed, to our overall satisfaction), what can we do to get more of it?
Sleep Tips for New Parents (and expecting couples en route to parenthood):
1) Grab shut-eye whenever, wherever, however you can.
Most new moms know the drill about napping when newborns do (and many claim that's often hard to do). It's important, then, for couples to encourage each other to sleep whenever the opportunity arises, including in another room, if that's the only way to sleep for a decent stretch of time.
2) Carefully consider the benefits and downsides of the family bed, and if you opt for co-sleeping discuss how, as a couple, you want to support each other and your relationship.
As a parent, I don't feel strongly one way or another about the family bed. As a Relationship Coach, I'm compelled to share the results of a recent British study: 40% of British parents allow their young kids to sleep with them. The relationship fallout is noteworthy: 25% have regular arguments about bed-sharing; almost half report their love lives have suffered; and 57% wish their kids would leave their beds. If you opt for the family bed, check in with each other regularly about its impact, if any, on your relationship, and get creative in finding ways to help each other get more sleep.
3) Craft a truly equitable sleep-interruption policy.
Do your best to defy the statistic that the sleep of working moms is interrupted 2.5 times more than dads. Why? Because significant inequities in the performance of parenting tasks, like who gets up at night, can breed resentment and dissatisfaction. And those feelings can have a negative effect on relationship intimacy and sex. Plus, whether or not we're stay-at-home parents, caring for a baby is a demanding job, which means we all need sleep!
4) Consider researching and discussing sleep-training philosophies when you're expecting. Revisit them postpartum when you have a better sense of your baby's personality and patterns.
Like so many parenting topics, whether or not to sleep-train, and what approach to use, is fraught with as many opinions as experts. The goal, then, isn't to make a conclusion about sleep training when we're expecting, or even when the baby's here; it's to factor the impact of sleep deprivation on individual health and on relationship satisfaction into our decisions, and ensure that we're as thoughtful and collaborative as possible as we consider our options.
5) Take friends and family up on offers to watch the baby, or ask if they don't offer.
When new parents think of babysitting, we often focus on a date-night or some other version of getting out of the house without a baby in tow. Yet as, if not more, important in the first few postpartum months is babysitting in service of sleep. So, say yes to offers by friends and family to watch the baby for an hour or two so you can grab some shut-eye. If your support system--especially those without kids or empty-nesters--are less than gracious in offering to babysit, they might not know or have forgotten how helpful an hour or two of respite can be. So, go ahead and ask them. Worst-case scenario? They say no.
What's the bottom line in all this for new parents; heck, for all couples with young kids? It's really quite simple:
We need to wake up to the importance of sleep.
Doing so will improve our personal and relationship wellbeing and, in turn, enhance how we co-parent our kids.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC, is a professional relationship coach, toddler mom and founder of Parent AllianceR, an information and coaching resource for expecting couples and new parents devoted to ensuring their relationships thrive after they have kids.