How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Relationship

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Welcoming a new baby into your family comes with so much joy and excitement. But it can also cause sleep deprivation, and put stress on your relationship with your partner. Read along for tips for first time parents to make sure your relationship survives the baby’s newborn months

Your Rockin’ Blinks Cheat Sheet:

  • Sleep deprivation is unavoidable during those first weeks and months, and it can often exacerbate relationship stress.
  • Tension in your relationship is totally normal as new parents, especially as we work to survive the early days of fatigue that come with having a newborn. But there are ways to ease that tension so it doesn’t cause long-term problems.
  • Acknowledging that your relationship looks different right now is often the first step in addressing stress.
  • Communicate about your relationship honestly and often, and try to prioritize your relationship with your partner, and your own needs in that relationship.
  • Know that this period is temporary and it won’t last forever.

Once your party of two turns into a party of three, the dynamic of your partnership can change overnight — especially if everyone is exhausted. Studies show that new parents are, indeed, exhausted, losing on average 3 hours of sleep every night during their child’s first year! With this sleep loss, you and your partner may find yourself out of step, irrationally upset with each other or have trouble connecting physically and mentally.

Family therapist Genoveva Garcia* says she often sees couples struggling as they try to negotiate their new roles as parents in those tired newborn weeks (and sometimes months!). “The couple is reorganizing their new identity and rhythm as parents,” she says. \”Their frustrations with each other are often amplified by a lack of sleep\”.

\”The relationship with your partner takes on a different dimension as your relationship deepens and vulnerability grows when sharing new roles, having different expectations from each other, and navigating new identities and personal histories. The stakes are way higher as the well-being of someone who depends fully on me is on the line.  In addition to this psychological change, we are more susceptible than ever. We start experiencing sleep deprivation.  Ideally, a whole village would be around our family to support us, but it’s not always the case. The notion of having a tiny human being depend on you and not being able to recover the following night, day, or week, it’s extremely difficult.  We experience feeling bombarded by the different and opposite philosophies of “the right” way of raising, nursing, carrying, feeding, etc.  As couples navigate these other dimensions, they become more stressed and distant and available to each other, and again, stressed and sleep deprived\”, García says.

The good news is that these relationship challenges are not only common but also often temporary. Most babies begin consistently sleeping for 6-8 hours at around 3 months of age, which means you can look forward to getting more sleep then too. As you and your family get into a healthy sleeping routine, you’ll get back some of that time and energy that your own relationship needs.

But there’s no need to wait until then! The earlier you start addressing your relationship stress, the better off you’ll feel….now and when you start to come out of the newborn haze.

Here are 5 tools that first-time parents couples can use

  • CHALLENGE: I wake up with the baby most of the time, and it’s causing resentment toward my partner.

SOLUTION: Clear communication and openness from both partners can help understand each other and find mutual compassion to navigate the new responsibilities.

Waking up with your baby all the time is a double-whammy. You’re tired because you’re waking up with your baby all the time, and you’re resentful that your partner isn’t waking up with your baby all the time! You may find this singular frustration actually leads to other feelings about your partner like, “I want my partner to be more involved in the long list of tasks of caring for the baby,” or “I feel that I\’m the one who usually takes care of most things related to the baby\’s physical needs.”

The new experience of becoming parents has reorganized your relationship.  This is a moment when your “old dance” or dynamic intensifies creating a potential rift as you use all your ways to “resolve” the issue.  Communicating your needs is critical.  But know that it’s not just what you’re communicating but how you’re communicating it, and how receptive you are to hearing your partner’s experience, especially if that communication creates tension around the division of tasks. If one partner has an idea of how things should be done, they often speak in a way that makes the other partner feel controlled or anticipate an imminent disappointment. That type of communication won’t solve anything and might instead create more resentment.

Try this:

  1. Tell your partner you want to take turns waking up with the baby. For a breastfed baby, that might mean pumping and introducing a bottle at night, or simply having your partner help you feed by bringing you the baby and returning them to their crib post-feed.
  2. Reexamine other areas where your couple dynamic can feel more balanced. For instance, if one partner wakes up with the baby, the other partner takes on another task that \ is equally meaningful for both.
  3. Find ways you feel supported by your partner, and try not to fixate on this one particular task of nighttime feedings. Maybe your partner is always the one to do the dishes or the laundry or go for walks with the baby. Keeping these tasks in mind will help you feel less resentment when you have to wake up with the baby.
  4. Be kind. Remember that your partner is also experiencing the challenges of newborn life, so use care in how you speak to each other. Empathy can go a long way when communicating your own needs.
  • CHALLENGE: My partner and I are so exhausted, we aren’t able to spend quality time together anymore. Either we fall asleep early or end up scrolling on our phones.

SOLUTION: Be intentional about your time together.

When sleep deprivation leaves us emotionally and physically spent, it\’s hard to plan and set time aside intentionally. Sometimes the idea of planning for a date doesn’t feel possible, and that’s okay. It\’s important to remember that time together might look different.

Being intentional about what you do and how to spend time together is important.

Try this:

  1. Plan a date. This does not need to be a grand event with huge effort and organization. Do something small and simple: decide to have dinner together without the baby and protect your space as a couple.
  2. Identify if other obstacles are interfering with your ability to create the space for connection. For example, if you don’t feel like you can relax and connect with your partner because of household chores, hire a cleaner or enlist a friend to come over and help. What’s the point of everyone offering if you don’t take them up on it?
  3. Zone out…together. Simply watching the same screen instead of your own individual phones can give you something outside of your baby to talk about. You might even remember those days before baby when “Netflix and Chill” was actually the perfect date night.
  • CHALLENGE: I\’ve become disinterested in physical intimacy. I\’m too distracted or just too tired.

SOLUTION: Plan for sex.

When one or both partners are no longer as interested in physical and sexual intimacy as they once were, it can be confusing and upsetting to the other partner. What changed? Why are we not having sex as often as we once were? How can we get back in the groove?

Physical, sexual, and emotional needs change as your roles in your family change. Getting distracted and losing interest in physical intimacy is a frequent experience for many couples as new needs (i.e., sleep!) emerge. Sometimes a parent’s physical and emotional needs are actually being met during interaction with the new baby. In fact, those interactions with your new baby can often leave you “touched out” or sensory overwhelmed.

This dimension of couplehood becomes more complex.  In a way, families and young children thrive with routines and structure.  As long-term committed relationships have established routines, they give everyone a sense of safety by allowing us to anticipate what\’s next, making the world predictable and manageable, they are the base of guidance, etc.  However, paradoxically, some element that brings desire in the couple\’s life is a sense that there\’s something unknown, unpredictable, or sparks curiosity that brings some novelty. When routines are a container that supports and allows couples to have the space to connect, routines can be the couple’s intimacy\’s friend. When routines take over and define relationships, it is easy to lose interest in prioritizing this element in the couple\’s life. Navigating this balance is challenging. In order to reconnect, before the desire can show up at your door, willingness to reconnect in an intentional manner is important.

Many couples also carry other feelings from different moments and conversations into their intimate life. If you are feeling anger or resentment from something that happened earlier in the day, it can be a big deterrent to physical intimacy. And when you’re sleep-deprived, it’s no surprise your desire to sleep may be more intense than your desire for sex.

Try this:

  1. Schedule a date (or sex!) and prepare for it emotionally and physically. That may mean handing off your baby for an hour during the day so you can nap and feel more awake during your planned time with your partner.
  2. Identify each other’s individual physical and emotional needs and commit to trying to meet them.
  3. Address obstacles from other areas of your life that get in the way of connecting intimately. If there’s a trigger that continues to create relationship stress, work to eliminate it.
  • CHALLENGE: My partner and I have been fighting more since becoming parents, and I’m too tired to think clearly.

SOLUTION: Find the right tools to navigate the new stress.

Everything intensifies when you’re sleep-deprived with a newborn. Whether it’s arguing about something big like finances or bickering about the small things like who’s going to clean up the kitchen, many couples find themselves fighting more often after they become parents. And during those sleepless nights, these questions, concerns, and even fights are amplified. It’s easy to forget that you and your partner are in the same team and you miss each other as each of your needs grow.

Try this:

  1. Share with your friends. Talking about the changes you are going through as a couple helps new parents see that these challenges are normal and part of becoming parents. Having this outlet also alleviates the pressure and expectations you put on our partner.
  2. Let your partner help in whatever way they know how. When one partner believes they always do things the ”right way,” the other partner is not likely to want to help and risk “doing it wrong.” Your partner likely needs (or wants!) to do more, and you need to give them the space to do it.
  3. Laugh again together! There are so many mistakes we make as we learn to be parents. We put the diaper the wrong way, mix the formula at the wrong temperature, accidentally get poop on the furniture, and so on. All of this may feel like the end of the world, but it really isn’t, and your baby will survive your mistakes (yes, we bet you make some too!). Humor will help you navigate these moments together as a couple.

\"\"* Genoveva Garcia, LCSW, is a graduate and a member of the teaching faculty at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. A graduate of the Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College. She has extensive experience working with parents and families from all walks of life. Genoveva has also worked with community-based Mental Health clinics, grassroots organizations, and college students in NYC. She is the Associate Director of the Latinx Youth Family and Immigration Project at the Ackerman Institute. Genoveva works as a family and couple therapist in the substance abuse field at the Freedom Institute in Midtown Manhattan. She maintains a private practice in New York City, seeing individuals, families, and couples.

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