science of us

How to Function at Work As a Sleep-Deprived New Parent

Photo: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Before I had my son, my dad warned me about the first few sleepless months of parenthood. “It’s like boot camp,” he said. “It’s brutal. You don’t know how you can handle the lack of sleep, and then, all of a sudden, it just becomes a lot easier overnight.”

At the time, I figured I could handle the lack of sleep just fine. After all, I’d pulled all-nighters to write papers in college. Was this really that different? Then my son arrived three and a half weeks before his due date, and I learned almost immediately that my dad had been right: parenthood was like boot camp, but not like fun Maury Povich boot camp. It was intensive Israeli super-commando training.

Because my husband had only a week and a half of paternity leave, I took on the bulk of the responsibility for nighttime feedings during those first few months, waking up approximately every two or three hours a night. I spent many bleary-eyed nights hooked up to my breast pump, holding my sleeping son in one hand and my phone in the other, where I’d read about fatal familial insomnia on Wikipedia to make myself feel better. At least I was physically capable of sleep, even if I wasn’t actually getting much.

In the grand scheme of things, though, I had it pretty good: I worked for an incredibly parent-friendly company that offered 12 weeks of maternity leave, so I was able to nap whenever I could convince (re: beg) my mother, grandmother, or a friend to come over. I was lucky enough to only be beholden to my schedule, and not my employer’s, when I was at my groggiest. And around the time that I had to go back to work, my son started sleeping through the night.

Plenty of new moms aren’t so fortunate. The U.S. mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents, but a) that only applies to those employed by companies of 50 people or more, and b) it’s still a long time to go without a paycheck, and roughly a quarter of women go back to work within two weeks after giving birth. Even for those who had a generous leave policy, like I did, that’s still not a guarantee that they won’t return to the office bleary-eyed zombies — generally, babies will start sleeping through the night by three months or so, but many don’t.

And when you’re as chronically sleep-deprived as a new parent is, it have a disastrous effect on your workplace productivity. While sleep deprivation affects everyone differently depending on their body chemistry, for those who are sensitive to sleep loss, the inevitable result of all those bleary-eyed hours of feeding and changing diapers is decreased performance. “Our speed really decreases, so how quickly we get tasks done is affected,” says Shalini Paruthi, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine . “If you’re really sleep deprived then your accuracy starts to go down. That’s when you really start to make errors.”

Naomi Tomkey, 34, a freelance food writer based in Seattle, experienced this firsthand when she had her second child eight weeks ago. “I lucked out. Both my kids were decent sleepers and my work is flexible enough that sometimes I could do it when I was up at 2:00 a.m.,” she said. “But I made some really dumb mistakes — typos, forgotten attachments, that sort of thing — because of lack of sleep. Nothing fatal, but I wouldn’t want my surgeon working in that brain state.”

Of course, Tomky is a freelancer, which means that she has more say in her work schedule than the average office employee. For those who are not able to arrange flexible hours, the lack of sleep can affect work performance even more significantly. Anna*, an adjunct English professor, did not get maternity leave after her second daughter was born before the end of the academic fall quarter. She was grading papers literally the day after she gave birth.

“My sleep schedule was insane. I knew I was not at my best cognitively, so I purposefully inflated the final paper grades to compensate,” Anna said. “So yes! It certainly affected my ability to do my job.”

So aside from taking the occasional under-the-desk-catnap (which is hard to pull off unless you’re George Costanza), what exactly can new working parents do to compensate for the lack of sleep? “Sleep when the baby sleeps” may be well-intentioned advice, but if you’ve ever been a new mom in the position of having to choose between taking a quick ten-minute nap and defecating, you know it’s also both annoying and wholly impractical.

But even if you can’t prevent sleep deprivation, you can work around it. “The goal is to come up with a plan or structure that helps you avoid fatigue and making reactive decisions when you’re tired,” says health education specialist Joe Raphael, the director of health and research for the corporate wellness company Wellsource. “Maybe you can’t change your work schedule, but you can make lifestyle changes to help you get the rest you need, even with a newborn.” Below, a few suggestions for what those lifestyle changes can be.

Move around.

The most reliable way to recharge throughout the day isn’t caffeine — it’s exercise, even a super-mild form of it. Try to carve out a few minutes every 90 minutes to get up and take a walk. That’s not just beneficial from a cardiovascular health perspective: research indicates that even mild exercise can increase productivity. When Raphael’s daughter was a newborn, he was working 60 hours a week and his wife was going through chemotherapy, so he was exhausted. “One of the things I did was take a walk every afternoon around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, pushing my daughter in a jogging stroller. I wanted to run, but I was just too tired. So I walked,” he says. “It was enough of a break to help me deal with not getting enough sleep, and gave me a chance to spend time with my daughter.”

Tiffany Grimm, the solutions manager at corporate wellness company EXOS and a new mother herself, agrees that disrupting your work schedule with exercise is the key to staying awake when you’re sleep-deprived. She recommends using a foam roller mid-back in the middle of the day and doing downward dog for a reset, or “a small energizing movement practice — sun salutations at lunch or a brisk walk.” If those aren’t doable, even a lap around the office would work in a pinch.

Experiment to find what works for you.

Grimm also suggests “watching something funny or listening to your favorite songs to reinvigorate,” so consider this your excuse to check in with Kids Doing Things on Instagram. If you’re really, really nodding off at your desk and need something a little more intense, you can try an ankle-deep ice bath (assuming your office also comes with a freezer and some non-judgmental colleagues). “Put your feet in ice water for 15 seconds, dry them off and put on dry socks and go about your day,” Grimm says.

Anecdotally, there are a few hacks I crowd-sourced on social media — one woman I spoke with swears by the benefits of spraying peppermint oil on your temples as an added pick-me-up, while another directed me to a study indicating that chewing gum can increase your alertness. Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for feeling more invigorated at work — if you find something weird that works for you, stick with it.

Remember that it’s only temporary.

This one won’t get your energy back up, but it is soothing for a new parent’s weary psyche. The markers of postpartum sleep deprivation — constant headaches, irritability, the inexplicable feeling that your mouth is like a sewer no matter how often you brush your teeth — is relatively short-lived. If your baby doesn’t sleep through the night by six months or 16 pounds (whichever comes first), it’s generally considered safe to sleep-train them so they learn to sleep through the night, Paruthi says.

In my case, we got lucky. We didn’t have to sleep-train our child, because one morning, three months into our sleep-deprived hellscape, after an incredibly intense argument with my husband during which I shrieked that maybe I would just abandon my family a la Kim Cattrall in Crossroads, we both woke up to realize that we hadn’t woken up in the night at all. Our son had slept through the night, and with the exception of a brief regression when he was 8 months, he’s been doing so ever since.

My dad had been right: new parenthood is like boot camp, particularly if you don’t have the resources to make those first few months a little easier. But it does get easier. One day you wake up, and it just is.

How to Function at Work As a Sleep-Deprived New Parent