Travel with kids is rarely a vacation. But the trip we took last week left me utterly exhausted. And that exhaustion left me angry and on-edge. Which in turn sent me down a late-night rabbit hole into the research on parenting and sleep.
To give you the bleary-eyed backstory, we were visiting my in-laws in Florida for Thanksgiving. And my one-and-a-half-year-old went on a sleep strike. He’d go to bed fine around 7:30pm. But sometime between 10pm and 1am, he’d wake up screaming. And refuse to go back to sleep. My partner would try his best to soothe him, but kiddo would just scream and scream. And with a condo full of people (including a sleeping four-year-old down the hall), we couldn’t risk letting him get too loud. So I’d scoop him up and try my best to get him back to sleep. Sometimes I’d nurse him. Sometimes I’d walk in circles and sing to him softly. That almost always stopped the screaming. And most of the time I eventually got him back to sleep. But, inevitably, thirty minutes or so later, he’d be awake again. One night, he woke up more than ten times.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, usually sometime between 3am and 5am, I’d bring kiddo in bed with me. I’d tuck him into the crook of my arm, his head resting softly on my shoulder. And, almost immediately, he’d settle into a quiet sleep.
Now, that might sound like a sweet solution (and it’s not an uncommon one), but it was far from slumber-full. Because babies don’t actually sleep like babies. They sleep like wriggling worms. Kiddo would start off all curled up beside me. But then, thirty minutes later, he’d want to be on my other side. Then on my chest. Then, his favorite, with his face pressed up against mine. So even when he slept, I rarely did.
And the less sleep I got, the more the normal frustrations of parenting grated on my nerves.
When my four-year-old refused to eat her eggs—after demanding those same eggs and asking repeatedly when they’d be ready—I came *this* close to throwing her plate on the floor. Instead, I snapped at her (“Just eat them!”) and then banged around the kitchen for a few minutes slamming cabinet doors and clattering plates in the sink until I felt better. And when my son grabbed a handful of poop from his dirty diaper, I gritted my teeth and let rip a deep, growling “Gahhhhhhh!” My partner heard me and came running. He finished the clean-up, and I went and hid in a closet for a while to calm myself down.
Those angry outbursts scared me. I hated how gruff I was being with my partner, my in-laws, and especially my kids.
That’s how I found myself, late Thanksgiving night, trapped under a half-sleeping baby, poring over the research on sleep deprivation. What I found was both reassuring in its familiarity and troubling in its implications for parents.
I was especially reassured to learn that I’m not the only mom losing sleep because of middle-of-the-night wake-ups. Using data from the American Time Use Survey, sociologist Sarah Burgard finds that nighttime caregiving has a negative effect on parents’ (and especially mothers’) sleep. As sociologist Susan Venn and her colleagues find in their qualitative research on parenting and sleep, that nighttime caregiving often involves helping children get back to sleep. And those wake-ups don’t just happen once or twice a night. Using time-diary data from more than 12,000 parents, sociologists Kelly Musick, Ann Meier, and Sarah Flood find that among all parents with children under 18, 16% of mothers and 9% of fathers experience three or more sleep disruptions per night.
It’s easy for parents to feel judged if their children aren’t sleeping through the night. But research suggests that middle-of-the-night wake-ups are far more common than most parents realize. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that 12-month-old babies get at least 12 hours of sleep each day (including naps). And yet, a new study of 400 infants in Canada finds that, even at 12 months of age, only 56% of 12-month-olds regularly sleep for 8 hours straight at night. The other 44% either need help going back to sleep or don’t go back to sleep at all. Those kid-related sleep disruptions are particularly common among parents of young children, but they often persist well beyond the infant and toddler years.
Unfortunately, those sleep disruptions can have real consequences for parents. Psychologists Lisa Meltzer and Jodi Mindell find that, compared to mothers whose children don’t regularly wake up at night, mothers whose children do experience regular sleep disturbances report significantly higher levels of irritability, anxiety, stress, and fatigue. Consistent with those findings, laboratory studies show that sleep deprivation makes minor stressors feel significantly more frustrating.
Essentially, not getting enough sleep makes it harder for parents to parent—or at least to be the kind of calm, patient, understanding parents society expects them to be.
I haven’t found any peer-reviewed research on how travel affects kids’ sleep (or parents’ stress levels). But most of the baby sleep books (and there are literally hundreds of them) suggest that when kids’ lives are disrupted in even minor ways—by travel, teething, illness, and even developmental “leaps”—sleep is the first thing to go. That’s certainly consistent with my experience as a parent. And with what I’ve heard from other parents, as well.
And that’s why I’m not exactly looking forward to traveling again this Christmas. Or this summer. Or any time in the next five years. But at least I’ll be a little more prepared next time. And at least I’ll know not to blame myself if (or more likely when) I lose my cool.
*cross-posted at parenthoodphd.com*