Poor sleep intensifies next-day stress for parents

Can a lack of sleep cause stress? Research confirms that we experience more stress the day after a poor night’s sleep. And the effects might be particularly noticeable for parents struggling to care for multiple children while holding down a job.

You wake up tired. You didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, so you feel physically unwell, and emotionally down. As you drag yourself through the day, you notice something else, too. Everything seems more stressful. Life at work. Life at home. There isn’t enough time to cope with your kids and keep everything running smoothly.

stressed, tired mother working from home on a computer with two young children in the background

If this story is familiar to you, take heart. It’s a widespread reality for parents. Poor sleep triggers attention problems and bad moods in just about everyone (Galli et al 2022; Sin et al 2020). It can lower our threshold for pain (Simpson et al 2018). And for at least one demographic — parents living with young children — sleep loss has an additional impact on psychosocial stress. The day after insufficient sleep, we’re more likely to perceive increased stress levels.

For example, consider a study of 102 parents working for an information technology company. Researchers asked them to keep sleep diaries, and they phoned the parents up each evening to check in with them about their daily experiences.

After collecting eight days of data, the researchers — led by Soomi Lee — analyzed the results, and the evidence was clear. When parents slept fewer hours one night, they reported more stress-related problems the following day. They were more likely to say they their work demands had interfered with their family life. They were also more likely to complain that they didn’t have enough time to spend with their children, or engage in self-care. (Lee et al 2017).

More recently, Lee and her colleagues conducted a study of 60 working nurses. Once again, researchers tracked both sleep and perceptions of stress, but this study was a bit different. Only some of the participants were parents. And the outcome? Being a parent mattered.

People reported more frequent and/or more severe stressors the day after a poor night’s sleep. But the effect was significant primarily for parents, and it was strongest among parents who had at least two children at home (Harris et al 2021).

Does this mean that parents are the only people who truly understand the devastating effects of sleep loss on stress reactivity? Clearly not. For example, researchers have found that both adolescents and young adults get more stressed out the day after a bad night’s sleep (Doane et al 2014; Yap et al 2020).

But it would make sense if parents are hit particularly hard. They’ve got a lot going on, especially if they feel torn between economic responsibilities and caregiving responsibilities. It also makes sense if family members reinforce each other’s stress levels, and interfere with each other’s sleep. It’s all connected.

Studies confirm the obvious — that we have trouble getting enough quality sleep when we’re stressed out. And stress itself is contagious. As I’ve written elsewhere, even babies can tell when we’re feeling stressed. They may respond by becoming more stressed themselves. And of course stress changes the way we behave toward others. As I explain in another article, stress can diminish the quality of our parenting, making us either overreact to our kids, or withdraw from them.

So what can we do about it? Psychologists have tested many approaches to stress management. You can read more about them in my article, “Parenting stress: 12 evidence-based tips for making life better.” If you have a stressed-out baby, you might also want to take a look at my article, “Stress in babies: How to keep babies calm, happy, and emotionally healthy.” And when it comes to perceived behavior problems, it’s helpful to take an approach that some people call “positive parenting.”

But another important takeaway is that sleep really matters, and — in many cases — this isn’t something that’s easy for you to control. If you’ve got a newborn, you’re going to suffer through a lot of nighttime interruptions. If you have a child plagued by night terrors, nighttime fears, or other bedtime problems, you’re probably experiencing sleep loss yourself, or a reduction in sleep quality. And if you feel caught in the middle — between the demands of work and family? It might seem you don’t have time to get all the sleep you really need.

The answer here, I think, isn’t to despair, or blame yourself for the status quo. Nor should you feel that you’re family is supposed to achieve perfect sleep every night. Things happen. People have particularly stressful days, and it carries over in the night. Or somebody feels ill. Or unusually hungry, or sad, or angry. There’s a loud noise, or a worrying event to anticipate. We can experience hormonal changes that interfere with sleep. Or simply feel too stimulated to drowse off.

But at the same time, this research should remind us to make good sleep a priority. There are ways to help babies develop mature sleep patterns. There are science-tested tactics for getting children to bed earlier at night, and coping with sleep-related problems. To learn more about improving sleep in your family, check out these Parenting Science articles:

References: Lack of sleep and stress

Doane LD and Thurston EC. 2014. Associations among sleep, daily experiences, and loneliness in adolescence: evidence of moderating and bidirectional pathways. J Adolesc. 37(2):145–154.

Galli O, Jones CW, Larson O, Basner M, Dinges DF. 2022. Predictors of interindividual differences in vulnerability to neurobehavioral consequences of chronic partial sleep restriction.  Sleep. 45(1):zsab278.

Harris TP, Vigoureux TFD, Lee S. 2021. Daily associations between sleep and stressors in nurses with and without children. J Sleep Res. 2021 Oct 14:e13505

Lee S, Crain TL, McHale SM, Almeida DM, Buxton OM. 2017. Daily antecedents and consequences of nightly sleep. J Sleep Res. 2017 Aug;26(4):498-509.

Sin NL, Wen JH, Klaiber P, Buxton OM, Almeida DM. 2020. Sleep duration and affective reactivity to stressors and positive events in daily life. Health Psychol. 39(12):1078-1088.

Simpson NS, Scott-Sutherland J, Gautam S, Sethna N, Haack M. 2018. Chronic exposure to insufficient sleep alters processes of pain habituation and sensitization. Pain. 159(1):33-40.

Yap Y, Slavish DC, Taylor DJ, Bei B, Wiley JF. 2020. Bi-directional relations between stress and self-reported and actigraphy-assessed sleep: a daily intensive longitudinal study. Sleep. 43(3):zsz250.

content last modified 1/22

image of tired mother by Drazen Zigic / istock