What an expert wishes more new parents knew about sleep and going back to work


Dr. Chitra Akileswaran, the Maternal Health Advisor for Cradlewise, is a board certified OB-GYN, proud mother, and co-founder of Cleo, a digital health platform that supports working parents

We spoke with her about why parents need to prioritize sleep — their own as well as their baby’s — and how the burden of sleep deprivation during the first year of parenthood tends to hit working parents and mothers especially hard. 

Read on to learn more about what an OB/GYN wishes more new parents knew about sleep, new parenthood, and going back to work.

Q. Why is it so important for parents, especially, to prioritize sleep?

I think we all understand the importance of sleep — I mean, no one needs to tell us twice that sleep is important to your health. 

But chronic sleep deprivation will start to impact all sorts of aspects of your health — your mental health, your physical health, your weight, your blood pressure. There’s all sorts of long term consequences of sleep deprivation, not to mention your brain function. Being able to make decisions is really difficult when you’re sleep deprived. 

We’ve all been in positions where we’ve been sleep deprived, and somehow just made it through — and we’re like, “okay, we can do this.” You get that false sense of invincibility where you feel like, if you have to go without sleep for a period of time, that doesn’t mean the whole world falls apart. 

But you don’t have to put yourself through the sacrifice. Even getting stretches of four or five hours of sleep can make a huge difference in terms of your ability to function.

Getting sleep is critical — everybody knows that. But it’s also possible

Q. Mothers returning to work after having a baby are hit especially hard by the impact of sleep loss. What would you say to new mothers who are worried about consequences at work due to losing sleep?

In the United States, of course, women and birthing people tend to go back to work sooner than in other places in the world, and it can be really tough. There is a transition involved with going back to work: you can’t maintain the sleep schedule that you did when you were at home on leave. When you go back to work, there’s no way you can sustain a three-hour wake-sleep cycle every night and be effective. 

So starting about two to four weeks before you’re transitioning back to work, try to start putting things in order. The goal is to optimize getting longer stretches of sleep at night — that’s key to being able to go back to work and be effective, and not feel like everything’s kind of falling apart.

So try to start preparing for that, whether by sleep training, or just starting to transition your baby to sleep longer stretches at night. Engaging specialized support, like a sleep consultant, can be helpful, and so can talking to experienced parents. And a doula can help with that as well. 

Also, if you can, try to negotiate some flexibility in your work schedule, so that you don’t have to return to work full-force right away, but that you can return gradually in waves.

Maybe initially you’re back to work three days a week, then four days a week, and then the full five days a week, or you do some remote work. That can be a way to help you make that transition, especially as you’re adjusting to a new sleep schedule with your child.

Q. How could parental leave for BOTH partners create better overall health and mental health outcomes for new parents?

I can’t stress that enough. There’s so much evidence supporting parental leave not just for women and birthing people, but also for partners.

Because both parents are then engaged with a child’s care. Both parents have the ability to independently care for that child, because they know how. And they understand how to support the bonding that’s required between baby and parents. 

Having one parent be the “primary” parent and the other parent kind of step away from that, or not have to engage with that level of responsibility, can create some inequities down the line around who does most of the childcare, who does most of the child rearing, who is really responsible for keeping all the tasks and the lists associated with a child’s needs in their heads.

Having that time at home as a primary caregiver for a child, whether you’re the birthing parent or the supportive partner, can help you build the muscles that are required to be a great parent down the road. 

Not only that, but shared parental leave is empathy-building: it helps ensure that parents are supporting one another, and that they feel like they’re both in this together. The birthing parent doesn’t feel alone in the experience that they’ve gone through. It can uplift the health of the whole family in the process. 

Meet the Author

Dr. Chitra Akileswaran”

Dr. Chitra Akileswaran MD, MBA, is a board-certified OB-GYN and the proud mother to her son, Prem. She is currently the President and Chief Executive of the Alameda Health Medical Group, a 300-provider multi-specialty physician organization serving Alameda Health System in Oakland, California. She holds a faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School and is also the co-founder of Cleo, a venture-backed digital health platform.


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