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A New Study by WHOOP and Frida Baby, Reveals That Parents Caring for Sick Kids Lose as Much Sleep as When They’re Unwell Themselves

Cold and flu season can have a serious impact on both physical and mental health – especially for parents. Children are more likely than adults to pick up illnesses like the common cold. In fact, children suffer from an average of between six and eight colds each year compared to two to four for adolescents and adults. 

Data from a recent study with WHOOP and Frida looking at the effect of the ‘23-’24 cold and flu season on parents with children under the age of two revealed the direct impact that caring for children has on a parent’s sleep, and on their overall physiology. The study also shared the most effective ways to improve parental health, even if getting more sleep is not an option. 

Impact on Sleep

One of the most significant impacts of caring for a sick child is sleep disruption. Related research indicates the following ways parents’ sleep is impacted while caring for a sick child:

Wake Duration

The WHOOP and Frida Baby study found that parents exhibited an increase in wake duration of 8.4 minutes when caring for a sick child. If sick themselves, parents showed an increase in wake duration by 8.16 minutes. These findings indicate that taking care of a sick child has an independent and as strong of an effect on sleep as being sick yourself in terms of wake duration. 

Sleep Consistency

Sleep consistency is an important part of maintaining a healthy, regular sleep schedule. Sleep consistency is a way of conceptualizing how regular an individual’s sleep and wake times and overall sleep duration are on a day-to-day basis. According to WHOOP research, there is a decrease in sleep consistency by 1.674% when caring for a sick child. When a parent is sick themselves, there is a decrease in sleep consistency by 2.247%. 

The effect of caring for a sick child disappears when controlling for the parents’ own sickness, which suggests that the decrease in sleep consistency when caretaking is likely affected by the parents’ sickness. Parents will often pick up illnesses that their children bring home and experience at least some mild symptoms, which can contribute to disruptions in typical sleep routine and make it difficult to get adequate rest.

Physiological Effects

Sleep is not the only metric that’s impacted by taking care of a sick child. There are also several physiological effects of caretaking that can be visualized through WHOOP data, and that are pertinent to understanding how parenting a sick child can impact overall wellbeing. These include:

Resting Heart Rate

In this study, there was an increase in average resting heart rate when caring for a sick child. This finding indicates heightened physiological stress. In periods of short-term stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. One of its actions is to trigger the release of hormones including adrenaline and noradrenaline that can cause elevations in heart rate. While this increase in heart rate is typically a temporary part of the body’s fight-or-flight response, in periods of prolonged stress, resting heart rate can remain elevated for longer amounts of time.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

The WHOOP and Frida Baby research also revealed a decrease in HRV when parenting a sick child. The data showed a higher fluctuation in day-to-day HRV trends, suggesting increased physiological stress and maladaptation to stressors. HRV is a metric that indicates how balanced the two branches of the autonomic nervous system are and how ready they are to respond in times of stress. 

HRV can be influenced by a variety of lifestyle factors, including stress level, physical exertion, sleep patterns, and mood. In general, a higher HRV is considered to be indicative of more optimal fitness and health. The decrease in HRV seen in parents caring for a sick child is another example of how caregiving can take a toll on parental health.

Consecutive Days Effect

The impact of caring for a sick child has an additive effect over time. With each consecutive day of caring for a sick child, there was a greater impact on a parent’s physical and mental capacity. The deterioration of parental well being becomes more pronounced over time. Every additional day of caring for a sick child increases resting heart rate by 0.12bpm and decreases HRV by 0.34 ms. In addition, each subsequent day of taking care of an ill child increases the respiratory rate by 0.026 rpm.

Strategies to Mitigate the Effect of Parenting a Sick Child

Fortunately, despite sleep being significantly affected when parenting a sick child, there are strategies that can help you optimize your physical and mental wellbeing, all without logging more hours in bed, including: 

HRV Biofeedback and Breathwork

Biofeedback is used to help individuals gain greater control over specific bodily processes, such as breathing and heart rate. 

Resonance breathing is one of the most effective HRV biofeedback strategies. This technique involves slowing your breathing to the exact right frequency for your body where blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration are all able to sync with one another, increasing HRV. In the WHOOP app, you can discover helpful breathing exercises—like physiological sigh and more—to guide your practice.

 Research has found that resonance breathing contributes to increases in HRV. The principles of biofeedback can be used to help parents manage HRV at home, and have a more stable HRV when stress levels are on the rise. Breathwork is an excellent strategy for promoting relaxation and combatting drops in HRV due to physiological and emotional stress.

Healthy Dietary Choices

Maintaining a balanced, nutritious diet is a useful lifestyle tip year-round, but is especially relevant during cold and flu season. When the body has all of the vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients it needs, each body system can function properly and key cellular processes can be carried out seamlessly. This includes the action of immune cells in fighting off infections. To ensure the body’s immune response is primed and ready to go when illness strikes, healthy dietary choices are a must.

Drinking plenty of water is another habit that should be maintained when caring for a sick child. At the physiological level, proper hydration promotes nutrient delivery to cells and waste removal, which ensure ideal cellular function. Hydration can also reduce inflammation and boost overall immune health. Increasing water intake is especially important for parents who are sick themselves, as it prevents dehydration, helps manage fluid loss, and supports the immune response.

Monitor Your Health with WHOOP

WHOOP allows you to keep track of key health metrics like HRV, heart rate, respiratory rate, and sleep year-round. With WHOOP, you’ll have a reliable baseline of each of these metrics to refer back to during periods of stress or illness. This allows you to recognize changes in your health and monitor the ups and downs that come with cold and flu season. With WHOOP Journal, you can also log self-care activities and visualize their impact on your health and recovery. Stay on top of your health with WHOOP.