Writing a blog post about surviving sleep deprivation is one part real strategies and solutions and one part pep talk. Whether we are up at night feeding a growing and hungry baby, negotiating the transition from a crib to a big-kid bed, or caring for a sick toddler, we have to dig deep — dig deep within ourselves for the stamina and reserves to make it through the night. Strategies AND pep talks are a must.
There are certain times in a child’s development and growth when it is easier to implement strategies. For example, if you are exhausted and still doing multiple feedings at night, what you may really need is a heartfelt, well-meaning pep talk that promises this moment in time will not last forever. However if your baby or toddler is starting to sleep longer stretches at night, you can begin to implement strategies to improve your own quality of sleep. No matter whether you are night feeding, up with a sick or scared child, or up with a toddler who just realized he/she can gain access to you in the middle of the night, it is important to maximize the amount and quality of your sleep. If you are getting only five or six hours of sleep a night or if you are getting only two to three hours of sleep at a stretch, you must make the best of the sleep you ARE getting.
One way to attempt to get as much sleep as possible is by creating a schedule for yourself and doing your best to stick to it. As we know, babies don’t keep to a schedule, but we can try to have one for ourselves. These following recommendations specifically allow us to maximize our sleep:
- Go to Bed Early It is essential for us to acknowledge that because we are up during the night, we must go to bed early. We have to let go of our pre-baby sleep habits and establish new habits, even if it means going to bed much earlier than we would like. Dishes and laundry need to be left undone. Your spouse or partner unfortunately may feel lonely or neglected. TV shows, books and movies are put aside. You may grieve that important and much needed time to yourself. But remember, right now, your sleep is a priority. Also remember that this moment in time will pass; do everything you can to enjoy and savor these moments and get some sleep. You will have more time to yourself or with your partner down the road. Go to bed early or with your baby. Give yourself those precious hours of sleep. You will be better and happier for it.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoons and evening I know caffeine can be a sleep deprived parent’s best friend, but remember that caffeine can interfere with a good night’s sleep. Especially if caffeine is taken in the afternoon or the later part of the day, it can make it challenging for you to quiet down and wind down in the evening. If you’re heeding my suggestion #1 and going to bed on the early side, you definitely want to avoid afternoon caffeine so that you can take advantage of deep, restorative sleep in the 8pm to 2am range.
- Avoid eating a large evening meal, eating dinner after 7 or 8pm, and snacking after dinner If we go to bed with a full stomach, our bodies will be busy digesting in the first hours of sleep. In order to have a restful, restorative and regenerative sleep, our bodies need to be repairing us from our day and preparing us for tomorrow. Our digestive system should quiet down at night, allowing our bodies to detoxify as well as to build muscle and synthesize hormones.
- Eat well and stay hydrated This is great advice for anyone, but especially for someone sleep deprived. Eating well and staying hydrated actually make your body more resilient and better prepared to handle the sleep deprivation. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates promotes more disturbed and less restorative sleep.
There is one more thought that I’d like to address and believe is critical when addressing sleep deprivation in parents. What to do when you have stopped night feedings, and your children call out for you in the middle of the night? This conundrum caused my husband and me many a sleepless night. The most trying nights in my history as a parent were when I so desperately wanted and needed sleep, and yet my children wanted and needed me. Whether they were sick, frightened or testing the boundaries and limitations of my attention, I wanted to be there for them. Ironically, where I lost most sleep on those nights was worrying whether I was doing the wrong thing or whether I was creating a bad habit that would undoubtedly and indefinitely damage my child in some way. I have lived through some very challenging sleep situations with both my children. What I wish I knew then is what I know now. Go with your gut. My recommendation for getting the most sleep, collectively as a family, is to listen to your gut, trust it and go with it.
On the vast spectrum from co-sleeping to sleep training, there are many valid and helpful ways to get your children to sleep well through the night. My husband and I nearly lost our sanity trying out certain methods; it was not that they were wrong or misguided, some of these methods just didn’t work for us and didn’t feel right. I simply wish I had listened to my gut from the start. I have slept with my children when they were sick, slept on their floor when they were scared, and safely co-slept with my son at times when he was an infant. For me, these choices were made because they felt instinctively right to me and because those choices equaled more sleep for both my child and me. I would have slept even sounder had I pushed the conflicting voices out of my head (“You’re creating bad habits, you’re coddling them, you’re a terrible mother…”) and trusted that I was doing the right thing for my family. Because I know now that I was.
There are a lot of valid views out there and valid arguments to support those views; but they can also make you feel like you are losing your mind. Whether you choose to sleep train or sleep with your child or anywhere in between, follow your instincts and do what is best for you and your family. Do what allows you and your family to get some much needed sleep. Be safe and trust that your choices are right for you.
The Mommy Tune-up is a blog solely devoted to the busy mom’s pursuit of sanity and good health!