Coping with Sleep Deprivation (tips for moms & reminders for me)

This post is by Sarah Powers, Happiest Mom contributor and Managing Editor, and blogger at Powers of Mine.

Sarah, 36 weeks pregnant

As you can see from the photo above, I’m about to enter the newborn stage again. While I still get excited folding teeny pink pajamas and putting the final touches on our master-closet-turned-nursery, I’ll admit that by the third baby it’s not all sweet anticipation. There’s a healthy dose of realism and – yup – a little bit of dread mixed in there.

Because the newborn stage is hard

Each parenting phase brings with it a set of challenges, but I don’t know that any period of time is more physically demanding for moms than the first couple of months. Between recovering from delivery, postpartum hormones, lack of sleep and overall lifestyle adjustment it is, for many of us, a time of just barely surviving. Hopefully, as we’ve discussed here on the blog recently, the postpartum period is made a little easier with help from friends or family and some gentle self-care. But even in the most ideal circumstances, it’s no picnic.

At the heart of it is, of course, sleep deprivation. I know there have been many, many days where I thought, “This would all be so much easier if I weren’t so TIRED.” And while older babies, toddlers and even big kids come with their own sleep issues, newborns typically take the cake in that arena.

So as I prepare our little nest over the next couple weeks, I’m trying to remind myself what helped me through those early weeks and months the first couple of times. These tips have nothing to do with getting your baby to sleep through the night. These ideas are for those of you who, like me, have just come to accept the fact that you won’t be sleeping much for a while. Given the reality of not just one bad night’s rest but a prolonged period of less-than-recommended shuteye, these are a few things to help you – and me – cope.

coping tips for sleep-deprived moms

1. Take care of yourself in every OTHER way possible. 

Self-care is a slippery slope, isn’t it? When we’re not feeling our best in one area of our life it’s so easy to give up in others. But I’ve found that one of the best ways to offset the effects of sleep deprivation is to make sure I don’t slack off in other important areas.

Even if you have to write yourself a little daily checklist, try not to skimp on these other self-care basics:

  • drinking enough water
  • eating high-nutrient foods that give you energy, not zap you of it
  • some kind of physical activity, even if it’s just daily stretching, a dance party with your older kids, or a walk around the block
  • basic hygiene and a beauty regimen that makes you feel good (I’m not kidding when I say that for some reason flossing my teeth makes me just feel better about myself)
  • remembering to take any medications, prenatal or daily vitamins, or other prescriptions (birth control, anyone?) that contribute to your overall health and well-being

2. Get strategic with your co-parent

It’s so widely experienced by moms that it’s become a common joke: we wake at the slightest newborn sigh and lie staring at the ceiling in anticipation of baby’s next feeding while dad can snooze peacefully through a full-scale baby screamfest. Suffice to say, in many parenting partnerships, both parties are not always cut out to share equal responsibility of nighttime parenting.

But rather than resent your partner for getting more sleep than you, or spend night after night mumbling arguments about whose turn it is to get up, it helps to figure out a system that works for both of you and go into each night with a plan.

My husband and I have our system down. I go to bed as early as humanly possible – something that suits my natural body clock anyway – and he stays downstairs with baby for a few hours – regardless of whether baby is asleep or awake. This allows me to fall asleep on my own and get a head start on some uninterrupted sleep – even if it’s only 2-3 hours. He’ll give me as long as he can – either until it’s time for a feeding or until he’s really sleepy himself – before bringing baby upstairs to our room. I then take on full nighttime duties for the rest of the night, allowing him to sleep until early morning. If I’ve had a particularly rough night I’ll tag him in again in the wee hours of morning so I can grab one more hour of sleep before the day begins.

Our system works because I am most tired in the evenings and get my best sleep in the first few hours of the night. Bryan doesn’t have a problem staying up until 11pm or midnight but isn’t great at responding quickly to baby’s needs throughout the night. So he gets a shorter (but less interrupted) night of sleep and I get a longer (but more frequently interrupted) one. It suits us.

I know other couples who temporarily sleep in different bedrooms and take turns each night being on duty. The “off-duty” parent literally shuts the door to the guest room and puts in ear plugs to guarantee a good night’s rest. You might have to try a few different strategies to find one that suits your marriage, each of your natural body clocks and work/life schedules, etc., but in my experience it’s worth it to be aligned with your partner and have a system that feels fair to both of you. Even if you’re not getting much sleep, you’re in it together, and resentment is minimized.

3. Avoid screens before bedtime (and during the night)

This is one of those “expert tips” I have found to be totally true for me. According to sleep experts, the light from TV, computer and tablet screens can actually mess with your brain’s ability to tell night from day and result in difficulty falling asleep – even when you’re exhausted. And there’s nothing worse than insomnia when you’re already short on sleep – talk about adding insult to injury.

I know for me personally, it depends on the type of screen and when I look at it. A favorite TV show or reading from an e-book before bed doesn’t keep me up for hours, but aimless Facebooking, blog reading, or work on the laptop just might. And screens before bedtime aren’t as big of a problem for me (because I’m typically SO exhausted at that time), but reaching over to the nightstand to check my phone in the middle of the night can be a one-way ticket to insomniaville.

As tempting as it is to turn to the comfort of a glowing screen when you’re up anyway, it might help to figure out what kind of stimulation might be preventing you from getting good sleep in those precious few hours when you can. If it means reading an actual paperback instead of an electronic book for a while, or swearing off middle-of-the-night status updates, you may find it’s worth the sacrifice if it allows you to get a little bit more nighttime sleep.

4. Figure out your natural daytime rhythm…and use it to your advantage

So now it’s daylight and you had one of THOSE nights…the kind where you saw the clock at least once every hour. I know I have a very predictable circadian rhythm to my days, and understanding my natural energy highs and lows has helped me get through those rough days that follow the really rough nights.

I’m a natural morning person (please, don’t hate me; I’m about as fun after 8pm as you night owls are before 7am, so it all evens out in the end), which means my energy and my mood are both best in the first few hours of the day. I find that even after a hard night this is a time where I can get things done around the house, spend time with the kids without getting snappy, and generally take care of myself and the family.

The hardest part of the day for me is late afternoon through bedtime. I lack motivation and I’m really, really sleepy if I didn’t get a good night’s rest. Knowing this, I try to plan outings for the afternoon – an errand or a playdate or something that will force me to get out into the world and interact with people (which, in turn, helps avoid feeling gloomy and grumpy stuck at home). On the flip side, if there are things that need to get done at home I do them first thing in the morning when my natural motivation is better and I can multitask more easily.

You might be just the opposite. A lot of people (not me!) get a surge of energy after the kids are in bed and maybe that’s your time to pick up the house, pack lunches for the following day, or get in an hour of work on the computer. Whatever your natural rhythm, paying attention to how you feel throughout a typical day might help you plan your time in a way that makes the most out of your meager energy supply.

5. Rethink “sleep when the baby sleeps”

For me there’s nothing harder than being forced to nap or rest on someone else’s schedule (ready, set, RELAX! Now! Go!). I never have been able to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” What I have learned over time, though, is that that same advice can be reframed to mean, more generally, “be intentional with your baby-free moments.”

When a few minutes of relative quiet arrives – maybe the big kids are in school or the baby is napping peacefully – it’s so hard to know just what to do first. Be productive? Take a shower? Rest? It helps me to choose one thing (which means, yes, letting many other things go) that will restore and reenergize me in my few minutes of me-time. It might be a phone call to a friend, a pile of dishes in the sink, a 30-minute TV show saved on the DVR, or a specific task for work. Whatever it is, it helps me to go in intentionally choosing that activity rather than bouncing back and forth between competing “shoulds” – I should work! I should rest! I should shower! – or losing myself in a Facebook or Pinterest feed.

If you can and want to choose a nap, by all means do. But if you’re not feeling it, don’t stress. Instead, pick one task or activity that will leave you feeling refreshed when the call of duty comes…as it does, often all too soon.

The sleepless nights don’t last forever, as moms of older kids will often remind us, but when you’re in the thick of it it can seem like they will. I’m gearing up to take my own advice by leaning into the reality of newborn parenting and all that comes with it – sleep deprivation, crazy hormones, tiny socks and all. Wish me luck!

Do you have any coping tips for sleep-deprived moms? I would love to hear them! (No, really. I’m going to need your advice. Please.)

Photo: Original photo by peasap on Flickr via Creative Commons License

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