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

by Sarah Powers on January 7, 2013

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

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheila January 7, 2013 at 9:48 am

Funny – I followed pretty much all of these tips for our 3 kids. My husband was a night owl and I would go to bed as early as possible & then handle night duty b/c he would work. I’m a morning person so get most done first thing. And yes, that sleep when baby sleeps rarely worked exc. for the first couple of weeks. After that, baby didn’t nap as well (darn those cat naps) and I always had too much else to do! Overall – enjoy it! Sleep deprivation & all. It passes much too quick and if you don’t savor what you can you will look back with regret.

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Oh, Sheila – I have cat-nappers too! The worst! Thanks for the encouragement.

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Brittnie (A Joy Renewed) January 7, 2013 at 9:52 am

Sounds like we are A lot alike! I am such a morning person (think… my most productive time is about 6am!) yet I am literally no good after 8pm. Some nights I am asleep by 8:45, ha.

My first baby is now 8 mo old. She finally started sleeping (mostly) through the night at 6 mo yet before then she was CRAZY at night. My husband and I did what you guys do – I go to bed early and he takes the night shift until about 11pm or 12am or so. Then after he’s in bed I handle all the wake ups. I would be a zombie trying to care for our daughter at 11pm, but he would be a zombie at 3am. :) Works for us!

Good luck!

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Ah yes, I have no guilt about being in bed by 9-9:30 most nights – and that’s when I’m relatively well rested! When I’m sleep-deprived it’s even earlier!! Sounds like our situations are very similar!

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Devon January 7, 2013 at 9:58 am

Sarah,

This is a fantastic post from beginning to end, starting, of course, with that lovely photo!

Excellent tips all the way through. I think you touched on it toward the end, but the only thing I would add is that the sleepless-nights phase will end. It’s so easy to feel hopeless – especially after the first few – but if new parents can focus on finding a system that works for them, the crazy newborn phase will transition smoothly into the toddler stage, then preschool and before you know it, they’re graduating high school. So, there’s that.

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Oh, thank you Devon. The funny thing about the pic is it’s now over a week old – everything is now a little rounder, a little lower, etc. :) Getting so close!

I know, it does fly by. But also, rough stuff when you’re in the thick of it. Thanks for your comment! xo

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Angela January 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

I’m due in March with our #3…the other two are 2 and 3. Oh yes, I’m gong to be tired! I love what you said about intentional with our free time, I’m not a big napper either.

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Congrats, Angela! Good luck!! Hope you can at least sleep pretty well the rest of your pregnancy…it’s getting ridiculous toward the end now – how is it possible to need to pee THAT often?? :)

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Tragic Sandwich January 7, 2013 at 11:49 am

When Baguette was a newborn, we slept in 3-hour shifts, which left both of us exhausted but with a baseline of functionality.

I never had any luck with “sleep while the baby sleeps” because the changing/nursing/changing/pumping schedule meant that by the time I was done with a round, I had maybe 20 minutes before she would wake up and we’d start another round.

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Haha, “baseline of functionality” is sometimes the very best you can aim for. Love it.

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Nina January 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm

This is one of the most useful articles I’ve read in a while, perhaps because I’m in the same boat (third trimester expectant mom, of twins!). I love your idea of tag-teaming a system so that each parent gets the maximum sleep he or she gets, as opposed to both parents fumbling around or trying to guilt trip each other to get up ;) And I also like the reminder to take care of myself in every other way so that at least my body is getting what it needs even if sleep isn’t one of them.

I think I’ll still try to sleep when the baby sleeps because I felt that with my first pregnancy, I didn’t do that enough. I did everything else but sleep, and even if it’s just resting, I’ll do my best to sleep since I know those are but fleeting moments.

Thanks, and I’ll be pinning this for future reference :)

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Oh, wow, Nina! First of all, thank you for your kind words…and second, congrats! Best of luck to you!

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Liz January 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Very timely tips as I sit here nursing my 3 month old in a tired state.

I think it is important to ask for help too, especially in the immediate postpartum phase to heal faster and more fully. Also, let go of the guilt! Some days you just need to plug the older kids into the tv or books for a bit so you can rest and become a touch more human.

Another thing, which I struggle with, is planning. If I have a plan for the day, especially dinner, then when I have a moment I don’t have to spend it thinking, I can just do :)

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Sarah Powers January 7, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Liz, that is such a good point. For me the morning (my best energy time) is when I have to plan what we’re doing for the rest of the day – even just simple stuff like when to do an errand or what to make for dinner. If I wait until afternoon I lose all focus and motivation. Enjoy your little one! :)

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Renata January 7, 2013 at 7:03 pm

GREAT article. But you should have written this 3 years ago. It would have helped me A LOT. lol
I have 2 girls, 3 and 2, and I think we are done….but reading this made me want to have the courage to do it all again. Is it possible to miss waking up at 2 am to nurse a newborn??
:)

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Rachel January 7, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Sarah – I LOVE number 5. I was the worst at sleeping when the baby sleeps and hated hearing constantly from my husband how I should be sleeping. Instead, I did exactly what you said – tried to be intentional with my baby-free time – and it definitely helps. Just forwarded your article to a friend who had her baby this week – wish I had it when mine was a newborn. Good luck in your last couple weeks!

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Janet Dubac January 8, 2013 at 8:23 am

Thanks for these very helpful tips! This is very informative! As for me, I try to take as much rest as I can. Sitting down and taking a quick nap whenever I get the chance renews my energy a little and it really helps me get through the day. I am also doing my best to take care of myself. For me, number 1 on this post is the most important of all.

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MomofTwoPreciousGirls January 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I have more trouble with my daughter at age 5 than when she was a newborn!

I was blessed, both of my girls were excellent sleepers as newborns. They really only woke up to eat and a diaper change and went right back to sleep. The trouble was during the day, they never napped unless they were laying on my chest and I was too nervous to sleep that way! And when I had a newborn and toddler they never slept at the same time.

My oldest started having issues at about nine months and has never gotten better! My youngest started sleeping through the night at 4 mos and has always been an awesome sleeper.

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Crunchy Con Mommy January 8, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Fabulous tips! I especially like the part about paying attention to your own sleep schedule/optimal wake times. So much advice offered assumes the new mom has the same sleep needs and optimal wake times as the advisor. I’ve learned to totally ignore my MIL’s sleep advice, lol, just because she has such a different body and different needs than mine.

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Jen January 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm

I have almost one year old twins who are just now (sometimes) starting to sleep through the night, so I have a lot of experience in this area. :)

My inlaws, who are not generally the most helpful, surely saved my life in the first few crazy months when there was literally always at least one baby crying in our house. They are night owls and love to watch prime time TV and the late news, so they would come over from 8 to 11:30 p.m. or so a couple nights a week and snuggle with the babies and watch TV, and my husband and I would race upstairs, cuddle up in bed and sleep for two or three hours. Stretching out in bed, with my husband, felt blissful and the snooze got me through the night. I highly recommend this if anyone asks if they can help!

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Sydney Psychologists January 15, 2013 at 6:24 am

Very nice article Sarah! Very true that as a new parent, you won’t need telling that you need more sleep. Both my kids have gone through crappy sleep phases. It is really very important to seek for help. As a parent you get to a point where you are so sleep deprived it affects your judgement and your ability to cope. To be a good parent you need to take care of yourself so you can care for others.

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Leanne June 12, 2013 at 8:40 am

Hi Sarah,

My name is Leanne, from Australia. I have had four of the lovely little munchkins, most with colic and reflux, and it’s amazing what mums can come up with under such circumstances.

My sister and I created a basic version of the Sleep Rumbler. I used it for all mine for settling, and to get through the colic issues, but we developed it into a product for others, when my sister, who is an advanced (MICA) paramedic, came across a car accident. The car had rolled, with Mum, new baby and two children inside. As my sister attended the mother, after extracting the chidren, she was talking to her to calm her. The mum told my sister that she had been desparate. She could not stop her baby crying and could not settle her. Finally, she loaded the car and started to drive. Many of us know this feeling. But the children went to sleep, including the baby, and with relief and exhaustion, so did mum. The car rolled, with mum, and her beautiful children. Lindley, my sister, got home that night and rang me. She said “We can’t sit on this any longer, we have to produce the Sleep Rumbler”, as we had called it for a few years now. “If this mum had had one, she would never have felt the need to put the kids in the car in the first place.” And that is how the Sleep Rumbler you see today started. The Mum in the accident wrote to Lindley by the way. She had appreciated the hour that Lindley had sat with her and all she had done, but most importantly for Lindley, and myself, was that they were all going to be alright.

Anyway, I would love for you to have a look at the Sleep Rumbler and see what you think. Its in use in a few Australian hospitals now. We hope now that it will help many mums with unsettled little ones, and act as an alternative for mums, instead of sitting up in rockers holding babies and hoping they (the mums) don’t fall asleep, or driving when tired. It may even save a few tired shoulder and arms from all the pacing.
Good luck with the journey. We call it the ‘magic and mayhem of motherhood’. Hopefully, more magic, less mayhem!

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MomChalant June 18, 2013 at 11:08 am

I wish I read this before my son was born. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Especially since he was an oops. I figured since I had raging party nights that I could handle the lack of sleep from a newborn – but it’s two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT forms of sleep deprivation.

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Carol January 15, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for sharing this great post. Being a mom, sleep is something we need at this time but it is hard to get. With these tips they will help me get back on track.

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