If you carry out an internet search on ‘coping with sleep deprivation for parents’ the majority of what you will find is targeted at the newborn stage. Those early months with a brand new human are meant to involve significant tiredness and I think all new parents expect this. What a lot of parents, myself included, don’t expect is for this stage to last beyond a short while and anticipate that after a few months of a bit of tiredness they will get back to their 8 hours of sleep a night, every night once again.
If you are one of those lucky folk (and I know you are out there!) then fantastic! That’s super! Just please, don’t go bragging to the mum of a two year old who has her top on backwards, dark circles under her eyes and a random empty yoghurt pot in her bag. She will not be accountable for her actions if you do!
Chronic Sleep Deprivation
My son did not sleep through the night until he was over 2 years old. I have friends who’s little ones only started sleeping well at the age of 3. It is not uncommon! I wish I had been more prepared for the fact that I would spend nearly 3 years (I defy anyone to sleep well when they are pregnant! Again, if you did, lucky you!) feeling constantly exhausted. Not just tired, but ‘using the central locking car key to try and open the house’ brain-no-longer -functioning exhausted.
I spent most of this time feeling like I was ‘dream running’. You know when you are running really fast in a dream but not getting anywhere? Yep. That’s the one. There were days when I literally felt like I was going mad! I really did try to open the house with the central locking key one day, and on another occasion I found the car keys in the fridge without any recollection of how they had ended up there!
Everything is so much harder when you’re tired. Making decisions can be impossible because your brain seems to have been replaced by cotton wool and I remember situations where I completely tuned out of conversations and walked away realising that I hadn’t heard a single word said to me.
The Cycle of Exhaustion
STAGE 1 – managing
How you feel: Fuzzy. Tired. More emotional than usual. Everything seems a little cloudy round the edges. Tasks take longer to complete and decisions are tough to make. Thought processes take longer.
What you’ll say : I can manage. Okay, I’m tired but I’ve got this. I can carry on. I’ll get through today and get a bit more sleep tonight.
How to manage : Carry on as best as you can. This stage is manageable.Try to get a little more sleep or rest when you can. That way you will stay in stage 1 rather than progressing to stage 2.
STAGE 2 – coping
How you feel: Bone tired. Like wading through treacle
What you’ll say: I’m SO tired (over and over again until you’re sick of hearing yourself say it).
How to manage: Try to get some fresh air and a little exercise. Cut down or cut out caffeine intake. Don’t take on big tasks and rest or sleep when you can so you can go back to stage one.
STAGE 3 – Struggling
How you feel: your eyes don’t feel like they will open properly. You feel like you are dragging your exhausted body from one task to another. It’s difficult to hold your concentration on anything but the simplest of tasks.
What you’ll say: I’m exhausted. I’m so tired I can’t think straight. I can’t keep doing this every day. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.
How to manage: take it easy. Don’t take on anything major or challenge yourself too much. Rest. Ask for help if there is someone who can assist you in order to get some rest.
STAGE 4 – Breakdown.
How you feel: so exhausted you feel like crying. Your eyes burn. You feel physically sick. You can’t think or see straight. Even tiny mistakes and upsets make you break down in floods of tears. Your legs feel like ten tonne weights.
What you’ll say : I can’t cope anymore. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take a moment more of this. I feel like I’m going mad. When will this ever end? It’s not fair.
How to manage : At this point, you MUST get some rest. Ask for help so you can get some sleep. Without some additional sleep you may cause harm to yourself or someone else through no fault of your own. Your brain is not functioning properly. With a little sleep you will be able to cope again.
Tips to help manage sleep deprivation
There are many other causes of sleep deprivation and although my main experience has been due to a toddler who wouldn’t sleep I think that most of the following tips can help anyone who hasn’t had enough sleep.
1.Get up, get dressed and get going.
Waking up in the morning, either to your alarm clock telling you it is time to get ready for work or to a small person shouting for your attention, may make you feel like burrowing under the covers and not coming out all day but realistically this is rarely an option.
Have a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, put on some makeup or do your hair or whatever it is to make you feel like you can face the day. Looking the part is at least some of the battle and it will make you feel more alive. It’s surprising how talking yourself into doing something can really help.
I had to really convince myself that I could get through a day at work but I kept positively reminding myself throughout the day and I did it. Once I had Z in bed for the night, I went to bed as well, feeling somewhat proud of the fact that I had accomplished something that day.
Having said that, there are days when you just can’t. Days when it isn’t safe for you to get behind the wheel of a car. You will know those days! Those are the ones to call in sick for. It is not worth risking your life, or someone else’s.
It might seem counterproductive but something that raises your heart rate can make you feel more awake. My husband never understood this, but I always found that getting my blood pumping helped me to feel more energised and awake.
I also found that concentrating on something other than how tired I felt, took my mind off it for a little while.
3. Try to limit caffeine
I used to drink coffee to help me get through the day when my son was a newborn but I found it counterproductive. The caffeine would give me a lift when it hit my bloodstream but after a short while. I would get a huge crash as it left my system which ended up making me feel ten times worse.
I also found that if I had caffeine after lunchtime then I couldn’t get to sleep at night. I dropped to one cup of half-caff coffee in the morning and an occasional cup of tea and I found that I slept much better. I drink more decaf tea or coffee if I really feel like I need a nice cuppa. I believe that there is a placebo effect from these as well, maybe because I associate the smell with a caffeine boost but I definitely feel less sleepy after a decaf tea or coffee.
4. Get others to help you out
Ask other mothers, family, partners, friends, anyone who can give you a couple of hours respite so you can catch up on some Z’s. For a long time I dreamt of booking myself into a hotel for a night on my own, shutting the curtains, jumping into bed and just sleeping for a whole night. The thought sometimes consumed me completely. It was my idea of absolute bliss but I never did it. If you do get the opportunity I urge you to do it! I wish I had!
5. Try not to take it out on others.
As hard as it is not to blame those around you for your exhaustion, especially if a child has been keeping you up, or your partner has been snoring, they haven’t done it on purpose.
For babies and toddlers it’s just a developmental thing. When you haven’t had more than a few hours sleep at night for over a week things that aren’t usually annoying can become very irritating . My mum always said ‘tiredness is no excuse for bad behaviour’ and she’s right, although it can be hard to see when you are walking through the fuzzy cloud caused by lack of sleep
6. Don’t rely on a quick fix
Accept that children will not respond to ‘sleep coaching’ until they are ready and every child will be ready at a different age. You will hear from many a mum about how they used some experts technique and within 3 days they had a small person sleeping through the night. Fantastic! Great for them! It doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. By all means, give it a go but don’t set your heart on it being successful.
We tried various gentle sleep coaching techniques as I am not one for listening to my son cry (a personal choice) without success. Just over a month after his second birthday with a little bit of gentle nudging, he ‘got it’ and except for the odd illness and nightmare has been sleeping for around 10 hours a night (he still has a nap during the day) ever since.
7. Don’t clock watch!
What I mean by this is try not to count how much sleep you have had at night or how many times you have been woken up. I reached a point where I hid my bedside clock in my drawer because I found it too upsetting to realise that I had only been asleep for around 20 minutes since my last wake up call. It also leads to the mentality of ‘how am I going to cope with only x amount of sleep’. The more you worry about it the harder it is to relax enough to go back to sleep. Instead, repeating “I only need as much sleep as I believe I need” can help….temporarily at least.
8. Take it one day at a time.
Don’t think about tomorrow. In fact I found it helped if I broke the day down in to segments. “I’ll see how I feel at 11′ and then “maybe I can make it to lunchtime” “now I’ve made it to lunchtime it’s only a few more hours to the end of the day. Let’s see if I can get through this”. It is easy to think of the whole day stretching in front of you like a never ending tunnel of doom and darkness but breaking it down into smaller fragments does seem to make it more manageable and was often the way that I got through some of the worst days.
9. Get outside
Even if the weather isn’t great getting some fresh air can help to revitalise you (a little at least), combining it with exercise is even better. It is quite important to get some natural light during the day as it can help you sleep at night too. Try to spend at least 30 minutes outside during the day and take little one too as exposing them to daylight might improve their sleep as well.
10. Do Something you Enjoy
Whether this is listening to some music you like and dancing round the house like a lunatic, reading a few pages of a book, cooking, baking or something else it can give you a little boost. Again, because you are having to concentrate on something else it can help take your mind off how tired you are and how much you just want to lie down on the kitchen floor and close your eyes for a minute……zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz