30 Apr Five Tips for Sleep Starved Mums
Sleep deprivation is, without doubt, one of the hardest parts of being a parent. Before your baby is born it’s almost impossible to appreciate just how little sleep you will actually be expected to function on. Certainly in my day- to- day role as a Midwife, the most common questions I’m asked are about sleep; how to get baby to sleep longer, why does my baby sleep all day but wake all night, is this normal?The short answer is, yes, it’s normal. The very vast majority of babies do not sleep much longer than 3 hour blocks at a time. Many sleep less than this. There are many reasons why babies wake frequently, most come down to evolution and biology. To start with, your baby has a tiny tummy that needs to be refilled at regular intervals. Breastmilk is the perfect food for babies, and is digested easily and quickly to avoid strain on brand new digestive systems. So after two or three hours, most bubs are ready for more! Add to that the knowledge that all babies are born with the instinctive desire to be close to their caregiver. This is an inbuilt, evolutionary adaptation that is vital for survival. Babies (like adults) need to feel safe, and for them, safety means being in very close proximity to the people who can keep them alive. The most expensive cot from Ikea means nothing to a baby, in their mind you might as well be abandoning them on an ice shelf!
Even though frequent waking is normal, it is still very, very tiring. A whole industry has grown around our desire to make our babies sleep, so that we can also sleep. Very often these programs revolve around trying to change your baby’s behaviour, instead of trying to reconcile essentially normal baby behaviour with the demands of modern parenting. So, here are five simple ideas you can use to help cope with sleep deprivation without spending big bucks, leaving your baby to cry or losing (what’s left) of your sanity.
Find a safe space
Being able to debrief with other parents who are going through the same thing as you can be a life saver. But it’s important that you are able to safely share your experiences without feeling judged. For example, it does not help in the least to hear “well, you brought this on yourself!” when you have chosen to follow your baby’s lead in regards to breastfeeding and sleeping. Sometimes parents may feel like they don’t have the right to complain because they haven’t chosen to ‘sleep train’ their baby. Luckily these days there is a wide range of parenting support groups that you can access on line in order to find like minded parents.
It’s also wonderful if you have friends with older children who have been through all of this. They are sometimes more likely to be available to lend a hand, make you a cuppa or be a listening ear in times of need, simply because they are no longer entrenched in parenting tiny people. They also provide that beacon of hope that, yes, one day you too will be sleeping all night again and trying to wake your teenagers up, rather than get them to fall asleep!
Get rid of the clock
This is such a simple idea, but it took me until my third baby to work it out (hey I was tired!). Watching a clock in the middle of the night is one of the best ways to feel even worse than you already do. If you know what time it is, you are more likely to try and add up how many hours sleep you’ve had (probably not many), and then try and work out how many hours till you have to get up. When baby wakes sooner than expected there’s a sense of frustration that you’ve been robbed of sleep.
Instead, try taking the approach that if it’s dark, it’s night. The hours will still pass whether you are looking at the clock or not. Night time breastfeeding creates lovely surges of oxytocin to help you and baby stay calm and relaxed. Adrenaline, made by the body when you’re stressed, counteracts oxytocin. By not spending mental energy on worrying about time and feeling frustrated, you are more likely to be relaxed and able to fall back to sleep quicker, as is your baby.
Rest in the day.
Yes, I know. One of the most hated bits of advice is “sleep when the baby sleeps”. Often that’s not possible, and it can just add more stress to your day if you feel you must be asleep as soon as your baby nods off. Instead of trying to sleep, simply change your expectation to “rest”. When your baby is asleep, try to sit or lie down quietly for a while and quiet your mind. Play some relaxation music or listen to a guided meditation. Actually shut your eyes so you aren’t tempted to browse Facebook. If you have older children, don’t hesitate to pop Play School or Peppa Pig on for half an hour and lie on the couch- there is no prize when they graduate high school for whose Mum never used TV as a baby sitter.
If your other children still have day sleeps, you may have that magical cross over time when the baby is asleep at the same time. Take advantage of that! And in the same way we prioritise our children’s rest, make a daily rest period for yourself a priority and schedule it in.
Make a “sleep -in” swap
If you are in the position of having a partner who works regular Monday to Friday hours, you might like to think about each taking a ‘sleep-in’ morning on the weekend. In my house it used to look like this; on Saturday mornings my husband would get up with the children and I would sleep for another couple of hours, and on Sunday we swapped. By sleep in, I mean until about 8.00 am at the latest, but that was such a luxury to look forward to every week! While the children were very small it worked brilliantly. Once weekend sports came into play it all went out the window, but by that time they were (mostly) sleeping through the night.
Look after your health.
If you are feeling especially run down, it’s always worth while checking in with your GP. A very common cause of fatigue is being low in iron, which may be the case if you were already anaemic on pregnancy, or you had a significant blood loss at birth. Low vitamin D and thyroid disorders can also contribute to exhaustion, so ask your GP for a blood test to check your levels. Magnesium deficiency is also a common cause of poor sleep and low energy, and is also extremely common.
Women who are experiencing postnatal depression and anxiety may also find it difficult to sleep or rest even when their baby is asleep, so being aware of the signs and symptoms and accessing support services early is important.
All babies eventually sleep through the night. As a parent of three extremely wakeful children I absolutely hated it when someone told me that, but in hindsight they were right (case in point, my 18 year old is currently sound asleep at midday because he doesn’t have Uni today).
So when you’re deep in those trenches remember that you are doing the most important job in the world; creating a safe, loving environment for your baby and responding to their needs. By trying to accept and embrace the normal, but sometimes challenging, needs of our babies, we are less likely to spend valuable energy on trying to change things we simply cannot and should not. And that energy can then be better spent on enjoying time with your baby.
(And on an end note, the aforementioned 18 year old has just erupted from his room, because in fact, he does have Uni today and his class starts in 15 minutes.)