How to cope with sleep deprivation

how to cope with sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep comes with the territory of being a mum and pretty soon after my daughter was born I could fully understand why sleep deprivation is a very effective form of torture!

I’ve even pondered as to whether the word mummy actually has its roots in that zombified state that typifies many a doting mama after a run of bad nights. Lack of sleep can all too readily reduce us to shuffling around like the undead, moaning words of one syllable with hairstyles that could hold their own amid MJ’s backing dancers in Thriller.

Sleep deprivation can make even the little things in life such as deciding what to wear or what to eat for dinner, much, much harder than they ever have a right to be. Our capacity to make decisions drastically diminishes, our ability to regulate our emotions is compromised, it affects appetite, memory, co-ordination, our sense of reality and feelings of being able to cope.

Right from the beginning my daughter would wake frequently through the day and night, by frequently I mean at least every 40 minutes. After we got past the first four months of the new born phase her naps lasted 20 minutes and you could set your watch by them. She wouldn’t nap lying down with me until she was over a year and naps in her cot or even our bed are still not possible, so as much as I would have leapt at the chance to take the very sage advice of “sleep when your baby sleeps” it just wasn’t possible.  I would rock her in my arms or walk her to sleep in a sling for each of her 3x daily naps. At that stage she couldn’t tolerate a car seat either, although I’m pleased to say that now she can be in one happily. It wasn’t until she was over a year old that she slept for more than 2 hours in one stretch and to date (she’s now 22 months old) we’ve had 3 golden nights where she has slept for more than 5 hours. We have had to be patient, with her and with ourselves.

I’m not telling you this to terrify expectant mums, nor am I seeking sympathy, every parenting experience comes with it’s fair share of challenges to be overcome and no one necessarily any more gruelling than the next.  The point I merely want to illustrate is that I know the devil of sleep deprivation well, very well. I know his tricks, his unique forms of torture and how he can push you to the very limits of your endurance. I have also found ways to trick the trickster, to get up and go when my sanity has all but got up and gone.

So if you’re struggling to cope from lack of sleep or simply feeling overwhelmed from tiredness, here’s a few tried and tested ways of coping with sleep deprivation and I offer them to you in the hope that they can save a little of your sanity too.

 1. Simplify

It is almost impossible to track time, make quick decisions or physically do too much when we are tired so we need to strip away everything that is unnecessary and simplify the rest. We may also need to challenge our assumptions about what is important or necessary (and challenge some society precepts too!).

  • Where possible delegate/outsource those things that absolutely have to be done.
  • Simply stop doing the things that aren’t important.
  • Reschedule/put off those things that can wait until you are feeling more resourceful.
  • Strip everything else back to its simplest version.

Reduce the demands on your time, make less commitments, leave more space in your day, don’t expect yourself to achieve as much as usual.

And just in case you hadn’t already realised – your house does not have to be spotless all of the time – on your deathbed you will not be lamenting that you should have spent more time cleaning! This is something that can be outsourced if you can afford a cleaner, or drastically reduced to a very quick routine once a week or fortnight or delegated to a loving partner who might have a little more energy to spare than you at the moment.

Your emails/text messages/voicemails do not have to be responded to that minute, that day or even that week. Install an out-of-office message that sets more realistic expectations so your friends and family won’t think you’ve dropped off the planet but will understand when you’re not able to call them back.

2. Go to bed early.

You may read this thinking ‘well duh! of course why wouldn’t I go to bed?’ but you would be amazed at the number of mums I meet who are exhausted and still stay up past 10 or 11 at night. Their golden bit of ‘me’ time being spent on a combination of TV and Facebook in an attempt to reclaim some semblance of normality and contact with the outside world.

If you want to savour a bit of time to yourself once your baby has gone to sleep, then that time may be better spent focussing on your well-being and preparing for a good night’s sleep. Avoid the screen if you can; it will only stimulate your already exhausted brain further. Enjoy a lovely warm bath by candlelight, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. Adding essential oils of lavender and/or chamomile will not only help post-birth recovery but also invite deep sleep.

If you enjoy hobbies choose one that is relaxing and soothing that you can lose yourself in for a short time. Dare I say it? take up knitting, quilting, sewing, painting. I didn’t even have the energy for this until my little one was at least 18 months old but I now find crafting in the evenings to be a lovely use of time that also fulfills my value of creativity.

If your baby wakes frequently as is in his or her own bed, you might want to consider safe co-sleeping. This can be a more restful alternative to the constant disruption and full waking that comes with repeatedly getting out of your own bed to go to them.

3. Spend time in nature each day.

Mother nature has the power to restore us. Just 20 minutes a day in green space can lower blood pressure, reduce stress levels and promote feelings of calm and wellbeing. Being in nature can help regulate our bodies and soothe our souls and, as it does for our little ones, the fresh air will aid more restful sleep when we finally do get the opportunity for it.

When sleep deprived, even a short walk in the woods, with my daughter held close in a sling, can set the world right again. Many a time when i’ve got out of bed, barely able to set one foot in front of another, the wild and wide open spaces have literally saved my soul, each faltering step bringing me back to myself, my feeling of connection to the earth and the here and now.

4. Plan your meals and your days.

Thinking and scheduling take up valuable energy especially when things change moment to moment with a little one around. Planning those things that can be thought about in advance takes some of the pressure off.

Sit down once a week and plan your meals for the week or fortnight ahead. Choose things that are simple yet nutritious and that you can make in bulk and freeze so you always have a stock of home cooked meals ready for those days when you simply don’t have the strength to do anything but hit ‘reheat’ on the microwave. Decide when you are going to shop or, better still, do an online shop and schedule a delivery for a time that works in your child’s schedule or when your partner is there to help you unpack it all.

Planning your days helps too. In particular, know what you will do first thing in the morning. If you can get your day off to a reasonable start it can help with that feeling of being able to cope. If you have children of toddler age having something planned that keeps them busy while you ease into the day can be helpful.

5. Eat well

It can be so tempting to grab food on the go and snack on high-sugar quick-fixes when we are tired. This is a recipe for sleep deprivation disaster!

Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I saying don’t eat cake. In fact I could go so far as to say a generous slice of lovely homemade cake should be a part of every breast feeding mum’s staple diet 😉 But it needs to be balanced with really good general nutrition and even more so when we are sleep-deprived.  You won’t be doing your body any favours with the associated sugar crashes. I have no self restraint when faced with a packet of chocolate hob nobs so I just avoid temptation and simply don’t buy them; that goes for crisps and other not so healthy snack foods too.

It is almost inevitable, especially with a very young baby, that you may resort to snacking simply to get through the day, so you may find these very handy to have in your store cupboard;

  • almonds and other assorted nuts and seeds (not roasted or salted)
  • organic non-sulphured dried apricots (particularly good if you are a little anaemic too)
  • Good 70%+ cocoa solids dark chocolate (only in very small quantities)
  • Oat cakes and humous
  • Bananas

6. Drink plenty of water

We all know how important it is to stay hydrated. When energy is scarce it’s even more vital. Your body won’t expend any unnecessary energy on its normal process provided it has the right nutrition and water available to function efficiently. If you are breast feeding, enough water will help promote good milk supply without leaving you feeling too drained.

7. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants

These not only use valuable water to process but put extra strain on your adrenals that are already working overtime when you are tired. A cup of coffee may seem like the perfect pick me up, or a glass of wine the ideal way to ‘relax’ but it’s short lived and over time will do more harm than good. It can also leave you feeling jittery and increase anxiety and you probably don’t want to add those to your list of sleep deprivation side effects.

 8. Try Bach Flower Essence of Olive

To read more about this wonderful little remedy, see my guest post on the lovely Pip & Pear blog


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