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How to survive sleep deprivation

Sleep deprived couple in bed with new baby Have the first few months (or even years) of parenthood totally messed up your sleeping pattern?

Feeling tired and pushing through, maybe with a coffee or a bit of chocolate, seems to be the ‘normal’ way of coping with insomnia and parenthood.

Unfortunately sleep deprivation will turn even the sanest person crazy and no amount of caffeine or sugar will help.

It seems unfair. These cute little bundles are meant to bring so much joy and happiness to a home, but when mum and dad are being woken up all night by said cute baby the world suddenly turns into a very unhappy place.

Here are some tips on how you can get some extra sleep …

The impact of sleep deprivation

There’s very little to document and support mothers who are sleep deprived. We seem to expect everyone to toughen up and get on with it, wandering around in a daze, welcoming guest after guest and keeping the house in shape.

Research suggests chronic sleep deprivation can affect your health, moods, relationships and be the cause of forgetfulness and accidents. It’s a pretty serious topic. Imagine all those relationships that could’ve been saved if they had only had a bit more sleep, or how much more productive we could be if we could just have an afternoon nap.

Sleep patterns throughout history

Many new parents look to change their baby’s sleep patterns rather than adjusting themselves to support their baby.

According to Google – at the time of writing – the term “baby sleep” has 450,000 monthly searches whereas “new parent sleep” has only 210 monthly searches. What if babies have the correct sleep cycle? What if it’s healthy for babies to sleep in short bursts? What if we’re actually fighting against a sleep cycle that’s normal for all of us?

According to historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, sleeping for eight-hour stretches is a very new phenomenon. As recently as the early 1900s, humans would sleep in two distinct chunks with hours between sleeps where they would read, pray, write letters, have sex, chat with their partner or visit neighbours.

Many tribal cultures will sleep in short bursts throughout the day and night, taking it in turns with other members of the tribe to be awake and protecting the space.

Can you repay your sleep debt?

Lack of sleep creates a debt to your body that needs to be repaid. On average each person needs eight hours of sleep a day to function happily (so long as you’re fit and healthy).

Say you have a week of sleeping six hours a night (whether it’s broken sleep or one long stretch). By the end of the week you will have a sleep debt of 14 hours. If you have a two-hour sleep during the afternoon of each of those days your sleep debt will be repaid. If you have a six-hour sleep one night, you’ll need a 10-hour sleep the next night.

Somehow the sleep debt needs to be repaid to bring the body back to balance. Even four half-hour sleeps can do the trick.

Working with your body’s natural rhythms

Our natural body rhythms, called the circadian cycle, regulate the body for sleeping and waking. Overriding this and forcing the body to stay awake actually affects the way cells work and causes us to be unproductive.

Fortunately nature helps new mothers with the almost guaranteed sleep debt that occurs in those first few months. Oxytocin, the hormone of love, bonding and relaxation, is released during breastfeeding and helps keep a mother relaxed and sleep more easily. If you’re not breastfeeding it’s important to make time to naturally increase your oxytocin (see below).

There are oxytocin receptors in the digestive tract which allows a person to relax after eating and to absorb more nutrition. It seems that higher levels of oxytocin during a time of guaranteed sleep disturbance actually helps to keep a woman healthy and possibly help counteract the damaging side effects of chronic sleep deprivation. However, the body can only sustain this if we work with it and find ways of improving our sleep when we have the chance.

Here are some ideas for getting extra sleep

Get comfortable

Keeping your body aligned and muscles relaxed is a crucial part of a healthy sleep. The best position for your body is side-sleeping (essential during pregnancy). You’ll find that keeping your hip, knee and foot at the same height, with the bottom leg behind the pillow instead of under, will correctly align you and relieve those pesky lower back and hip aches and pains. The pillow between the knees is an urban myth as it doesn’t support the joints, muscles and spine correctly. Side lying will help with snoring as well as sleep apnea (holding the breath for periods) so if you’re not getting good sleep because your partner is keeping you awake then this might be a good option to try. Hug a pillow to support the shoulders and make sure the pillow under your head keeps your neck straight.

Nap during the day

This is so important for new mothers who are waking with their baby during the night as well as for anyone who wakes for long periods. Sleep when baby sleeps, even if it is for an hour. Wearing baby in a sling will help you to get food ready and do housework when baby’s awake. Then you’ll have time to sleep when the opportunity arises.

Keep your room relaxing

Take out the TV, the piles of ironing, the computer and anything else that reminds you of work. Your mind needs to be calm to switch off.

Quieten your mind

Bring your attention to your breath without trying to change it. It’s a good way to relax and will automatically change your breathing into a deeper, more relaxing rhythm. Say “hello” to any thoughts that may arise and give yourself permission to think about them in the morning after a good night’s sleep.

Eat well and exercise

A well-nourished body will have the energy to survive some sleep deprivation. When we’re hungry our body produces adrenaline to give us the energy to find food. Often pregnant women will wake in the night because their unborn baby needs food (but the woman might not feel hungry). If you can’t get back to sleep try eating something nutritious. Eating unhealthy foods will not satisfy your system and may keep you awake at night. Exercising, going for walks and getting fresh air helps refresh the body and mind and will improve your quality of sleep.

No caffeine for a few hours before bed

Some people can sleep easily even if they’ve drunk caffeine but for many people caffeine will keep you wide awake and restless. If you can cut caffeine out completely that would be ideal as it gives you a false sense of energy and makes you even more tired when the effects wear off. Certainly cut out caffeine for three to four hours before bed time (or nap time).

Share the lie-ins

Give your partner an extra hour or two of sleep in the mornings while you’re up with a hungry child and then have them return the favour the next time.

Sleep swap with friends

Share babysitting so you can all get daytime sleeps in a peaceful house.

Raise your oxytocin levels

Some of the ways to increase this love hormone to help you feel calm and sleep more easily are hot baths, massage, meditation, kissing and cuddling with your partner, love-making, privacy and low lighting (there is a reason why we sleep with the curtains drawn and the lights off).

Go to bed early

It might make you feel like you’re boring but getting to bed early so you can get as much sleep as possible will actually benefit your health and your relationship. As new parents you aren’t going to be socialising in the same way as you used to. It’s important to get enough sleep, especially if you’re working all day and unable to nap.

Keep warm

Being a little too hot, or even too cold, will prevent you from sleeping and make your mind race. Be comfortably warm and your body and mind will relax.

Keep baby close

Whether you sleep with baby in bed with you or in a cot right next to you, it’s important that baby stays in the same room while you sleep at night. It prevents baby from having to cry in another room, taking longer to soothe them, and pulling you up out of bed. It is also part of the Red Nose Australia Safe Sleeping Guidelines.

Don’t stress it

The more you worry about sleep, the less you get. Relax and accept your new lifestyle, do what you can to make the most of it and remember to say please and thank you.

-by Samantha Thurlby-Brooks

About Samantha Thurlby-Brooks

Samantha Thurlby-Brooks is a specialist in pregnancy and postnatal massage as well as a birth doula and BirthWorks certified childbirth educator. She’s the inventor of the Mumanu Pillow, a self-inflating pillow that ...

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5 Comments so far -
  • KarmaKumanacha says:

    These are the top tips for getting your child to sleep… really tip top tips… Thought you might like them. ;o)


  • Guest says:

    Personally, I disagree with the comment to keep your baby close i.e. sleep in the same room. I think this makes your sleep worse as you wake at every little noise or snuffle your baby makes. Many babies make noises or will cry a few seconds between sleep cycles but will resettle themselves. A new mum does not need to wake at every little noise her baby makes. Also, if you are going to take it in turns with your partner to attend to your baby then having the baby in another room allows your partner to sleep through feeds and settling. What’s easy in the short term (co-sleeping and having baby close) may only make things worse in the long run!

    • Jo says:

      I’d add another tip that has helped us immensely. If possible, have a trusted relative/friend do the odd “night shift”. My mum helps by staying over once or twice a week – she loves the bonding time with Bubs – and it’s amazing how a 4-5hr stretch of sleep can make you feel human again and more able to manage. I just express enough milk for the night feeds. Cannot recommend it enough!

      • Hi Jo! Thanks for the awesome tip. If there’s one time if your life that you should call on your loved ones for help, it is when you have a new baby. They are often MORE than happy to help! That whole ‘takes a village to raise a child’ thing really resonates when you become a parent. All the best xx

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