So much sleep advice out there is about how to fall asleep, how to get to sleep, or how to stay asleep. That advice is valid, but if you're parenting a young one, it's probably for a different time in life.
I went from occasional sleepless nights– tossing and turning in anxiety before I had my son—to going into an immediate unconscious stupor at every possible chance after I had him. Those chances, however, were few and far between in the first six months.
It's one thing to have the time to sleep but be lacking in the ability to harness it, and completely another to be dead tired, nearly asleep on your feet, and responsible for a tiny screaming creature that sleeps in only two-hour spurts.
For most of us, thankfully, this period is brief. I've heard it referred to as: “Baby bootcamp," “one long day-night," “the best of times and the worst of times," and ever since Stranger Things came out, “the upside down." It can be extremely painful, and even dangerous. I left our gas stove burner on so many times in the first year of our son's life that my husband bought an electric tea kettle and hid the old one. I'm still on a self-imposed oven-use ban unless there is another adult in the house.
After a nice long stretch of our son sleeping through the night, he recently started waking up again, randomly. While I know it's a phase, it inspired me to get some expert advice for when you know you won't be getting the hours of shut-eye your body and brain are craving.
“We live in a culture that emphasizes that mothers should have it all or do it all," says Gaby Merediz, mom of two and the brainchild behind Make Your Perfect, a company that teaches mothers how to reconnect with themselves even when they don't have time for it.
Her advice for this trying time is throw away the to-do list, or hand it off to someone else. “There are few things that are so urgent that you sacrifice your health for them," she says. And it's so true.
A practical example from Gaby: “When you shed some responsibilities, you can go to bed at 6pm instead of making dinner and staying up late to do the laundry. When your baby wakes up at midnight, you will have already gotten a full six hours of sleep!"
Ask for help
If you're expecting, or your child is starting to hit a rough patch in the sleep department, go out and recruit family and friends for help right now, says Lesley Yadon, Life Coach with a Masters in Counseling, who specializes in supporting first-time mothers.
“Ask them if they are willing to take up responsibility for things such as cooking, cleaning, and meals in the early days so that you can rest and care for your baby," says Yadon.
It might sound awkward, but when you put yourself in the shoes of those who love you, it's not at all. “Remember that asking for support gives the gift of giving to someone else," she says.
If you get cold feet, “Think of a time you were able to help someone else. Remember how good it feels to be of service to someone? You are blessing another person by asking for support."
It can't hurt to line up the contact information of professionals, either. “You may need extra help from a sleep coach or mental health professional if you find yourself so worried and anxious you can't function, feel disconnected from your baby, don't feel emotion, or you're feeling uncontrollable emotions," she says.
Ask your family and friends to be on the lookout for these warning signs too. “If you are repeatedly doing things that are a bit wacky or strange or accidental, that's a red flag you are not getting enough sleep," she says. Maybe, like, leaving the burner on so many times that you're banned from household stove use?
Be gentle with yourself—and your partner
“Couples have their worst fights when they are either sleep deprived, or intoxicated," says Erika Boissiere, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Founder of The Relationship Institute of San Francisco. “The truth that many of us don't talk about is that sleep deprivation can be extremely hard on your relationship."
The problem, she says, is that when you are sleep deprived, you are also less able to recognize the signs of sleep deprivation in yourself. “Symptoms include: Irritability, impulsivity, being reactionary, making uninformed decisions, being moody, angry, and/or depressed, weight gain, acting unpredictably, sadness, and anxiety."
Signs can show up after as few as three nights of bad sleep. “During the first six months of your baby's life, if you and your partner get into a fight, I want you to first ask yourself this question, before figuring out the fight: “Are either of us sleep deprived?" says Boissiere.
Once you know you're sleep deprived, you've taken a break from your regular household duties, and you've gotten the support you need, it's time to mitigate the damage.
Boissiere has provided these five quick tips for finding the sleep you need:
1. Monitor your sleep cycles in a simple journal
Log hours you've slept—not your baby's! Usually, after three bad nights of sleep, major symptoms begin to appear.
2. Take the night off
If either you or your partner is in a sleep deprived state, give that person the “night off." Have them sleep in a separate room, whether it's the living room on the couch or any area where they can't hear the baby. Give them earplugs, a white noise maker, and let them get a full night's rest.
3. Sleep whenever you can
If the baby naps at 1 PM, take a nap with them. The dishes can wait. Your sleep is the most important thing you need to function as healthy parent.
4. Take turns
There is no need for both parents to be awake in the middle of the night, after countless nights. Take turns. Your relationship and your baby will thank you. If you are “off" be truly off. If you are on, then take full ownership.
Oftentimes, one, if not both parents, get trapped in the belief system that, “She's on maternity leave and I have to go to work, therefore she should stay up with the baby." While that makes good sense in some regard, the issue is that she is going to work too. She will be working for the next 12 hours with a baby that is unpredictable, cries, poops, and could be fussy. That is a tough job!
5. Load up breastfeeding bottles for the night-shift
If you are breastfeeding and your partner has the baby that night, you both can get your baby to bottle feed fairly early on. Make the bottles in preparation the night before, put them in the fridge, and get some shut eye as your partner cares for the baby.