“You mean babies don’t just go back to sleep?”
I remember being horrified by this realization when my baby was 3 weeks old and wide awake for hours in the middle of the night. Nothing worked to get him back to sleep. Panic set in. What had I gotten myself into?! I was prepared for waking up frequently throughout the night but somehow it had eluded me that I’d also have to stay awake for ungodly lengths of time.
Those first several weeks, I didn’t handle the lack of sleep well at all. It was awful. Evening time filled me with a sense of dread as it was a prelude to the night. The physical effects of sleep deprivation are challenging enough but my mindset was making it even worse.
As I write this, I am the proud mother of an adorable 4-month old boy. I wish I was writing an article about how to get your baby to sleep in longer stretches at night but I have absolutely no clue how to do that. Believe me, I’ve tried. Unfortunately, I have become a bit of an expert at coping with sleep deprivation. Hint: It’s a mental game.
Here are three important “truths” to remember and embrace as you struggle through this sleepless season of your life:
- The Clock Is Not Your Friend.
Seriously, stop looking at it. It’s not productive and it’s only causing you undue stress. If you have a digital clock in your bedroom, get rid of it. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
I used to immediately check the time when my son would wake throughout the night. Occasionally I was pleasantly surprised, more often than not I wanted to scream (it’s only been 45 minutes?!). It didn’t take long before I realized I needed to stop this habit. I’m going to have to get up either way so why does it matter how long it’s been since I put him down? The game plan remains the same. Likewise, I found that when I attempted to count how few hours of sleep I was accumulating it would only induce anxiety in me.
“I can’t possibly function on only 2 hours of broken sleep! I’m going to DIE!”
After several weeks of continued survival and no death I discovered that the human body is an amazingly resilient thing and decided to stop with all that llama drama. Honestly, I’d rather not know how little of sleep I’m getting each night. Again, it’s counter-productive. The stats are only going to cause stress. Nowadays I ignore the clock and simply focus on the task at hand. Some nights I am able to get him back down quickly and I never even look at the time. During the longer wake ups, I’ll eventually see a clock but I no longer give that information the weight that I used to.
- Rest Is Second Best.
If there’s one piece of new mom advice that I absolutely despise it’s this; sleep when the baby sleeps. Research shows that when you are sleep deprived, truly sleep deprived, meaning that you have been lacking sleep for multiple days/weeks/months in a row (as opposed to just one bad night) that your brain is actually more wired, making it harder to fall asleep. This might not make sense to those who have never experienced it. But I know that other sleep deprived moms know exactly what I’m talking about; that feeling of being exhausted to the bone yet not being able to fall asleep. It’s incredibly frustrating.
This is why it’s so vital to let go of an “all or nothing” mentality and settle for the second best option of rest when sleep won’t come. Lay there. Close your eyes. Breathe. Clear your mind. This is not wasted time and really does make a difference to rejuvenate your body and mind!
Everyone is different but for myself, I’ve decided that walking and gentle yoga will be my only forms of exercise until I’m getting decent sleep again. (Notice I didn’t say a full night of sleep, I realize that’s likely years down the road) As a fitness professional, I know how important movement is but I also know that pushing my body when it’s already in a state of stress is not smart.
Some parents win the sleep lottery but for most of us, the 4th trimester is a very real thing. Think about it. Your body has endured an extremely intense YEAR that is book ended by the exhaustion of the 1st and 4th trimesters with child birth in between. It’s perfectly okay if it takes an entire year after that to get back into shape.
Our society is so obsessed with the speed at which new moms can lose the baby weight and “get their body back”. I, for one, refuse to buy into it and I challenge you to do the same if you’re struggling with extreme lack of sleep. Choose rest and restorative movement for now. You are already running the figurative ultra-marathon of your life.
- Babies Aren’t “Good” or “Bad’ – They’re Human, Like Us.
There’s so much talk of babies “sleeping through the night”. For newborns and older babies alike, that’s the Holy Grail! The first couple of months I went to bed every night thinking that may this would be the night it happens. But it never was. (Except for those two times that were pure luck). I was starting to tie his inability to sleep well to my worth as a parent and I was constantly setting myself up for disappointment.
I realize now how silly that was.
The last time my son slept through the night was almost two months ago and it was actually because he was sick, which we later realized. It hit me hard when the ER doctor told me that I should look at it as a positive sign when my baby wakes every couple of hours to eat. It might not be fun for me but it meant he was healthy and it was perfectly normal.
Why hadn’t I thought of that?
He wasn’t a “bad” sleeper and I wasn’t a “bad” mother. His frequent nighttime wakings weren’t the problem; it was my inability to accept them as a part of normal human development that was the problem. I have friends with babies who sleep in longer stretches and, of course, they’re perfectly normal and healthy too. According to my mother, I slept through the night consistently by two weeks old (I strongly question her memory recall but I digress). The point is, all babies are different just like all adults are different! I needed to lower my expectations and allow my little human to be who he was.
I no longer hope for or expect him to sleep through the night. Some nights are absolute torture while other nights are completely manageable with only a couple of wake ups. Most fall somewhere in between. I know that one night is not predictive of the next. Since I don’t have control over the physical exhaustion, acceptance has been the key to my mental health during this difficult time.
If you’re reading this during the very early stages of newborn, I can tell you that it does get easier. I’m not promising that you’ll be getting more sleep anytime soon (although I hope you do) but your body will adapt. That’s what bodies do. And your baby will likely be waking up throughout the night for quite some time. That’s what babies do.
This too shall pass.