I take the view that life is a big, fun experiment. I love learning, researching, collecting advice and then testing it out on myself. Today, we chat about sleep. Oh my, I love sleep. Did I mention I have a 2 year old and a 5 month old? I know sleep deprivation. This is a topic I was a bit obsessed with in the trenches of newborn life.
I’ve gone through every sleeper experience; able to sleep through a nuclear war (my 20s) right up to almost losing my mind from insomnia during a stressful time in my life (my late 20s.) Now, in my early 30s, I am going through a short period in my life with small nocturnal humans.
Those early weeks with a newborn were a blur. I was so shattered, I experienced my first real hallucination. At 4am I stood in the kitchen watching the walls melt onto the floor.
With my firstborn, I cried at 4pm every day. I couldn’t execute on a quick decision like needing to take an alternate route home if there was a traffic jam. No jokes. It took until my 2nd maternity leave to put this on the Great Maternity Leave project list. Understand sleep deprivation.
When you experience varying levels of sleep duration and quality, you come to be an expert on your own body. Everybody is affected differently by a lack of sleep. In my case, it makes me very clumsy, emotional (not my usual state) and I feel crippling sadness. I can’t frame my mind positively and tend to notice the negatives (again, not my operating standard at all!)
I have a low ability to cope during the day when I am very, very low on sleep. It’s scary. I don’t like feeling so down. The effect is immediate and profound.
For this maternity leave, I have committed to studying, experimenting and understanding this thing called sleep. I may not get the quantity, but I am committed to getting more quality and am experiencing less energy deprivation than the first go-around.
First off, let’s go to the insomnia stage of my life. I was dealing with HUGE levels of stress. BIG life events. This was before babies, too. I went to counselling and learnt about sleep hygiene practices. If you are wondering what they are, here is a list from the National Sleep Foundation.
I harnessed technology and monitored my sleep using an app. (This article by Lifehacker has a great list of sleep tracking apps.)
I took adaptogens (mostly in tea form,) limited screen time before bed and supplemented. I installed blackout curtains and much to the chagrin of my husband, created a nice cold room to sleep in with several windows open every night.
I eventually got over my insomnia. Life improved considerably until I entered another sleepless stage of my life, 2013. My first born child. I’m going to be very honest when I say that I feared for my own emotional and mental wellbeing on little sleep. I just do.not.do.well.
I knew I would need to go beyond the sleep hygiene. I could incorporate all of the great practices I’d learnt to get a good quality sleep, but the reality was that there’d be days where I would simply have to survive on a few hours sleep.
I thought to myself, who would be an expert at dealing with sleep deprivation? Answer? Soldiers. Snipers. Special forces. The brave men and women who have to complete intricate life-or-death operations and lightning-fast decisions on little to no sleep.
I began to research military publications on sleep management and techniques. There was a wealth of information from the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research, pub med, the Armed Forces Journal, and of course, the many forums for men and women in uniform.
I’ll share some of the best tips I have found in my research. In this post, I will talk about things that worked for me, but I encourage you to do research of your own.
Experiment with different types of naps and timing
The experts say that 20-30 minutes is the sweet spot, but to be honest, if I’m sleep-deprived and needing a recovery nap, I’ll go in the 60-90 minute range. Everybody is different, though the most common recommendations are shorter time periods. It is also possible to have multiple short naps in cases of serious sleep deprivation. Here is an interesting article about the multiple nap techniques of ocean sailboat racers.
If I know I’ve got a tough night ahead, and do a preparatory nap, I’ll go in the 20 minute range and do it on a couch, not in a bed.
Notice I referred to two different types of naps. We don’t hear about the preparatory nap, because most of us are taking recovery naps. The recovery nap is a reactionary approach to sleep deprivation. But what about a proactive approach? Replenishing the bank account before all the bills come out?
Throw off the external programming
If you spend time among members of the military or emergency services, you will notice that sleep and naps are treated with respect rather than derision. Both services know that with critical decision making and other peoples’ lives on the line, they have to take care of themselves.
I found this perspective very interesting, because up to that point, I had found that napping is so often treated with derision in wider society and particularly among mother groups. All of us can think of a time when napping has been framed in terms of “laziness” and “lacking motivation” or “ain’t nobody got time for that!”
Consider this: Tell a new Mum she needs to nap. There is a 99.9% chance you’ll get an eye roll, a comment along the lines of “I wish I had time for that” or a wishful sigh. There’s that perspective. Now, tell a cop who’s just gotten off a night shift that he or she needs to nap. Totally different reaction. They’ll probably agree. And go nap. They KNOW the crucial importance of taking care of themselves, their physical and mental capacity. The day I stopped eye rolling and started treating my sleep with respect and priority, rather than buying into the other messaging, is the day I started really taking charge and ownership of my sleep and getting some recovery. It was no longer an afterthought. It was an absolute priority.
As the partner of a firefighter, if my husband has been up all night on shift, I make sure to create the space, moral support and time for him to be able to sleep the next day.
As mamas who are up multiple times a night, every night, are we not doing the same difficult work? Feeling the same fatigue? Pulling the same hours? Let’s treat ourselves with that respect and ask for the support and space to recover, from our partners as well.
Don’t focus on how many hours per night you get
The reality with kids is that every night is different. It is so up and down! If you start focusing on the 7-8 hour per night goal, it becomes a fast-track to the negative practice of “score keeping” with your partner.
A more effective approach is to focus on your overall sleep bank a few days at a time. Look at the accumulation of sleep over a few days, and incorporate the above practices of preparatory naps and replenishing your sleep bank account.
It is easy to get obsessive about not getting 7-8 hours per night, but I can tell you, that the nights I’ve had a magical night and 10 hours of sleep, I’ve still felt just as exhausted the next day. You only start to feel normal after a few days. That’s why I take the 3-4 day approach.
1 day’s worth of monitoring is not an accurate gauage of how you are feeling.
Throw in intermittent or shorter-term activities
With sleep deprivation, the effects are much more intense and noticeable when you are engaged in longer, more continuous tasks involving coordination and mental processing. This is why it “hits” you when you are driving or doing a longer chore. Sprinkle in some intermittent or quick activities that are physically-based to get away from hitting the wall. If you begin to notice that physical tasks (quick chores, etc.) are becoming impaired – for me this is being incredibly clumsy – take note.
I often wondered why I was such a disaster in the morning (dropping coffee beans all over the floor, knocking stuff over.) It’s actually because the effects of sleep lost are most severe cognitively, and physically, before 9am. So make that coffee.
Be wise with the caffeine
A lot of special ops seem to recommend that if you must rely on caffeine for an important operation (in our cases, social event that lasts beyond 9pm lol) it is a great technique to cut back on caffeine leading up to the event. This is so that cup of coffee prior to going out will have a more intense effect. Be careful though, don’t consume coffee 6 hours or sooner before your sleep. Another great tip is to put coconut oil or another fat (butter is great too) into your coffee to lengthen the boost of the coffee (fat prolongs the metabolism.)
This tip was shared by an army veteran and went around social media for some time. “Stop, look, listen, smell” was a technique that he used to maintain focus during operations, and is a great way to deal with the onslaught of fatigue. This incorporates the mindfulness techniques of refocusing on the breath, the immediate environment and present moment. Pausing and reconnecting with the body ,the eyes, the ears and the nose is a brilliant way to detatch – even momentarily – from the mental story of “I am exhausted” and hit the reset button.
Sit in the dark
Both of my babies had similar feeding patterns but I was way, way more messed up with my first born. Looking back, I did several things to compromise the quality of sleep between feeds. One of the most detrimental things to my sleep quality was my iphone screen. As I laid there and fed my daughter her bottle, I’d scroll through instagram or whatever was at hand, trying to keep awake.
The light emitted from our electronic devices directly effects our melatonin production, interfering with the circadian rhythm and our sleep cycles. A link between screen time and time spent in REM sleep (the restorative sleep) was found. And it wasn’t a positive link. The Atlantic Magazine provides a great snapshot of the latest research findings in this area.
Needless to say, no more iphone during the night feeds. I teeter on the edge of consciousness during the night feeds, in the dark and quiet room, and creep back to bed afterward.
Know that music is life-changing
One of my biggest struggles with having a baby was the torture of not being able to fall asleep, even if I had someone helping out and covering the kiddos so I could have a few uninterrupted hours.
Every sound, whimper, snort, snuffle (babies are loud) I would wake up with a jolt of shock. This isn’t just a new mum thing. This is a light sleeper thing. Oh god, it was torture.
Discovering the power of music has been a god-send. Over the last 2 years and last two new humans joining our household, I have used one particular chill-out music track and incorporated it into my naps or sleep windows. Same song. Every time. It has just enough background / ambient noise to distract my brain from the noises of the household.
I strongly suspect this particular song has embedded itself in my brain as a sleep cue.
The research on music and the brain’s response to it is absolutely fascinating. This article is worth reading, and allows you to sample a song that incorporates all of the elements researchers have found to assist with relaxation and sleep.
They describe it as “one of the most relaxing songs ever recorded” and provide a breakdown of the song and the reasons why the brain responds so well to the track.
Consider adding this song to your phone (in airport mode!) and putting it on repeat as you drift off, if you struggle with light sleeping and being jolted awake by household sounds.
These are just a few of the incredible tips and tricks I’ve learnt that have truly helped me survive the second go-round at managing with a newborn baby. Let me tell you, this second go-round has been much easier, and much less zombie-like. I’d love to hear your own self-experimentation and discoveries when it comes to the pursuit of that gorgeous thing called a great night’s sleep. Or in my case a decent cumulative total over the space of a week 😉