Project: Get on a Plane

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The fear of losing the ability to travel was a major obstacle for me.

It was one of a few things that made me truly debate whether to have kids.

In my internet travels I felt bombarded by articles and discussions on forums about the horrors of travelling with kids.  In fact, the terrible family with screaming kid dominates the narrative on family travel, doesn’t it?  People don’t want to travel beside families, and families are afraid to travel.

What I did not understand at the time, is that you do NOT have to listen to narratives that do not fit your own.  For every narrative that doesn’t fit with your life, you can find 20 others that do.

Yes your baby might cry on the plane.  But you know what?  Your baby probably would have cried at home that night, too, except you get to be in a different country the next morning!  And for every person who dislikes a baby, there are at least five people who LOVE babies (including flight attendants) who would love to hold them for a bit. Most of the world’s population have a family, or have been around babies… so ignore those vocal naysayers.
In 2013 and 2015 I hopped on 8 hour international flights with my 6 month old, to go see extended family in the UK.  I missed them desparately.  As a new mother I needed some love, too.

I found those voices as I prepared for my first international flight, solo.

 I bit the bullet and booked the flight. Only 5 minutes later I felt panicky and thought “aaaah what am I doing?!”

The flight was fine. I was treated like a rockstar.  Early boarding, 1st class treatment, TONS of baby cuddles and holding from the flight attendants while I ate, and the sound of the plane lulled both babies to sleep.  Logistical stresses like getting on and off a train were non-existent.  For every train I got off of, there were 3 people waiting to help me lift the stroller down.


The trip was one I will never, ever forget. Beyond disconnecting from the daily routine back home, I was able to fully immerse myself in being present with my daughter as we discovered new places together.  So much time with a newborn whips by at the blink of an eye; I think it is because s often we are also distracted with the daily routines and must-dos of home life.  On holiday, I sat and drank coffee in the garden of an old castle.  Got on the wrong train with with both babies in southern England, and went to visit special places that my Mum and I visited when she was still alive.  Each of those in itself is an immersive experience that bought me back to the present.

Looking back there was some kind of magical bonding on that trip. Just as newborn baby photos are beautiful to look back on, the memories of our trip fill me with the same sense of happiness.  Even though in the moment there were certainly meltdowns and diaper changes.

We adults love travel because it infuses us with the exact same sense of wonderment our children experience every day. Our brains and senses are revitalized as we explore new places.

I’ve been to England a thousand times but to go with a baby gave those same forest trails a new magic to them.

In so many ways, as a newborn mum, I was seeing things for the first time, with a fresh set of eyes.

Returning from an international trip also gave me a newfound confidence in my ability to take my daughter on micro-adventures and domestic trips.  I am much more comfortable with “would you mind helping me” also.

Travel provides a three fold reward. The anticipation, the experience itself, and the fond memories that last a lifetime.

Project: Try Meditation

12095169_1514110428908167_3155916626585539600_oOne night as I sat rocking by the soft glow of a crystal salt lamp, it struck me. I felt like I was in a Savasana at yoga.

A baby luxuriously nestled in my arm, sucking at an imaginary milk bottle in the air while I gently breathed, trying not to wake her.

Meditation is hugely beneficial to our bodies, minds and spirits and I had never intentionally tried it. I did not have time in those early days to attend a workshop, so I looked up some breathing exercises online which would complement my attempts to settle my mind.

Each night when I sat down to feed my little one for the night, I followed a breathing exercise. I’d breathe in for 5, hold it for 4, and let go for 5. Focusing on the breathe and counting allowed me to still the thoughts bouncing off my brain like a pinball game.

After a few days it became a habit. I realized that it had a profound effect not only on myself but the little one as well. She fell asleep so quickly, soothed by the whooshing of breath (I began to use this to settle her when she was crying.) I have no doubt she also picked up on the relaxed energy.

I cannot even begin to calculate much time I have spent in the rocking chair in my baby’s room. By combining a breathing relaxation and meditation exercise with this quiet, intimate time (after all, I am all about efficiency!) I had a daily meditation practice that left my baby settled, and myself relaxed and ready for bed. I didn’t have to “remember” to do it; it just became part of the evening routine.

I encourage you to google breathing exercises as a first starting point for meditation and relaxation. Next time you are rocking your baby, try one out. How did it feel? Did it settle your little one?

Project: Reconnect with Nature

A huge goal I had for myself on maternity leave was to get back outside and enjoy the natural world.  I drowned my Pinterest boards in beautiful images of happy women with their babies in carriers and backpacks. Why was this such a draw for me? Getting outside has always been a form of meditation.  When I am out in nature, I reconnect with natural rhythms and the simple enjoyment of fresh air.  I come back recharged and feeling alive.  Somewhere in the great outdoors, I grind out anxiety and racing thoughts under my trail shoes.

In order to have a great maternity leave, I knew I would need to reconnect with nature somehow.

In the first few months of my winter-born’s life, I was, among other things, intimidated to do simple things like take her to the mall for the first time in the stroller, put her in the carrier for the first time, go out for my first winter walk (I do live in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, we are talking snow piles and biting winds!)

I hadn’t expected this strange sense of intimidation and newness. Every activity, from the mundane to the complicated, would take a concerted effort.

Was it a lack of confidence?  Not necessarily.

I knew that both my daughter and I were freshly born into the world as new people.  Her a new human, I a new Mum.  Just as her eyes grew wide trying to take everything in, my eyes grew wide at the thought of bringing a floppy, fragile little creature with me.

As we slowly began to venture out in the world, it made me laugh.  I might have been a bit intimidated using the Bob Stroller for the first time and youtubing 20x how to unfold it… but it was all new to her, too. The first time a dandelion blew apart in the wind ? MIND BLOWN.  Bird song? CAN’T EVEN.

When I started noticing the profound appreciation in her face for every tiny moment, sound, object – I knew I’d be shifting the scale of my outings.   I, too, began to profoundly appreciate tiny things.   Ladybirds in the grass, dragonflies buzzing by us.  The fresh smell of crisp autumn air.  A sunset setting the mountains on fire.

Have you ever been walking through your city and you get stuck behind tourists gawking at the buildings, or scenery?  It’s sort of the same when you are with a little human. EVERYTHING. SO. AMAZING.

The key to a brilliant maternity leave is scaling your outdoor activities down, way down, we’re talking to the scale of a baby – or a toddler. Moving that full-day hike down to a 30 minute hike.

This the essence of a “micro adventure.”  Smaller scale, commitment, duration.  This does not mean smaller rewards.

I have found profound happiness in our little adventures every day. The scaled down adventure leads to closer inspection and appreciation of the world in our path. Rather than planning a huge day out once in a while when the stars are aligned, (the parents are prepared and the children are happy,) I get out in nature, reconnect and rebalance.  I five minute walk plus meltdowns, or a 50 minute walk of unexpected cooperation from the little humans.  Each one offers a gift.

Project: Understand Sleep Deprivation

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.)

SLLS

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 😉