Thursday, 26 January 2012

Surviving long-term sleep deprivation

I love sleep. Sleep deprivation would not have been my choice at all. However, having had so many broken nights from two insomniac babies, I thought I'd write a bit about how I cope with it. A couple of people have asked me about it recently, and it might be helpful for anyone else going through similar things (Feel free not to read this if that isn't you. Other people's lack of sleep really isn't that interesting, is it?!). I really try not to write Facebook statuses about sleep, so it feels kind of self-indulgent to blog about it.

As a baby, Westboy fought sleep at bedtime & naptimes, took ages to get to sleep, never stayed asleep for more than 30 minutes during the day, woke every hour through the evening and at least every two hours throughout the night until he was almost 2. ...By then I was pregnant with Westbaby, who also wakes repeatedly through the evening and night at age 1, and rarely naps for longer than half an hour stretches during the day. Westboy still takes a long time to settle at bedtime and wakes during the night. It feels like everybody else's children sleep better than this (but it might just be that the parents of children like mine are quietly sobbing somewhere). 

I have notebooks documenting Westboy's sleep at various points, and for a while I was resettling him over 30 times a night. Yep, three-oh. And some of that 'resettling' took an hour or two. I actually have very little memory of this period of my life, which is probably a good thing.  I do remember getting back into bed at 6.55am on the day of my PhD graduation, knowing that my alarm would go off at 7am.  I was desperately hoping that noone would ask me what I'd studied for my thesis that day because I could barely remember my own name. I've had times of sitting at toddler groups, eyes glazed, struggling to chat with other mums through a fog of tiredness, and the months I spent working when Westboy was 8-13 months old were really tough.

We tried all kinds of strategies to improve Westboy's sleep. None worked particularly well, and most backfired. For example, introducing a dreamfeed to encourage him to sleep longer at night triggered a new waking time when the feed was due, with no longer stretch after it. Our reluctant attempts at controlled crying were met with several hours of hysterical screaming followed by him vomiting. When he was cleaned-up and eventually fell asleep exhausted he still woke an hour later. 

I felt as though my decisions to breastfeed and to not continue controlled crying disqualified me from complaining about the situation.  While they may have contributed, I actually feel that my boys (especially Westboy) simply don't need much sleep, have unusual sleep patterns, and struggle to relax enough to get to sleep (all very much like their Dad). ....But it's a difficult one to be objective about, so I could be very wrong!
I've decided to write down some of the survival strategies I've found. I hope that this might help other people, and be a reminder to myself.

Change your expectations 
What you think you're dealing with is broken sleep. Actually, probably the bigger issue is feeling that your baby's sleep doesn't match your expectations, or that he doesn't do what other people's babies do.  If you can tackle those expectations and comparisons, and accept that 'normal' covers a vast spectrum of baby behaviours including sleep, then you're well on the way to surviving the lack of sleep. As there's such huge variation between babies in terms of weight, temperament, and when they reach developmental milestones, it's probable that 'normal' sleep varies too. From those infants who sleep from bedtime until breakfast from the early weeks, to the duracell baby with infinite energy and no 'off' switch. (This is assuming that you've ruled out the major things that might affect your baby's sleep, e.g. too hot, too cold, too light, too dark, itchy, teething, ear infections, reflux, -so that it is 'normal' sleep, as far as you know).

(Try to) stop comparing
I found it much harder to cope with Westboy's night-waking than Westbaby's, despite having an older child to look after this time. I reckon that's partly because I have fewer friends with the same age babies to compare with Westbaby. Those comparisons make it many many times more difficult to deal with the sleep deprivation. Accepting that your baby is doing what's normal for him or her makes coping with lack of sleep much less emotionally-charged and complicated.

I'm not suggesting isolating yourself from friends with the same age babies, but I think it is necessary to be aware of the subtle competitions that go on, and protect yourself when that would be unhelpful. Rather than talking to everyone about sleep, find a couple of sympathetic people who 'get it', especially if they've been through it themselves. Repeating and rehearsing how disrupted my sleep had been didn't help me to feel better about it. I had to ask some people not to ask me about sleep, so that I didn't have to answer questions about it.

It will pass. Find ways to stay sane until it does.
1. Don't count or time night wakings. I have notebooks full of Westboy's waking times as a baby. They're fascinating to look at now, and the occasional night keeping a note of wakings is useful to track any progress. However, it's a habit that probably only reinforced how bad the situation was and how little sleep I was getting.

2. Keep your baby as near as possible. We put Westboy in his own room when he outgrew his moses basket, which meant properly getting up (and waking up) to settle him during the night. With Westbaby, we created space for the cot in our room. It's a squash, but it's so much better. We've also had times of co-sleeping and have found that helped at some stages too (there's advice on safe co-sleeping here).

3. Having an iPhone has made a massive difference to the experience of being awake in the night with Westbaby. I've done online supermarket shops, chatted on Facebook to my brother in Australia, researched all kinds of things from coats to reflux, emailed friends, read blogs, looked at photos from all over the world on Instagram, and written endless lists of what I'll do during the daytime.

4. Take naps if you get the chance to (less easy when you have older children jumping on your head). I found it easier to think of the night as a series of 1-2 hour naps than a repeatedly interrupted 8-hour stretch.

5. Look after your skin, drink plenty of water, and invest in good make-up so that you don't feel shocked at how tired you look every time you pass a mirror. For me, mascara, lip gloss, concealer and painted toenails make a massive difference to how I feel I'm coping. And the occasional disbelieving compliment that I still look human on very broken sleep goes a long long way. (I should probably add 'exercise', but I always felt that I needed to conserve every bit of energy I had, so it'd be hypocritical. Walks around the park were about as much as I could manage).

6. Find books that encourage you. Not necessarily books about sleep, but ones that you find supportive and affirming (My favourites are: 'What Mother's Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing' by Naomi Stadlen, 'Barefoot in the Kitchen' by Alie Stibbe, 'The No-Cry Sleep Solution' by Elizabeth Pantley, 'Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches' by Rachael Jankovic, and the Dr Sears 'Baby Book' and website).

7. Work as a team with your husband, and look after him so that he can support you (that probably means having sex even when you're way too tired).

8. Take lots of photos & write little notes down of stuff your baby does when you get a chance. When you're out of the fog you'll wish you could remember it. I tried to intentionally enjoy cuddling my babies in the night, as precious moments that I wouldn't have experienced if they'd slept through, rather than wishing the time away.

9. It can seriously affect your mood and emotions, and can look lots like clinical depression. This radio 4 interview with author Helen Walsh and Professor Jim Horne discusses the possible effects of sleep deprivation on mental health. If you feel yourself slipping in that direction, seek help. 

10. Caffeine. Sugar. Cake. More caffeine.

11. Know that you can survive it & it will get easier. One day. I'm still not great at coping with a really bad night, but it no longer scares me like it used to, because I've proven to myself that I can get through it.

12. Every parent will struggle with *something*. Whether it's when their child is a baby, toddler, preschooler, schoolage, teenager..... (It sounds a mean, but is sometimes a helpful perspective in emotional emergencies when someone's particularly smug about how well their baby sleeps).

13. Nod and smile at unwanted advice. Including this lot, if necessary.


  1. Thank you so much for this. These tips are the most realistic and helpful I've ever come across. We are going on 5 years of broken sleep. My child sounds very similar to yours. #5 tip puts a big smile across my face (this is the best solution I've come up with too...thanks for the company.) One thing that also keeps me going is the fact that a child with that much energy will do great things one day!

  2. I have found with my 5 children i have tried various things but the one thing that works the best and with least guilt is cosleeping / gradual withdrawal and not stressing about it. people have unrealistic expectations about sleep and babies and children.

  3. Best article on lack of sleep ever. Thank you!

  4. maggie.danhakl@healthline.com25 September 2014 at 08:08

    Hi Helen,

    I hope all is well with you. Healthline just published an infographic detailing the effects of sleep deprivation on the body. This is an interactive chart allowing the reader to pick the side effect they want to learn more about.

    You can see the overview of the report here:

    Our users have found our guide very useful and I thought it would be a great resource for your page:

    I would appreciate it if you could review our request and consider adding this visual representation of sleep deprivation to your site or sharing it on your social media feeds.

    Please let me know if you have any questions.

    All the best,
    Maggie Danhakl • Assistant Marketing Manager

    Healthline • The Power of Intelligent Health
    660 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 | @Healthline | @HealthlineCorp

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