sleep deprivation, mama disrupt

Not feeling like yourself? Tips on how to manage sleep deprivation

In Features, Mind Health, Motherhood, Stories, Wellness by Nicole Fuge

Sleep deprivation really wears you down. And it can last a lot longer than when your baby grows out of their newborn nappies. If your child is still not sleeping through, here’s how to manage sleep deprivation. 

By Jessica Prescott and Vaughne Gear

On average, new mothers lose 700 hours of sleep in the first year of their baby’s life. In a society that measures success on how well your baby sleeps through the night, it can be hard not to feel like you are failing when your baby wants to be attached to your boob (or simply gazing at you as they babble away), all night, every night.

Parents have been known to do clumsy and unsafe things due to sleep deprivation. Leaving the keys in the front door is a popular one. As is almost falling asleep at the wheel or forgetting to turn off the stove.

Something less openly discussed is that sleep deprivation can cause resentment, irritability, anger and rage. Which can come as a shock to those of us who never experienced those feelings before.

While we can’t help with baby’s frequent waking (which, by the way, is biologically normal and developmentally important), we do have some tips on how to manage parental sleep deprivation.


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Restorative Rest

Sleepless nights and long days with your baby can take their toll on your body and brain. And longstanding sleep deprivation puts parents at risk of both physical and mental health issues.

When possible (and we know it’s not always going to be), try to nap when your baby naps.

This may only be for 15 minutes, once or twice per week. But every small amount of rest for your brain provides a multitude of benefits for your overall health.

If you are unable to sleep while your baby sleeps, resting while your baby sleeps is the next best thing. Lowering the lights and laying on the bed or couch near your baby, or on the floor with your legs up the wall can be incredibly therapeutic and restful if you allow yourself the time and space to do so.

Stanford neuroscientist and researcher Dr Andrew Huberman recommends practising restorative rest. Such as doing guided meditation, breathwork or yoga nidra. Which helps us to focus less on our busy mind, and more on our body. These practices activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress hormones, including  adrenaline and cortisol.

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Whether it’s sleeping in after tending to your baby all night. Or taking the night in shifts. Come up with a way that your partner can support you that works for your unique family constellation.

Some partners get up early after the baby’s morning feed, allowing mum to sleep until they have to go to work. Or until the baby’s next feed. (Brownie points if you return the baby with breakfast and tea/coffee for mama.)

Other families have an agreement where one parent handles bedtime until 2 am. And the other handles 2 am until morning. Or they alternate night on/night off. Some parents do the night shifts together, with one feeding and the other burping/changing and settling.

Of course this will be different again if you have multiple children who are waking through the night. And you may find yourself sleeping in one room with your baby, while your partner sleeps in another room with your other kiddos. Know that this is normal and families all around the world are doing the same thing. Whatever you can do to maximise sleep, do it!

sleep deprivation, mama disrupt

Take a Reverse Sleep-In

Popularised by our friend Naomi Chrisoulakis, a reverse sleep-in is another way of saying early night. It involves going to bed very early to catch up on the hours of sleep you miss during the night.

Naomi swears by doing this at least two nights a week. And she has started a small revolution with other mothers in our community who now rely on this simple but genius idea to stay on top of sleep debt.

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Let the Sunshine In

Modern humans spend an absurd amount of time indoors. While inside light provides few more benefits than improved eyesight, the natural beauty of the sun activates a number of hormones and health benefits in your body by triggering certain areas in your retina.

Exposure to natural sunlight on your face, especially first thing in the morning, kickstarts the body’s innate body clock and circadian rhythm which allows us to create therapeutic amounts of waking, sleeping and mood regulating hormones (cortisol, melatonin and serotonin).

Providing our body with the benefits of sunlight every morning allows it to create a healthy pattern of energy production, sleep encouragement and overall mood enhancement.

Postpartum psychosis woman on couch

Avoid Blue Light During Night-time Feeds

It’s all good and well for us to say ‘don’t look at your phone while you’re feeding your baby’, but we know this isn’t a reality for most people. Many parents need stimulation during night feeds to either stay awake or relieve the boredom and/or loneliness that can come from feeding for hours on end.

Blue light from our phones and laptops is beneficial during the daytime as it boosts attention. However it also suppresses melatonin production, which is our natural ‘sleep’ hormone. Meaning time spent on your phone while feeding can make it more difficult to fall back asleep with ease, even when you are tired.

If you are able to relax with a podcast or audiobook in your ears, great. If you need something more stimulating to stop you nodding off and find yourself scrolling on your phone or tablet, you can download blue light blocking filters on your device and also buy blue light blocking glasses.

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Practise Good Sleep Habits

Being aware of sleep hygiene will ensure that when sleep is available it is good quality and restorative. Here are some strategies to support better sleep patterns:

  • Swap scrolling on your phone for reading a book. Or listen to a guided meditation to reduce hyper- stimulation and allow your body to wind down.
  • For dinner, eat a quality meal containing protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates to regulate blood sugar throughout the night.
  • Avoid drinks such as caffeinated tea, coffee and soft drinks after 2 pm. And opt for a chamomile, lemon balm or sleepy tea in the evening.
  • A magnesium supplement (glycinate is best) can support your body to create and regulate ‘GABA’ – a neurotransmitter that supports the reduction of anxiety and sleep disturbances. It also supports the relaxation of muscles to reduce physical feelings of tension and restless legs, helping you drift off more easily.

Hot tip for tough moments: Have an agreement that nothing that gets said between you and your partner in the middle of the night counts. You are likely to call them a f*cking c*nt on more than one occasion, either because nothing they are trying to do is helping. Or because they are snoring in ignorant bliss while you nurse your baby for hours on end.

In some homes, this may even (need to) extend to ‘nothing that gets said before my morning coffee counts’.

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Remember, it’s a Season

It can be hard not to get carried away with the intensity of sleep deprivation. Especially when you’ve got half of society asking if your baby is sleeping through the night yet. And the other reminding you that it’s normal and you can expect to be tired for the next few years of their life. Argghhh!

In these moments, remember, everything is a season. Every season has beautiful parts and difficult parts.

It can be tricky to not get caught up in the relentlessness of it all. Whether it’s sleeplessness, clinginess, or eating the dog biscuits. When you’re in the thick of it, remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’. And if you can, look at the situation from your child’s point of view.

Reframing the situation will prevent you from taking the behaviours of your child so personally, and arm you with the tools to help them. Perspective is EVERYTHING.

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Meaningless lists for racing minds

When you want to sleep but are being kept awake by racing thoughts, there are a number of techniques you can use to create calm and quiet in your mind. One of our favourites is the use of meaningless lists.

Start with a theme. It may be an everyday theme, such as baby names, produce or animals. Or it may be something more specific to your field of interest, such as films, books, plants, artists or athletes.

Go through the alphabet, thinking of two or three things for each letter. For example, Apple, Apricot, Avocado, Banana, Broccoli, Beans, Carrot, Cabbage, Capsicum and so on. If you get stuck on a letter, simply skip it and carry on.

You might get interrupted by a baby or a thought prompted by one of the words on your list that causes another stream of racing thoughts. When you notice this has happened, simply pick another letter and start again.

This is an edited extract from Life After Birth by Jessica Prescott and Vaughne Gear

Life After Birth, Mama Disrupt

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