Catherine Cameron: We really need to talk about sleep deprivation
Ok mammas. We really need to talk about sleep deprivation.
Every single person on this planet has experienced some form of tiredness due to lack of sleep. There is no avoiding it. Be it from stress, insomnia, work, illness, or even choosing to skip sleep, we have all been tired. Being tired is the new norm of living in the twenty first century. We work too hard. We spend too much time on Facebook. We watch too much late night television. We go out on Saturday nights when we should be catching up on sleep. We forget to be mindful. We forget to be present. We forget to stop.
But the tiredness, no the exhaustion that comes with motherhood is on another level. And today I am angry. I am angry that I wasn’t better prepared. Better informed. Ready.
Before you have a child, you prepare yourself. You read books. You go to antenatal classes. You set up a nursery. You might even take a tour around a maternity suite in a hospital. Practically, you are ready for your baby. Mentally, you are warned about postnatal depression and anxiety, and the impact a baby might have on your relationship. But why aren’t we better informed about sleep deprivation? Why, before birth, could I name the three stages of labour and label a woman’s cervix, but I wasn’t aware of the struggle I would face when sleep was to be taken from me? Why wasn’t I given better tools to overcome this? Why isn’t helping mothers cope with sleep deprivation a priority?
Sleep deprivation is a big deal. It’s all consuming. And its important we talk about it.
And so, I am writing this to help all of you beautiful mammas to be. To prepare you for what may lie ahead, should your baby deprive you of sleep. But first let me clarify a few things. Not all babies are bad sleepers. And so, this warning may be of no use to you. Furthermore, this warning is not to scare you. It is not intended to place a black cloud over your pregnancy or experience of motherhood. It is simply to prepare you.
I am also writing this to the mammas that are already experiencing this deprivation. And to say, mammas I am right there battling alongside you. You are not the only one who wakes up in the morning and opens her eyes – but feels as though they metaphorically stay shut the entire day. You are not the only one to feel tired. So very tired. So, so, so darn tired.
The three stages of sleep deprivation
Below is my personal and honest account of how sleep deprivation affects me, manifesting each time in three stages.
1. The I am totally fine stage
I experienced this stage in its fullest force of weeks one to two of motherhood. I felt like I was on cloud nine, with a full tank of gas and a clear head. I was running on very little sleep, but three hours a night literally felt like ten. I even stopped drinking coffee I felt so fabulous. I was in ‘motivated mamma mode’ and I could change a nappy faster than my little girl could poop. I remember waking up earlier in the morning than her, and rather than trying to get back to sleep, tidying the house, doing the washing, and, oddly, enjoying it. What was everyone complaining about? This newborn baby business was a breeze. ‘Quick husband, lets start trying for number two!’
2. The I am so not totally fine stage
This second stage sees me at my most vulnerable. Here, my walls come crashing down one at a time. Looking at this stage from the outside, I actually wish all of the walls would crash simultaneously, and that I would reach rock bottom sooner. But no, this happens slowly. Just slow enough for me to convince myself that I am fine. Just slow enough for me to turn down help, refuse naps, and to ignore the emotions that are brewing. What is most dangerous in this stage is my tendency to keep going. For the flame to continue burning when there is simply no wax left. And for a fire to ignite all around it, signalling that something just has to give. I remember my sister asking if it was possible to fall asleep while standing up and rocking her baby, and me thinking it was funny, before I was a mother myself. There is nothing funny about exhaustion that is so intense that it controls you.
3. The screw you sleep deprivation stage
This stage is my favourite. And no matter how long I dawdle through stage two, I always get to stage three. This stage hits me overnight, and is like a second wind. In this stage I go from failing to fighting. I stop counting wake-ups. I stop counting hours. I look at my little girl and I focus on her. Because throughout all of these sleep deprived stages, she is my positive little light during the day. I accept that it is what it is and that no counting sheep, tantrums or baby books will help me. Rather than trying to fix the situation – I work with it. I realise that yes I am exhausted, yes I don’t see an end to it, and yes I am struggling – but, my baby is healthy, I am healthy, and I am a mamma who can and will get through this.
My mum once said to me that your first year of parenthood is a drop in the ocean compared to the rest of your life. It will fly by before we know it, and we won’t look back and cling to those sleepless nights. We will cling to the cuddles, the kisses, and the tiny hands grasping ours.
Tools of survival
Remember that stage one is always followed by stage two and slow down. Now is not the time to add to your plate in any way, even if you feel able.
Turn to your loved ones, and help them read your signs. Unless I am told – I simply won’t stop.
Put that mop and broom down. Seriously. You may not think you need to relax, but try with all your might even if for ten minutes to sit down and just breathe.
I organise activities to do at night while I am awake. If my baby will only sleep on my chest, I sit up and watch Netflix on my phone. If my baby needs hours of me settling her in the bassinet, I listen to an audio book with headphones to pass the time. If the lamp is on, I read. I write. Whatever it is I do – I do not sit there staring at a wall and thinking about how tired I am.
I look forward to my morning and afternoon coffees like they are visits to Disneyland. Find something small, that you can look forward to too.
In the morning I have a shower straight away. I do not try and doze as this only makes me feel worse. I jump out of bed, shower, and get dressed before I can even think about it. I put on perfume or something that makes me feel fresh for the day. That shower is my way of saying to myself ‘Ok mamma, lets do this.’
I exercise during my baby’s first nap. I wear her in a front pack and we walk around the neighbourhood in the sun. Or I take her to the gym crèche and have some ‘me’ time. I get my blood pumping. I trick my body into thinking it is full of beans.
I connect with other wide-awake mammas. I have a few friends who too spend most of their nights awake, and it is reassuring to message them at obscure hours and discuss the latest Netflix series you are both watching while the World sleeps.
I try to do one outing per day, or, every second day. Getting out of the house and being around adults is so important. Even if it is for fifteen minutes.
I have a consistent wake up time. Now this applies for both my baby and me. No matter how the night goes, I set an alarm for 7.30am every day and ‘reset’ the clock. From this 7.30am feed, her routine kicks off so each day is predictable. This predictability has been my sanity. When I am so tired I cant think straight, having some vague idea of when my baby might be sleeping or feeding allows me to structure my day, and ensure I get some precious time to myself.
If you are fortunate enough to have help and are able to nap (because my baby only sleeps thirty minutes at time I can only do this with help) do it in the afternoon. Keep your mornings busy – or active. If you wake from a morning nap, for the rest of the day you will be groggy, and if you are anything like me, emotional.
Blame the sleep. So often I blame myself. In my mind I will tell myself: ‘the reason I forgot to close the fridge door is because I am forgetful. The reason I just don’t have the energy to talk to my baby while I change her nappy is because I am a lazy mother. The reason my husband and I are bickering is because I am a bad wife.’ NO. The real reason I do all of those things is because I am sleep deprived. Blame the sleep.
Find a secret weapon that makes you feel fabulous. Mine is my Elizabeth Arden ‘flawless finish’ compact foundation. I put it on my face and I go from zero to hero in seconds. No this is not a paid endorsement – it really is that good. With darling Liz taking care of my botchy and tired face, I look like I have slept eight hours.
See that mother at the mall? The one with the perfect hair, perfect make-up, killer figure and expensive pram? Even she is facing her own private battles. It may not be sleep deprivation, but trust me, it will be something. As Tova Leigh says, ‘even the most glamorous mothers pee themselves a little when they sneeze’.
Accept that when you are sleep deprived, you may be irrational. Do not make any life changing decisions without your sleep. Don’t go online shopping in the early hours of the morning. Walk away from arguments and give yourself time to process. Sleep deprivation alters your sense of reality.
Accept that those without children will never understand the sleep deprivation that comes with being a parent, and that their declarations of tiredness may get on your nerves.
Above all, tell yourself that this will not last forever. It may last a long time, it may feel like it is never ending, but it will end. You will get eight hours of sleep at night again one day. You really, truly, will.