Let’s talk about sleep, or the lack of it. Everyone knows that when you come home with a new baby, sleep is going to be thrown out of the window for a while. For some, it never really becomes a problem, but for others, a regular lack of adequate sleep leads to a pervasive problem that can carry on for years. I was told “Sleep when the baby sleeps“, but I found that to be utter rubbish as my son was a terrible napper and so am I. The internet is filled with posts about how to get babies and toddlers to sleep, filled with 6 billion tips – but it’s often overlooked that even if your baby is asleep, you’re not always getting a good quality night’s sleep yourself. This isn’t a post on how to get you or your baby to sleep, but how to cope when you’ve tried everything else and you have to get through the day on less sleep than you need.
But first, why is sleep so important anyway?
If you’re not getting enough sleep you can be:
- More prone to catching coughs and colds – your immune system isn’t working at full strength.
- Irritable – which can jeopardise relationships which are already strained by the massive life changes you’re going through.
- Struggling to concentrate or focus – which can affect both home and work.
- Have memory problems (baby brain – not just for pregnancy!).
- Feel emotional and more prone to crying or feeling overwhelmed by problems that previously didn’t bother you.
- Struggling to communicate effectively.
- Changes in appetite and weight.
This doesn’t just affect mums – but anyone in the household. I remember when my husband came to me and was extremely worried. He said he felt like he was “slipping” mentally – he couldn’t remember things as well as he previously could, he was starting to struggle at work and beginning to feel overwhelmed. 6 months of broken sleep had taken a toll on both of us and it was time for me to hit the books, talk to some professionals and figure out if there’s anything we can do to help us cope with a baby who rarely sleeps more than a few hours at a time.
Even if you think you’re getting enough sleep, if you’re nodding along to any of the above problems, then quality of sleep could definitely be a factor. And it all comes along at a time when your body and mind are already struggling with the overwhelm of keeping a tiny human alive, when we’re worried, stressed or someone is ill.
How to cope with lack of sleep as a mum
If you’re sure you can’t actually squeeze more sleep into the night, here are some tips to feel refreshed when you can’t sleep and help with how to cope with lack of sleep as a mum. Follow these to make your waking hours more alert and help you mentally and physically cope with your tiredness.
Hydration is incredibly important, and more so than usual if you’re running on less sleep. Keep a large glass of water by the bed and drink it first thing in the morning, even before you get that essential dose of coffee. Adding extra caffeine can become detrimental as you end up relying on it and developing a tolerance, and too much caffeine can result in dehydration as well as keeping you up at night. Every time you think about a cup of coffee, drink a full glass of water too. Get a snazzy water bottle to help motivate you and add a wedge of lemon, lime or even some strawberries if you want to jazz it up. Lemon is a natural pick me up too!
Shower in the morning with a strong scented shower gel. Mint or tea tree will wake you up and invigorate you. Amusingly, most of the mint shower gels I found were targeted towards men as it’s quite a masculine smell, but don’t let that put you off if you’re a woman as mint is incredibly refreshing. I almost exclusively use men’s shower gel in the morning – saying that a certain scent is suitable for only one gender is a bit ridiculous anyway, but you’re probably too tired to get into a debate about that! Rub the shower gel over yourself vigorously in the shower – don’t just stand there and doze off. This will add a bit of activity to wake you up and get the circulation going faster.
Eat Healthy. Of course we should all be eating healthily, but when you’re tired and out and about the temptation is to grab a snack that’s often counter-productive. High sugar and high fat will leave you feeling more lethargic and drained. Eating healthy even if you aren’t trying to lose weight really can make a difference to energy levels. If you’re breast feeding you need to make sure your calorie intake is up, even if you feel you’re just sitting on the sofa all day or you’re going to be more tired. The temptation to cut down on food to try and get rid of the baby weight we’ve gathered is high, but when you’re not getting enough sleep and you’re not feeling at your best, this is the worst time to be cutting down food or starting a faddy diet. Eat plenty of protein at regular intervals – a hard boiled egg is a really easy snack. You can do the whole box in 5 minutes, pop them in the fridge and then just eat them when you fancy.
Additionally many women will take pre-natal vitamins, but then stop when the baby is born. Consider adding a regular multivitamin back into your diet (have a chat with the health visitor or pharmacist about it if you’re not sure which one) as your body still has a lot of recovery to do. Dad may not have thought about taking a vitamin himself, but if he’s in a rush, struggling to juggle work and being home with a baby and not sleeping, then he may not be getting the best diet either and could benefit from making sure his body has everything it needs.
Exercise. Hear me out. You might think that the last thing your tired self needs is to use more energy, but exercise energises the body and mind and gets the circulation flowing. It doesn’t have to be going to the gym – consider just waking up and doing a few minutes of morning stretches, or put on your favourite YouTube track and bop around the room for 5 minutes (music is a great mood lifter too!). If you’re up for it, getting fresh air will help a lot too – both for you and the baby, so a 5 to 10 minute walk around the block will perk you up. Just think small. Don’t worry about hitting the gym, hitting any milestones, walking 10,000 steps a day or anything like that. Just focus on 5 minutes, a couple of times a day of an activity that you find enjoyable.
Prioritize Tasks. Don’t try to do everything if there’s simply not enough time or energy for it. If the beds aren’t made, does it really matter? Take that 5 minutes out for yourself to recoup mentally and physically. Make a To do list and get the important stuff done, but don’t sweat the little things. I used to feel really overwhelmed as I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I was trying to do everything and have everything perfect. I’d worry endlessly about a friend coming over when the house looked like a mess. I’d feel like I need to do every little thing I’d ever read about for the baby, and have a hot meal cooked for my husband when he got home. It’s okay to not do everything, it’s okay to sit down and watch half hour or daytime TV because you needed to relax rather than get the clothes folded. You are not lazy – you are looking after yourself, which is in turn making sure your children have the best care too. It’s okay to get takeout when you need a break. Just make sure the family is washed, clothed, fed, warm and happiness will follow!
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation – also known as relaxing! Letting go of anxiety and just the general emotional and mental load of the day can really help. This is something that’s difficult to describe in a few sentences as it will be different for everyone. It can be aromatherapy oils, relaxing music, reading a book, sitting outside in the sunshine or practicing yoga. It can be getting rid of negative thoughts and learning to deal with them (I needed cognitive behaviour therapy to help with this) or it can just learning to be a little bit more self aware, forgiving and loving of yourself and your mistakes.
Ask for Help
Ultimately, don’t just browse the internet, but ask for help when you need it. Your health visitor and doctor can put your mind at rest that you’re doing everything you can. Telling the health visitor that I was struggling and had anxiety and negative thoughts was really, really hard – but she was so understanding, and together with my GP and then a mental health support worker, they helped me without judgement. One of the things I learned from my mental health supporter was the massive importance of sleep and how it can affect everything and make life so much more difficult if you’re not getting it. Friends and family are there to support you, and there’s no shame in telling them you’re struggling. I felt really embarrassed the first time I asked my mum to come around and watch the baby whilst I had a nap – but I felt so much better afterwards. If you’re not up for leaving the baby with someone else, you can ask if they’re available to come and just give you a helping hand.
I hope that this has helped you even a tiny bit. I know how desperate we can be when we’re struggling from a lack of sleep and looking for answers, and how frustrating it can be to realize that there aren’t any hard and fast ways of fixing this problem but if you start implementing all of the above tips, I really believe it will make a difference for you.