Now that the Baby Is Sleeping…
10 Ways Parents Can (and should) Get Better Sleep, Too
I make a habit of checking in with parents in the weeks following the completion of my time supporting them through sleep training. Often I hear these things:
- He’s doing great!
- We can’t believe it’s still working!
- Naps are even longer!
- She was teething and still slept all night long!
…yet when I push a little further and ask how mom and dad are doing getting their sleep back on track I often hear this:
- We feel awful.
- We can’t sleep.
- I feel like I have PTSD.
So this post isn’t about the babies. It’s about those who are in the all-important and irreplaceable roles of caring for those babies. Now, almost 99% of the phone calls or emails I get are from parents who are on their very last tether to this planet. They are so tired that they have a hard time even coming up with the words to tell me how tired they are. And I get it! I have been there. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to “sleep when the baby sleeps” during the day. I, for one, can’t go-go-go and then zonk out as soon as the baby falls asleep, especially because I also have a toddler. I’m talking about fixing your night-time sleep so it works again.
While baby is sleeping soundly parents are still suffering from sleep deprivation. Why? For so many reasons: the habits have been created and are harder to break, hormones, biology, tension, lack of self care. But really I think it’s because parents have forgotten how to have healthy sleep themselves. Sleep is a primal and natural activity, but just like your baby, you have to teach yourself healthy habits around sleep. Never fear! Here with a handy guide to get you back on track with your sleep once you’ve done all of the heavy lifting to get your baby’s sleep locked in, is me.
Why Can’t I Sleep?
There are lots of reason that parents can’t sleep following the return of rest to their nest.
- Biology: Adults are wired to sleep less from their early-20s until their mid-40s. Why? Because that is the age bracket for spry hunters, protectors, up-all-night predator evasion parties, and caring for young and helpless children. During this time in our lives, we have recovered from the teenage years when we need (but don’t get) 9-10 hours of sleep each night, and our needs drop to 7-9 hours on average.
- Habit: Five months, eight months, two years…what have you…of hopping out of bed at the smallest noise in order to help your child is habit forming. Your brain stops even really trying to go into deep sleep because it’s constantly jarred out of it.
- Hormones: So, moms…remember those hormones that made you really drowsy mid-pregnancy, then made you clean your house like a fiend in late pregnancy? Then made you tired when you breastfed and weepy when baby smiled, but also made you feel wired/nauseated when the baby was upset? Oh, yeah, those. Well, those hormones are still bouncing around your brain and body throughout your child’s first two years of life. They alter your brain, your body, your stress, your memory, and your energy level in strange ways. Even better, often once a baby is sleeping through the night (aka, no longer eating in the middle of the night) mom’s menstrual cycle attempts to return, kind of, maybe…or all at once. So there’s that. Moms are amazing–take note.
- Our Culture Thinks Sleep Is Silly: We brag about how little sleep we need. We go-go-go, we multi-task, we think sitting down or taking a break is something we do on vacation. We help companies that make energy drinks sky-rocket in their profit margins. Sleep is a guilty pleasure. That’s ridiculous. Reorder your thinking around this immediately because it is not a healthy message to send to your kids.
- We don’t think we deserve it: We are all super-parents. Got it? Ok. Now repeat after me: You have to sleep in order to retain your super-powers. You do not get extra credit for staying up extra late or getting up extra early to accomplish everything on everyone else’s to-do list. Stop it.
Why do I feel awful when I DO sleep?
When you do sleep that blissful, hard sleep your body is unaccustomed to it. I liken it to a terrible case of jet-lag. You are sleeping, but your hours feel off, your circadian rhythm isn’t back yet, and you might be waking mid-sleep cycle still. All of this can contribute to waking up feeling like you had too much to drink the night before or like you haven’t slept at all. It’s a strange feeling because you’ve wanted nothing more than a full night of sleep for as long as you can remember, and now that it’s arrived it feels terrible. It’s okay! You can fix that!
What Can I Do?
- Get the same amount of sleep each night. Playing the “fall-behind-then-catch-up” game doesn’t work, it makes things worse. So does pushing yourself past your tired zone each night because you end up in your wired zone and unable to go to sleep. You need to get to bed earlier and sleep a consistent amount each night. I figure this out for clients by following these steps: First, figure out what time your baby wakes for the day and starts making noise. Set your alarm (yes, set your alarm) for 30 minutes before that so you can have some quiet time before donning your super-parent cape. From that time in the morning, count back 7.5-8 hours (yes, 8 hours). That is the time you need to go to sleep. Notice I didn’t say that’s the time you need to get into bed and scroll through Facebook. That is when your eyes should be closing. Now, it might take a little while to get used to that bedtime, but if you turn the light out at that time each night, you will eventually adjust your melatonin surge. Give it a week.
- Get exercise every day. Do yoga in the living room, take the baby for a walk, take yourself for a walk, go to the gym, do whatever it takes to move your body every day. Extra credit: try to do it at the same time every day, optimally, not within an hour of bedtime.
- Drink 70-90 oz of water every day. Your body does an extraordinary amount of work with water while you sleep. Your brain cells actually shrink so that your cerebral spinal fluid can be replaced with new, clean fluid. Your muscles and skin cells repair, your organs flush themselves out, your blood even uses your deeper breathing of sleep in order to give itself an oxygen bath. Drinking enough water during the day allows your body to do this work while you sleep, leaving you refreshed rather than exhausted when you wake. Again, try to take your last sip about an hour before bed.
- Screens and other environmental factors. Get screens out of the bedroom (yes, even Netflix). Just like I recommend for babies, keep your bedroom dark (get that LED alarm clock off your nightstand), and cool. Use a sound machine if it’s noisy in your neighborhood. Upon waking, expose yourself to natural light or low lamp light first (before your phone screen). Perfect your nest…get great sheets, a nice mattress and pillows, make it a place you love to be.
- Protect the 30-60 minutes before bed. This is time for your bedtime routine–brush teeth, put your jammies on, meditate or stretch, read a book, drink some tea–whatever you do to get yourself ready for sleep, do it every night at the same time. Routines are important for kids but they are also important for adults. They cue your brain and body to release the hormones needed for sleep. Not allowed in the hour before bed: stressful conversations/arguments, screens, work, caffeine or sugar (duh), or exercise.
- Be mindful of what you eat: After 2pm each day, focus on reducing your sugar and caffeine intake. Eat foods that are protein, iron, and magnesium-rich. Almonds, bananas, colorful veggies, lean meats.
- That said, eating can keep you awake. Eat dinner at least 2 hours before you plan for lights out so that your body doesn’t spend all night digesting food. That can leave you feeling tired in the morning. Similarly, if your body has to process large amounts of alcohol instead of refreshing its other cells, it won’t feel great (hence, hangovers).
- Keep a log. By writing down amount of sleep and how you feel, you’ll be able to track your progress.
- Be consistent. Put these practices into place every night for two weeks. This is exactly the amount of time I ask parents to give me when working with their baby’s sleep–two weeks of serious consistency. If things aren’t better, then maybe there is something more going on. My gut says, things will be better.
- Use melatonin or other sleep aids sparingly. If your adrenal system works properly, your body produces the amount of melatonin in needs. That said, sometimes you need to help your body adjust to releasing it at proper times (for example, when adjusting to a new time zone while traveling). However, if you use melatonin habitually, you can compromise your body’s natural ability to release it in the right amounts. ALSO, beware–melatonin purchased in pill form over the counter is often 5 times the amount that you actually need to take. It’s a hormone, not a vitamin or mineral–your body doesn’t just flush it out. If you need to take some, cut pills in half for starters to see if it helps. Other Rx medications like Ambien, while definitely put you to sleep in a hurry, can actually prevent your from going into a deep sleep where restoration happens, leading to hangover-type feelings the next day. Just be careful and at least give yourself a fighting chance at getting your sleep the old-fashioned way before medicating.
“Giving up sleep in the name of having young children isn’t a sacrifice you are making for them, instead it robs your kids of the best version of you…something they deserve each and every day.”
Most of all, parents, don’t forget that self-care is a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to being able to take care of your family. You want to remember yourself in these years as being happy, energetic, engaged, and making decisions with your whole brain in tact. Sleep is a gateway to all of that and more. Once you’ve done the work give your children the gift of sleep, it’s equally important to do that work for yourself. Giving up sleep in the name of having young children isn’t a sacrifice you are making for them, instead it robs your kids of the best version of you…something they deserve each and every day.