Never underestimate what sleep deprivation does to your wellbeing

Sleep Deprivation and wellbeing“Is he sleeping through?” was the question I was most asked when Max was born. “Is he a good sleeper?”

The answer was always no. It was no for a very long time indeed. I won’t tell you how long because I don’t want to scare new mums — years, it was years!! Oh I’m sorry, it was YEARS and YEARS!!!

Enough! Your baby will sleep through really soon; maybe tonight. Max was just Max. My second baby ‘slept through’ at four months (which is to say she slept six hours through the wee-small hours – 11pm until 5am). My third baby was eight weeks the first time and about a 11 months the second time. These things can’t be rushed.

But for you, new mum, maybe tonight. That was always my mantra, always. Either ‘maybe tonight’ or ‘maybe tomorrow’ – either worked okay. Optimism is often the only thing that keeps the sleep deprived awake.

The torment of sleep deprivation is something that really needs to be experienced to know. Unless you’ve slept far less than you need night after night after night for years on end. Unless you’ve been woken up two, three, four, five times a night for months. Unless you’ve slept for no longer than two hours before being woken again, over and over. Unless you’ve truly experienced sleep deprivation, you honestly wouldn’t know. It’s not something you can know.

Most mums know. We know what it’s like to half be in the world. A hologram, dispensing breast milk and snacks, unable to button up a blouse, or walk to the shops, or sit upright, really. The world is hazy around the edges and life is ironically all a bit of  a dream. Twilight life is how people who don’t sleep get to dream.

It’s just being a new mother, right? Sleep deprivation is just what you get when you have a baby. Something to put up with and solider on against. Welcome to Motherhood – rally, good mum, rally. Do not go gentle into that good night. Ha! Gentle. Good night. Ha!

You know what? The toll of sleep deprivation should never be taken lightly. The smudgy eyed mother with her shirt buttoned up wrongly might be a bit of a joke, but the doing of life is the least of a new mum’s worries. Sleep deprivation makes you sad. It makes you angry. It makes you hungry. It makes you impatient. It makes you lonely. It makes you exhausted. Just utterly, endlessly, fucking exhausted.

Sometimes, in the thick of it, I wondered if I had PND. I was so blue, so wretched and overwhelmed. The fog of depression seemed an apt description for how I felt on any given day. So, maybe. But this was sleep deprivation, not PND, not really. That rallying cry was always in the back of my mind: Rally, good mum, rally. And up I would get, get busy doing all the things, laughing off the sleep thing, my thoughts on an endless, hopeful loop “maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”

Looking back I wonder why I didn’t just somehow demand more sleep. I was so concerned with Bart not getting up because he had work the next day (little knowing that months down the track we would both have work the next day and still sleep was nowhere in sight). I didn’t want to trouble my mum by asking her to come stay for a while. I didn’t want to knock myself out with a pill or a herb. There would be no lifeline for me, because mothering was the job I signed up for. And mothering meant I was permanently on a double shift. Day followed by night followed by day followed by years. And throughout it all, I barely acknowledged what sleep deprivation was doing to me, let alone did anything about it.

If I could go back, if I could do it all again (and, oh my god, don’t make me), what I would do differently in those early years — what I hope every mum would do differently — is to simply acknowledge the debilitating effect of sleep deprivation. Acknowledge, embrace and forgive. “The floors are not clean because I am too tired.” “I can only come to a cafe if we can walk there because I shouldn’t drive the car today.” “I am being the bitch from hell because I can’t even see straight today.” “Don’t talk to me, I have not got the energy required for conversation.” “I can’t come into work today because I need to stay in bed.”

I would be less likely to laugh at sleep deprivation and more likely to cry about it. To sit quietly and have a little sob, instead of punching through it by keeping busy, busy, busy. I would give up the battle and just surrender to it all. There I would be, curled up fast asleep in the coat pile at weddings. Out cold under my desk on a pile of A4 copy paper. Taking my pillow as a passenger on every car journey.  I see myself lying down on the lounge room floor a lot more regularly. Baby and toddlers crawling all over Mount Mama. Just lying there, calmly letting babies and life wash over me, gently dozing.

Did you recognise what sleep deprivation was doing to you at the time?

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  1. Toni Laws says

    I had two of those kids. Neither slept all night till they were well past 2 years old.
    I lived in an isolated mining town, where I had no family or friends, and I was too damn zombie-fied to socialise and make friends.
    People used to occasionally say things like, “Oh, man, I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well last night.” and it was all I could do not to stab them in the eye.
    Some days I had to put the baby down and walk away for a couple of minutes. Some days I lived on cake and coffee. Many days the house wasn’t clean and the dinner wasn’t cooked, and my poor husband had to deal with it when he got home.
    It is okay not to be super-mum, or super-wife, I would tell myself. The baby will sleep one day.
    And one day, they did! Okay, I was then convinced they were dead, and having been through the SIDS experience once before, I was pretty much a wreck BECAUSE they slept all night, and it took a long time to get past that little hurdle (more years) but that’s another story.
    The thing is, they use sleep deprivation as TORTURE. People hallucinate without enough sleep. It’s no laughing matter.
    I would tell any new mother, sleep when you can, whenever you can. And if you have a marvellous baby that sleeps all night, keep that little gem to yourself, and don’t preen at mother’s group meetings. You may end up with a fork in your eye.

    • Maxabella says

      Hahaha – #funnynotfunny
      I 100% agree. I think this is why we bonded all those years ago, Toni. When I started this blog, I had both Max and Lottie up and down all night. Max was five and Lottie was one turning two. Max slept through the night at about 7, but it wasn’t until he was 9 that he stopped waking most nights. Lottie still pops up in the middle of the night regularly – like the Children of the Corn. I still don’t sleep properly most nights. I’m a twilight sleeper out of habit, but it’s definitely getting better. Maybe tonight. x

  2. says

    Don’t hate me – my child was a relatively great sleeper! He had some hairy moments with teething or illness or sleep regressions etc but we were lucky. Still, it was exhausting and it fucked up your body clock, so when you did get a little longer to sleep, you couldn’t. I would get insomnia even when he was slumbering well.
    My husband and I learned a lot about what fatigue does to your body, mind and relationship. When we realised we were just fighting because we were tired and not necessarily because there was anything to fight about, things changed for the better. When I just embraced the fatigue and worked with it and not against it, it became a little easier, mentally. A couple of times I reversed over my stroller at the shopping centre car park (my child was always safely strapped into the car by then because luckily my routine was always to put him in the car before I tended to anything else). I would forget things all the time. I know that when I’m super tired I am far more susceptible to anxiety. So that was fun too. Now my son is 5, I feel absolutely spoiled and have gone back to whining if I get less than 8 hours of sleep (which is always). We still want another baby and I freak a little at having to start again with the sleeplessness! I think that sometimes we feel ashamed of admitting that we’re not coping because we’re tired. I think that’s silly. We should slow down and listen to our bodies in the rare moments that we can.

    • says

      I did the oddest things when sleep deprived. We are really not ourselves. And I also found it really hard to welcome touch from others as I was up all night with the bairns needing me. I was all touched out!

  3. Kate Martyn says

    Oh so true. I don’t think I got a proper sleep for 15 years! I used to nap whenever I could, just 10 minutes here and there. But the tiredness is a huge thing especially with your first baby.

  4. says

    I got to the point that I did two things that I never would have considered in parenting early one.
    1) Our second child (first one was a dream baby) woke every two hours for a feed all through the night and day. I distinctly remember the night he was about 10 months old and I had enough, I couldn’t do it any longer, I handed him over to his daddy who said, “he’s fed, he’s burped, he’s dry” and placed him in his cot and let him cry himself to sleep! It took over an hour but I was too desperate to be upset, I went to sleep and eventually he did and I wondered why I earth I hadn’t let himself cry himself to sleep before! Big change after that within him, just what he needed.
    2)I breastfeed lying down. Yep I know, risking stoning here but frankly I was desperate, by the time I got to baby no.5 I learnt to breastfeed whilst lying down as I was soo sleep deprived (had been breastfeeding on and off for 8 years by then) No I never laid on my baby I was still only lightly sleeping but I could sleep and feed then pop baby back in bed, felt more rested than feeding and sleeping whilst sitting up (neck appreciated it too)
    Oh yeah haven’t forgotten those days one little bit.

  5. Annaleis says

    Oh Bron this could have been written by me. There were weeks when I don’t remember driving the half hour to the next town for groceries, or the fact I snapped at anything my husband did – good or bad! Or that when I tried to go back to work there was way too much ‘mush’ in there to be effective. 6 years this went on for, and now he sleeps. And my brain is suddenly able to learn and recall.

    I also know that I cannot ever go back to that state of being.

  6. says

    Ah yep. Sleep deprivation is so bloody horrible. It truly is torture. I’m still being woken once a night… three children and seven years later. But like you, I’m an optimist. And I keep reminding myself that her sister woke every night for five years, so almost two years has nothing on that! Haha! xx

  7. Misha says

    My DS didnt sleep through the night until he was 7 and then stopped waking intermittently at 8. He’s 10 now but has very vivid nightmares which wake him and night nosebleeds which can last 1 hour. I’ve learnt from the early days though and he has two beds in his room. Supposed to be for sleepovers but hey having mum sleepover is pretty handy too :-)

    Sleep deprivation was torture – I too didnt want to wake my husband as he was working long hours so I could stay home. He also travelled a lot for work in the early years. But I remember just being so blindly tired. And I hear you about touch – our poor cats werent patted for about 3 years in there because I couldnt bare any touch after what felt like non stop 24 hour mothering.

    When he was about 5 or 6, I gave in and asked my mum to have him stay over on a Friday or Saturday night (or both depending on how sleep deprived I was ), just so I could catch some uninterrupted zzz’s. Didnt help that I was back at work and total mush brain!!

  8. says

    My kids were (still) not sleepers. I remember sitting in hospital with my day-old baby and watched as every time she closed her eyes they would suddenly spring open again, a little spot of dread curdled in my stomach. That was the beginning of many years of sleep deprivation.
    I really wasn’t myself for a long time. I felt so isolated, so judged, so wretched. The funny (or not so funny) thing was, I was working for a parenting magazine in those early years and wrote so many articles on how to get your baby to sleep! Me?! Ha!
    TO be honest, it still feels a little raw.

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