Sleep-deprivation: Cruel regressions
Lingering challenges. Army advice. Sleep maximization.
How are you?
This past weekend I went outdoor skating. I love gliding around on an open field. It was my first time going in 2 years.
Last year I had just returned from mat leave and was too exhausted to consider ice skating.
To explain how chronic sleep deprivation feels, I’d describe it as being trapped in the black-out scenes from The Hangover movie - a disorienting and surreal mess.
With my first, it was horrendous. One night, I even passed out in a chair while feeding. I still don’t know how I didn’t drop her. It was scary.
This study found that 29% of parents have accidentally passed out with their babies. The context is usual while breastfeeding – or out of sheer exhaustion.
Chronic sleep deprivation also causes all sorts of health problems that make properly caring for a baby difficult, such as:
Interrupting cognitive function (meaning the ability to think clearly and make decisions),
Suppressing immune responses, and
Challenging emotions, including anxiety and depression.
So this condition is dangerous.
I don’t get why safe sleep recommendations generally overlook these sleep risks and challenges parents face. Or acknowledge the taboo topic that many parents (4 in 10 in this survey) end up co-sleeping - especially moms with 3+ kids.
(If you’ve found a study on the dangers of parental sleep deprivation, please share.)
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Bracing for a marathon
I’ve learned my experience is typical.
According to a multi-year panel study of thousands of German households, new moms’ self-reported sleep quality was worst 3 months after delivery. (Not great timing for returning to work).
And their challenges lingered for years. Thanks, sleep regressions.
What to do?
Managing sleep deprivation while back at work was rough. To get advice on working through extreme exhaustion, I interviewed an Army Ranger.
For background, this elite infantry force goes through months of intense training “to exhaustion.” Soldiers are specifically taught how to operate missions under extreme physical and mental stress. His key learning? Don’t do it.
“I learned you should never plan to operate severely sleep-deprived,” the Army Ranger explained.
When pressed for tactics or strategies taught to manage sleep deprivation, there was no magic formula.
Those training missions were all about “grit.”
Operation sleep maximization
When I had my second, I knew it would be months – or a year – before I would sleep through the night again.
Returning to work had particular challenges because I lost flexibility and time - and faced high expectations of working at my A game.
So, I did everything to maximize my schedule for sleep.
Eisenhower’s prioritization framework, which I’ve referenced before, is a classic method that involves mapping what’s genuinely ‘important’ to spend time on versus what feels ‘urgent.’
Here’s what this mapping of my home life looked like in the months after my second was born.
Do the tasks that are urgent and important. For me, this was the basics, like remembering to eat and caring for my baby.
Tasks that are crucial but don’t feel urgent can get overlooked. So plan them out.
Sleep fell into this category for me. I had to be mindful to set schedules that allowed me to go to bed earlier (and stay asleep longer) - especially after returning to work.
Stop doing everything that isn’t highly important to free up time for essential things, like sleep (circled in yellow).
This means handing-off tasks that feel urgent but aren’t super important for you to do. I used grocery delivery, found a laundry service, and asked my family to own tasks like the dishes.
Cut out the time-sucks, which for me were scrolling social media, picking up toys each night, and watching random Netflix shows.
I also turned off my phone alerts, disabled Facebook and Instagram, and stopped looking at my phone during night feedings to get to bed faster and stay up less.
Other hacks included feeding my baby formula before bed to keep her fuller (and asleep) longer. (This study found it works).
This planning didn’t completely work. I was still exhausted. And this schedule fell apart when my husband traveled for work… or when the new season of Love is Blind dropped.
But having a game plan did help me feel more in control and avoid the extreme exhaustion I experienced with my first.
What strategies or hacks did I miss? Please reply and tell me what you’d add to this discussion.
How Does Being a New Parent Affect Sleep? An article from the Sleep Foundation with useful tips and tactics to help get more sleep.
How to Use an Eisenhower Matrix A short piece by Masterclass with more background and detail on the time prioritization framework I used.