11 tips to help you parent on four hours of sleep a night

Is your baby's night waking making you feel like a zombie? Here's a survival guide for sleep-deprived parents.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

In my world, the term “sleep deprived” has several levels of meaning. My husband and I experienced multiple night waking with both our daughters when they were newborns. Then came the “I can’t get back to sleep” period after they settled down. Later we discovered the 30-minute episodes of teething and crying fits that dragged us out of bed. The grandmother of all was the cumulative effect of all these sleep interruptions over weeks and months. Research shows that lack of sleep can lead to irritability, hunger, lack of focus, memory loss and, in some cases, depression. To help you get through those days when life seems impossible, here are some ideas from parents and experts. Be aware of your moods. It’s not your fault that your head is in a fog, you snap at everyone, and running an errand seems unimaginable. “When you’re sleep deprived, you agonize over simple decisions,” says Carlyle Smith, a psychology professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., who’s been researching sleep deprivation for more than 30 years. Tell your spouse and children where your moods are coming from—letting off steam can prevent stressful situations from escalating.

While it’s normal to be miserable occasionally, sleep deprivation can also trigger depression in some people, including postpartum, when hormones are fluctuating wildly and you’re dealing with a number of stressors. If you’re suffering ongoing insomnia (the inability to fall asleep even when you have the chance, or to stay asleep), as well as loss of appetite, loss of pleasure in enjoyable activities, decreased energy and feelings of sadness or irritability, talk to your family doctor. These signs indicate you’re becoming depressed, says Eileen Sloan, a staff psychiatrist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry.

1. Get moving
One summer morning after an awful night, I put both girls into our double stroller and took a vigorous walk up and down the hilly streets of our neighbourhood for an hour. I felt much better afterwards. “Being active is very important for your physical and psychological well-being,” says psychologist Eva Libman, associate director of the Behaviour Therapy and Research Unit in the Department of Psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. “When you’re feeling draggy and miserable, there’s a tendency to think you’re too tired to exercise. But getting some exercise or doing something, instead of grabbing bits of rest throughout the day, will actually make you feel better and revitalize your energy.” Monica Matys of Toronto trades off an hour with her husband each day to exercise. Sandra Cheverie, then in Tillsonburg, Ont., would pay her bills at the bank one at a time, just so she’d have an excuse to walk there with her two daughters, Kendra and Kyra, on different days. Yoga is a perfect exercise to combat sleep deprivation, as it improves your mood and promotes relaxation.

2. Watch what you eat
Do you ever feel hungry when you haven’t slept well? That’s because your body has released a hormone that makes you crave food. In fact, long-term sleep deprivation appears to increase the risk for obesity. If you just can’t seem to control your urge to eat, reach for healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables or yogurt.

Some foods can help you drift off to sleep—try those that are high in carbohydrates and calcium, with medium to low amounts of protein. An ideal bedtime snack, an hour before sleep, is whole-grain cereal with milk, or an oatmeal cookie with milk. Whatever you eat, limit yourself to a small snack. Digestion triggers relaxation in the body, which can make you feel drowsy, but eat too much and you’re likely to experience indigestion. Food does nothing to improve sleep patterns and, if made part of a sleep ritual or routine, could lead to weight gain.

3. Know your limits
Don’t make big plans or expect too much from yourself when your memory and concentration are impaired. Now is not the time to take a course, says Smith. More importantly, sleep loss combined with driving can kill—research shows that sleep-deprived drivers are just as impaired as drunks. Take public transit or get a lift from a well-rested friend.

4. Embrace the power nap
The advice about “napping when the baby naps” doesn’t always work, especially if you have older children. Still, it’s important to recognize that a quick snooze may be exactly what you need. It can reverse some of the problems caused by sleep deprivation and makes up for nighttime loss. “It needn’t be an hour,” Smith says. “Even a 20- or 25-minute nap is helpful.” Get your nap in before 4 p.m., however, because after that it will impair your nighttime sleep, says Libman.

5. Don’t fret too much
Losing sleep isn’t great, but it shouldn’t make you anxious about your health. “When people’s sleep is disrupted, their bodies are going to try and compensate,” says Libman. Your body will give you more of the essential deep and dream stages of sleep, and less of the lighter stages. Broken sleep isn’t great, but if you can cobble together seven or eight hours, even over a 10-hour stretch, it’ll help you get through the day.

6. Find equally exhausted friends
We all feel better when we spill our problems to a sympathetic friend. Who can relate better to your situation than other parents who’ve gone through the same thing? When Cheverie moved to Tillsonburg while pregnant with her second daughter, she made it a mission to set up a mothers’ group because she’d found her group in Toronto so helpful with her first child. Drop-ins, library programs and parks are good places to meet people. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find a friend to trade off babysitting and take turns napping!

7. Help older kids deal with the stress
When you’re sleep deprived because of a baby’s night waking, it can strain your relationship with your older kids. Finding activities to keep them busy can help. After Julia Lawn of Vancouver had her daughter, Philippa, she enrolled older brother Harry in an afternoon preschool program.

8. Spending one-on-one time with the older ones is also helpful
At one point after Kendra’s birth, Cheverie says, “Kyra and I weren’t getting along.” She decided to spend some time every day focusing on three-year-old Kyra and doing whatever activity she wanted. Kyra’s behaviour improved, which made life easier for Cheverie in her sleep-deprived state.

9. Combine play and sleep
If your toddler has kept you up all night and is now demanding your attention, play games that let you rest. If you’re really desperate, put on a video or educational computer game and lie down in the room with your child. Just make sure the area is childproofed and use baby gates if necessary.

10. Tune in to a good book
If you can’t fall back to sleep after being awakened in the middle of the night, try listening to an audiobook to redirect your thoughts, Libman suggests. Music, surprisingly, isn’t distracting enough. You can also try to relax your mind with controlled breathing or other relaxation techniques such as creating a peaceful image in your mind (the beach is good) and imagining all your senses taking it in.

11. Hire a sitter
It may seem extreme to hire someone to watch your kids while you nap, but it works for some parents. For breastfeeding mothers, a nighttime sitter can also help. Another solution, particularly for women at risk for depression, is to express milk in the daytime and have your partner do one night feeding, says Sloan. Don’t be shy about leaning on family members. On weekends, trade morning sleep-ins and nap times with your spouse. After having her twins, Clarisa and James, Toronto mom Leticia Gracia would nap on visits to her parents or in-laws.

Finally, if sleep deprivation has put you in a zombie-like state, desperate measures may be necessary. If you’re working outside the home, take half a sick day to sleep. Don’t feel guilty: You will be more effective and productive at work when you’re rested. If you can’t manage that, consider one of Julia Lawn’s slightly unconventional techniques. She has been known to nap under her desk, and she nods off during regular visits to her hairstylist. “He wakes me when he cuts around my ears, in case my head bobs.”

This article was originally published in February 2007.

Read more:
Helping your postpartum partner: a guide for new dads
You’re not evil if you sleep train your baby
10 breastfeeding tips to get you through the night

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