Mothering Without Sleep

Posted on Jul 11, 2013 in Featured, Parenting, Sleeping | 0 comments

A while ago, Evolutionary Parenting posed this question on Facebook: “What was the hardest thing to accept about your infant’s sleep?” and for me, it is this:

I didn’t know that my sleep would be disrupted for so long. I expected not to get much sleep in the early days with a newborn, and lasting maybe 6 months. I had no idea it would last at least two years with each kid. At this point, my oldest child is 7.5 years old and I don’t really remember what it feels like to get even 4 consecutive hours of sleep.

And the second hardest thing? The sleep deprivation seriously affects my ability to be the mother I would like to be for my children.

Before I go on, I want to briefly address the obvious response: “Why be a martyr? If your sleep is so disrupted that you can’t be the mother you want to be, why don’t you change the sleep situation at your house? The mother’s needs are valid and important too. You know, If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy?” As I’ve written before, we tried a lot of different things to try to improve our sleep, and none of them were easy, and none of them worked very well until our kids just reached a certain age. We are totally committed to not using CIO to get our kids to sleep (even though yes, we admit to trying it in desperation once or twice, and it didn’t work either). There are a lot of misconceptions in our society about what normal infant and toddler sleep looks like and I’ve learned in the last seven years that our experience is not unusual. The lack of sleep we’ve been living with is absolutely not related to some misguided (though well-meaning) decision to put the baby’s nighttime needs ahead of everyone else’s in the family. Put simply: changing an infant or toddler’s sleep temperament is a lot easier said than done.

With that in mind, today I want to describe some of the things that I struggle with as a parent with such chronically fractured sleep. This is not a sob story or appeal for sympathy. This is a realistic look at what many mothers and fathers deal with so that other people out there might realize 1) that they aren’t alone and 2) that some parenting challenges are directly related to lack of sleep.

In the book Nurture Shock, there is a fascinating chapter called “The Lost Hour” which looks at the effects of inadequate sleep on children. In it, they cite studies which found that “the loss of 1 hour of sleep is equivalent to the loss of 2 years of cognitive maturation and development.” While Nurture Shock was looking specifically at children, it’s not hard to imagine that adults can be affected in similar (though perhaps not as drastic) ways, despite our different patterns of sleep.

The Geneva Convention lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture and we all know it to be important. In fact, Dr. Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies sleep as one of seven fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth. So then, scientifically what does lack of sleep do to us?

Nurture Shock explains that Executive Functions like “orchestration of thoughts to fulfill a goal, prediction of outcomes, and perceiving consequences of actions” are impaired by sleep deprivation and that lack of sleep is associated with inability to encode memories properly. And here we aren’t just talking about memories of things you did that day, but of everything you might have learned. “During sleep, the brain shifts what it learned that day to more efficient storage regions of the brain. Each stage of sleep plays its own unique role in capturing memories.”

All that cultural stuff about baby brain? Turns out that there absolutely is a reason I can’t remember anything or that I find myself standing in the middle of room, unable to remember what I was doing, or why I can’t remember basic vocabulary.

Besides that basic fuzzy or dumb feeling you get when you are chronically tired, “tired people have difficulty with impulse control, and their abstract goals like studying take a back seat to more entertaining diversions.” No wonder I struggle with yelling at the kids or losing my patience suddenly. And no wonder I have a hard time motivating myself to do the laundry instead of watching 4 episodes of Downton Abbey back to back. Come to think of it, those things sound surprisingly similar to the symptoms of depression.

And the similarities don’t end there. Nurture Shock goes on to say the following:

A tired brain perseverates–it gets stuck on a wrong answer and can’t come up with a more creative solution, repeatedly returning to the same answer it already knows is erroneous.”


“Perhaps most fascinating, the emotional context of a memory affects where it gets processed. Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories get processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.

Funny how the symptoms of sleep deprivation are remarkably similar to those of Postpartum Depression. In fact, when I found myself at a psychiatric clinic when my first child was 10 months old for treatment of postpartum depression, the team there felt it was more important to address sleep issues than to put me on meds.

As a result, I certainly bristled a bit at the title of this Evolutionary Parenting piece (Sleep – a misguided and unhealthy obsession) because sleep is a vital component of our overall health. The post makes a lot of excellent points and in general I agree that 1) we don’t need to sleep train for the child’s benefit, 2) a lot of North American parents have unrealistic expectations about infant sleep, and 3) the big issue is more likely lack of support from extended family and society (for instance, good maternity leave). But this is where she lost me:

“And remember, we’re not talking about severe sleep deprivation – that is something altogether different – but rather the typical loss of sleep that accompanies parenting.  If you are suffering severe sleep deprivation or post-partum depression, you should seek medical help and familial support.  And while severe sleep deprivation is serious, it is beyond the scope of this current piece.”

The concept of severe sleep deprivation is totally subjective. Who decides when sleep deprivation becomes severe? I’ve had friends who sleep trained their babies who were younger and waking far less often than my own because they said they couldn’t function anymore, and part of me had the above reaction – that they were just unwilling to accept that sleeplessness comes with parenting infants – but the rest of me said, “how am I to know how much sleep that person needs to function?” I know full well how debilitating it is. I have experienced all of the symptoms listed above. And we know that those symptoms can start showing up even with very little loss of sleep. In school-aged children, even a single lost hour wreaks havoc.

I still don’t support sleep training (especially of young infants), but I also won’t pretend that living with sleep deprivation of any kind (severe or not) is easy.

What it comes down to for me is that our society doesn’t put enough emphasis on the need for sleep. The answer is not sleep training. It is, on an individual level, finding ways to cope and, on a societal level, supporting families. In the US, they need to address their appalling lack of real maternity leave. We need to address the crumbling extended family. We need to expect less of mothers. And we need to accept that in the first few years with our kids, we probably need to do less of everything else so that we can get as much sleep as we can.

Tell me, what did you do to cope with sleep deprivation in the early years?



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