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The Real Mom's Guide to Fighting Sleep Deprivation

Get on a Schedule

Sleep deprivation is no joke. Although veteran moms regale their peers with stories of falling asleep at dinner or groggily loading dirty clothes into the dishwasher, many new moms bravely assume they can tough it out for a few more weeks. But the fact is this: Sleep is a vital component in the health of all living things. It’s how the body physically and mentally repairs itself. Sleep is so important to our well-being that humans will rapidly deteriorate and die within a week of sleeplessness.

While new parents won’t keel over from frequently interrupted slumber, they certainly suffer from the myriad negative effects sleep loss induces, including irritability, lack of concentration, reduced decision-making skills, and loss of emotional control. Lack of sleep also impairs the immune system, making people more susceptible to illness, and often leads to an increased appetite and sluggish metabolism—the perfect recipe for weight gain. So what’s a weary parent to do? Consider these suggestions from real moms who survived their days of haze.

Cindy Prichett, mother of two children under age three, says she learned the hard way that taking a laissez-faire attitude toward baby schedules was affecting her entire family. She explains, “With my first son, I just fed him every time he cried, never thinking whether the problem was actually hunger or if it could be overstimulation, discomfort, or a dirty diaper.”

By the time her son was six weeks old, Prichett says she was “a mental case” from lack of sleep. “I snapped at my husband, cried constantly, and even resented my little baby for his short naps.”

The second time around, Prichett put her newborn daughter on a regular schedule of feeding, playing, and sleeping. “Because of the consistent routine, she slept at regular intervals, so I could sleep, too. She also started sleeping through the night—about eight hours—after only about two months,” shares Prichett. “By six months, she was sleeping 12 hours a night.”

“That whole thing about ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ only works if you have one baby,” Prichett says, “but when you’ve got a new baby plus a two-year-old running amok, there’s no way to nap when the baby naps, so you’ve got to buckle down and get the whole family on a routine.”

Adjust Your Timeline

Most adults assume that sleeping late is for teenagers, and going to bed early is for little kids, but when there’s a new baby in the house, anything goes. Elizabeth Corvin, mother of two, offers this advice, “If your baby wakes up at 6 AM for a feeding, don’t start your day just yet! Feed him quietly in a dark room and both of you should go back to sleep for another few hours until he gets up at 9 AM for the next one.”

Corvin says to apply the same logic to bedtime. “I used to get up at 5:30 AM to be at work by 7 AM,” she says. “That meant I hit the sack around 10 PM each night. But having a baby forced me to go to bed around 8:30 PM so I could sneak in a few hours of sleep before the dreaded midnight feeding. I may have missed a few sitcoms on television, but who really cares!”

Involve Your Partner

Camie Donohue, mother of a 4-month-old, never left the comfort of her bed when it came time to nurse her son. Her husband Brian says, “She’s doing all the baby chores during the day while I’m at work, so the least I can do is get up, change his diaper and bring him to her for nighttime feedings.” That arrangement allowed Camie to stay half-asleep while she fed the baby and gave Brian some extra bonding time with his son.

Sherry Hodencot, mother of three, took a similar approach when her third child was born. She says, “With two older children around, taking occasional naps wasn’t an option. So my husband and I traded off ‘baby duty’ each night. One of us would sleep in a room next to the nursery to handle all the after-hours changing and feeding, while the other one got a full night’s sleep downstairs in our bedroom with the door closed and no baby monitor squawking!”

“A baby has two parents,” Hodencot continues, “so both parents should share the joys and the burdens equally.”

Enlist Help

Motherhood is the toughest job you’ll ever love, right? But sometimes a girl can use a hand to make it through the day. Ellen Clayborn, mother of two, says, “I wasn’t sure when to send my older daughter to preschool, but having a new baby made the decision easy. With my toddler happily singing songs and making crafts with her peers at day school two days a week, I was able to actually get some rest when the baby was napping.”

Danny Hinchy, mother of one, found that veteran moms in her neighborhood were happy to spend time snuggling her new baby while she got a few hours of sleep during the day. “I was frazzled from six weeks of broken sleep after my son was born and asked my friend for help. She said she’d love to get a ‘baby fix,’ so I nursed my boy, handed him over to the loving arms of a friend, and marched upstairs for a much needed three-hour nap until he was ready to nurse again.”

Michelle Perez was new in town and lived far from her family when her son was delivered by C-section. Unable to climb the stairs or even drive until her incision healed, she hired a postpartum doula to help out while she recovered.

“Doulas are great,” she says, “because they’ll come at night and handle nighttime feedings or just take care of the baby during the day so you can nap. It’s also just nice having an experienced mom around when you’re feeling so isolated from the outside world!”

Fake It

Perception is a large part of reality, so when you can’t find a way to get just a bit more sleep, here are a few ideas to help you at least feel more alert.

Donohue says, “A shower is worth two hours of sleep. If you don’t shower and just stay in your pajamas, you never fully wake up. Once you’re clean and dressed, you feel more capable and ready to go.”

Prichett says, “My obstetrician said that even though I was nursing, having a cup of coffee was fine now and then. The caffeine would help keep me alert, but even when I chose to drink decaf, there was something about the smell of coffee and the experience of drinking it that just seemed to perk me up.”

Fitness specialist Gina Alonzo says that avoiding processed food and drinking plenty of water helped clear the fog in her postpartum brain. “When you eat junky foods, you’ll get a quick rush followed by a hard crash. Avoid sugary carbohydrate foods like muffins and instead fuel up on a slow-digesting food like oatmeal that will give you sustained energy for several hours. And no matter what, drink tons of water, particularly if you’re breastfeeding. Even mild dehydration will wipe you out.”

Know Your Limits

According to sleep expert and Harvard Medical School professor Charles A. Czeisler, if a person averages just four hours of sleep a night for four to five nights, her mental impairment is equal to that of someone who’s legally drunk. Keeping that in mind, new parents should avoid making big decisions until they are well rested. Having a friend pick up a few groceries while you put your feet up is a good idea too, because driving while drowsy is a real danger.

On the topic of mental exhaustion, if at any time you feel like your lack of sleep is impairing your ability to take care of your child, or if waking up every few hours is making you so cranky and irritable that you start feeling angry toward your baby, seek help immediately. Talk to a friend or call your obstetrician and tell her that you’re at your breaking point. They will intervene and get you some help before things spiral out of control.

Look Ahead

Like the discomforts of pregnancy, sleep deprivation is a temporary problem that will resolve itself with time. Do what you can to catch some extra shut eye, but always remember that legions of weary parents eventually made it though the fog, and you will, too.

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