I recently had a very intense bout with jet lag and it all came back to me: the despair, irritation and resentment of anyone sleeping anywhere; the cravings for crappy food, the ineffectual caffeine binges. This is the life of the sleep deprived.
Amazingly, during this week of lost or “bad” sleep, I managed to get lots of housework and child-schlepping done because, guess what? A depressed, gray-faced zombie can actually do repetitive, mindless tasks. But was I able to really work? Write? Teach? Think? Generate an idea more sophisticated than: “Coffee”? Was I patient with my kids?
Like all mothers, I’m a veteran of sleep deprivation. That first year of interrupted sleep can feel like a test. It’s brutal. But what’s the reward here, the knowledge gained? I can only hope those years made me wiser or stronger, (though I’m pretty sure they just caused a more pronounced crease between my eyebrows.) One thing I do know now is a lot about…. sleep. And what happens when you don’t get it. Here are the highlights:
1. You can’t trust your appetite. 1 of 10Exhaustion can make a person a lousy judge of what his or her body really needs. When you're depressed, junk food can stimulate those poor withered pleasure receptors-- a Krispy Kreme can bring on a small high in an otherwise sodden landscape of emotion. And we all know sweets give you energy!! But simple carbs will hang you out to dry in the long run. Studies have shown that a good night's sleep makes a healthy diet and lifestyle much easier to maintain. Food, junk or otherwise, cannot replace the benefits of sleep.
2. Sex drive generally goes down but can weirdly rage 2 of 10The bedroom has now become a battle zone you enter every night, weary and dubious. You probably feel like crap about yourself and haven't showered. Your eyes and puffy. Your skin is gray. Hey, wanna have sex!? It's well established that sleep deprived parents don't have a ton of sex. But, weirdly, serious exhaustion can bring on strong waves of horniness. You know what I'm talking about. It's like you're in pain and there's only one way to temporarily alleviate it. If this happens to you, do what you gotta do but if it can involve your partner that's probably going to help you both stay sane during these lean years. Also worth noting: orgasm helps you sleep!
Image: Camera Slayer/Flickr
3. A surprising amount can be done while completely sleep deprived 3 of 10There are actually lots of things humans can do while half-asleep. Menial, repetitive jobs (like housework) can be done in a close-to-zombie state. When you're caring for a newborn it's appropriate to lower your expectations for what you can do; this is a good time to sink into baby-care and just let yourself space out. But the zombie lifestyle becomes increasingly difficult as other kinds of work beckons--the work of a career, or the work of raising your kids without yelling at them all day. You need sleep for this stuff. And when you don't get it, it's rough.
4. It can make you feel actual despair. 4 of 10No surprises here: Sleep deprivation can cause in people an "inability to feel joy." Tears, even despair, over small obstacles in your day are not uncommon. One danger here is that you attribute these feelings to aspects of your life other than interrupted sleep. And while other aspects of your life may indeed require attention, any evaluating of them should probably be done on a decent night's sleep.
5. It’s not about hours logged, it’s about catching the full-cycle of sleep 5 of 10Some nights I'd get 8 hours of interrupted sleep and be fried. Other nights I'd get 5 hours of interrupted sleep and be fine. Why was this? I did some research and learned that adults sleep in 90 minute sleep cycles and during each cycle you hit different layers of sleep (all important). I found that I needed to get at least two full sleep cycles in order to feel human the next day. It didn't really matter how many times I got up in he night, what mattered was where in the cycle I was interrupted. If the baby woke me up in the middle of that deep sleep, I'd be toast. There's no way to plan for this except to go to bed early so you increase your chances of cycling at least twice.
Image:Valerie's Genealogy Photos
6. The very best things in life, coffee and alcohol, don’t always help. 6 of 10Have you ever been so tired that coffee actually knocked you out? I have. It's like the caffeine flashes through you and leaves your body bereft in it's wake. Studies have shown that drinking caffeine can cause sleep problems-- certainly if you drink in the afternoon or at night, you're looking for trouble. Alcohol can be similarly appealing when you feel joyless and exhausted at the end of the day, but that Pinot Noir isn't going to enhance your sleep. In fact, it'll probably make it worse. Sob.
7. Breastfeeding is the cause and solution to all your sleepless woes. 7 of 10There's much debate about this-- who is sleeping more breastfeeding or formula-feeding moms??? Perhaps counterintuitively, one study showed breastfeeding moms actually get more rest. The fact is all infants, no matter what they are fed, need nighttime attendance. And mixing formula or pulling out a boob have relative merits in terms of sleep. What I found helpful about breastfeeding was the hormones. They can be sedating which helps moms go back to sleep *after* a sleep interruption. Breastfeeding triggers the release, in mom, of oxytocin and prolactin. Oxytocin is the love/bonding hormone and prolactin can be calming. The effect may be more or less pronounced, but I'm fairly sure this particular cocktail of chemicals is in place to help mothers through the slog of the first year.
Image: Chris Jenna
8. If someone else in your house (who is not a baby) is getting sleep, you’ll very likely come to resent him or herPeopel 8 of 10Sharing the burden of nighttime work is pretty crucial in maintaining romantic and/or spousal harmony. If you're breastfeeding, you'll be the one to do the lion's share of work during the night. But your partner can take the evening or early morning shift with the baby so you can catch up on sleep or let you sleep in and nap during the weekends. We all try to "nap when the baby naps" but napping infants sometimes hit the crib for just 45 minutes at a time or have erratic patterns. Though it's worth the effort, it's not always as easy as it sounds. It's important to look at your nights and see where you can get some relief.
9. Your patience wears out fast 9 of 10One could argue that most of parenting is patience. It's developmentally appropriate for babies and toddlers and even kids to require it from us. One study showed that children perceive a parent's eye-rolling irritation as rejection. But it's mighty hard not to get irritated and roll your eyes when you've been up all night, the night before.
Image: Demi Brooke/Flickr
10. You will survive 10 of 10... like the millions of other new parents who suffer sleep deprivation every year. Maybe it's some kind of test. And all parents somehow pull together the resources to get through it. I am a survivor of sleep deprivation. And I may be stronger for it. Or at least really, really, really appreciative of a good night's sleep.
Image: Benjamin Thompson
The Cost of Exhaustion: The real effects of mom sleep deprivation