Sleep deprivation is used as a torture for a reason, it’s awful and when it is experienced long-term it can have really severe consequences ranging from lack of concentration, falling asleep at the wheel, memory lapses, memory loss or it can lead to the creation of really bad habit of eating food high in sugar, drinking highly caffeinated drinks or even alcohol to keep oneself going, often pushing parents to extreme decisions to sleep train their children, which does not help anyone in the long run.
I feel that the reason that people experience long-term sleep deprivation is often a bit complex.
It often does not really have anything to do with the actual sleep of the baby, but rather the environment, the parents’ expectations of how the child “should” sleep and what life with a baby will be like, they also tend to have high expectations of themselves and what they can actually manage in 24 hours. Poor sleep hygiene is often at fault as well - just because you are tired does not mean you will be able to just fall sleep as soon as you lie down.
There are many books and resources on the subject of normal infant sleep, but to summarise it - it is absolutely normal for infants and young children to wake few times through the night. It can take as long as five years for them to learn to reliably link sleep cycles. The most common issues that affect the quality of sleep and/or the ability to link sleep cycles without assistance are teething or growing pains, illness, feeling thirsty/hungry, needing a toilet, feeling hot/cold, nightmares, anxiety, excitement, stimulants, screen time too close to bedtime, not enough exposure to daylight and/or fresh air, not enough exercise/movement and feeling scared.
Some people also need more specific sleeping environment due to various sensitivities, this includes needing a completely dark room and/or a quiet space, even for naps, white noise, night light, avoiding certain materials or detergents for bedding and night clothes, etc.
This applies to adults too. It is actually completely normal for adults to wake through the night, however their brain is developed enough to allow them to self sooth and attend to their needs, yet many still suffer from insomnia or cry themselves to sleep. Mothers and infants are biologically wired to sleep better in each others’s physical presence and breastfeeding provides both with hormones that help them both to sleep. If you are breastfeeding, bed sharing (following the safe seven rules) and side-boobing (breastfeeding while lying on your side next to your baby) it is the easiest way to avoid sleep deprivation, especially if you go to bed early and not stare at your phone till the early hours.
If you are bottle feeding, you can still have a baby in a sidecar to be close for cuddles, but bed sharing is not recommended until little one is mobile when bottle fed, as there are different dynamics at play. Your sleep is also bound to be more interrupted as you’ll have to get up to prepare the bottles. If you have a partner, you can take turns and get some sleep that way. If you are alone, look up some tips from fellow mums how to minimise the hassle, try to keep the lights low and avoid looking at screens, so you can hopefully fall back to sleep quite easily.
Making the sleeping environment as good as possible for yourself and keeping a good sleep hygiene can make a lot of difference, especially in those first few weeks before you and baby find your routine. Try and avoid drinks and foods high in caffein, alcohol and sugar from around 2pm onwards. Eat little and regularly. In those early weeks, few small healthy snacks can really keep you going through the night, especially if you are breastfeeding. Avoid looking at screens couple hours before bed time or use blue light blockers. Avoid having a big heavy meal just before going to bed. Make sure you have optimal sleeping environment, make the room dark if you need that, put a white noise on if that helps, journal before going to bed, to put any worries and anxiety down on the paper, so you don’t spend the night thinking and worrying. This might sound obvious but go to the toilet when you need to, adjust temperature (pull a duvet up or off, put socks on, open a window etc) in the room as soon as you become hot or cold, have a drink or snack as soon as you feel the need to, otherwise you running a risk of just spending time thinking how you should fix that need instead of sleeping.
To some extent, I followed all this advice myself, but what had really helped to keep sleep deprivation away, was mindfulness meditation. Simple grounding, breathing or body scan meditation that takes few minutes can make a lot of difference to how quickly you fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep you do get. And even if you still cannot sleep, at least your parasympathetic system is activated and your body and mind are resting.
Realistically, you are unlikely to wake up fully refreshed after a full night sleep the first few years after having a baby, more if you have more kids, but following the above advice should guarantee good enough sleep to function well and help you to get through tough periods of sleep regressions, teething, illness or your own insomnia.
Although frequent waking is perfectly normal in the first month and occasionally for short periods in the first year, if you feel your baby wakes way too frequently, do consult your doctor to make sure there are no medical issues that could be affecting your baby’s sleep. The most common issues are silent reflux, food allergies (allergens can come through breastmilk, so you might need to go on an elimination diet), skin conditions, digestive issues, oral ties etc.
If your own sleep is affected by chronic insomnia, severe depression, anxiety or other medical conditions, do see a doctor. There are many medications that can help and are breastfeeding friendly. For many of these issues, seeing a therapist can be really helpful too.
Last but not least, ask for help. Do not expect too much of yourself, especially the first month after a birth. The first few weeks you should be able to spend just looking after your baby and your basic needs, plus spending time with your older child(ren) if you have any, ideally the rest should be taken care of by your partner, friends or family or combination of those, especially if you had a traumatic birth, have a slow recovery and /or baby has medical needs.
If you have no one to help, there are charities in some cities that help with shopping, cooking and basic cleaning. Everything else can wait. Prepping meals and freezing them before giving birth can save a lot of hassle and work later on. I’ll be sharing tips on how to manage household with little help while looking after a baby another time, but asking for help and accepting it when you need it is the best tip on parenting I can give you.
Parenting can be tough, especially if things don’t go to plan and/or there are health complications, so making sure you have enough sleep to function is a priority. Remember that there are no quick fixes, consistency and self-discipline are required and it can take days or even weeks after a change in routine for the changes to take effect.
I hope the above gave you a few ideas of what you can do to sleep better, but feel free to contact me for personalised troubleshooting session.