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Sleep for busy parents

How to tackle sleep deprivation when you have young children

This article was first published in BCT Small Talk Magazine

Please sleep through the night!

As parents, we often agonise about our children’s sleep, especially when they are small. Baby sleep books are constantly in the list of best-sellers and we swap tips in the playground about getting them to sleep through the night. It’s normal that we are so interested in our children’s sleep, not only for their own development, but also because their sleep impacts our sleep and dealing with sleep deprivation is one of the hardest things about having young children. Sleep deprivation impacts our health, our relationships and our family life.

Constantly 'on call'

Babies are born without a circadian rhythm, the biological 24-hour clock that tells us when to sleep and wake up. It is controlled in the hippocampus by a hormone called melatonin, which responds to stimuli from light. Babies take several few months to develop their circadian rhythms when they will eventually get into the habit of longer nights. Ironically, sometimes it takes parents even longer to recover normal, healthy sleep patterns. Some parents get so used to being ‘on call’ at all hours that they find it hard to stop waking up throughout the night.

Sleep deprivation and postpartum depression

The consequences of sleep deprivation can be serious in the short and long term. One study found that women who suffered prolonged post-partum fatigue were more likely to develop post-partum depression. "Mothers should remember that they need to take care of themselves after giving birth, fatigue is common and may play a role in postpartum depression."[1] Fatigue impacts our mental health and mood, but it also affects our physical health, healing capacity and energy, vital to early parenthood.

I'll sleep once I've done the dishes

One of the main things that stops us sleeping enough is a desire to get more done. It’s a common mistake to believe that by sleeping less we get more done. Actually the opposite is true. Sleep makes improvements that pay off for the time ‘lost’ to sleeping. Scientific studies have shown that some of the benefits of getting 7-9 hours sleep are:

  • Greater efficiency - able to prioritise mentally, making the mental load more manageable
  • Lower emotional activation point -  able to keep our calm in stressful situations
  • Improved memory – less likely to forget something vital before leaving the house and have to go back!
  • Improved complex problem solving – able to family logistics takes less time
  • Improved healing – you’ll be back on physical form much quicker if you sleep well

How can we get the sleep we need?

Funnily enough, in some part, achieving a healthy adult sleep hygiene is not very dissimilar to baby sleep hygiene! Whilst personalised advice is always preferable and I advise anyone with severe sleep problems to seek professional advice, here are some general tips for improving your sleep.

  1. Prioritising sleep

If we look a little into what sleep does for us, we are less willing to compromise on those precious hours to restore our bodies and mind. At the end of the day, when it’s time to go to bed, leave the dishes undone or the toys untidied if necessary. Everything is easier after a good night’s sleep.

  1. The regular 8 hour window

Aim to be in your bed for at least 8 hours every night. Keeping a regular bed time, even at weekends, is as important as early bed times. It can be very difficult to change our habits, so try bringing bed time forward by 15 minutes each week . Through experimentation you can find a time that works for you and your family.

  1. Start your bed time routine earlier

The gap between stopping evening activities and turning the light off is important – it’s your bed time routine. Often when we stop what we’re doing, we remember those last things we have to do – like hanging out the laundry, or preparing lunch boxes – so we start going to bed at 22.30 but before we know it its 23.30! Start the going to bed process earlier, to allow time for those last jobs, and to give yourself time to unwind and prepare for sleep.

  1. Take daily pauses 

When we have very busy days, our thoughts build up throughout the day. When we get into bed our minds start racing, preventing us from falling asleep. Daily pauses give space for thoughts to surface and depart, so you don’t have so much to deal with at the end of the day. I recommend just a moment to sit and breath, a meditation practice, a nap, or a Yoga Nidra, which I teach to my clients.

  1. Pragmatism 

Find a practical way to get some sleep by growing your own awareness of your sleep needs and communicating them with your partner or support network. Sleep is important and it’s good to get help when you need to sleep more. For example, if you are an early riser and your partner is a late riser, think about splitting the night shifts. Sometimes someone giving you two consecutive nights off in a row can do wonders to your energy and mood. With very little ones, you might even consider moving around beds and bedrooms to allow each person to have the night they need without disturbing each other.

By taking into consideration our own sleep, we can help ourselves to be happier and healthier and find a much more balanced family life all round.

 

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/03/020325080131.htm

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