Most new parents are shocked into a state of perpetual horror when they live to see the sleep deprivation of the newborn/infant days.
We’ve all been warned by our mother-in-laws and baby-shower attendees that parents are IRL zombies, but very few people take the time to actually prepare a mom-to-be with the exhaustion she’s about to face.
Take Leanne, for instance, who said this about her induction into motherhood:
“I spent the full 39 weeks of my pregnancy preparing the nursery, choosing crib sheets, bouncers and cute pajamas. None of that f*cking mattered during the first three months when my cranky baby refused to sleep. I was so tired I cried at least five times a day. Yes—FIVE.”
But I feel you. I remember sleeping 11-12 hours per night while pregnant to waking up every two hours with my weeks-old boy. I felt like my muscles had atrophied. I became the bitchiest version of myself.
If your baby isn’t sleeping six to eight consecutive hours at the same time YOU’RE sleeping six to eight consecutive hours, you’ll want to read this.
Forget everything you’ve ever learned about sleep for the time being. Right now, it’s all about survival.
By survival, I don’t mean not dying (because chances are, at some point you might feel like crawling into the hole of non-existence or crying yourself into oblivion). I mean getting through the unpredictable sleeplessness with as much rest and energy as your child will allow—and possibly even a good mood!
After enduring this myself and talking to other sleep-starved moms, I learned there are two keys to surviving the sleep deprivation of being a new mom:
1. Train yourself to fall asleep FAST.
2. Get energized when you’re awake against your will.
I know, I know: #1 is making you suspicious — because it’s basically “nap when the baby naps.” This is making you roll your eyes so hard your retinas are about to detach. But hear me out.
This two-pronged approach not only gets you a bit more rest by fitting in more power naps (even 10 minutes has been shown to boost energy), but it also allows you to function as a fairly happy human with the mental capacity to savor the precious moments you’ll nostalgically and inevitably reminisce about.
Figure out what works for YOU and practice, practice, practice.
Ready to tackle this? Grab your cup of coffee and read on, mama!
Part 1. How to fall asleep as fast as humanly possible during sleep deprivation
This skill will save your mommy soul because you never know when your baby will sleep or wake up. You don’t have time for a relaxing 45-minute pre-bedtime bath. As soon as your baby starts snoring, ideally so should you.
If you’re pregnant, you’re in good shape. You can practice this now and become a master when your angel arrives. If you’re a new mom already, it’s never too late.
You might be wondering… Uhhh, if I’m so sleep deprived I’ll conk out in a second. That’s true, sometimes. But realistically, moms tend to have very busy minds. We have chores to think about and babies to worry about. So it’s always good to have a reliable sleep strategy in your back pocket.
Implement the below five strategies to become so good at napping even your husband will be jealous (is it just me or are all men born with the ability to sleep instantly?).
Strategy #1: The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
Holistic health and integrative medicine doc Andrew Weil, MD introduced this technique to help people reduce tension and fall asleep. He deems this method a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”
Here are his instructions, per his website:
“Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important.”
I found this to be very effective, although it doesn’t work if my mind is racing. If that’s your problem, too, try Strategy #2.
Strategy #2: Relax and Win Method
In a totally random book called Relax and Win published in 1981, the author claims this method was used by the U.S. military. After practicing for a month-and-a-half, an insane 96% of military participants were able to fall asleep within two minutes—even in uncomfortable environments.
Here are the steps:
- Relax and loosen up all your facial muscles, including your forehead, the space between your eyebrows and around the eyes, tongue and jaw. (If you’re stressed, you are probably carrying tension around your forehead without even noticing it.)
- Slacken your shoulders and drop them low.
- Relax your right arm, then your left.
- Exhale and relax your chest.
- Relax both your thighs and then your lower legs.
At this point, your body should be dead weight. If someone were to pick you up, they’d think you were a bean bag.
While you’re doing all this, clear your mind. What works for me is to envision endless black space with just one ball of light (the ball gives me something to focus on and helps eclipse my to-do list).
If I find my mind drifting back to my anxieties, I hone in on something un-stimulating and tedious, like what I’d cook for a large dinner (this is boring to me—if hosting excites you, don’t do this). The key is to find something that you can concentrate on but doesn’t pump you up nor worry you. For you, that might be a mental trip down the aisles at Home Depot or a medical supply store.
In Relax and Win, the author suggests envisioning the following scenarios:
- You are lying down in a canoe on a lake, looking above at an expanse of blue sky.
- You are snuggled in a black velvet hammock in a pitch-black room.
- You silently repeat to yourself, “Don’t think” for ten seconds.
Like all strategies, you need to practice this. Don’t expect it to work every time right away!
Strategy #3: Be nap-ready at ALL times.
You’re definitely not sleeping when baby goes down if you’re wearing denim and a scratchy nursing bra chaffing your nipples. I understand it’s important to feel like yourself as much as possible by wearing clothes that make you look put together, but do that while being comfortable.
Invest in a French terrycloth or soft modal nursing sleep bra you can wearing during the day. There are also lots of affordable and non-ugly 100% cotton nursing dresses you can buy that are just as good as wearing a T-shirt or nightgown to bed. That way you don’t find yourself fidgeting to get snug.
Also make sure your sleep area is nap-friendly. If you’re calmed by scents, add a diffuser with lavender or chamomile oils. Make sure your bed is clear of baby objects—only pillows and sheets and blankets allowed.
Strategy #4: Organize undone chores and to-do’s.
Let’s be real—“sleep when the baby sleeps” feels like bullshit advice meant exclusively for people with housekeepers and butlers, amiright?!
One of the main reasons it’s hard for moms to fall asleep is the endless catalogue of chores marqueeing through their minds. ESPECIALLY if the mom is Type A.
But many moms agree that once they finish doing laundry and washing dishes and sweeping the filthy kitchen floors, the baby wakes up crying and they instantly regret not having spent that precious time getting some R&R.
If chores are gnawing at you, leave them undone in an organized fashion so it doesn’t bother the crap out of you (as much).
For example, instead of washing the dishes, make sure all the dishes are in the sink or dishwasher and spray a coat of water over them to prevent oatmeal coagulation and stubborn tea stains. You’ll feel a LOT better knowing they’re waiting in there instead of strewn all over your house.
If all the baby knick-knacks are bothersome to you, invest in some toy baskets and quickly throw everything into them. Designate another basket for all the blankets, swaddles and bibs. Another basket for pacifiers and bottles. You get the picture. Your place will look considerably more organized with minimal effort. Plus, once you have help or a moment to actually do chores, everything will already be in one place for you.
Strategy #5: Rest assure that you have a can’t-nap backup plan.
Another reason why moms can’t nap? The stress of not being able to nap!
Don’t make this yet another thing that stress you the F out. Instead, take solace in this advice by therapist Diana Lynn Barnes, who told Parents magazine:
“Get off your feet, relax on the couch, and stay off the phone. Don’t stress if you can’t fall asleep. Just lying down for a half hour can be very restorative.”
Part 2. How to quickly get energized when you’re awake against your will.
Now that you have some options in place to become a fast napper, you need to tackle the other side: being awake (while functioning and relishing all your baby’s coos instead of hating life).
Here are some practical quick tips:
Strategy #1: The 3-3-1 Method
When you’re startled awake by your babe’s 3 a.m. demand for food, your brain might instantly be deluged with negative thoughts (“I’m damn tired!” “Ugh, AGAIN? Didn’t I JUST fall asleep?!” “F*&*!”).
Practice the 3-3-1 method to knock out and replace these thoughts.
It’s simple: 3 breaths, 3 gratitudes, 1 smile (or laugh or song).
Inhale and exhale three times, slowly. This helps calm you and circulates oxygen throughout your body. Then think of three things you’re truly grateful for. This will flood your body with feel-good vibes, or at the very least, the will to get off your fluffy pillow. Finally, force yourself to smile or laugh even if it makes you feel like a creepy clown. All the things have been show in research to boost mood and wake you up.
Strategy #2: Talk yourself into more energy.
Research shows that simply telling yourself you’re awake will make you feel more awake. But you gotta believe it. And to believe it, you gotta repeat it:
“The rest I got was good rest! I am awake now and can tackle the day! The day is my bitch!” or whatever floats your boat.
This is similar to how athletes talk themselves up right before a competition: “You got this! You’re a winner! You’re the fastest person alive!”
In a study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, participants were either told they had “above average” or “below average” sleep quality after their brains were tested. The next day, the former group performed a lot better on a bunch of cognitive tests.
According to the researchers, this happened because our brains tend to respond to our feelings and expectations. “It may be that expectancy directly creates the cognitive effects from perceived sleep quality or that they are mediated by increased anxiety or decreased motivation following information about poor sleep quality,” the authors wrote.
So if you tell yourself you got some good-quality rest and you’re energized and ready to take on the day, you’ll start feeling like it. If this sounds like a terrible idea to you, at the very least consider the flip side: constantly telling yourself you’re exhausted to death will enhance those feelings of grogginess. So try not to dwell on it.
Strategy #3: Jolt yourself awake with ice, mint or air.
If you’re a more tactile person, you might need some physical reinforcements to help you wake up.
First and foremost, everyone should be drinking a tall glass of water at all times. It’s a known fact that even the slightest level of dehydration can cause fatigue, and you don’t need any more reason to feel tired. So chug up!
Now onto more fast-track strategies:
Cold water is effective at waking you up. Since you probably don’t have the time for a Polar bear shower, rub an ice cube all over your face or splash yourself with faucet water. “Cold triggers the stimulating hormone adrenaline,” internist Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, told Today.
Some moms (and the National Sleep Foundation) swear by peppermint oil (or even peppermint-flavored gum) to help regain their focus and attention. Buy a peppermint essential oil in a roller and sniff, or rub on your temples (if you’re nursing, ask your pediatrician if this is OK).
And of course there’s the outdoors. Many a mom swear that no matter how fatigued they are, a brisk walk and fresh air does the job. Science has shown over and over that nature helps boost vitality. “Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature,” says Richard Ryan, lead author and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
One more method, albeit a bit odd: Turn your head upside down. Apparently the rush of blood to your brain can help wake you up, per this writer and some seasoned moms who haven’t slept in a while. Just get back up slowly so you don’t get dizzy.
Summary + Final Tips
The best way to approach new mom sleep deprivation is 1) by learning how to rest quickly and efficiently, and that includes clearing your mind and letting go of the fact that your chores won’t always get done; and 2) conquering the art of being awake without absolutely dreading life, because you just gave life and that life deserves the best version of you possible (yes, even if the best version of you right now is tired and cranky and saying shitty things to people).
And know that you’re not alone. Sleep deprivation is an unfortunate rite of passage for new parents. It just means you’re on your way to a life full of laughter and milestones.
At the end of the day (just kidding, with a newborn there is no beginning or end to the day—the days all string together, sorry!), remember: this is temporary. You will sleep again. If all else fails, say this:
Right now, I am my baby’s Earth. And I will give him/her/they the world.
My body was built for this.
My soul was built for this.
I was built for this.