How to Handle Sleep Deprivation Using Mindfulness

Sleep disruption and tiredness is THE most common challenge facing the parents I know or teach. It's natural for small babies to wake regularly at night for feeds and comfort, and most children take two years and sometimes more to regularly sleep through the night. (So, no, your wakeful child is not unusual!).

So coping with sleep disruption is a fundamental skill for parents of babies and young children! And here's where mindfulness can really help you to cut the stress of sleep loss. 

Sleep deprivation is really hard – it’s been used as a torture method over history, and for good reason.

Not getting enough hours of sleep and/or being woken repeatedly throughout the night has real impacts on us. It reduces memory function, concentration, reaction time and judgement, and it increases moodiness and bad temper and can lead to loss of motivation. We feel pretty crappy after many nights of getting less sleep than we normally need. Over time it can leave us feeling lacklustre and depressed. 

So how can mindfulness help us feel better?

If you're suffering from sleep deprivation, first ask what is most stressful about it for you. Is it because:

  • You're stressed about the lack of sleep affecting your ability to function each day (eg parenting, going to work etc)?
  • You're stressed that the sleep disruption will go on forever and there is no end in sight?
  • You're so tired that any emotional upset or conflict gets the better of you (even small things)?
  • You feel out of control - this is an aspect of life you can't control and you're not sure how to fix it (or if fixing it is even possible)?
  • You're worried about the effect of sleep loss on your own health (eg getting sick, post-natal depression etc)? 
  • All of the above?!

These are totally normal feelings but it's hard to get free of these worries when we are so tired.

I've been there myself - when I first brought my new baby home and she was waking me three times a night I was so shocked and upset (how could I have not known it would be like this? - nobody warned me!). Then as the wakefulness went into the second year I alternated between periods of feeling quite depressed or my brain just not functioning properly (memory and reasoning power - gone!). 

But mindfulness and meditation were my saviour and allowed me to bounce back quickly (and - yes! - my daughter finally learnt to sleep through most nights when she was about two-and-a-half!). 

So let's address those stress points listed above. 

Here are some mindfulness strategies you can use to help wind down the stress of sleep loss:

1. Accept things as they are

In my experience, the most important thing to start with is to practice acceptance. Yes ironic isn’t it, to accept something that’s really crap and you don’t want happening?! But how many times have you been woken in the night and lain there worrying and fuming about how tired you’re going to be the next day? How you won’t function at work, you might get sick, you just won’t cope. You feel like crying (maybe you do cry). You feel frustrated, but shouting at your wakeful child would only makes things worse. I know, I’ve been there!

But most of the pain and suffering about sleep loss is caused by these thoughts and emotions. So if we can just drop this story, we miraculously feel a lot better. If we can relax into the sleep disruption and accept that we will feel tired tomorrow, it makes the whole thing about 100 times easier to bear.

So – how to do this? Start by practicing mindfulness of your emotions and thoughts – this will then give you the space to choose how to react. When you’re lying there awake, just notice the stories in your head (I’m going to be exhausted, I just won’t function etc). And notice the feelings in your body (frustration, anger, sadness etc). Breathe into these feelings in the body: switch your mind’s attention to the body and away from the stories in your mind. Keep doing that for as long as possible. Then you can switch to mindful breathing if you like – just feeling the breath in and out. Meditating as you lie there.

2. It’s out of our control - so let go about it

A lot of the emotional turmoil from sleep deprivation can be due to feeling that it’s out of our control. And with children it largely is. There are definitely things we can do to help our child learn to sleep better – there are many best-selling books with a “sleep solution” for you (which may or may not work!). But there are children who are just not good sleepers and it’s not always possible to change that. All we can do is create the conditions for our child to sleep better, and it’s up to him or her in the end.

Since we can’t really control our child’s sleep, the best thing to do is let go about it and accept it as a part of being a parent of this particular child. In fact, I’ve found that if I switch my frustration about being woken in the night towards my feelings of love for my daughter and how lucky I am to have her then I can actually lie there in her room at 4am holding her hand and feeling quite joyful! (Bit tired the next day though!)

“All we can do is create the conditions for our child to sleep better, and it’s up to him or her in the end.”

3. Make sure you don't blame yourself

And hot on the heels of feeling out of control, some parents feel like a real failure if their child sleeps badly, as if they have done something wrong. It's hard not to compare yourself to others - there's always one mother in every Parents Group whose child sleeps 8 hours a night from 3 weeks old! All the other parents think they're somehow doing things wrong. But you have not failed if your child doesn't sleep through the night! It's like blaming yourself for the weather. Accept that this is one of the things in life that you cannot 100% control and you'll feel much better.

4. Slow down, Simplify and Nap!

As part of accepting sleep disruption as just part of our job, it can really help to accept the limitations this puts on us. The fact is, you can't work as hard or effectively when you're super-tired and you can't do as many chores, workouts, excursions and everything else as you planned. While this sleep-deprived phase goes on, try to scale back what's on your plate, simplify things, and take the pressure of yourself. It won't last forever so just for a while, take it slower. As part of this approach do everything you can to take naps during the day - on the weekend get your partner to take the kids so you can nap; during the week get a babysitter or child care if you can. Sleep when baby sleeps, as they always say. Oh, and don't forget go to bed early at night too!  

5. Get help if it gets too much

It’s important to note, though, that sleep loss can become a health problem for some of us. There are times when it’s gone on too long and you might start feeling constantly down and unmotivated about life. If these feelings continue for weeks and getting extra sleep doesn’t seem to lift them, you might be suffering from depression (post-natal or otherwise). If that’s you, please go and see your GP for help.

Try these strategies out and I'd love to know how you go. Send me an email and let me know what helped you!

xx Suzie