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Sleepy Heads: Surviving Sleep Deprivation in the Early Years

The baby whisperer – a nurse with decades of experience working with families – gave me a sympathetic look and announced, ‘I think you have a bad sleeper on your hands.’
She’d seen our younger daughter at three months, six months, and nine months. The problem was always the same: our daughter would settle to sleep easily but would wake all night long.
The baby whisperer’s assessment was a deep blow. We’d been confident that she would help us win this sleep war, and yet here she was waving the white flag. Was she simply out of tricks or, worse, was it a justified professional opinion?
The one-year mark came and went – then two years – but, alas, every night our daughter woke many times over. She was exhausted and cranky. We were all exhausted and cranky.
By then it was painfully clear why our daughter slept so poorly: she was facing a digestive issue, which caused her significant discomfort at night. A specialist finally stabilised her and her sleep began to improve week by week.
We also saw a paediatric sleep specialist. He explained many children with gastrointestinal difficulties experience disrupted sleep. With all the discomfort she had suffered, our daughter had been conditioned to wake. There was nothing he could do. The doctor told us to be patient as Miss 2.5 years learns to sleep soundly for the first time in her life.
The baby whisperer had been right after all.
Nights in our house are far from perfect. But, for the most part, it’s normal toddler stuff. Perhaps she or her older sister has a virus. Or has sprung a leak. Or needs a cover or pillow adjustment. Or assistance locating a favourite toy hidden among the covers. Or just wants a cuddle. These were the nocturnal realities of parenting we had been prepared for!
My heart goes out to any parents suffering from sleep deprivation, but especially those families contending with long-term sleep disorders. For those sleepy heads greatly missing some zzz right now, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions of ways to cope. (It goes without saying that I have employed many of these strategies myself!)

  • Maximise your own sleep by adopting good sleep habits – sometimes referred to as sleep hygiene. The principles of sleep hygiene include avoiding alcohol and caffeine for several hours before bed, developing some rituals such as doing stretches or breathing exercises that remind your body that it is time to sleep, and going to bed at a regular hour each night.
  • When you baby or toddler is napping, put your feet up too. The chores can wait.
  • Take shifts with your partner on weekend mornings to catch up on missed sleep.
  • Stay in touch with your GP. He or she will want to make sure any medical issues, including postnatal depression or anxiety, nutritional deficiencies or thyroid disease, are not at play.
  • If your baby or toddler seems especially unsettled at night, consider a service such as Tresillian or Karitane or a private sleep consultant.
  • Speak to your GP about whether there could be any underlying medical issues, such as reflux or sleep apnoea, contributing to your child’s poor sleep.
  • Carve out time for yourself and the things you enjoy doing – and don’t feel guilty about it!
  • Find a quiet hobby (or reconnect with an old one) – meditation, sewing, knitting, colouring in, gardening – whatever floats your boat – and indulge in it when you can. When you’re in the thick of it with a newborn or toddler, it’s so easy to forget the things that previously gave you pleasure.
  • Exercise remains important even when you’re underslept. Take a brisk walk, go for a swim, attend a yoga or pilates class. If you can muster the energy, head out for a run or to the gym. Your body will thank you for it.
  • Don’t sweat the small things. Ignore the mess. Your baby or toddler certainly won’t remember it. Cut corners with cooking. Prepare meals ahead of time that can be frozen. Or try a meal delivery service – there are many good ones available now.
  • If you’re used to having date nights with your partner, try a daytime date instead. Organise care for your child/children and head out for a special outing together.
  • If you have to cancel a social arrangement, be upfront that you are feeling shattered – good friends will understand (and show a hand of support).
  • Accept any offers of help that come your way, and reach out to relatives, friends – even this community – when needed. You may be surprised just much others want to help. When you are exhausted, sometimes the simplest of gestures, such as a lovingly prepared meal, can be wonderfully restorative.
  • If you can afford to pay for extra help, don’t be too proud to do so. A cleaner is usually the number-one service new parents desire. Other services you might consider outsourcing include laundry, ironing, meal preparation or even dog walking.
  • Invest in a quality mattress. As a parent sleep is the number 2 stress reliever aside from your kids being the number 1. So give yourself a break and check out Sleepify mattress comparisons to check the qualities and features of the mattress before buying.

More articles from Ginny:
Welcoming Baby Number Two
RPA Newborn Care’s Baby Warriors
Making Friends at School … with Other Parents
When Two Becomes Three (or More)
Focus on Women’s Health: Childbirth Injuries
Birth Injuries: An Uncomfortable but Important Matter
Finding Peace: An Inner West Mum’s Story of Domestic Violence
Our Incredible Village
Just Eloped!
The Day Cale Met his Idol Guy Sebastian
How to Support a Friend through the Loss of a Baby
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
The Milk Wars
A Big Shift: How Three Women Transformed their Careers during Motherhood
You Know You Have an Inner West Child When …
The Game-Changer
Cookie Cutter Kids: How can we teach our children to celebrate diversity?
Running in Circles
Allergies: What’s all the fuss about?
The Early Days
Not Water – Tears
No Judgements, Please
Triumph or Trauma
Riding the Merry go Round
Friends, Near or Far
When is Enough, Enough?
My (Child’s) Kitchen Rules


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