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Emily Writes: How to survive severe sleep deprivation – by someone who is living it

Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes hasn’t slept for a long time. If you’re as exhausted as she is, she has some tips for getting through.

Having not slept for 800 years, I feel somewhat qualified to talk about survive severe sleep deprivation. For more than a year I (barely) survived on about three hours sleep, broken throughout the night. Now I get around five hours – often three hours in a row. I’ve had a handful of nights where I’ve slept all night when I’ve been away from my youngest.

So I thought it might be useful to share some tips on how to get through. They won’t work for everyone, they won’t all work, but some will, for some people. They work for me – and they’re the reason why I’ve been able to get through the past four years.

It’s OK to sleep in a field. Credit: Pixabay

Before any sleep consultants target me for glamourising sleep deprivation, I’d like to point out that I’m writing this from my sick bed. I smell…not good. Not bad. But not good. I haven’t brushed my hair in a while. I am wearing my husband’s old Motorhead tee-shirt and a pair of boxers and when I go to kindy pick-up I’m just going to put on my “looks a bit like pants but are actually PJs”.

I am not glamorous. Sleep deprivation isn’t glamorous. Even if I wanted to seem glamorous, I couldn’t.

I only share stuff about sleep because 1) I am told it helps other mums who are trying to parent on not enough sleep and 2) I’m living it, so what the hell else am I going to write about. If you don’t sleep, it’s all you think about. I try to write about other stuff but it all comes back to sleep.

I don’t write about sleep to glamourise not getting it. I do take the point though that I’m normalising sleep deprivation.

I am normalising it…because…wait for it: It’s normal.

Babies do, and are totally meant to, wake frequently. They wake frequently for a number of reasons – they’re hungry, wet, cold, they exist in the world, they are upset that they don’t have enough hair, they had a dream where they got put in a pelican’s mouth…the list goes on.

Sometimes we know the reasons why they wake up, but often we have no idea. And this also is totally normal.

I’m sorry that that doesn’t work with your business model, but it’s the truth.

This *points to black bags under eyes* is normal.

Normal doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. Normal doesn’t mean it’s fun. It’s awful and it’s hard – and if you’ve ever thought “what kind of mother would I be if my kid just fucking slept???” know that I think this all the time. You’re not alone.

You are not a bad mother for having a child who doesn’t sleep. Your child isn’t broken. They’re not a problem that needs to be fixed. You don’t have to be fixed.

It’s just a reality of parenting for a lot of mums. And they’re the mums I’m writing to now.

All babies are different. Some babies sleep well and easily from an early age. Some do not. There are no tricks or secrets.

These truths don’t sit well with the sleep training industry because they make it harder to sell products and services to mums. I totally understand why I am targeted for saying these things. And I accept it, even though it annoys me when the comments they make are cruel.

So before we get stuck in, to any sleep consultants who are reading and are already pissed off – let me just say this: I am a mum who is just doing her best and you don’t have to read further. If you like you could just go watch some TV. I recommend GLOW, it’s really great. It’s about Women’s Wrestling but also about friendships and it has a killer soundtrack.

Are they gone? Good.

Let’s just crack into it.

Clear your mind. Pretend you’re on a beach and you have no children. Credit: Pixabay.

Get good at napping

Four years into this lark I’m the queen of napping. You need to learn how to nap. When my husband takes the kids to the park – I nap. When my kids fall asleep at the same time – I nap. When my mother-in-law takes them to lunch – I nap. I nap whenever I can. I nap in the hour between coming home from work and eating dinner. I nap in the morning after I drop them at kindy before I start my day. I nap at the same time they do. I choose naps over everything else – EVERYTHING else.

I wasn’t always good at napping – I would lay down and check Facebook or start a mental list in my head of all of the things I had to do. I would fixate on the time I had: “only half an hour – not long enough for a nap”. Now I know even 20 minutes is long enough for a nap.

When my husband says “I’ll take over, have a nap” I’m asleep before he even finishes the sentence.

My tip is to take every single opportunity to lie down. Change into PJs even if you don’t have much time. I reckon it tells your brain it’s sleep time. I’m not a scientist though – I was drunk through most of my final years of school. Put your phone away. Lay with your eyes closed and try to clear your mind. It takes a while to train your brain to nap at every opportunity but you will get there. The key is not to waste any time thinking about anything else or looking at your phone. Social media kills naps – get rid of it. And even if you only nap for 10 minutes, it’s worth it.

For what it’s worth, napping has never stopped me being able to sleep at night but that’s because I’m severely sleep deprived. It will be the same for you if you’re running on four hours or so. If you’re getting 7+ a nap might be counter-productive, and it might stop you being able to sleep at night.

Go to bed early

I know. Boring as shit. You want to see your partner if you have one. You want to see friends. You want to zone out in front of the TV. I get it. But schedule at least one night a week where you go to bed with your child – whether it’s falling asleep with them at 7pm or going into your own bed once you get them down. At least once a week, preferably on the same day, you need to go to bed at like 7pm. I do this a couple of times a week.

Leave the cleaning or drop your standards

This is obviously harder if you find mess to be anxiety-inducing. I understand how a clean kitchen can make you feel better when everything else feels overwhelming. So you do you. But we have severely dropped our standards around chores. I don’t fold washing anymore; the kids’ clothes get shoved into the drawers. There’s clutter everywhere – and I plan on dealing with it as soon as my kid sleeps through the night. We never clear the laundry pile, it is just replaced constantly. We have decided naps and rest are more important at the moment. If the house is too messy, we leave the house. This is only going to be the case for the next like year or so.

Be a good dad and do your share at night. Credit: Pixabay

If you have a partner make sure they’re not a dick

If you have a partner, make sure they understand that they’re also a parent. Whether your partner works outside the home or not they should be getting up through the night too, or doing shifts with you so you get sleep. My husband and I split the night – one of us goes to bed early so the other can get up early and the other wakes up to the baby but sleeps in. We give each other naps and touch base every morning and night to see how we are doing. If one of us is about to hit a wall, we take turns around who needs the spare bed. There are nights my husband needs a whole night, and nights I do, but we completely share getting up to the kids because we are both parents.

A friend told me her husband said he works so he can’t ever get up. They’re divorced now which I think is great. Because only fucking dicks say shit like that. This is one of the most common things I hear from sleep deprived mums – that their partners don’t get up because they “work”. We all work. Home or office – it’s work. So dads: Do the right thing. Get up. You’re tired? Suck it up – that’s being a parent. We are all tired.

Bang as often as is humanly possible

I know it’s the last thing you feel like doing. But if you are with someone who is good at banging, banging will do you both a world of good. If you’re not – rub one out/flick ya bean. It will help you sleep and you’ll have a better and deeper sleep. And if it’s with the other person you’re parenting with it’ll help you connect when it feels like you’re just flatmates. I would never turn down a good knobbing and I recommend the same for you.

Call the village

Ring friends or family and ask for help. Asking for help is really hard – but you need to do it. When I wasn’t coping I asked my friends for help and we set up a roster for one morning a week for them to take my kids to Chipmunks. We share the load when we can and drop off food. We’ve tried to make a culture of helping each other out. When someone offers you food or babysitting, accept it. I mean provided they’re not a psychopath incapable of looking after children obviously. For some reason it’s a gut reaction to reject help. Try to change that mindset and accept any help that comes your way.

This is very specific but you can put on dark glasses and go to sleep underneath them during your child’s swimming lesson or gymnastics class

Trust me, they won’t notice. And it’s not like they’re going to suddenly learn how to do a forward roll after 15 fucking terms.

Keep on keeping on! Credit: Pixabay

Give no fucks

This is probably the most important. Give no fucks about what people think of your parenting at night. You know your baby and you know what’s best for them. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to scream, scream. I have stood on my balcony and literally yelled at a tree because I’m so upset and angry about not getting sleep. It’s OK to feel upset that your life has been hijacked by lack of sleep. You can feel all of those things and still know in your heart that you’re doing the right thing by your kids in whatever way you’re helping them get to sleep. I know people tell you what to do, I know you hear “have you tried?” a trillion times a day. I know it’s hard. Give no fucks my friend.

You are doing an awesome job. Whether your child sleeps 45 minutes a night or 11 hours is not a measure of how good you are at parenting. It says nothing about you as a mother.

Remember, there are no tricks. No secrets. You don’t have to buy anything. You just have to give no fucks and remember you’re a badass of epic proportions who gets through every day even though you get no sleep.

You’re brilliant. You’re amazing. And imagine how much shit you’re going to get done when you do get sleep! I mean look at you now – if you can be this awesome on two hours, you’re going to change the world on six.

Remember: It will get better

I promise.

Emily Writes is editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Buy it here. Follow her on Facebook here.

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