I knew my breasts would change. I knew my small feet might grow. But I never really believed that having babies would take away my ability to get a solid night’s sleep – for good.
Oh, I had been warned. My mom said it was the biggest irony – that by the time you could freely sink down into uninterrupted slumber, you had forgotten how. I thought my cousin Nancy was exaggerating when she said she hadn’t slept a full night since her daughter (who’s now a college graduate!) was born. I’m a champion slumberer; I wore mirrored shades in high school so I could snooze during AP History, people. Nothing, but nothing, can stop me from sleeping.
Except motherhood. And now science backs up that experience. Dammit, it’s true: my days of swan-diving into oblivion are gone.
As I type these words, I’m staring at an empty cup of coffee, cursing myself for not making a second pot. My daughter Penny woke at 2:30 a.m. crying with a nightmare – she’s been having a lot lately – and I had to hold her, refill her (water) bottle, and slip a dry towel under her before she could fall back to sleep. (Changing her would have woken her up for good, and I have had enough 3 a.m. viewings of Angelina Ballerina, thanks.)
An hour later, Abby woke up – not an unusual occurrence, but rather than being nursed back down, she decided being awake was way more fun. I don’t do cry-it-out, so I performed the usual rituals. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, as if asleep and felt her relax – but when I peeked, to check if she was really out, she gave a delighted “HEH!” and a victory fist-and-foot pump. I rocked with her, whispering “sssh,” but she shrieked as if I were tattooing her. Finally, I changed her and administered some Tylenol, and this either fixed everything or happened just as she was getting tired again, because by 5 a.m. she was out like a light.
I, however, was stuck glaring at my phone, feverishly playing my turn in eight simultaneous Scrabble games, waiting to go back to sleep. By the time the sun rose, I was a hopeless lump, eyes closed as my husband tried to shepherd the girls off of my not-sleeping form, attempting to get the magic just … five … minutes that would somehow refresh me enough to start my day.
Never happened. I’m typing in a blur. My hair looks like the seat of an abandoned wicker chair, my eyes have more baggage than an episode of Celebrity Rehab, and I am plodding sloth-like through my work-day. Days like this, I cling to the belief that when the girls are older, I’ll bound out of bed in the morning like a happy little chipmunk, refreshed from my medicinal eight hours of slumber, but mean old Science says I’m fooling myself.
According to Dr. Rafael Pelayo of Stanford University's Sleep Medicine Center, repeated nights of interrupted sleep often leads to a permanent sleep disorder. Insomniacs have more cortisol, the stress hormone, and spend their nights in a hyper-vigilant state.
That’s why my mom always emails me back at 3 a.m.
Pelayo gives some tips, though, for parents who don’t want to reach for the sleeping pill (or chardonnay) bottle. Give these a try for two months – it can take that long to effect a real change – and see if you can sleep-train your own self:
- Pick your bedtime based on your usual wakeup time. It’s tempting to see when the kids get down, and then plan your own evening, but that just sets you up for a continuation of a bad cycle, Pelayo says. Instead, count backward from your usual wake-up time, and give yourself eight hours of in-bed time. My sister does this: I can’t call her after 9 p.m., because she honest-to-God hits the hay on time, like clockwork. She has better skin than I do. By a longshot.
- Write it out. Before you go to sleep, write in a journal for 20 minutes. Make tomorrow’s to-do list so you’re not lying there fretting. Work out your feelings about the argument you had with your friend. Give the day closure. Pelayo says this is the mental equivalent of tucking yourself in.
- Don’t sleep in when you get the chance. Is he kidding me? No, he’s not. Consistency, says Dr. Pelayo – even on weekends – will keep you from veering off-course, sleepwise.
- Don’t give in to wakeups. Rather than making productive use of your night-owl status, which just keeps you up, do something dull so that you’re forced back to sleep. Or at least you’re not encouraging your wakeful status.
Have you lost your Z’s since having kids? Did they ever come back? How do you deal with post-motherhood insomnia?
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