Surviving sleep deprivation


The other day I wandered down to my neighbours house with my son, as we wanted to see if her chickens had laid any eggs that we could have.

I knocked on the door and she answered in her dressing gown with puffy eyes and a weary face. “Tough night?” I said, “the worst” she replied. This mamma hadn’t been out on the town, she’s been up all night with her 8 month old, and we all know what that feels like.

I offered to take the baby so she could have a shower, she initially refused but then burst into tears. I gave her a hug and went into the bedroom to scoop up the crying child, we went outside to leave mum in peace so she could catch her breath, have a shower and make herself a coffee.

We had a chat later on and I empathised with her situation, the baby isn’t a great sleeper and neither are the parents. Anticipatory anxiety has set in about the night shift, the body is tired but wired, so it’s now hard for her to get to sleep, stay asleep and get back to sleep.

The result is a complete nightmare situation that goes on night after night with little respite. Thankfully this woman has a very supportive family, so she is able to catch some zzz’s whist they step in but I know that not everyone is so fortunate.

Sleep deprivation has to be one of the most debilitating, mind altering and physically demanding situations a new parent faces and for many this can go on for years, either due to a particular child’s health challenges or sleeping habits, or as new babies come on to the scene.

Extensive sleep loss can trigger a great deal of anxiety and despair, even post traumatic stress. It’s not nice to feel out of control of a situation that is causing so much physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s natural to panic and try to fix the situation and of course there are endless articles and books on the subject that provide options and hope.

I certainly don’t want this article to create more confusion and I’m sure as you read on you may feel despair as you tick off all the things that you have tried that I might suggest. However, you may find something that resonates and are willing to try.

This particular article will focus on you, the parent and a future article will address children’s sleeping troubles.

One of the situations you can find yourself in as a parent is the onset of insomnia due to anxiety or sleep disturbance. It’s understandable that this could happen, as your body is thrown into a weird sleep routine, where it’s now forced awake at random times during the night, then asked to drift back off to sleep again, usually when it’s now up and ready for the day!

If you find it difficult to get to sleep due to anticipatory anxiety, a busy mind, or simply because you’re not tired, this could be due to several factors. If you find yourself tired all day and perking up after 6.00pm, then it’s likely that you have adrenal exhaustion, you may even find you are even more energised at around 11.00pm. If this is your pattern, then you may find this article of interest and value.

Herbal medicine
If you feel anxious in the evening and your mind is busy, check out some gentle herbal teas such as chamomile, limeflowers, vervain or lemon balm, which can have a sedative effect and calm you down. Rescue remedy is also valuable, especially the sleep formula, which contains white chestnut for a racing and busy mind.

Passionflower, catnip and valerian are slightly more sedating and all the herbs previously mentioned are suitable for breastfeeding mothers. In extreme cases, herbs such as Californian poppy or Jamaican dogwood can be used but only under the guidance of a practitioner trained in medical herbalism.

Herbal teas can be purchased separately or as a blend. For maximum effect choose loose leaf teas, as herbal tea bags won’t provide much therapeutic benefit. You can also purchase these herbs as tinctures, which you may find preferable.

Gaia herbs offer several alcohol free and cost effective tincture blends for sleep, such as rapid relief sleep formula. The manufacturers do not recommend it for breastfeeding mothers.

Magnesium gycinate or threonate can be very useful for anxiety or stress related insomnia, as can supplementing with the calming neurotransmitter GABA. GABA receptors can become disturbed by fluctuating levels of progesterone, which can result in severe insomnia, where it’s nearly impossible to get to sleep.

Melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted by the pituitary gland and helps the body know when to sleep, it gets confused through jet lag and disturbed night’s sleep. Melatonin can be taken in supplement form and may be useful if anxiety is not the primary issue, it should only be used for short term support and preferably prescribed by a doctor.

Tart cherry juice is a popular alternative to taking melatonin, not only does it stimulate melatonin production, it’s beneficial to the immune system and helps to combat inflammation in the body.

Essential oils
There are a variety of essential oils that can be added to a bath or pillow that can help initiate sleep, the most famous being lavender. You could also try chamomile, geranium, petigrain, blue tansy or mandarin, either singly or as an over the counter formulation. All of these essential oils are safe for children. If you’re really struggling then vetiver essential oil is worth a shot, however this oil is not recommended for children. I recommend plant therapy oils as they are of good quality and reasonably priced.

When you do get up in the morning, make sure you put your face to the natural light, preferably outdoors, this will help to reset your circadian rhythms and tell the body that it is indeed time to be awake. For the same reason, keep rooms dark at night to prevent the pineal gland from being stimulated into falsely believing it’s daytime.

If you do need a night light, make sure it’s orange, to simulate a candles flame, as this doesn’t send the wrong messages to the brain. If you scroll social media in the middle of the night, then ensure the blue light filter is activated.

Keep bedrooms cool and dark, make sure you have adequate airflow and if you have the energy, detox the room after a particularly emotional or difficult night with some essential oils, incense or sage. You will be surprised how much this helps to clear the air and reset the space.

I have also found that religiously making the bed every morning, helps to reinforce the difference between night and day, which can become blurred after too many sleepless nights. It also may be the only thing you feel like you have achieved all day, so it’s worth the effort.

If your woken up in the night, it’s likely you’re in the middle of a 90 minute sleep cycle. You ideally need five sleep cycles a night in order to feel refreshed. This is why you can sometimes have a bad night but feel ok the next day, as you may have hit the jackpot and squeezed in several sleep cycles despite being woken up a few times.

I personally found this knowledge really mentally helpful, as it reminded me that even one sleep cycle is beneficial. It also helped me to know that sleeping though the night is actually a modern day creation, in the past it was the norm to wake in the night and be active for several hours before returning to sleep.

The other mental support that I can offer you is to let you know that it’s simply not true that lack of sleep will destroy your health. You can and will catch up with missed sleep one day. Just imagine an endless pool of sleep waiting for you in the future that will nourish your body and soul back to vitality and health. It will happen.

Another tip for maximising your energy stores is to aim for sleep between 10.00pm and 2.00am. This is when you will receive the best quality and restorative sleep, so even if you grab a couple of hours during this time, you are ahead of the game. The same can be said for napping on the other side of the clock. Any naps you can achieve between 10.00am and 2.00pm will benefit you greatly.

If you can, try and avoid watching or checking the time and consuming caffeine, especially in the afternoon and evening.

There’s nothing like the quiet of the night to bring up all of your anxieties and fears. During the day we are able to drown out our problems with busyness but the night time is a different story all together.

The peacefulness of the night can be wonderful if you’re feeling calm and happy, it’s like a blissful balm that can facilitate a deeper connection to yourself and the divine, which is deeply nourishing and energising.

If however your life is plagued with difficulty, money worries, relationships problems, health issues or concerns about your child, then there can be no escape from these feelings and thoughts, which can keep the mind whirring for hours, usually with no helpful resolution.

It’s important that if you feel that the circumstances of your life are pulling you under, that you seek help, either from a trusted friend or family member, or if necessary a professional. Talking things through and offloading your stresses is very important for mental health and a calm nervous system.

Your brain usually processes the challenges of the day during sleep, so if you’re not getting enough, then the stress and problems can back up and the mind can feel completely overloaded.

This is an ideal point to reference the benefits of yoga and meditation; however I’m well aware that if you’re really struggling with sleep deprivation and life struggles, you may want to slap me in the face for making such a suggestion right now, as I’m asking you to do one more thing that you simply don’t have the energy for.

I do understand that when things are really rough and out of control, these options seem too far out of reach to grasp let alone implement, so if that’s the case for you, then let me re-frame the suggestion for you.

Trying yoga poses to assist with sleep doesn’t mean you have to lay out a mat, go to a class or twist yourself into a glamorous pretzel. Learning a few simple techniques, which require next to zero effort can really help to bring about calm. You also have to make a conscious choice to put yourself into that pose, which in itself is self-nourishing, and shifts the energy away from the constant focus on sleep or lack of it.

The classic child’s pose offers comfort and feels nurturing and safe, I have fallen asleep in this pose several times on my bed. Another calming pose is to swing your legs around and prop them up on a wall, which may or may not be possible from your bed. The recovery pose, lying on your stomach with one knee at a right angle is also deeply relaxing.

If you need some instruction, simply Google “yoga poses for sleep” and find something that looks comforting and when you feel your mind race, or your anxiety rise, implement them.

Meditation is easy to do when you’re feeling calm and in a class with a teacher who is guiding you through the process, not so much when you’ve been rocking a crying baby for an hour in the middle of the night.

Calming a raging mind is sometimes impossible to do, especially if theirs a physical element playing a part, so instead of trying to calm your mind and thoughts, I recommend a meditation of self-talk. Come to your own rescue with words of comfort and reassurance.

If your panicking because you’re not sure how you will cope the next day, then tell yourself you will find a way, that you can take it one moment at a time and that this stage of your life will one day end. Always remind yourself that you are safe and that nothing terrible will happen to you, that everything is ok.

If self soothing is too difficult for you, then see if you can put a few guided meditations on your phone, or some soothing music that can assist you in calming down. Resting and settling the mind can be replenishing and restorative, it doesn’t all have to come from sleep.

Top tips for a racing mind include counting backwards from 100 to 0, starting from the beginning again if you loose focus and concentrating your minds focus on your heart area rather than your head. Placing your hands across your heart can assist with this shift.

Sleep deprivation is a part of parenthood and can be an utter nightmare, that few would understand or appreciate unless they have suffered through it themselves.

There are no quick and easy solutions, only suggestions to assist you to change your mindset and attitude to this challenging time and to hopefully settle your body and mind into a place of rest and restoration.

If your sleep problems continue despite your children sleeping through the night, then it’s well worth seeking out a professional who can assess your thyroid, hormonal and nutrient status to see if they might be contributing to your insomnia and anxiety.

Chiropractic support for the nervous system can help and acupuncture is also an excellent tool to assist with anxiety, a racing mind and exhaustion.

If you are suffering right now, I truly wish you well and will leave you with the reassurance that sleep deprivation and even the severest insomnia can be endured and overcome. It’s difficult to believe when your in the middle of it but from someone who’s been there and most definitely does not want the t-shirt, I can confidently say it’s true.

Helen Goodwin

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