Some Thoughts On Sleep Deprivation

30 Nov 2023

 Sleep deprivation

For the first few weeks of our son’s life, we could have been annoyingly smug when it comes to sleep. Alfie would sleep from about midnight until 5am straight. Yes, I realise to a non-parent, this sounds pretty shit but for anyone with a newborn baby, this is the kind of thing that is celebrated and envied when shared around a table of shell-shocked new parents clutching a baby in one hand and a coffee in the other. We paid for it with utterly hellish evenings but hey, he slept for a five-hour chunk! What a dream! In hindsight, this five-hour chunk was actually an indicator that things weren’t quite right. Alfie struggled a lot with feeding at first (more here) which included, amongst other issues, a tongue tie that was missed until he was over a month old. That five-hour chunk turned out to be him simply crashing with exhaustion after either feeding non-stop for hours and hours and hours at a time, or from screaming the house down because he was hungry and frustrated. When a lot of those issues were finally resolved, that five-hour chunk disappeared and our nights turned into wake-up calls every 1-2 hours. This lasted until he was nearly 18 months old, and it was a wild bloody ride. 

“Sleep whilst you can!” people joke when you’re pregnant, and you smile or roll your eyes or nod politely. We all know it’s a pointless thing to say (unless someone invents the ability to bank sleep hours) but say it we do, because it’s a way of acknowledging those famous newborn days of broken sleep, vomit-covered shoulders and that beautiful, beautiful baby smell. There aren’t any jokes about being severely sleep deprived for a year and a half though. Believe me, I’ve tried to make them. You just come across as a hysterical zombie and it kinda kills the punch line when instead of laughing, someone gives you a sympathetic head tilt and ask if you’re okay. 

The honest answer to that would be no. Sleep deprivation made me clumsy, angry, teary, snappy, unreasonable, riddled with anxiety… generally emotionally unstable. It made me incapable of making basic decisions (true story: I once cried because I couldn’t decide what pizza to order. There was literally a choice of four pizzas. It was embarrassing… or it would have been, but I was too tired to care.), it made me feel like I was moving through fog, it completely screwed with my memory, and it made me find the world an overwhelming and, sometimes, dark place. Ultimately, I think it made me a little bit depressed. 

I don’t use the word lightly. Perhaps it’s not the correct word to use but it’s the best one I can think of to describe the experience. The only plus side of being that sleep deprived for that long is when we finally started to get a more humane amount of sleep again, there was such joy in remembering how lovely life could be. Even now, I get an extraordinary amount of joy over such little things because I remember how lovely they are and how, for so long, I simply did not have the energy to appreciate them. 

Something that often baffled me was the way that quite a lot of people seemed to believe that they could solve the problem. That if you just tried a new thing, tried a little harder, the baby would sleep twelve hours in their cot no problem. Like you were causing the problem by not implementing a solid routine/sleep training them/ ‘still’ breastfeeding etc etc all the while ignoring the basic fact that babies are not puppies to be trained. People would make these suggestions like you hadn’t already spent what likely amounted to months of your life googling solutions, hadn’t already tried every damn thing you could in hope of gaining just a fraction more sleep, like they were going to impart their well-meaning-but-repetitive advice and you were going to jump up and go GOLLY GOSH BRENDA, YOU’RE A GENIUS. (Yes, it is, quite frankly, a miracle that I didn’t accidentally ruin a relationship with someone by being a sarcastic bitch which is the mode I had to resist slipping into when someone was trying to give me unsolicited advice on three hours sleep.) 

It goes without saying that obviously the first 18 months of my son’s life were not miserable. There were many, many joyous moments and he was – and still is – the biggest bundle of joy and – obviously – entirely worth it. But good lord, the lack of sleep as a result of him simply following his little baby instincts was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. It impacts every single aspect of your life, from your relationships to your health to your ability to order from a basic menu. Perhaps the hardest thing is the impact on your ability to parent at your best, to enjoy moments that will never come back, and you envy the experiences of those who had better sleepers and got to enjoy the baby stage a lot more. I also underestimated how long it would take to recover. Okay, I can now order from a menu fine, but it turns out that everything else doesn’t just click back into place once you’ve finally slept through the night again. I still feel like we are in a recovery period, and I’ve accepted that it’s going to take a lot of patience. I’ve also accepted it might be a long time before I am no longer living with The Fear. Because once you escape that dark fog of sleep deprivation, the prospect of going back into it is genuinely very scary. I have to try and rationalise one bad night, have to remind myself that the ‘bad nights’ now were the ‘good nights’ last year, have to try and not spiral down a rabbit hole where I allow the experience to influence bigger decisions like whether or not to try for a second baby. 

I have broadly come to the conclusion that Alfie and sleep is one of those things that will become a family joke in years to come. We’ll joke that he always had a ridiculous amount of energy, that he always thought sleep was overrated. He is nearly two and still does not consistently sleep through the night; we never know if we’re going to be able to get him to nap and I long for the day when our evenings are not consumed by trying to get Alfie to go to sleep promptly (if it’s taken less than an hour and he’s asleep by 8pm, we consider that a good day). But he is a lot better than he was. There have now been a few nights where he has slept from bedtime through until 5-6am and I still enjoy that sensation of waking up, seeing the time and realising I’ve actually had a full night’s sleep. It’s still a novelty and very much not guaranteed. I’m not entirely convinced it’s actually reasonable to expect young children to always sleep through the night; I more than understand the desire but I think young children simply are just following their instinct and I do try very hard to not refer to him as a ‘bad’ sleeper (okay, I fail at this quite a lot when I’m tired but seriously, he’s not even two. It’s not like the kid is doing it on purpose).  

After nearly two years, my standards on sleep have dropped considerably. I have long given up on the idea of my child sleeping 7pm-7am. For me, it’s what can we cope with, what can we live on and not simply survive on. I’ve learnt a solid four hour chunk is better than seven broken hours, that having some semblance of a childfree-evening is important for my sanity, that equally splitting the early mornings and bedtimes between the two of you enables you both to have pockets of time to yourselves, and that co-sleeping can be life-saving even if it does often feel like sharing a bed with an octopus trained in boxing. 

If you’re right in the trenches of sleep deprivation right now, there is not much I can say to help. You’ll be sick of hearing that it gets better (WHEN EXACTLY, you internally screech) but it does, I promise. Keep going.