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Tired as a mother: Surviving a sleep-challenged child

What if I told you that my two year old has only slept through the night a handful of times? And what if I said that we have (unofficial) family meetings in the middle of the night more often now than we did when she was a newborn? I’m not the first to say it and I won’t be the last:  there’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique. Sleep is more valuable than gold or bottomless mimosas. If I had to choose between 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep and a new car, I would drive my current mom-mobile with well-rested glee.  When good sleep is out of your reach, you crave it. When you miss sleep, you miss sleep.

Prior to parenthood, I was a sleep connoisseur. I was the kid at slumber parties who got my bra frozen because I was out cold in my Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag by 10pm. My hobbies before becoming a mom?  Topping the list was going to sleep before 10pm on a Friday night and sleeping until 8am on Saturday. The universe, with it’s endless supply of humor, rewarded my sleep prowess with a child who has been ready to party at 2am more times than I was in my entire 20s.  After two years of the highs and lows with a sleep-challenged kiddo, some days I’m still a total “mombie,” but I’ve adapted to life with dark circles under my eyes.  Here are some lessons and coping skills I have learned (or in some cases I’m learning) to survive this snooze-free season of life. 

Acceptance is the first step to healing. Here is an abridged version of things we have tried to get our daughter to sleep through the night: Long naps (sleep begets sleep), short naps (get her super tired before bedtime). Nightlight, no nightlight, blackout shades. Crib, co-sleeping. Massive amounts of stimulation and physical activity, massive amounts of tv and/or quiet time leading up to bedtime. Rocking to sleep. Cry it out. “Gentle” versions of cry it out. Slow digesting snacks before bedtime or nap. Strict bedtime routine. Flexible bedtime routine based on sleepiness signals. You get my point. We have tried to fit this (really cute) square peg into a circle hole for two years and it just doesn’t fit. She is (usually) a great napper, and not too bad about bedtime, but she does not sleep all night. We have devoted so many hours to hypothesizing about what’s wrong, and in the end, it’s pointless. This is her. Accepting this has been hard, but also weirdly liberating.

Leave. The. House. Everyday. There is nothing worse than being home alone with a child and counting down the minutes until their/your naptime. It’s miserable. Struggling to keep your eyes open while feigning interest in the puzzle your toddler just completed for the 45th time is mind-numbing. And when they decide to wake for the day at 4am (stop this, just stop) it will feel like it’s time to make dinner at 10am.  The only thing that helps me is distraction. Go for a long walk.  Go somewhere fun that always fills up later in the morning and enjoy the solitude.  Mainline coffee.  

Go into each night with a plan. This is the most important strategy in our house, and sometimes the hardest one to adhere to. Before bedtime, decide what you are going to do in the night when your Gremlin awakes (rock her in the room, bring to your bed, bring to another bed, let her work it out alone, etc.) and most importantly who is going to do it. In our house, taking turns or shifts helps, so one of us is “on call” until 2am and the other until she wakes up, or we alternate who is in charge of dealing with her night shenanigans.  And a lot of times we play a mean game of musical beds.  It ain’t sexy, it’s survival. 

Lean on your fellow sleep-deprived parents. This is going to sound snotty, but here goes. I can’t talk about our sleep struggles with my mom crew members who are blessed with good sleepers. For the first year, you get all the advice. And year two? You get all the (subtle) judgment. Maybe you should try this. She’s just got some “bad habits.” This is without a doubt well-meaning, but, as you recall, we are working towards acceptance.  But the moms in the sleepless trenches alongside of you?  They are your rocks.  They will respond to your whiny texts about how tired you are with the saga of their last miserable night and you will feel empowered.  And even if they have a sleep-challenged child who is currently in recovery, they will know to NEVER share the fact that they are sleeping 8 hours a night.  

Get yourself some help, Mama. When your kid is sleep-challenged and you are an at-home parent, this translates to zero downtime for you or for you and your partner. In order for you not to run away and join the circus, (step right up to see Rip Van Winkle’s long lost twin!) you will need to schedule some time away  from your sleep violator.  Hire a sitter for a few hours a week during the day, send your little one to parents day out, trade child-watching services with friends to save money, go on girls night outs and trips. Do what you need to do to not feel crazy. Because you will. See above re: form of torture. 

Repeat this daily: This is temporary. This too shall pass.  I only have two years on the job, but in my experience all rough patches eventually end.  Will my kid always struggle? Maybe so. But as she gets older, she we will learn how to manage without the help of her moms, and we will rejoice, yet probably also mourn the end of a baby that still needs her moms in the night and greets her with the sweetest snuggles at 3am.  

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4 Responses to Tired as a mother: Surviving a sleep-challenged child

  1. Amy August 8, 2017 at 6:51 am #

    This resonated so much with me! Except my son teases us with a few months of sleeping, then he just stops sleeping for unknown reasons. You are so fortunate to have friends to commiserate with. All my mommy friends seem to have these magical sleepers so it can be a sleepless, lonely world!

    • Katy Walter
      Katy Walter August 14, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Amy! My daughter does that little tease as well, so i know that drama all too well. Feel free to message me whenever you need to vent…it’s important to have a momtourage of non-sleeping kiddos…helps the sanity!

  2. Gretchen August 14, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

    My son is 10 and … it doesn’t always get better; it just changes. I’ve survived a decade! Thanks for writing this.

  3. Robin August 16, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

    Have you tried diffusing and applying essential oils?

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