Sleep Deprivation: Torture Tactic or New Mom Nightmare?

“Just sleep when the baby sleeps!” It’s the advice I’ve received more times than I can count. Sleep when Emmeric is asleep, and you’ll catch up on all that lost sleep. It sounds great. Does it work? Not for me. Sleep deprivation is my new mom nightmare.

You might need this post if your baby hits his first sleep regression and you suddenly wonder what happened to your precious sleeping child who looked so adorable in his naps. You might need this post and the ones following it if your child never slept a full night on his own and needs any number of things to help him get to sleep. You might need this post if you have postpartum depression and haven’t had a full night’s sleep in eight months. Oh wait…that’s me.

You read that right.

I sleep when I can, and I try hard to play catch up. However, in the last eight months, I slept through the night roughly two times. Both those times my family and friends came to the rescue and spent the night pacifying Emmeric while I shut the door on the rest of the world and sprawled in bed.

Even then I woke up hearing phantom baby cries and wondering whether my son was really okay.

The advice “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a great idea – when it works. I think a lot of moms probably deal with depression and anxiety that makes sleep difficult even under the best of circumstances. Anxiety alone makes sleep hard regardless of having a child.

According to Health Day, new parents lose roughly 350 hours of sleep at night during their baby’s first year of life. 350 hours!

I have tried to sleep when Emmeric sleeps, to nap with him, to sleep at night when he’s in the bassinet. I rarely sleep soundly anymore. My mom instincts rev into overdrive at night and I wake up every time he moves. Do you do the same thing? You probably know what I’m talking about.

Sleep deprivation is a huge problem for new moms. Google “sleep deprivation” and “new mom” and you’ll find a number of articles about coping with sleep deprivation. You can easily spend hours reading ways to deal with this problem, everything from surviving on coffee and a prayer to laying down during naptime even if you don’t sleep yourself.

The truth is, sleep deprivation has been used effectively as a torture tactic over the years because of how disorienting it can be. According to Sleep Junkies writer Jeff Mann, “The more you deprive someone of sleep, the more likely they are to suffer memory loss, confusion, even hallucinations.” Can you relate to this? I can.

People talk about “mom brain” and how it affects moms almost from the moment the baby is born. Moms forget things, become confused easily, and lose things more often than they did previously. I can’t tell you how many times I have lost my phone or keys in the last eight months (mainly cause I don’t remember – hah!), but it’s been a lot. I do stupid things like changing diaper bags but forgetting to put essentials in the new bag. Then I go out and don’t have diapers or clothes to change Emmeric into when he has a blowout.

I never had this problem before.

I might have forgotten things or lost things, but it wasn’t on a continual basis the way this is. I lose my phone or keys practically once a week! I even lost a couple hundred dollars this week that I needed to pay bills! (Thankfully I found it in a coat pocket I had already checked, but it’s scary to lose any money, let alone hundreds of dollars.)

According to a study in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, “depression symptoms worsen in PPD patients when their quality of sleep declines.” This seems like common sense, and I think it’s very true.

I have spent nights awake with Emmeric feeling the lows of depression in an almost tangible way.

Wednesday night, we put Emmeric down to sleep as usual, trying to get him to stay in the Baby Merlin sleep suit we have. Two hours later, we went to bed. Emmeric woke up almost immediately and would not be settled. Daniel and I were frustrated because this has been happening with increasing regularity.

I wound up taking the baby out to the living room around midnight and playing with him until 1 am when he showed signs of being sleepy again. I tried again to settle him in the sleep suit, but he rejected being sat down and cried immediately. So we went for a drive.

New parents can probably relate to me on this one. Sometimes you’re desperate and a drive seems like the only solution to your baby’s sleep problems. You put the baby in the car seat, buckle yourself in, and drive for an hour or two on the mostly clear interstate until you know your baby is completely asleep. Then you do the little dance of trying to park, exit the car (quietly!), and carry the car seat back into the house, or in my case, the apartment.

I did that the other night, but I was so exhausted and frustrated my depression hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s hard to admit, but I was so tired I didn’t care about anything as I drove around town. I drove down a road that has recently had scares with sinkholes opening up and couldn’t bring myself to care about it one little bit.

Sleep deprivation does a number on me. By the time I drove home around 3 am, I struggled to keep my eyes open and realized just how scary it was to be driving on so little sleep. I focused on making it to my exit and going to the apartment and told myself I would make it there and go to sleep. I got home safely and even managed to get the car seat into the apartment without waking Emmeric, and then I passed out next to him on the living room floor.

After talking to Daniel about it, we agreed it’s time to do some sleep training. Starting yesterday, we began a new program to help our baby get more sleep so we can sleep. I’ll be posting a series on this process and the books I read about sleep training so you can evaluate it for yourself.

In the meantime, I think it’s time to wake my baby from his nap. Follow along with the next posts about sleep training, and tell me if you’ve done any sleep training! What worked for you? What didn’t? I’m curious about people’s view on this.



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3 thoughts on “Sleep Deprivation: Torture Tactic or New Mom Nightmare?

  1. One thing that has always annoyed me about the albeit well-meaning, advice of “sleep when baby sleeps”, is that it only works in theory. You pointed out how hard it can be in those first few weeks especially with phantom baby cries or the worry that something might happen if you shut your eyes for even a second. I struggled with all of that but I also found it unrealtistic to sleep when baby sleeps when moms have so much they need to get done with baby sleeps! Eat, shower, use the restroom, laundry, dishes, take care of other members of the family. It’s a lot! So how can we lay down and rest, let alone sleep, when there is so much else to do.

  2. Has sleep training helped you any? We were fortunate that Carly is a good sleeper. That’s why I don’t think we will have a second baby. Probably would be awake all the time! I hope things get better for you all!

    1. Actually, it’s been awesome. I was literally getting to the point where I would drive around with Emmeric and find myself starting to fall asleep at the wheel. It was pretty scary, actually. So I knew we needed to do something. I’m going to post a follow-up to my review of sleep training soon, but it really has helped all of us. I think Emmeric likes having his space to be able to roll around, and we’ll find him turned 90 or 180 degrees in the morning. I like having my space to sleep, too, and he’s adapted to sleeping roughly 12 hours with few wakeups pretty quickly. I love it!

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