The Sleep Deprivation Haze

I spoke to an old advisor of mine who is a psychiatrist, and after telling him about maternity leave (and beyond), he told me “Yes, your brain operates in an altered state of consciousness, as if you were on drugs.” Geez! Being a new mom is “natural” and comparing that state to being on drugs sounded a bit harsh. He is a father and was speaking from experience, not just giving his professional opinion. Now that I am long past the sleep deprivation state for the second time, I think he is absolutely right: we do operate in strange ways when we have new babies and the largest culprit for this behavior is sleep deprivation.

The Crash

Shortly after the arrival of a new baby, I was extremely excited. Despite being tired, the first few days of having little sleep were relatively easy. Within a few days, life started to feel like one very long day, and it was tough to tell night apart from day since I was equally likely to be up at any hour. Sometimes, the middle of the night felt more depressing because it seemed that “everyone” was asleep except for baby and me. I imagined that the entire neighborhood/city/country/world was getting more sleep than me. The beginning of the night was sometimes depressing too because I knew that shortly after I fell asleep, I would be woken. I dreaded the feeling of waking when I was in the middle of deep sleep and exhausted. I wondered if it would be better to force myself to stay awake instead. During the day, life went on as usual for those around me, and I felt disappointment to not be part of what used to be normal activities. Most invitations to have lunch, dinner, watch a movie, or (gasp!) go to a party? No thank you, I’d rather sleep or at least stay home looking disheveled and resting. It is ironic that these days that are in many ways the happiest days of my life, when I couldn’t stop holding and kissing my new baby, were also the toughest days when I felt that I was at my physical/mental/emotional limits. I cannot remember much of anything else during the first few weeks after giving birth, other than feeling that I was never going to be able to lead a normal life again.

Survival Mode

Despite the fact that a state of sleep deprivation seems easy to avoid (Have someone else take care of baby! Take naps when baby sleeps!), for those of us who feel compelled or have no other option than to be hands-on mothers, this state is unavoidable. In a short time, we instinctively enter “survival mode,” knowing that the baby will grow older and at some point we will be able to sleep again. In the meantime, we have to do whatever it takes during this phase to have a healthy and happy baby. Hobbies, projects, organizing, anything but minimalist cooking and cleaning: no way! People stressing you out over details regarding how much/little baby sleeps, how you dress the baby, what blankets you use, etc? Avoid them! One of the things that I most vividly remember strangers telling me with scorn as I pushed a newborn baby around in a stroller was “Just you wait until they are a teenager!” And another typical one, usually from smiling, well-intentioned, strangers “Enjoy every minute, they grow up so fast! Next thing you know, they’ll be off to college!” Please! I’ve had this baby for a few weeks, I’m losing a lot of sleep, and the words coming out of my mouth often don’t match what I am trying to say. The *last* thing I am thinking about is of this baby as a teenager or leaving home. A lot has to happen between now and then! I preferred the simple “Oh, look at that precious baby! I can’t believe how little s/he is!” That type of statement helped me remember to put my hazy state into perspective.

Emerging from the Haze

Denial is definitely a part of being sleep deprived. If you had asked me how I was feeling when the baby was a month or two old, I would have smiled and said “Great! A bit tired, but everything is fine!” Beginning to sleep 5 or 6 hours in a row feels like a luxury, and one feels so much more rested after getting stretches this long once the background for comparison is 2-3 hours. There is a certain amount of “mother machismo” while on maternity leave, because many co-workers think you are on vacation sitting around cuddling with a cooing baby all day long. In an effort to demonstrate commitment to work and hoping that colleagues wouldn’t lose respect for me, I would have never admitted to being in a fragile physical/mental/emotional state. I didn’t really want to admit this to myself. I continued to do *some* work. I made revisions to a paper and resubmitted it for review. I performed a few analytical tasks. I answered emails around the clock (I was awake at all times!). The surprising thing is that I was successful in all of these tasks, despite the fact that I now have no idea how I did them and barely remember doing them in the first place. Even after returning to work, when I was getting progressively longer stretches of sleep, I was still exhausted. At the time, I thought I was doing just fine, but there is some evidence to the contrary. For example, one day I was biking to work after dropping off baby at daycare, and I proceeded to bike through a parking gate arm. All I remember was biking along happily, and next thing I knew, I was laying face up on the pavement, unsure of how I got there. (Fortunately, the arm was made of flexible plastic, so I wasn’t badly hurt.) As one slips out of the haze of sleep deprivation, one realizes just how much of an impact it had.

Some Retrospective Suggestions

1) Strengthen your social support system. Your significant other, family, and close friends are natural allies, but do realize that many of them will have no idea what you are going through. Even mothers often forget what the beginning is like. One of the best things you can do is to join a new mother’s group. There is nothing like comparing notes with a group of new moms who are going through the same thing that you are  in real time. It is very relieving to hear that you are not the only sleep deprived one and to get support from peers.

2) Do your best to keep night and day distinct. There is a great temptation to turn on the lights, watch TV, and use the computer when up in the middle of the night, and to shut all of the blinds and stay indoors during the day. The more you confuse your and baby’s bodies about the differences between day and night, the more your sleep patterns will be changed. Make sure that night is darker and quieter, while the day is brighter and busier. This will help train baby to sleep longer at night and will help keep your circadian rhythms from going awry.

3) Nap. It is so obvious that we should nap during the day, but we sometimes avoid it and think we don’t need it (denial!). Other times, we intend to nap but lay there too restless to sleep in fear that as soon as we fall asleep, the baby will wake up. At some point, I read in a motherhood book something like “If you can’t sleep, then lay down; if you can’t lay down, then sit down.” It’s true: do your best to do the closest thing to napping that is possible at that particular time.