If you are experiencing some issues as a couple because mama is sleep deprived, then you’re not alone. Here’s how to overcome and thrive.
It’s true what they say – the thing you’re fighting about is not actually “the thing”.
Except when it is the thing.
Chronic sleep deprivation can make a couple feel like they have waaaaay more issues than they actually have.
I remember hearing some (well meaning?) advice when my first was a baby. We were talking about some marital spats and she said…
“Oh, no one told you couples hate each other when their kids are young?”
No. No one had told me that. I mean she was half joking, but also kind of serious.
Because the thing is – we aren’t ourselves when we are living on next-to-nothing sleep for weeks and months on end.
We become like wild animals, snapping at everything that disturbs our sleep and growling at each other just because they’re there. Sometimes, we literally go crazy.
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While there will always be underlying issues in relationships to work on, sleep deprivation brings out a side to us that is nothing short of ugly.
As a certified baby and toddler sleep consultant, I have yet to meet a couple whose relationship is not being negatively affected by sleep deprivation. Sleep is as essential to our physical and emotional health as food and water. And yet, we continue to exist on minimal amounts of sleep for incredibly long periods of time.
It’s no wonder our relationships deteriorate. As important as relationships are, you can’t focus on them when your basic needs are not getting met.
So how do you survive and come out the other end of this dark tunnel with your relationship in tact?
1. Nothing counts between 11pm-7am
No season of your marriage needs more grace than when you’re in the sleep deprived years of parenting young children. The same concept holds true day-to-day. There are certain hours each day where we need an extra heap of grace and understanding.
Give each other a pass during those hours where we are feeling the sleep deprivation most acutely. Typically between 11pm-7am. This is when our circadian rhythm and homeostatic drive are putting the most sleep pressure on our bodies. Because of that, our need for sleep feels even more desperate.
When I understand the impatient comment my spouse made is the sleep deprivation, I can be more gracious.
Not that this gives us a pass to treat each other however we feel during these hours. We should all still be trying our best to be respectful and loving – but just recognizing these hours as the hardest can help.
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2. Take turns
If both parents are up all night and working all week, take turns letting the other parent sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Recouping sleep debt that is accrued throughout the week is really vital to your physical health. Though it’s normally important for your circadian rhythms to be on a consistent schedule, paying back sleep debt takes priority over a consistent schedule.
You can also do this with power naps.
It’s not always possible to switch off on night-duty (like with an exclusively breastfed baby who doesn’t take a bottle). But, wherever you can share in this as much as possible, the burden will feel a little bit lighter. This will probably mean having an honest conversation with your husband about how you’re actually doing.
Often, they really don’t have a firm grasp on all the emotional and physical realities you’re dealing with. And they’re definitely not experiencing all the physical postpartum symptoms that you are.
Don’t hold this against them, calmly and kindly communicate about it.
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3. Don’t give up on the bottle
Bottles are necessary for moms who are going back to work. But for stay-at-home moms, bottles don’t feel so vital. It can be easy to skip this process, or give up on it if it isn’t going well.
But once you hit that 6-8 week window, or even earlier if breastfeeding is going well, you can and should introduce a bottle. It’s easy to give up on, since everyone is already exhausted, and no one wants to deal with a hungry baby who refuses the bottle.
This is where dads need to step up and persevere – it will pay dividends! Once your baby will reliably take a bottle, you’ll better be able to share the load. And it will give you the opportunity to get a stretch of sleep at night, and even to get out of the house alone for some self-care – or together for a date night.
4. Set aside time together
It’s easy to let this slide during the crazy newborn months. But neglecting time together can easily become a habit that lasts long past the newborn stage if you’re not careful.
This lack of dedicated time together chips away at the feeling of connection.
But, once your baby is taking a bottle, this gives you a chance to escape. Even if it’s just an hour out at the coffee shop. Or a 20 minute walk around the block. Hire a mother’s helper, if you have to.
Make time to talk, hold hands, and look each other in the eye, without kids around.
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5. Don’t judge your relationship while sleep deprived
Everything feels worse when you’re sleep deprived. In fact, research has shown that literally. Our pain tolerance levels go down significantly when we are sleep deprived.
Stress from every day life feels like an impossible mountain to climb. Things that used to only slightly irritate you are now huge sources of conflict. So the next time your husband says, ‘I’m so tired” after you spent the whole night listening to him snore while nursing a baby…
Take a step back from the negative feelings. Remind yourself that the actual offense of that comment is probably not worthy of the death-kill daggers you’re giving him.
It’s hard not to react, but if you can step back and realize that being sleep deprived is intensifying those feelings, and not really how “bad” your spouse is, it can help you endure and live to fight another day.
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6. Communicate how tired you are
This might seem obvious, but I’ve spoken with a lot of women whose husbands have no idea the degree to which their wife is suffering. Sometimes, they legitimately think their wife is getting enough sleep because they don’t realize how many times she got up the night before.
Don’t expect your significant other to have tracked your sleep patterns all night. Especially if you’re the one responsible for feeding the baby most of the night. It’s amazing what they can sleep through.
My husband went back to sleep after I told him my water broke. I stared at him in shock for nearly 5 minutes until he woke up again, startled.
And if he’s anything like my husband, he probably won’t notice the bags under your eyes or that you haven’t showered for days.
A brief but honest conversation starting with something like, “I just need you to understand what I’m going through each night and how it’s affecting me”, can be the first step to getting on the same page.
Then ask directly for what you need him to do. SPELL IT OUT. That way he can support you better.
Most guys really do want to be supportive, but can benefit from some more specific requests. Or, as my husband likes to say, “Can you make me a list?”
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7. Fix the sleep problem
Yes, you are a parent so, yes, you will be tired for the next 18-20 years. But tired because you can’t sleep in until 10am on Saturdays anymore is different than “tired” because you haven’t had a chunk of sleep longer than 3 hours in more than 3 months.
No matter what you’ve been told about sleep deprivation being “normal” or that sleep training is “evil”, if your marriage and health or other areas are suffering, it’s time to do something about it.
I specialize in helping mamas create sleep plans that they are comfortable with, and that fit their parenting style and philosophy. You can make the changes that you need and keep your parenting philosophy in tact.
I also get my mamas rapid results, so that you can start sleeping long chunks again in a matter of days.
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8. Get marriage counseling
It may turn out that being sleep deprived is highlighting some deeper problems that won’t be fixed by just getting more sleep.
If you’re still struggling, even after everyone is well-rested again, you’re not alone. Ask your pastor or the good ole world wide web for some counselors near you.
You won’t regret it.