An Insomniac’s Survival Guide To New Parenthood

There is a lot to be petrified about when you’re getting ready to give birth and become a parent. Hemorrhages, depression, exhaustion, psychologically ruining a small, innocent human being: pick your damage! Yes, I jest, but all those are valid fears to face when preparing for parenthood. But for me, the biggest fear was much more mundane: I was most scared of not sleeping. 

I know, I know: sleep is the most basic casualty when it comes to becoming a parent. Everyone knows you just never sleep when the presence of a squalling, demanding yet adorable wee one arrives in your life. It’s part of the deal: you lose sleep (and often your sanity), but you gain an oceanic, overwhelming and sometimes transcendent love. But as someone who’s struggled with insomnia all my life, returning to a fractious, troubled relationship to sleep seriously scared me.

After all, I’d spent so much time, effort and willpower to defeat my insomnia and develop healthier sleep habits. While I had the occasional slip-up, I was much more able to recover faster, but it’s been a lot of hard work. There’s nothing like getting to the other side of insomnia to know just how beautiful, enriching and blissfully restorative sleep is — and how I can’t take it for granted, and how you have to be pretty vigilant at times to stave off insomnia. How was I going to do without it? What would happen once the baby came?

The standard advice is “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” But as many insomniacs know, that’s easier said than done. That advice assumes you can fall asleep easily, with the wiggle of a nose and a kiss on the elbow. But sometimes just falling asleep is an epic battle of will and frustration — and sometimes sleep just does not come, no matter how hard you try. Couple this with the fact that a lot of my previous mental health measures — exercise, meditation, yoga — went out the window for awhile in the throes of early parenthood. So it’s so surprise that my insomnia flared up again, and I was just a bit more challenged at this point in my life to deal with it.

I’m in the middle of it now, but here’s what I can tell you: being a new parent as a former, still struggling insomniac is hard. Sleep now is often broken-up shards of 2-3 hour intervals, punctuated by feeding, changing or playing. I can carve out 6-7 hours of sleep with a few naps a day, but there is a huge difference between a 2-3 hour chunk versus a longer block. You really physically understand the importance of quality of sleep — I’ve read that you really need a solid block of about 4 hours to reap the benefits of sleeping, and now, well, I can really attest to that. My ability to be patient, calm and just happy and content is so much stronger on a 4-hour block of sleep versus a shorter one. It’s almost better to get five hours of continuous sleep than seven broken-up ones. 

Sometimes I think the very real psychological collateral that women experience in the early nights and days of a new baby — baby blues, mood swings, jags of crying, anger, resentment, unmitigated rage against your partner — can be chalked up to a lethal combination of no sleep, hormones and societal pressures. I mean, we’re all aware of how prisoners are tortured by robbing them of sleep — imagine doing that for MONTHS, just at a time when women feel the press of societal perfectionism to be an ideal mother the most, and there’s a very real, very vulnerable baby to care for. It’s honestly more of a wonder that women don’t crack up in higher numbers.

At the very beginning, in the round-the-clock “feed/poop/sleep” phase, I was so tired that I fell asleep easily, though my sleep was pretty haunted in some ways: by dreams so vivid I’d wake up from them feeling drained, or by any little noise, as if I were extra vigilant about protecting my new baby from whatever primordial danger lay out there. 

Then Baby started sleeping more solidly, which you think would be a godsend — except I’d lay awake in those newly free hours, mind racing with anxieties, plans, worries, memories, emotions. I went through a spell a month or so into parenthood when I’d wake at 4am, feed Baby…and then be unable to sleep afterwards. It was heartbreaking and frustrating, and I wanted to cry so badly. Part of it was the growing light of dawn when I finished; part of it was dealing with the thoughts and doubts and worries that parenting-while-exhausted bubble up.

It didn’t help that I could hear Baby’s little gurgles, snores and heavy breathing from the bassinet, punctuating the never-ending mental movie running through my brain. And all the subtitles of this mental movie read “YOU NEED TO SLEEP!” But of course, yelling at yourself in your head to fall asleep is pretty much a guaranteed way to keep you awake. (And eventually for sanity’s sake we had to move the bassinet into Baby’s own room in order for me to get some non-anxious sleep.)

Luckily, little babycakes is now approaching four months (growing so fast!) and my sleep ability is starting to come back. But getting through this latest insomnia slugfest was rough. What helped — and I hope this helps any other insomniacs dealing with the early flush of a new baby — was embracing the idea that babies change and grow so fast that these challenging, hard circumstances will pass eventually as well. Baby will sleep more in the future at some points, and so will you. I know it’s little consolation in the moment when you’re up at 3 in the morning and up to your elbows in burp cloths and dirty diapers — AAARGH! But I told myself in those early endless nights that Baby would never be this little and precious again, and that it was nice to be awake to soak it all in and cherish all those little things: how they yawn and then sprawl in your lap, milk-drunk, how the little hairs at the nape of their neck stick up all ducky-like.

(And also, if you’re nursing and not sleeping anyway, embrace all the TV and reading you want, because you’re going to be plopped on that sofa for a very long time with nothing else you can do. Man, Baby nursed for soooooo long in the beginning — and so why not take the opportunity to binge-watch “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix?)

And everyone says this as well, but: get as much support as you can, whether that’s friends and family who will hold Baby so you can do stuff (like nap!) or make meals (so you can nap!) or clean up (freeing you up to nap instead!) I know for me this was hard, but luckily I have a super-intrusive family (half jokes!) and they were keen on coming to play and hang out with Baby. And if there is no one nearby to offer this kind of support, save up money to hire cleaners, get a meal delivery service or whatever — it is worth it. And don’t feel bad about using that extra time to sleep!

But many insomniacs know that sleep is kind of a mental and psychological game, and it’s very easy to find yourself with mind racing when you know you should be sleeping. The big thing that helped was being able to share my worries and experience the emotions I was going through — just letting myself feel what I felt. There are so many “shoulds” when it comes to motherhood in particular. The subtleties, ambiguities and shadows are accompanied by a huge sense of guilt and doubt — and there’s nothing like those two feelings to feed the insomnia monster. The thing I had to do, I found, was just facing them down and give them some breathing room to exist, then to dissolve and dissipate. And then deep breath, and deep breath, and again and again.

Parenthood is profoundly unpredictable, and the lack of routine — along with the huge emotional adjustment, swirling hormones and rollercoaster of changes — is a perfect breeding ground for insomnia. But it’s helped to let go of the hope and expectation of getting a perfect or ideal night’s sleep. A whole solid eight hours is such a rarity now. Instead, I think now in terms of “good enough” and cherish those solid 4-hour chunks — and am so amazingly grateful on those rare nights when seven-plus hours happen. I still don’t get enough sleep as I’d like, but there’s just a bit less angst about it. It still feels exhausting, but it’s not an existential calamity. (Well, sometimes it is, but try to wait till the next significant nap before you decide to throw yourself off a bridge.)

And there’s also the consolation of watching the little one sleep, so peaceful and cherubic with the little snores and wadded up fists and feathery eyelashes — it really does make this kind of hardship worth it in beautiful and tender ways.

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