Sunday, 1 October 2017

Babies and Sleep

I really like to read advice columns, and Carolyn Hax is a good one.  But, there are always going to be answers that I think miss something important.  This is one of those times.  The letter-writer asked if it was possible to have a baby and still get a reasonable amount of sleep. She has “always needed a good night’s sleep to function, at least eight hours but ideally 10.” She hears parents talking about sleep deprivation and is terrified, and hopes maybe they’re exaggerating.  After all, how would they work or care for their kids on no sleep?

Carolyn’s response provides a useful explanation of the sleep habits of babies, and is meant to serve as a wake-up call that, yes, you will be horribly sleep-deprived, but you can deal.

The thing I think she’s missing is that the letter-writer needs an above-average amount of sleep to function.  So, my approach to the letter-writer is more like, “Hi, are you me?”  I also have always needed lots of sleep.  When I’d pull late nights in college, I’d feel like shit the entire next day and maybe get a nap.  Other people seemed to be okay.  And that was when I was 15 years younger, with a functional thyroid.

Today, with several chronic illnesses that drag my energy level down directly *and* contraindicate caffeine, I know I need way more sleep than most people. I’ve given up hobbies because they required too much night driving and I didn’t want to fall asleep on the road. I accept that if I have a late night out, I’m going to feel like crap for a couple days after. And, yeah, the idea of waking up every two hours with a screaming infant terrifies me too.

So, my advice to the letter-writer is a little different.  First, you are probably not going to have multiple sleepless nights in a row, unless something is wrong.  (If the baby has colic, which is a thing that happens, all bets are off.)  Second, you’re not likely to get 8 or ten most nights either, and it’s totally reasonable to be scared about a situation that leaves you unable to function.  When I was trying to get pregnant, I had similar worries.

Obviously, nobody can diagnose anybody with anything through the internet, but needing 8-10 hours of sleep for minimal functionality might be a sign of something medical.  I would define minimal functionality as being able to do your job well, meet the needs of the baby, and drive safely.  Feeling crappy and yawning a lot is one thing; falling asleep at the wheel is another. So, if going under eight hours puts you into “dangerously sleep-deprived” territory, it might be worth seeing a doctor and getting your thyroid, vitamin D levels, and whatnot checked out.

Another thing that might be useful, if you’ve been diligent about getting enough sleep currently, is a little experiment to find out how sleep deprivation affects you. Unfortunately, this only works if you have a free weekend with nothing critical to accomplish during it, and it requires deliberately making yourself feel like crap.  On a Friday night, set the alarm to go off two hours after you go to bed.  When it goes off, get up, putter around for 10 or 20 minutes, go back to bed, and set the alarm for another two hours. Continue through the night and get up at your normal time.  That’s your worst-case scenario, with a brand-new baby.

On Saturday, how do you feel?  Terrible, right?  No surprise there.  But how bad is it?  Can you drink some coffee and shamble through your day?  Would you be safe to drive? Can you accomplish simple household tasks? Granted, if you have a newborn, the housework is less important, but if you’re not awake enough to load the dishwasher, you’re probably not awake enough to make up a bottle or change a diaper. Again, remember this is the brand-new baby level. The experiment isn’t to determine whether you could keep the house clean, work full time, and take care of the baby.  It’s just to determine whether you can safely pull off the bare minimum in the beginning, while you’re home with the baby.

If you can, then that’s good.  You’ve learned that you can handle some level of sleep deprivation and still function.  And remember, you and your husband can take turns getting up with the baby even if you don’t get a night nanny, so even that worst case is not something you have to do every day until the kid sleeps through the night.

If you can’t, then that’s useful information too. What you do about it might depend on how that doctor’s visit went.  If there’s a medical issue, do you want to wait on having kids until that issue is better controlled, if that’s a possibility?  Obviously, it depends on the issue, on how old you are, and on a million other things that only you can weigh.  But it’s an option you have.

Regardless of what medical issues you do or don’t find, it’s good and responsible parenting to make sure that whoever’s responsible for the well-being of a tiny, helpless human is physically and mentally capable of doing so.  So, if you really do need 8 hours of sleep to make that happen, then you really do need 8 hours of sleep to make that happen.  That might mean you need to stay home with the baby longer than you otherwise would, so you can catch naps during the day.  Hiring a night nanny is also a viable plan, and if it’s what you need to do and you can afford it, do it with no guilt or hesitation.

As far as whether parents are exaggerating, I understand why Carolyn gave you some flak for that.  Because most of them aren’t, and sleep deprivation with infants is a real thing.  But, people do like telling war stories, so if someone says they haven’t slept in two straight days, and another parent counters with, “That’s nothing, I haven’t slept all week,” then those individual people probably *are* exaggerating.

But I think it’s more likely that it feels to you like they *must* be exaggerating because you have a different baseline than they do.  Since 7-9 hours is the average requirement for a good night’s sleep, there are people walking around bright-eyed and bushy tailed on seven hours, where you or I would be grumbling and hating life on that much sleep.  Those same people may be tired and reasonably functional on 4 or 5 hours, where you or I should probably not drive.  And people do pull all-nighters and function the next day.  Not necessarily well, and not for multiple days, but it can be done.  By some people, who are not me, and who might not be you. So it’s not that the parent who says they only got three hours of sleep is exaggerating, necessarily, but that you’re picturing how you would be on three hours of sleep, which is very different from how they are.

But the thing that I want to emphasize is that it’s okay to have different physical needs than the people around you.  I don’t know whether you might have some undiagnosed illness, or you just fall toward the edge of the bell curve as far as sleep requirements.  Either of those is nothing to be ashamed of.  We have this weird puritanical streak in our culture that tells us that sleep deprivation is a virtue, and that people who prioritize rest are lazy slackers.  But there is no prize for hurting yourself, or denying yourself help that you need because someone else doesn’t approve.  There is definitely no prize for being unable to care for your baby because you’re exhausted.




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