In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks about how people use exhaustion as a status symbol, and “crazy-busy” as a sort of shield from acknowledging your true needs and the reality of your life. I have never found this to be more true than in the realm of sleep deprived mothers.
A little over a year ago, I was up in the middle of the night for the sixth time nursing my son. As I scrolled through Instagram trying not to cry as I did alone in the dark most nights out of sheer exhaustion, I came across the hashtag #teamnosleep. Wow, could I relate to that! This must be my tribe, I thought. Until I clicked the hashtag and the most popular posts came up. Beautiful Instagram influencers with a full face of makeup and a cute flat tummy holding their newborns. Bright eyed women with perfectly curled hair and a fresh manicure, three children at their feet, wearing matching t shirts proudly bearing the same hashtag- “#teamnosleep.”
My already fragile new mama self esteem at the time cracked a little bit more. I couldn’t relate at all. I was falling apart from lack of sleep. These moms were also apparently getting no sleep- as a matter of fact, they represented the brand of sleep deprivation proudly- and yet how could their lives look so different from mine?
Now that I have some distance from my own hellish experience of sleep deprivation, another year of motherhood under my belt, a little more wisdom, knowledge, and the honor and opportunity to help many mothers and babies learn to sleep better, I am ready to say confidently that I know what #teamnosleep is, and it is not what it is popularly portrayed as. Far from being a cutesy, whimsical, Instagram-worthy lifestyle to attain, #teamnosleep is a dark reality for many parents.
For me, #teamnosleep was crying and not being able to even articulate why. It was never having a moment to myself. It was dark circles under my eyes. No energy to take a walk. Major postpartum anxiety. Being overcome by anger and hitting my steering wheel in frustration. Being afraid that I would fall asleep while driving and wreck the car. Being so tired that I was constantly nauseous. Being too anxious to fall asleep because I knew I’d be woken up again within the hour.
Perhaps I’m just weaker than the average mom, but I reached out to my friends and acquaintances on Facebook and asked for a short description on how sleep deprivation feels or felt to them. Here are the unprompted words they used to describe sleep deprivation:
“Sinking in quick sand”
“Slowly losing my sanity”
“Like a monster”
“Looking and acting like an insane person”
“In a fog”
“Out of control”
“Going through the motions”
Science supports these sentiments, and I like to back up my claims.
You’ve no doubt read this before, so please read slowly and take this to heart. Sleep. Deprivation. Is. Torture. Here’s how sleep deprivation works to break down your physical and mental health, and why it’s an effective torture tactic.
A recent study came out saying that sleep deprivation impairs your body in the same way drinking too much does. How does that make you feel about getting behind the wheel with your kids in the car?
This study link postpartum depression and sleep deprivation
This study links sleep deprivation with the development of mental health disorders.
Studies by Dr. Jodi Mendell show that kids with sleep issues and night wakings typically don’t “grow out of it” for 3-5 years, and this study shows that children who sleep less are at higher risk for diabetes.
This study shows how sleep deprivation can stunt children’ emotional development.
This study shows that children with poor sleep habits were more likely to be misdiagnosed with ADHD because the symptoms of sleep deprivation acts like the symptoms of ADHD.
Studies show that women are two and a half times more likely to cover the night shift than men, leading to big names like Arianna Huffington claiming that sleep is a feminist issue because we are becoming a nation of exhausted women.
Finally, this WebMD article lists the top ten side effects of sleep deprivation- prone to accidents, impairs cognitive processes, leads to risk of serious health issues such as heart disease and stroke, lack of sex drive, causes depression and anxiety, skin aging and sagging, memory loss, weight gain, impaired judgment, and finally… risk of death from all causes (this study followed people who cut their sleep from 7 to 5 hours per night. I for one know that I got less than 5 hours of sleep many nights with my little night owl!)
Is #teamnosleep losing its rosy glow yet?
Let me put it another way. Sleep is one of only a few biological necessities needed to live, right? What if #teamnofood or #teamnohydration was a popular hashtag with millions of users, proudly displayed by parents who are such attentive parents that they don’t even have time to eat a meal? Clearly we can see how unhealthy promoting this way of thinking would be. And truly, if we believe in the power of words and how it influences society, we have to understand the logical implications of promoting, embracing and normalizing a world that advocates for no sleep for parents.
How did we get here, where promoting no sleep is commonplace? I believe it comes from truly good intentions. A generation or two ago, we did not have the knowledge of some things that we know now. We’ve learned more about keeping our babies close, the emotional benefits of breastfeeding, the importance of secure attachment and the parent-child bond as it influences relationships later in life, and related to all of these things, we’ve been given a lot of information that shows that the old advice to leave a baby to cry it out alone to get them to sleep through the night is not the best. However, as society tends to do, we have overcorrected. We don’t try to find a middle ground (like gentle, responsive sleep training). We have become a generation of moms who deny ourselves basic life necessities in order to not leave our baby in a potentially uncomfortable situation or allowed to fuss for even a moment, and we are also a generation of moms prone to anxiety, depression and panic attacks.
This feels obvious, but I will add a disclaimer: even parents with the best sleepers will, on occasion, suffer through lack of sleep short term due to extenuating circumstances. For example, when my son had croup you’d better believe I was up with him most of the night comforting, rocking, and checking to make sure he was okay. This is normal. This is the kind of sacrifice we embrace and accept when we become moms. But it should be treated as nothing less than a temporary sacrifice of our health and wellness to get our children through an illness, not as just another night. During normal circumstances if you can do something that allows you and your family to be less sleep deprived, I wholeheartedly believe that you can and should.
I want to share what #teammoresleep is to me. #teammoresleep is waking up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. It’s walking into my son’s room with a smile on my face because I can’t wait to tell him good morning and give him a kiss. It’s having the energy to make him fresh muffins in the morning before we head to the park. It’s not being tempted to stick him in front of the TV all day while I fall asleep on the couch. It’s not counting the seconds till naptime …usually ;). It’s having the energy to read the same book 20 times. It’s having the patience to not yell when he spills the dog’s food bowl for the fifth time this week. It’s having time every evening after 7pm alone with my husband to work on our marriage. #teammoresleep for me is a happier, more manageable life in which I can grow a strong attachment and give my son all of myself during my time with him, and be a generally gentle, patient and responsive parent. When I was on #teamnosleep, I was a mess. I don’t think I was the kind of person or mom my son benefited from. And I’m never going back!
Now, I want to reassure you that my goal is not to shame or put down moms who have used the hashtag #teamnosleep. I totally get it- I even used it myself in the past! It’s seen as a cute saying most use to feel more connected to other tired moms, and it’s often used in a funny or offhanded way. I don’t believe that any mom using that hashtag wanted to make me feel like a failure in the middle of the night in my fog of sleep deprivation. I don’t want to create another “side” in the Mommy Wars. I want us all to be on the same side! The side that says yes, we sacrifice ourselves for our children but we also take care of our bare necessities, and we will not feel guilt for it. And I want to start a conversation about our words and how we use them to create our culture as mothers.
Parents everywhere… let’s ditch #teamnosleep and embrace #teammoresleep. Let’s embrace healthy moms, less postpartum depression, well-rested babies, peaceful nights, days spent happily interacting with our children and finding joy in our motherhood instead of just surviving. You and your babies deserve it!