When Sleep Deprivation Takes Its Toll (Ask Rachel)

Annie writes....

I have a terrible sleeper who wakes up 3-4 times a night. The problem is that she needs a pacifier to fall asleep and will not sleep in her crib. She only sleeps in the big bed with me and wakes up crying multiple times. I have to give her the pacifier and put her down to bed each time. I tried sleep training a few times when she was younger, but she has so much stamina! 
She is 15 months old already and I'm tired and sleep deprived. This is affecting my relationship with my husband and my mom and I just don't know what to do anymore. I love my daughter more than anything and I don't want her to get sick from not getting enough sleep or feel neglected sitting alone crying in the room by herself. I am very conflicted and upset. Motherhood shouldn’t be this hard!

Annie, if I could, I'd switch places with you for a few nights so you could get some much needed shut-eye. Going 15 months on fragmented sleep is tough, even for those that can get by with very little sleep. But if you are like most people who only function about 20% on crummy sleep (and of course, the kind and patient side of us is in the missing 80%!), you are probably feeling like you've just ran 5 marathons while being starved half to death. In other words, you likely feel like total crap. No wonder you feel it is affecting your relationships with others. It's hard to be nice and have patience and enjoy other people's company when you feel run down. In fact, I pretty much go from really nice to half-devil, despite my best efforts, on little sleep--one of the reasons I personally take sleep and children seriously! Most of us simply don't function well on little sleep, and that means we can't be the kind of parent (and spouse and sister etc) we want to be. It has nothing to do with toughing it up. There's a reasons there are a bunch of not so nice things correlated to a lack of sleep (for baby and us)--it is a necessity of life. Completely ignoring this need we have doesn't make us a better parent, it just makes us tired--and cranky!

The crazy thing about motherhood is that no matter how much you try to prepare yourself for it, you can't quite comprehend how hard it's going to be. Not only is there the physical effort involved while taking care of someone 24 hours a day who can hardly do anything on their own, but the emotional effort is immense. If you're anything like me, you pretty much worry every living second of your life about your child and their future. Not exactly relaxing, eh? 

You email reminds me a lot of myself when my oldest, Joshua, was a young baby. I was so conflicted over what to do. I had different parts of me pulling me in every which direction (as well as guilt from various parenting philosophies pulling me every which way). I wanted to be the best parent possible and let my son know that he was always loved. But I also wanted the both of us to get some sleep so I could function like a human being again. 

Figuring out what is best for you, your baby and your family is a tough thing to do. I personally think it involves a balance between everyone's needs. If you forget one person, then the scale tips and everyone suffers. When you find a good balance, everyone does better overall. Obviously it's normal to have a lot of needs not being fully met right after a baby is born, but the point is to try to keep everyone and their needs in mind. 

Right now your lack of sleep is getting pretty far out of balance. It is affecting you, your relationships, and likely how well you are able to interact with your daughter. That's often what happens with a new baby, and even as they get older. You want the best for your child and it's easy to neglect everything else in the process. 

It's also easy to feel confused and guilt infused from the various perspectives (and mommy-wars) out there, making knowing what to do even more difficult to decide. You may even be getting the message that if you just listen to your intuition and give your baby the snuggling she needs she'll sleep well. Or you may be getting the message that you simply have to deal with your situation and 'stop complaining' . I think you already know what I think about dealing with the situation and  'toughing it out'. For a parent whose struggling, it kind of feels like suggesting they take the long cut when there is a short cut to bliss sitting just two steps in front of you. As for intution (or whatevever you want to call it), I think that takes a part in what you decide to do but isn't the only deciding factor. I don't see why we should avoid getting knowledge from various sources--'knowledge is power', and all. And certainly if you are someone who prayers, that is a great thing to do too.

The nice thing about choosing an approach to teach your child to sleep is that there are lots of methods available out there that you can fit to your family's needs and situation. You can choose one that involves crying alone, crying in your presence, or no crying. You can choose a method that's super quick, or one that makes slower changes. As long as you are consistent, you'll likely get some good results--and your old self back in the process. Yes, you are considering your own needs in this process (as well as your child's) and that's ok. You are important too, and thinking about yourself DOES NOT make you a bad person or a selfish mother. In fact, I'd say just the opposite. And guess what, your daughter really will love you just as much once you are done with sleep training. Really, she will. All the love you offer her during her wakings moments will make up for a handful of tough nights and days of sleep training. Kids are resilient like that. 

Does anyone else have any helpful advice or experiences to share with Annie? What helped you decide on a sleep training method? How have things improved since you sleep trained? What would you have done differently in your situation? (I know sleep training is a touchy subject, so nice comments only please!)


  1. Julia @ My Baby Sleep Guide - Ask Rachel...

    I really like what you wrote about the need to balance the scale between everyone. It really illustrates the family dynamic associated with motherhood very clearly. Perhaps you can build up part of your relationship with your husband and mom around your child. They can both help with naptime so there isn't so much pressure exclusively on you. This will help them understand what you have to go through and give you an opportunity for your much needed sleep.

    1. RachelStella @ My Baby Sleep Guide - Ask Rachel...

      Thanks for the great suggestions Julia. Working on relationships AND getting help through those relationships is so important. I didn't emphasize that much above so thanks for mentioning it.

  2. Jess @ My Baby Sleep Guide - Ask Rachel...

    I totally agree! My little man is only 6 months old, so I'm not quite as sleep-deprived, but 6 months of up every 3-4 hours is rough! And we're teething now, so it's up every 2 hours. I agree that it is affecting my relationship with my husband, but we've also learned better communication. I do my best to get my husband the sleep he needs during the week, and then it's my turn on the weekends. Little man doesn't do well being comforted by dad at night, but when he's up for the morning on the weekends, my husband does his first "round" of play and sleep with him while I get a little bit of extra sleep.
    I also hate the guilt that's out there about sleep training. We did a bit of cry-it-out at 5.5 months, but not night weaning, so we're still up a lot, but it's easy to put him down--bedtime isn't a struggle. It was a really hard couple of days, but everyone (including my son) is better for it. He gets more sleep at night, and so do I, which makes me a better mommy. Because even though crying can cause rising levels of cortisol, you know what else does? Chronic sleep deprivation. And the stress that comes with short-term crying (especially in a baby who is 15 months old!) is, I'd assume, still less than chronic sleep deprivation for 15+months. Here's a pediatrician's perspective: http://pediatricinsider.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/will-cry-it-out-hurt-your-baby/

    Not that you have to choose crying-it-out. There are definitely other options. In fact, we kind of "accidentally" cried it out, and I was making great progress with sleep before that using info from this blog and another. There are lots of gentler solutions.

    Anyway, good luck! And don't let mom-guilt or mom-shaming get in your way. You are a great mom! But you also need to take care of yourself. And only YOU know what is best for your family.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Jess, and great advice!


  3. Hi, I also have a 15 month old but he hasn't been a good napper in about 9 months. He screams through one or both naps--he wakes from naps/night sleep crying (always has) and never talks/plays in bed (if he's in his crib and not asleep he is crying/screaming). Things have been so bad for so long that I don't know how to figure it out. He has a good bedtime routine and seems tired before sleep but when I lay him down, if he doesn't fall asleep right away he will scream until I come get him. CIO for naps hasn't ever worked (although it did for nights). Any advice?

    1. Ariana,
      He sounds pretty tired. I'd try to put him to bed earlier for naps and much earlier at night. If cio hasn't worked (and you've been 100% consistent for at least several days at a time), then you could try another sleep training method. Maybe one where you check on him frequently (like the limited crying solution) but you do not get him out of bed until he is happy. I have yet to see a well rested child that can't learn to be happy in their bed, they just need to be given the chance. He's even at an age where you can verbalize things to him. Let him know that mommy gets him up when he's happy and demonstrate/verbalize what happy and cranky means throughout your day.


  4. A few questions from this sleep deprived mamma

    My 10 weeks old has had a terrible last couple if days with sleep. I'm hoping its a growth spurt, but today his sleep was really affected mostly because I am so overtired to put forth the work to get him to sleep. (He slept a total of 2 hours over a 14 hour span). As soon as I'd get him asleep I would set him down and he would wake up or poop or something that would make us start over. He only slept in a sling today.
    Here are my questions
    1) what do you do in the shush pat process if they jerk all the way back awake at the 7 min mark?
    2) at night do you do shush pat when you lay them down or only if they cry? ( mine almost always jerks awake and he's double swaddled!)
    3) during the 4s routine how long should I let him cry to settle himself down?
    Thanks !

  5. I am having the same problem. I have tried sleep training twice and my 11 month old will not go for it. The only way she will go to sleep is by nursing and still wakes quite a few times at night. I don't know what to try at this point. She has no schedule at all and it is hard for me to do routines because I have a 5 year old and a 3 year old too.
    We have tried various CIO methods but she will cry for 2 hours straight and that is my limit. I feel like we are just training her to cry for a while until we get her. She has never gone to sleep on her own this way, either at bedtime or in the middle of the night. Any suggestions?

    1. Thetam,
      "I feel like we are just training her to cry for a while until we get her" When you don't keep consistent with a sleep plan, then that is kind of what is happening. You actually end up reinforcing the crying. You need to find a plan that you feel comfortable doing consistently. There is no point in doing it if you aren't not going to follow through--it will just result in a tough time for you and your daughter. I'm not trying to be mean, I'm just trying to say it like it is. I'm sure you are extremely tired and just want to know what to do. So that is it :) And even with a 3 and 5 year old, you will have much more success if you try to have some sort of a routine going on. It doesn't have to be perfect, but unless she's really flexible, sleep will continue and you'll be much more tempted to give in and not follow through if things are more chaotic.

      Good luck, I know it is tough. But it can get better and easier.