3 Expert Sleep Tips for Working Mamas
Let’s be clear - whether you have an “inside job” or an “outside job” you are a working mama and as such are responsible for keeping all of the cogs in your family’s life spinning smoothly. As moms we are guilty of continually adding more to our “mental list” each day even while we’re struggling to keep on top of the current tasks. We raise our kids, feed the family, run errands, maintain work schedules, keep clients happy, schedule the appointments, cheer at sports events, sell girl scout cookies, wash the laundry, answer emails, squeeze in work calls, help with homework, change diapers, potty train, pick up the groceries, and clock more miles than an uber driver all while providing kisses, hugs, and the unconditional love that all of our kids need. But when you add to that list chronic sleep deprivation it can be a recipe for a mommy meltdown.
Sleep is not a luxury. Sleep is oxygen. Sleep is brain fuel. You must have it if you want a shot at keeping all of those cogs spinning and more importantly to avoid feeling like a zombie who’s sleep-walking through life. Sleep can be tricky though because it traps you in a vicious cycle where you’re so tired that you’ll do anything to get it which usually leads to more bad sleep. When I meet with families to discuss sleep training I often have moms express feelings of guilt over not “being consistent” or making statements like, “I know this is all my fault.” I’ll tell you what I tell them, “Give yourself a break! You’re not a robot so sometimes you do what you have to do to get some rest.” That being said there’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way so let’s review three of my staple rules for achieving sleep success.
Rule #1: Be Proactive and Not Reactive
When sleep is good it’s great and when it’s bad it’s so awful you want to sit in your car and cry. The less uninterrupted sleep you get the harder it is to problem solve and the more likely you are to become emotional about making decisions. This emotional decision making leads to variety of reactions to your child’s awakenings from bringing them into bed and nursing them back to sleep to yelling, crying, and driving them around at midnight hoping for twenty minutes of silence. Making the choice to sleep train should not be an impulsive decision made at 3am - that just leads to #sleeptrainingfail.
Instead of reacting off your feeling in the moment take the time to sit down whether it’s on your own or with your partner and think through your options. We set appointments for everything else in life and this needs to be one of them - you cannot make a sleep plan in the middle of the night or while loudly talking over your children at dinner. Sleep training requires the space to process so that you’re prepared for what you’re about to start. After picking the sleep approach that’s right for you set a date to get started, plan your time around it, and, if you have a partner, discuss how to support each other. Parents who have a plan of approach put off less anxious energy at bedtime and are better able to assist with regulating their kids. Additionally, you have a timeline and a game plan that take the mental guess work and emotional see-sawing out of the equation.
Rule #2: Stay Strong
You’ve made your appointment to discuss your sleep options, you’ve picked a plan, and you’ve got your start date. You’re feeling good and you’re ready to get started only there’s a little alarm bell slowly chiming in the back of your brain. This is where we get the saying: Everything sounds good in theory but it’s different in practice. It is critical to pick a plan for sleep that fits with your family’s comfort level because that is what leads to consistency. I always tell families that there is more than one way to get to the same end result and what’s important is picking a plan of action that feels right for you. It doesn’t matter if you want to respond to cries right away, or wait ten minutes, or stay out completely - all of these approaches work but it only works if you can see it through to the end.
Babies are going to cry - that’s inevitable. You baby was used to one type of response pattern to their crying and now they’re getting a different one…and they don’t like it. The first three days of sleep training is what we term the “protest phase” because your child is “protesting” the change to the response their cries were getting. It doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong, it just means that it’s different. I compare sleep training to starting a new diet where you’re restricted from the food that you love to eat. You feel ready to get going but at 9pm you're craving kicks in and you’re looking for any excuse to cheat and grab that brownie on the counter. Your brain likes familiarity so when you introduce something new it’s going to “alarm” and give you some push back. You need to push back against it. Sleep training is not pleasant but it’s necessary to get your child the amount of rest that they need to support neurological development. If you’re tired, they’re even more tired. Children don’t show fatigue in the way that adults do if anything they become more hyper from sleep deprivation which often leads to the idea that some kids need less sleep. This is not true. All kids need a lot of sleep because their little brains are 95% developed by the age of 3! So again I’ll say that this is not an easy process which is why you need to pick a plan that feels right to you. I don’t care if your best friend sleep trained all four of her kids with a certain method, if it doesn’t sit right with you it’s not going to work. Listen to your mom gut and start from there because consistency is the key for success here.
Rule #3: Ditch the Guilt
Mom guilt unfortunately is a way of life these days - I personally blame social media for the epidemic but it’s probably deeper than just blaming the perfect families on Instagram. We are wired to our children in such a primal way that their every happiness and disappointment gets registered on a basic level and sprouts feelings of insecurity that we could have enhanced or prevented those experiences for our kids. As a mom with an “outside” job I don’t have as much time during the day with my children so I relish the evening routine because it’s our daily quality time. The problem is that when we let guilt take over it can tell us that bending the rules around bedtime or spending time with our kids when they wake-up is how we can make up for the deficit.
Children need one thing above all which is unconditional love so whether you spend all day with your kids or a few hours in the evening if you’re giving them unconditional positive regard that’s what they’re really seeking from you. Reinforcing poor sleep habits is not a way to show them that you care, if anything it actually contributes to higher stress levels and erratic behavior during the day. We all want our kids to get the maximum benefit of learning during the day and the best way to accomplish this is through good, quality sleep. Remind yourself that your children are getting the message every day that you love them and one of the best ways to support that healthy attachment is by keeping routines predictable. If I let my son slide on his bedtime schedule he’s not happier for it, if anything he has a harder time falling asleep and his sleep quality is restless so the best thing I can do to support him is to keep that routine in place.
We all do the best that we can for our families and if you’re reading this blog post it’s because you care about giving your kiddos everything that they need to support their development. I recently went to an author discussion lead by Academy Award winner Sally Field who was asked, “What’s the most difficult role that you’ve ever played?” and without hesitation she said, “Being a parent.” The work we do is hard but when we follow our instincts it is so rewarding. Push the guilt aside, take time for yourself, and make a plan to support your child because sleep training is probably one of the easiest things we’re tasked to do as a parent in the life of our child. So what are you waiting for - go for it!
Courtney Palm, LMFT
Founder of Cradle Baby Sleep Trainer
Cradle Baby Sleep Trainer is an app for iOS that provides custom sleep plans for parents of children ages 0-2 years. For more information about our approach to sleep training visit: www.cradleapp.com