How to stay sane when your child won’t sleep

Knowing the phase of sleepless nights will end but not knowing when is tough on all parents

How to stay sane when your child won’t sleep has been a reoccurring conversation myself and my friends have often fallen into.

No pandemic could change the eventuality of sleepless nights and new parenthood but where we once would prop up the kitchen table with the strongest coffee we could find, we, for a while, compared and contrasted our children’s sleeping patterns over phone and Zoom.

Between us we have five children with sporadic, unpredictable, and dismal sleep behaviours. One child barely sleeps at all, no matter the time of day, and his mother is the martyr of our little group.

Lack of sleep and kids are one of those things we seem to have to accept once we become a parent

With two children of my own, my experience with sleepless nights seems to be coming to an end. Our eldest has been a literal dream since the day she was born loving her bed as much as I love my own. But her younger sibling has been a proverbial nightmare only recently beginning to settle down and sleep better, longer and deeper. Knowing that the phase of sleepless nights will end, but not knowing when, makes the situation a cruel juxtaposition between hope and despair.

As we dissect the previous weeks gruelling night-time routines, we count on one hand the average number of hours sleep we managed a night. I apologise for having racked up an extra hour or two more than my peers.

[Lack of] sleep and kids are one of those things we seem to have to accept once we become a parent. If we’re lucky, the endless nights won’t last that long. As our kids get older, we expect them to sleep better but that’s not always the case and the heavy eyes last longer. Positive sleep habits begin during the day for all of us. Overtiring ourselves and our children, forgetting to connect emotionally, being overwhelmed and not going to bed on time, structures our day in a way that night-time becomes a battle. We toss and turn yet expect our kids to simply sleep. “She’s tired. Why won’t she just sleep?” has bounced off our walls the past few years.

“As parents we lead our children towards settled sleep habits,” says certified child sleep consultant and member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants, Erica Hargaden. “By laying out from an early age the family sleep goals we set the tone around sleep in our homes long into the future. Yes, children are not robots and they will throw curve balls into the mix including sickness, developmental changes and simply needing support from us at various stages as they grow. All these things can impact on keeping sleep settled, however, it is possible to get things back on track by leading our children back to the family sleep goal.

“Very often family sleep goals can get side-lined by how much we have going on in our lives. We are bombarded from every angle via technology. We have never been more available to every channel of our lives and this is creeping into our homes and having a pressurised and negative impact on family life.

“When you come through the door in the evening time focus on family and leave everything else outside. Spending some quality time together and leading our children down the path to a settled night’s sleep.”

There is plenty of research on how a child’s poor sleep habits affect them developmentally, psychologically and physically but little on how this broken or lack of sleep affects the parents. When exhaustion hits, a wave of self-doubt and desperation comes with it, consuming us with the inability to solve problems or help ourselves.

Surviving sleep deprivation when it is not for a lack of wanting sleep is mind numbing

The connection between sleep and mental health may not be fully understood, but studies have suggested for positive mental health and substantial emotional resilience, a good night’s sleep is beneficial. With chronic exhaustion we are setting ourselves up for negative thinking, emotional vulnerability and our poor mental state can lead to depression.

"We need sleep so we can rest, recover and recharge from the stimulation of one day in preparation for the next," says Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting. "While it affords us the chance to rest it is an active state in that it is cleansing our busy brains of the toxins from the day. It reduces our stress levels and keeps us healthy in mind and body. Our physical and mental health are dependent on adequate levels of sleep."

Surviving sleep deprivation when it is not for a lack of wanting sleep is mind numbing. Knee deep in months of sleepless nights, my husband and I knew something had to give before we broke completely. A lack of sleep was affecting our mood, our relationship and our ability to make it through the day without crumbling. Minding ourselves seems like a simple thing to do but adds to our daily list and so it gets pushed further and further down the list. We often overthink it with grand gestures but when parents give themselves permission to focus on themselves momentarily, it adds up to help make it through the exhaustion.

“Sleep deprivation or at least disturbance can go hand in hand with parenting,” Fortune reminds us. “Investing in a sustainable model of self-care is of the utmost importance. Take turns getting up, ensure each parent gets a weekend morning lie-in. Have an interest outside of the home and unrelated to parenting. Modelling good self-care is positive for you and your children. Be kind to yourself and minimise the amount of additional or non-urgent tasks you take on while sleep deprived.”

How can parents mind themselves when exhausted and maintain a good headspace? Advice from Joanna Fortune:

  • Resist sugar or processed foods, which you are likely to crave, as it will only make you more sluggish. Instead drink lots of water and eat healthy.
  • Minimise consumption of caffeine and alcohol.
  • Get outside the next day for a walk in the fresh air as regular exercise helps.
  • Plan a routine around your bedtime that incorporates no screen time one hour before bed.
  • If you can power nap during your day, try to get a nap in.
  • Ask a family member to take children for one night to give you a chance to catch up on sleep.
  • Reflect on the quality of your sleep over quantity alone. A restful five hours might be good enough as opposed to a restless eight hours tossing and turning.
  • Make each other laugh. Playful connection will help shake off some of the residual tension and irritability sleepless nights cause.

Read: Tips to improve your sleep