The Fourth Decade: When Sleep Became King

For most of my life, sleep could be sacrificed for any and every reason. Sleep was the optional item on my to-do list.

In high school, I finished homework and then stayed on AOL/instant messenger until late, but still managed to soldier on to school the next morning and through extra-curriculars into the afternoon and evening.

At Princeton, the candle burned at both ends of the night, with all-night editing shifts at the student newspaper, cramming for exams and meeting last minute paper-writing deadlines, debating Big Questions with dear friends (and a future husband), then waking up early to run, to antagonize aggressive liberals on campus, and generally to make the most of a fabulous college experience.

Then, when I played supermom for a few years, I could stay up until 1am doing my part-time work and keeping house, and still be up and at ’em by 6am to get myself ready for another record-breakingly awesome day of executing all the right methods for parenting a 1, 2, and 3 year old.

At the playground. Busted.

And then I turned 30.

I can now say at age 32 that sleep has had, once and for all, the last laugh.

These days, after one night of inadequate sleep, I’m weepy and short-tempered. After a couple nights of bad sleep, it’s the desperation of the “arsenic hour” (it’s either them or me) all day. Everything feels like a failure.  I think that some pretty severe post-partum depression over the last couple of years was exacerbated, if not triggered in the first place, by sleep deprivation.

So, in service of King Sleep, I aim to be in bed for 8 hours every night. I take 1/4 dose of a Tylenol PM or Benadryl a half hour before bedtime. Insomnia has always been a struggle for me, and a very mild sleep aid solves it. It also allows me to return to sleep more easily after waking to nurse or deal with other nighttime kid issues. I’ll worry about achieving sleep without meds when the lives of five small people no longer depend on me staying sane.

Also, we have daytime help most days, so that I can exercise and do my work, at the very least. That allows me to accomplish two mandatory activities without cutting into sleep.

So, supermom has fallen. Into bed. But seriously, acknowledging my limitations and seeking a healthier balance in the life of our family is paying dividends for all of us.  And I happen to think that 32-year-old me is a much cooler mom than that high-strung, juiced-up lady from 6 years ago.

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  • Karen

    Melatonin works for me, and it is more natural. However it doesn’t work for everyone. If you have never used it, I suggest starting with 1 mg, than adding another to see how much you need. 5 mg is the max I take. Stress can cause me to have problems sleeping, and sleep deprivation and stress is a really bad combo. Also have a friend that swears my cherry juice ??? She says it works and gets it at Trader Joe’s.

  • Juris Mater

    Karen, thanks for the reminder about melatonin. Is synthetic melatonin (which is what’s contained in almost all melatonin supplements) preferable to other sleep aids? Isn’t it kind of one synthetic substance or the other? I’ve been curious about that.

  • Kat0427

    I know what you mean, JM! Who would’ve thought that 30 made such a drastic difference!

  • First, I love the title.

    I consider you lucky and blessed to have been able to function for so many years on so little sleep! I slept 8 hours per night pretty much all through college, and did so through most of my 20’s. I just don’t do well without a lot of sleep. Now that I am in my 30’s, I actually do need a little less, more like 7-7.5 hours. From what I read, it is actually normal to need a bit less as we age. But you were probably running on empty for so many years, that it has now finally caught up to you! So sleep away. And medicate if you need to do so. Sleep is SOOOOOO important, and you are so right to tie feelings of sadness and depression to a lack of good sleep. It makes you crazy.

  • Steph

    Love this. I am with you on the effect of little sleep now that I’m in my 30s. We’re planning a long road trip coming up (18+ hours) and my husband mentioned wanting to drive all night so that the kids can sleep while we drive. We used to do it every so often, but now the thought terrifies me–my borderline day to day state is tired. At any given moment of the day, even after coffee, I could take a nap if anyone would let me. I never thought I’d say that something terrifies me more than trying to entertain a 15 month old plus older kiddos for 18 hours in a car, but trying to be awake for an all night drive (and then trying to function at our vacation destination) certainly does 🙂

  • Lisa

    Sleep – such a great topic!

    A few follow up questions, if you don’t mind.

    – I, too, found myself really struggling with mood in the post-partum period, and it seemed entirely related to lack of sleep. When things like teething have caused subsequent sleep disruptions, my mood has been shot – which seems to confirm that it was lack of sleep that was giving me such a hard time initially. My question – did you find anything that helped you with your post-partum difficulties? My husband encouraged me to go to a post-partum depression group, but I declined — not for stigma/pride reasons, but because I could tell what I really needed was more sleep, and the group couldn’t give it to me. If you found any treatment ideas that were in fact helpful, please share. I’m bracing up for the next baby, and I’m trying hard to figure out better self-care methods.

    – Kind of related – given you had issues with babies, and subsequently had more babies — how did you encourage yourself during pregnancy? I don’t want to be filled with pessimism/negative anticipation . . . but it’s hard knowing I’ll likely have another (long!) stretch of every 2-3 hour wakings/feedings given I know how strongly/negatively that impacts my mood/well-being/stability

    – Last question, I promise! I learned about night nurses well after I’d struggled through most of the sleepless nights period. They sound expensive — but sleep is so valuable, I think I could find room in the budget. What I’m wondering, though, is if anyone has found a way to use such a resource while breastfeeding. I love the idea of getting even just one decent night’s sleep while someone else is on night duty — but it seems that’s a non-option for breastfeeding mamas . . .

  • John

    Sounds like maybe a checkup with Dr and maybe a sleep lab may be in order.

    I would suugest you have your dr check for sleep apnea. It is highly under diagnosed.

  • Mary Alice

    Lisa, I am totally with you on all of this, and I have done it 7 times, but at this stage the tiredness and related mood issues is the “grave reason” in my life.

    First, as far as preparing yourself and staying optimistic, I think it is important to remember how totally worth it this sacrifice is. I am really into my photos of my children, in part because much of their babyhood was a sleep deprived haze for me, but the photos help me remember that they were cute and that it was a really good time.

    On the night nurse – I got a post-partum doula who was super supportive of breastfeeding when I had twins. She did not stay over night, but she took the babies for a lot of the time in between nursing so that I could rest during the day. She also encouraged me to establish a bedtime routine for myself in my third trimester so that I would be trained to go to bed. Lights low beginning about 9 pm, a soothing book or music and some herbal tea, and sleep by about 10, even when I knew that a baby would be waking me at some point. Then, my husband got up to get the crying baby, change the diaper, and bring the baby to me, I nursed and he took the baby back, so I was half awake for about 30 minutes at a time, but never had to get out of bed. This was the plan that she established to avoid exhaustion/depression for me. At the time, my husband was in school, so he didn’t have to get up and go to a full time job. So, a night nurse could do some of this if you were comfortable having her come into your room to give you the baby. A ton of help during the day could get me through though, so that I could really rest in between feedings rather than caring for the older children.

    The ongoing problem is that your sleep is so disrupted that eventually you can’t sleep even when the baby sleeps, and for me I get a huge build up of anxiety, especially if I take too much coffee to counteract the tiredness. At one point last fall (about 5 months post partum) I had a total breakdown and the big solution was really just to hand the baby off to someone for the night, take a sleeping pill and get a full night’s sleep. After that, I was sane enough to start to gradually recover things. That baby got some bottles, some were pumped and some were formula, so that I could get some rest and some appropriate breaks, and was none the worse for it.

    This week, I’ve had two bad sleep nights in a row, for unrelated reasons, and I will take a Zzquil tonight (half dose) because I am barely functioning today and I know that if I don’t get sleep soon it will get really bad.

    Lastly, watching my toddlers has helped me a ton – you know when an otherwise easy going child misses his nap a few days in a row and his whole personality changes? That was when I realized the power of sleep. In the trenches, it is too easy to give credit to those crazy emotions – just like the toddler falls apart because his sippy cup is the wrong color, I would think that major things about my life needed to change, but really it was mostly just that I needed a good night’s sleep, or several.

  • These are seriously excellent thoughts here MA and newer moms would be very wise to listen to your suggestions and thoughts.

  • Juris Mater

    Lisa, I am super impressed by your self-awareness. It took me several babies, and hard crashes, and years of coaching by my own mom and the ladies here, to recognize how sleep can make or break me. I think you can take GREAT comfort in knowing that the next pregnancy and postpartum period will be different simply because you won’t let it be like that again. You are aware and being proactive already. Knowing is half the battle, and the other half is taking action, so I’d say you’re really set up for success next time around.

    I think, among the builders, we have come up with a few different options for coping with the sleep deprivation of the postpartum period. MaryAlice explained hers, as suggested by her doula. Here are a few more:
    (1) Kellie does a tag-team with her husband, where she goes to bed at 8pm or whenever the baby goes down around that time. She is on duty until 4am or so, sleeping when the baby sleeps but awake when the baby is awake. Then from 4am until the time her husband leaves for work (7-8am?), he takes the baby when the baby is awake so she can get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep before having to face the day.
    (2) My own method is to hire help from 8am to noon most days. Then, I can go to bed with the baby around 10pm (regular bedtime), get up when the baby gets up throughout the night, but be assured of being able to stay in bed until noon the next morning. The 8am to noon is my saving grace, and usually when I (and the newborn) sleep best. Crazy newborns! Although the sleep is punctuated by baby wakings, at least I’m not facing the killer combo of awake at night, THEN having to face a long day starting at 7am with other kids. That four extra hours in the morning is a world of difference for me.
    (3) I would say night doula/nurse is the way to go if you need the uninterrupted at night sleep twice a week or so. It would be worth really trying hard to introduce a bottle or pump at other times so that you can get 6-8 straight hours of sleep when the doula is there. Imagine that! Having a newborn without feeling desperate and upside down for weeks on end. Amazing. Also, I’d imagine that a newborn might actually sleep better for a doula, because she’s less appealing than milky mom. It could be really good sleep learning for the newborn.

  • Juris Mater

    TOTALLY on the sleep-deprived toddlers. And older kids. Even my level-headed and mature 8 year old goes off the deep end after a couple nights of inadequate sleep.

  • Kristine

    This is such a helpful post! Thank you ladies for sharing!
    Mary Alice and Juris Mater–and/or anyone else–could you write a little more about depression, sleep, and new babies? I’ve had post-partum depression with both my kids (and I know sleep deprivation was part of it). I’m just coming out of a bad episode of major depression. I’d love to have more children–but I’m terrified of the post-partum depression, and I know I’m at high risk given my history. Could you speak to how you handle this? Or how it affects your decisions about more children?

  • Mary Alice


    This stuff is intense and personal, and I am sure varies from one woman to another, so please take what I say and know that it is what has worked for me, glean what you can. First, I shared brutally honestly with my husband about what I go through post partum. This time around, that meant that he was looking out for red flags, and he helped me when things all fell apart, which was at about 4 months post partum this last time. He made sure that I got to the doctor and got the help that I needed. In the past, I have taken a medication for anxiety, but this time around I took several days to reset my sleep schedule and also took progesterone from a NaPro doctor, and that helped alot.

    Second, I am an introvert and I need lots of time alone, especially post partum. While I need help when I have a newborn, I also find it incredibly difficult to have people in my house at that time, even close relatives. I have made a personal rule that I will nurse alone as much as possible. I take the baby into my room and spend time with just the baby, or read, while I am nursing.

    Third, we told the older children in advance that mom gets sort of emotional and weepy when she is tired and a new baby is born, and that we were really, really happy to be having the baby and really, really loved them a lot. I wanted them to know that it was not personal and not their fault.

    Fourth, as I shared on this blog, I took an extended vacation this winter. While I know that not everyone has the resources to do this, for me it was like going in to a mental hospital, it was a large infusion of calm, peace and joy, and I was able to do that with my children in tow. I have never felt better than I do now, and I think I really had to sort of reset my body chemicals by being really rested and really happy for an extended period of time.

    Fifth, I have worked hard to identify sources of anxiety in my life. A big one for me is driving my large van and worrying about where to park it, whether I will be able to get out, etc. I have given myself permission to “chicken out” by parking in the farthest spaces and walking rather than trying to fight this. I often take two spaces so that no one will park near me in the far parts of the grocery store lot. There are lots of “little” stresses in day to day family life which I can handle when I am well, but which build up into a problem when I am overtired and postpartum. Another for me is too much socializing or entertaining at home, and also taking all of the kids grocery shopping. I have gotten up early or gone out late to avoid having to do that chore with 7 in tow.

    Recently I stopped driving all together for about a week, I was sick and overtired and I just recognized that it was not a good idea and I couldn’t get better with the stress of driving. People helped us out and we got by.

    Others who are less introverted have the opposite problem (Red and JM, for example) feel stifled when they are stuck at home too much with a new baby, so for them it would be crucial to plan date nights, girls nights out, etc. For me, those things are too be avoided when I am postpartum.

    Lastly, I am super, duper happy when I am pregnant, so I get fumes from that to help things along. For others in our group, this is not the case, and most of us try to avoid medication while pregnant, so making sure that you have the mental stamina to go in to a pregnancy is a real issue.

    Sorry for the long response, but I think that the short answer is three things:

    1. carefully examine yourself and your situation to see if there is anything that you can manage to help yourself
    2. don’t be ashamed to take meds, but don’t let them be a substitute for the above
    3. be honest with some people you can really trust, preferably your husband and at least one female friend

  • Kristine

    Thank you so much. I can tell that’s intense and personal–sorry if I asked too much. I appreciate your response and your honesty. It sounds like you’ve made some really thoughtful moves to help with your needs postpartum. Inspiring!

  • CatherineS

    I would actually recommend a homeopathic remedy first before trying anything synthetic. I have used Coffea Cruda 30c many times for insomnia, and it’s safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding. I might need to take it once every month or so if I’m really struggling to sleep–usually not nightly as the effects last awhile.

    But I have heard that melatonin is safer than other synthetic sleep aids. I would be a little worried about long term effects of taking daily acetaminophen or Benadryl (liver issues, maybe?) As far as I know there’s no risk to melatonin. Get a time release one so that you don’t wake up too early as it wears off. I haven’t used it myself, but I give it to my kids when we are travelling or when we need to reset everyone’s schedule. There are kids’ doses available.