Coping with a lack of sleep

Wellbeing | | Elinor Harvey


“Enjoy the rest while you can!” you’ll hear people tell you time and time again before your baby arrives. Comments like this can start to make you grit your teeth, but it seems that parenthood and sleep deprivation come hand in hand: a societally acceptable side effect of the many wonderful aspects of having children. However, what no one really talks about is how gut wrenchingly awful a lack of sleep can really feel, and how it makes everything that much harder to cope with, including relationship difficulties.

We’re not just talking about the newborn stage either. Although there is always some smug parent talking about how their baby was sleeping through by 6 weeks, many parents find that sleep difficulties don’t go instantly away once their child turns 1. In fact, it’s quite common to end up with a wriggly toddler in your bed for some years, not to mention the middle of the night wet bedding changes or 2am ‘scary noise’ investigations….

What many parents find is that they have good patches, and worse patches, seemingly at random. Sometimes baby will go to sleep easily and you can catch a chunk of hours before a nighttime feed. Other nights, the same routine will mean you are woken up every hour. The uncertainty of it can feel even more hard to cope with.

When things are feeling tough, it’s easy to feel snappy and overwhelmed. Whether you’re a working parent, at home, or a bit of both, completing normal day to day activities can feel impossible with a lack of sleep. When we’re feeling tired, we are likely to be more intolerant of other people, and quicker to react emotionally. Although this is completely understandable, it can have significant impact on our relationships. If your partner is also getting broken sleep, then your household is likely to be a tense place to be at times.

So here are a few tips to help support your relationship during the first few weeks, months, and years of parenting.

1. Avoid competitive tiredness.

It’s easy to play the ‘Who’s More Tired’ game. If you’re at home with baby, then the likelihood is that you’re the one up in the night too, and then managing everything baby-related all day by yourself. If you’re back at work, then you’re having to do your job on broken sleep and there’s no chance of a rest when you get back home in the evening. The answer is, you’re both tired. In different ways, and you have different expectations placed upon you, but no one is exactly getting the easy option here.

It’s really important to show your partner that even though you’re tired, you do care about their tiredness too. Having an empathic approach towards your partner means they are more likely to feel supported and understood by you. You could say:

  • “What a day you’ve had and on so little sleep. You must be exhausted.”
  • “It sounds like it’s been one thing after another for you. How are you feeling?”
  • “This is a pretty exhausting stage of life, isn’t it? I’m glad I’m doing this with you though.”
  • “I’m tired but it’s been no easier for you. What can we do to be kind to ourselves today?”

Just acknowledging the situation can make the world of difference to you both and help you feel more connected.

2. Talk about any resentment that’s building up.

When you’re both juggling kids/work/laundry/life alongside sleep deprivation, it’s easy for resentment to build up. When we start to notice resentment, we often push it right down, and avoid thinking about it. However, it won’t be long before that angry, resentful voice starts up again: “Can’t they see how exhausted I am? Why can’t they think about what’s for dinner for once! They never care about giving me a break! They are always so selfish!”

I’m here to tell you that these feelings of resentment are totally totally normal. We ALL have them! The problem is not in the feelings themselves, but the cover-up. We don’t talk about them, we pretend everything is fine until, one day, it all gets too much and bang! We find ourselves snapping about something fairly minor like the washing up. Of course, it’s not actually about the washing up. That’s just the trigger for all those built up feelings of resentment and anger that haven’t been expressed.

So what if you could share your feelings with your partner instead? This doesn’t have to result in an argument, but can be done compassionately and gently. You could say:

  • “I’m sure you’re trying your best, but I just feel so resentful sometimes and that’s a really hard thing for me to feel.”
  • “I just get jealous sometimes, when it feels like your life is easier than mine. I wish we could have more fun together.”
  • “I do appreciate what you do but it’s hard when I feel so overwhelmed and tired.”

Resentment is normal so why don’t you see if you can make it normal to talk about it together too?

3. Inject some joy

When life is stressful and tiring, we need some joy and pleasure more than ever. When you’ve got young children, finding time for fun can feel pretty difficult, and our usual stress relievers like socialising, hobbies or sports can feel out of reach. Could you sit down together and make a plan for something fun together?

You don’t have to leave the house- just watching a new film, playing a board game, or doing a quiz can really help inject a bit of novelty and enjoyment into life. Alternatively, taking it in turns to go out individually can make a huge difference. Having lunch with a good friend, going to an exercise class, or just going around the shops by yourself can feel like reconnecting with your old self again.

4. Apologising promptly.

When we are sleep deprived, it’s more likely that we will snap at our partner. We respond reactively to our emotions, rather than consciously and carefully. If you find yourself snapping or starting arguments, it’s never too late to apologise and find a way to slow things down. Taking a deep breath and simply saying sorry can mean a huge amount. You can find out more about the best ways to apologise by taking the Apology Languages quiz and sharing your results together.

One day you will get a full night’s sleep again! It’s hard not knowing when, but in the meantime, I hope you can find a way to get through, with your relationship intact.

As always, good luck, and I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions, via my website 

Elinor x