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On Sleep Deprivation, That Rare Form of Torture

Among the many things that weighed on my pre-baby brain— from potential health complications to the state of our world— impending sleep deprivation ranked at the top. As it turned out, too, it was (compared with health scares and anxiety over world affairs) the most substantiated of my concerns. In the weeks after a baby arrives, new parents are entirely preoccupied, and in most cases well cared-for by friends and family, so thus provided a natural buffer against news of wars, earthquakes and oil spills. And, in most cases, a happy, healthy baby immediately dispels the “what if something’s wrong with him?” thoughts that creep in before birth. But sleep deprivation… that hits new parents like a sack of bricks, night after night, from the moment their little bundles come kicking joyfully into the world.

I was worried about it before Kaspar arrived because I knew that one night of too-late socializing or fitful sleep took its tangible toll on me. After just one such night, my next-day coping mechanisms, attention span, and overall coherence as a human being would be noticeably out of whack. While pregnant, and getting up countless times each night to pee, I noted that my brain and body just barely got me to the bathroom and back. How, I wondered, would I manage to change diapers and feed a hungry, helpless infant in this kind of state when the time came?

Then, as we all have, I learned the answer: new moms have super powers. Or we just pony up. But one way or another, we drag ourselves out of bed at three in the morning and change those diapers, feed our babies, and kiss them, too (maybe saying “Why? Whhhyyy?”, but whatever). We do it, but it’s not easy. Not even close.

Between labor’s magnitude as a physical event, the hormonal hailstorm that follows, the gravity of emotions that a baby brings forth (a whole new level of happiness among them), the influx of visitors and the mounting piles of laundry, a new baby requires enormous adjustments for individuals and couples alike. Why, then, would nature deprive us of our central sanity-saving device—sleep— during this crucial transition period? I don’t know. Some kind of sick joke, perhaps. All I know is that it sucks not to sleep. It makes things really hard. While “resting when the baby’s resting” during the day is a nice idea, it’s not very realistic, and I definitely didn’t abide by it. I did, however, find that after some weeks of only three or four hours’ combined nightly sleep, my brain and body adjusted. I felt less tired, and more alert, during the day, and I didn’t waste any time passing out as soon as the opportunity presented itself in the evening.

Soon after this, a beautiful (like, light streaming from the heavens beautiful) process began to unfold. Kaspar started sleeping for longer stretches, and his feedings—which had taken two hours at a pop in the beginning—became increasingly brief. Then he slept through the night. Then he didn’t sleep through the night again, but we’d had a taste of freedom, and knew we were in the home stretch. Kaspar’s slept straight through seven of the past ten nights, and on those three when he’s woken up, he’s sucked a bottle down without so much as opening his eyes, turned out a cute little burp, and landed peacefully back in his crib in a total of fifteen minutes (way to go, little buddy!).

So anyway. Last night he was up three times, just because I was planning to write about this. But my point remains the same. Sleep deprivation is horrible. It makes people crazy and makes couples argue. It makes eyes blurry and can certainly make you cry. But, it gets better, and we can definitely get through it intact.

When did your babies start consistently sleeping through the night? What were your survival strategies when they weren’t (I finally broke down and joined Facebook)? If you’re sleep deprived right now, go ahead and share your thoughts on that (we know you love your children, but you don’t have to love the way they torture you at night).