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The Truth About Getting Sleep As A Mom

Darria Long Gillespie, M.D.
February 19, 2019
Image by Aleksandar Nakic / Getty
February 19, 2019
Here at mbg, we know that raising healthy kids and being a mindful parent doesn't always look picture-perfect. And above all else, we value a radically honest and practical approach to solving everyday parenting struggles, like not getting enough sleep. That's why we love Mom Hacks, written by Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., a Harvard- and Yale-trained emergency physician and mom of two. It contains 100-plus science-backed tips for staying healthy, raising awesome kids, and enjoying motherhood—sleep deprivation and all.

Before we had children, we got a puppy, who we quickly realized had "digestive issues." By night I worked in the ER; by day I cleaned up after him. There was no sleep.

Four days in, the vet offered to board the puppy while he completed his medications, and I said, "Yes!" before she even finished. I called my mom as I headed home to get some rest.

Mom: You left your puppy at the vet?

Me: Yes. You can do that. Isn't it brilliant?

Mom: You know that when you have actual children, you can't do that, right?

(Really? Like, is that a rule?)

I'd love to tell you that "being a mom doesn't inherently make sleep harder," but I have an honest face, and you'd be able to tell that I'm lying. In fact, well beyond the newborn stage, mom sleep takes a hit. In a study of women under age 45, being a mother was the single determining factor affecting whether a woman was sleep-deprived. Add the fact that women are inherently more prone to insomnia than men, and there's a whole sisterhood awake at 2 a.m.

Because, if children were villains, sleep sabotage would be their superpower. You see, sleep deprivation has long been used as a form of "enhanced interrogation" (aka torture), and I'm pretty convinced that children know this. I also read that the European Court of Human Rights called this practice "inhuman and degrading," which made me question my newborn's ethics and sense of compassion when he was up at 2 a.m.

So, at least now you know why you start to go nuts when you're exhausted—it's a spy torture tactic. In residency we'd regularly have to stay awake for 30 hours at a time (it was training, not torture, I was told), and I realized that I'd never make it as a spy. I would have spilled nuclear secrets just to get a nap [CIA agent reading this book crosses my name off spy list]. Because sleep deprivation doesn't just play with our emotions and executive function; it disrupts our immune system and increases our risk of accidents, relationship discord, and weight gain. Children who have insufficient sleep are at higher risk for obesity, learning and developmental delays, behavioral outbursts, and even ADHD-like behavior.

On the flip side, as Amy Poehler tells us in her memoir Yes, Please, "One good night's sleep can help you realize that you shouldn't break up with someone, or you are being too hard on your friend, or you actually will win the race or the game or get the job. Sleep helps you win at life."

The two-part mom sleep two-step.

My mom was right: People look down upon asking to board your child at the veterinarian; sleep as a mom just isn't that simple. I can't just tell you to "prioritize sleep" and you'll suddenly get your ZZZs, as anyone who's stared at the ceiling at 1 a.m. can attest. That's especially true if your body's equilibrium or circadian rhythm is off.

As Poehler proceeded, "Sleep and I do not have a good relationship...I am constantly chasing sleep and then pushing it away. A good night's fraught with fear and disappointment. When it is just me alone with my restless body and mind, I feel like the whole world is asleep and gone."

So to get your ZZZs, you have to address sleep from two angles:

1. External sleep saboteurs, such as your children and their sleep habits, your to-do list, late-night projects, and TV.

2. Internal factors, such as an out-of-sync circadian rhythm, stress, and racing thoughts.

The internal sleep factors.

Truth is, no matter how tired you are, you cannot force yourself to fall asleep. Harvard professor Dr. Daniel Wegner demonstrated a similar phenomenon in his famous "white bear" experiments. He told participants specifically to not think of a white bear. Turned out, the harder participants tried to not think about the bear, the more they couldn't get it out of their head. Sleep is the same way—the more you try to force it, the harder it is.

Sounds impossible? It's not—with the right changes. Think of sleep like the hummingbirds my daughter likes to see on our patio. I cannot force hummingbirds to come, but, with the right environment, we can be pretty sure that "if you build it, they will come." So, I create an environment that is hummingbird-friendly: safe, plenty of water and food, and they love to be there. We can't force sleep any easier than we can force hummingbirds, but if the environment is sleep-friendly, then you'll finally get your own Field of Dreams—and the rest you need.

Excerpted from the book Mom Hacks by Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, to be published on February 19, 2019, by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2019.

Darria Long Gillespie, M.D. author page.
Darria Long Gillespie, M.D.

Dr. Darria is a board-certified Harvard- and Yale-trained Emergency physician, favorite expert on national TV shows including CNN, HLN, The Dr. Oz Show, and The Doctors, mom of two, and author of the new book Mom Hacks (Hachette Book Group). Mom Hacks hits shelves on February 19th, sharing 100 supercharged solutions to help everyone take control of their health and find their “I’ve GOT this”