Sleep deprivation is as debilitating as being drunk. Whether it's insomnia or a baby keeping you awake at night, sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows has given Emma Bartley some tips on coping
You know you’re going to get pretty tired when you become a parent. Someone even sent us a card when the baby was born that said “Good luck with the whole no sleep thing”. What I didn’t know was all the different ways severe sleep deprivation can affect you.
In the first few months I would constantly walk into rooms and forget why. I put my keys in the fridge and the milk in the washing machine. I cried all the time - one time in the doctor’s waiting room I saw a TV ad for baby bubble bath and started weeping uncontrollably. I’d sometimes feel dizzy, like I was falling. And obviously I’d fight anyone in the street who claimed to be tired but was not the mother of a small baby (no, dads don’t count).
It doesn’t get much better when they get bigger, either - tiredness simply becomes a way of life. The days are long and physically tiring, there’s an enforced early start in the morning and no such thing as a weekend. And I’m lucky - as a baby my daughter didn’t make a peep until 7am, whereas my friend Clare says her toddler wakes at 5am “on a good day”.
The upshot of all this is that you quickly become obsessed with sleep. Obsessed! So I wasn’t surprised when Dr Guy Meadows told me that The Sleep Book reached number one on the Amazon bestsellers list.
As well as writing a book about sleep Dr Meadows runs The Sleep School, has created a sleep app and does private sleep consultations. He has seen more than 4,000 clients who are struggling to sleep, so he knows a bit about tiredness and what it does to you. “After just one bad night of sleep your memory recall goes down 40 per cent,” he says. “Creativity is reduced by two thirds. Stress and irritability go up 70 per cent. Your reaction times, focus and concentration are all reduced.”
And don’t even think about operating heavy machinery: “There was a study done showing that the tiredness levels you’re experiencing are equivalent to being completely intoxicated with alcohol. That’s enough to affect your ability to drive safely. That’s the amount of sleep deprivation that occurs in new parents.”
In other words, you’ve got a pretty good excuse for being a gibbering wreck after you have a baby. But I’m not sure the insomnia doc can help me - after all, I don’t struggle to get to sleep, more to stay awake. “The problem is that you’re basically passing out,” says Dr Meadows. “You go straight into a very deep sleep, and that means that you’re not spending enough time in a phase called REM.”
The light REM phase of sleep, apparently, is when we process our emotions - and if we don’t get it, we’re left with all the worries of the previous day. Which could explain why I’m constantly paranoid that I’ve said the wrong thing to someone, or am doing badly at work, or am failing my daughter. Or all three.
Sleep deprivation isn’t just making me crazy: it’s making me fat. “Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for managing a healthy weight,” says Dr Meadows. “Poor sleep affects the hormones that regulate appetite - leptin, which gives us a sense of fullness, and ghrellin, which stimulates our appetite. If we’ve had a poor night, we crave sugar because the desire to eat increases and the perception of our fullness decreases.”
OK, so that’s all the different ways in which I’m screwed. Can I fix it? Not completely, the doc admits: he has small children himself and knows what it’s like. But he does give me some pointers, and here they are (if you can remember them).
The sleep rules for new mums
Beware before you let the baby in the bed
“Full attachment parenting has its dangers. I saw a child who was seven years old and still slept in his parents’ bed,” says Dr Guy Meadows. Chillingly.
Establish a good bedtime routine
“When dinner finishes at six, my children don’t stand a chance. We have quiet play, bathtime happens at roughly the same time, you get the dimmed lights, the books and the lullaby, then the light’s reduced again… and that hour’s been repeated so much it guarantees they’re going to sleep.”
Try to let the baby settle itself
“A lot of the child sleep issues I see are not the child’s problem, they’re because of the adults wanting to solve the problem,” says Dr Meadows. “Child sleep develops very rapidly but it’s a bit chaotic, which makes us stressed.” He’s talking from experience here, having fallen into every trap when his first child was born - even rocking the baby on a Swiss ball in the middle of the night to get her to sleep.
“The biggest thing is teaching them to self-settle,” he says now. “Be flexible, but you have to let them cry it out a bit. It’s not about locking them in a room for five months, it’s recognising that babies naturally cry to fall asleep.”
Drink caffeine responsibly
“I try not to ban anything as it just makes people annoyed,” says Dr Meadows, no doubt noticing my white knuckles as I cling to my cappuccino. “If you like drinking coffee, go ahead, but be sensible and knock it on the head by 2pm.”
Don’t look at your phone in bed
Technology is the main reason why so many people in Britain suffer from insomnia (30 per cent, compared with 20 per cent worldwide): we’re confusing the natural light receptors in our eyes. “We’ve evolved to live on a planet that experiences a light and dark cycle, but the wavelength of light that your phone, tablet or TV emits is the same as the sun. So we’ve got this brilliant habit now where we get into bed and put a small sun in our face and say ‘Oh, let me just check Facebook’. That causes sleep onset to be delayed, sleep quality to be reduced, and means we wake up unrefreshed.”
You can’t catch up on sleep
Sleep has a daily job to do, so going round to your mum’s and crashing out for two days is bad. “All you do by sleeping longer is jetlag yourself,” says Dr Killjoy.
Take 15-minute power naps...
Dr Meadows isn’t quite crass enough to tell me to “sleep when the baby sleeps” , but apparently a brief nap is refreshing. “Sleep when you can, but keep it to less than 20 minutes,” he says.
“Given that you’re so sleep-deprived, 15 minutes would be optimal because the more sleep deprived you are the more quickly you’ll fall into a deep sleep, which means you’ll suffer from brain fog when you wake up.”
...ideally between 12pm and 3pm
Having a nap around lunchtime is the most sensible thing, because that’s when you have a natural dip in the waking drive and you get a natural drop in your body temperature.
Get a better bed
Sell your gran if you have to. “My mattress doesn’t transmit movement, so my wife and I can get up to get to the kids and we don’t disturb the other one,” says Dr Meadows.
Develop a flexible relationship with sleep
It’s hard when you’re as BLOODY EXHAUSTED as we all are, but try not to obsess over how much sleep you’re getting. “You have to become one of those people you see when you’re backpacking in Cambodia and there’s a guy fast asleep in the back of the bus with his head bashing against a metal bar or something. It’s about flexibility surrounding sleep, going 'Well I may sleep or I may not, but that doesn’t really bother me'. As a consequence, you probably sleep.”