If I had one piece of advice for how any parent can become a better parent, it would be this:
Get More Sleep.
Now, I know that for many of you—especially single parents or folks working two jobs or feeding newborns every two hours—this may seem about as likely as a unicorn pulling a sled full of money, coffee, and babysitters parking itself on your front lawn.
I get it. I really do. Nothing challenges our ability to sleep more than children. (They really can an inconvenient truth, can’t they?) I remember when my second daughter was one week old. I had a toddler in a cast, a baby who wouldn’t sleep longer than an hour at a time, and a post-partum body I could barely recognize. My husband had the gall to ask me if I wanted my salad before or after the chicken, and I immediately burst into tears and lashed out at him. In my state of overwhelming fatigue, even that level of decision-making was more than I could handle.
Sleep is the basis for everything that makes us functional people, decent human beings, and good enough parents. Sleep is absolutely vital to our physical health and our ability to think clearly, make healthy choices, regulate our emotions, and respond to other people (including our children!) in reasonable, appropriate ways. The opposite, of course, is true: exhaustion brings out the worst in us. That will look different for everyone depending on our weak spots, but fatigue leads to increased depression, anxiety, and anger, among other things. We lose our ability to think clearly, solve problems, remember things, and respond effectively to new or difficult situations.
Take last night, for example. I had gone to a great lecture, and I came home all ramped up. Then I made the mistake of getting on the computer, and then I made the even worse mistake of checking my smartphone in bed, and I didn’t fall asleep until after 11 (which is late for me). At midnight my daughter cried out because she couldn’t find her lovey. It took me an hour to fall back asleep, and then I was up at 6 AM to make lunches and get myself ready for the day. Needless to say, I was exhausted by the time I woke up the girls.
You can probably guess how I reacted when my little one threw herself on the floor screaming after I told her that yes, she could definitely choose her own clothes for the day. I lost my proverbial sh*t. I threw my own tantrum. I snapped loudly at her that I wasn’t going to tolerate any screaming this morning. (And no, the irony of such a statement was not lost on me even as the words came flying out of my mouth.) I put her in a time out on the couch.
This was not a terribly skillful response, as she kept crying and my older daughter started crying too. It’s certainly not how I want to treat my girls under any circumstances, but especially not when they are having a hard time. It’s also not how I usually react to them when I have had enough sleep. Don’t get me wrong; I still get frustrated and irritated and bored even when I’ve had enough sleep, but in those moments I am much more likely to take a deep breath, notice my feelings, and choose to respond in a kinder, more loving, and more skillful way.
I like to think of sleep as one of a few fundamental North Star practices that I try to come back to again and again. I know that I will never arrive at the North Store of perfect sleep, but it is something I can orient myself to when I get lost in confusion and frustration.
Here are a few tips for parents looking to get more, and better, sleep. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps. I do not believe that we parents should shoe-horn our self-care into the tiny pockets of time when our children actually choose to grace us with their own rest. If we’re going to make it a priority, we need to make it a priority.
– Ditch the Real Housewives. Seriously. DVR that episode of Law & Order or American Idol and get in bed instead.
– Leave your smartphone and other screens out of the bedroom. This is still a struggle for me, but I’m working on it. If you like to read before bed and you only read eBooks, either get yourself a Kindle (you can buy used ones pretty inexpensively, and the screens are lit differently and less likely to keep you up). If you must read on your phone or tablet, switch your screen so it’s a black background with white writing.
– Let your children get up and turn on the cartoons on weekend mornings so you can sleep in. Yes, I just said that, and I mean it. In an ideal world, we would get all of our sleep between 10 PM and 6 AM, but in that same ideal world our kid wouldn’t keep us up with their coughing or lost lovies or whatever. An extra hour of TV isn’t going to fry your kid’s brain, and it might make the rest of the day a whole lot more enjoyable for everyone.
– Trade sleep nights and sleep-in mornings with your partner. Take turns being on kid-duty over night and into the morning. That way, at least one of you will get as good a night of sleep as possible every other night. If you’re a single parent, try to find some friends or family members who will trade sleep-over nights with you – they take your kids for a night, and you return the favor.
– Cut down on the caffeine. I know so many folks who insist they can down a can of Coke or an espresso and head straight to bed, but they also complain of not sleeping well. Ideally, try not to have any caffeine after 2 or 3 PM. If you do need a cup of coffee in the afternoon, try half caf/half decaf or just decaf. There’s still caffeine in decaf.
– And yes, I feel compelled to say it, exercise and meditation can help. A lot.
I’m not going to pretend that all you need to do is switch to decaf and turn off the TV and you’ll be sleeping like a baby. (Actually, I hope you don’t sleep like a baby. They’re terrible at it.) We all struggle with getting enough rest, so on those inevitable days when you wake up exhausted, lower your expectations. Expect less of yourself and everyone around you. Be nice to yourself; you’re functioning under far less than ideal circumstances. Do your best to get through the day without blowing your top, and if you can do that, call it a win. Then come back to your North Star and try to get some more sleep.