Getting a good night's sleep is not just about you; sleep is a family issue
Updated: Jan 28
With the birth of my son came this deep desire to become a better version of myself. But in those early newborn days I found it so hard to know who I was anymore, let alone who I wanted to be. I got so lost in the haze of fear about the responsibility of motherhood and chronic lack of sleep.
Time passed, but sleep didn't improve. I started to became someone I didn’t recognize. These parts of myself emerged that felt new and surprising. Of all the things I experienced, it was the anger that really shook me up the most. I was never an angry person before and I didn’t know what I was angry about. But I sure got angry over what felt like the tiniest things!
And I was tired. Tired of being angry, tired of being needed, tired of the monotony of my day. And just bone tired from lack of sleep. I quickly learned that sleep was crucial if I wanted to get a handle on that anger.
Research shows that when a child’s sleep patterns improve, so does maternal mood (Hiscock, 2002). I am living, breathing evidence in support of that research. Once my baby started sleeping better, so did I, and my rage eased.
In those early days of parenthood, I was hanging on by a thread. I was there, but I wasn’t showing up fully as my whole self. How could I? My body and brain weren’t getting what was needed. I was just trying to survive, let alone thrive!
In order to fully show up for our children, I have come to find that sleep isn’t just a luxury, but a necessity. Our children don’t need us to be perfect, but they do need us to be present. And if our brains are in a fog because of lack of sleep, then there isn’t any clarity of connection. Processing remains in that downstairs reactive part of the brain that is primed for survival. Getting sleep helps us operate from the upstairs parts of the brain responsible for executive functioning, problem solving, critical thinking and mindfulness. Instead of being reactive, sleep allows us to be deliberate, intentional and responsive.
But here’s the thing. Once we become parents, our sleep is no longer ours alone. It becomes a family issue. In fact, the moment we decide to share our bed with someone else, our sleep is affected by our partner. Our sleep patterns become interdependent with the other members of our home. The day your baby is born, her sleep patterns become your sleep patterns. As your child becomes a more independent sleeper over time, you will be able to make more independent sleep decisions. But there are still aspects of our sleep that are affected by our household.
So how do we prioritize sleep for ourselves when it feels like it’s out of our control? Here are 6 steps to addressing your family's sleep concerns.
First, acknowledge the state of your sleep habits for what they are right now. There are things you can control and things you can’t such as the age and stage of your children. Infants, toddlers, school aged kids, teenagers and adults all have varying sleep needs. There are going to be choices you make that may compromise your sleep, but are best for your family. There may be choices you are unconsciously making right now that are actually within your control to change. Take the time to notice and acknowledge the state of your sleep at this point in your family life.
Based on where you’re at, validate your experience. Inadequate sleep will explain why you’re feeling more irritable and angrier these days. Maybe your children are having trouble managing their emotions, making great choices or focusing at school because they aren’t getting enough quality sleep. By acknowledging your family's sleep habits and validating your experience as a result, you’re able to extend some kindness to yourself and each other.
How can your family get more sleep and what changes are you willing to make? What expectations are realistic for your children’s sleep habits? What sleep disturbances do you have control over such as your own bedtime routine or sleep environment? What boundaries could you put in place to protect everyone's sleep? Are there things you aren’t willing to change and would rather live with the consequences right now?
Once you’ve explored the changes you would like to make about your family sleep habits, have a family meeting! Children as young as 2 and 3 years of age can be a part of this process. As developmentally appropriate, discuss why sleep matters, how the family sleep patterns are affecting everyone, and what changes can be made. Create a plan as a family of how you intend to support one another in getting the sleep everyone needs. Become a family of sleepers!
Set a date to put your plan into action. Consider developing a way of tracking progress. If a family member doesn’t follow the plan, decide on consequences to help keep everyone accountable.
Once everyone is sleeping better, you’ll be in a better mood, perhaps enjoy each other’s company a little more and have more energy to do things together. Think about some kind of reward you could enjoy as a family once you’re feeling better rested such as a hike at a favourite park or a special movie night.
Because sleep is a family issue, it’s important to consider everyone’s sleep needs and support each other in getting those sleep needs met. Making connections between how sleep affects the kind of person we become can help everyone make appropriate sleep choices. If you'd like additional support, consider recruiting a professional who can help your family create a plan that you can stick to.
And most importantly, ensure you are getting the sleep you need in order to be the parent your children need you to be.