Dealing With Exhaustion {When You Can’t Get More Sleep}

posted by Andrea | 09/6/2012

I frequently get asked questions like:

“What are your best tips for getting more done?”

“How can I be more productive?”

“How do you do it all?”

Before Nora was born, I would have answered (somewhat smugly): “Get up earlier, don’t let yourself get distracted, go to bed earlier, and get MORE sleep!”

And lately, I’ve seen a bunch of bloggers who agree with me. There has been lots of talk in “blog world” about getting more sleep, waking up earlier, etc. etc. These are GREAT goals and I totally agree that “getting more sleep” is an excellent way to have more energy and be more productive.

However…

Now that Nora is here, I’m a little less naive and realize that “more sleep” is not always possible. After 9 months of getting only 4 or 5 hours of broken sleep every night… it’s safe to say that Dave and I are both exhausted. We would love to get more sleep, but it’s just not an option right now since Nora doesn’t nap and is quite fussy at night.

And as you know, there are SO many other situations that also prevent people from getting more sleep:

  • sleep apnea
  • chronic illness or chronic pain
  • older children who still don’t sleep through the night
  • children with special needs
  • being pregnant and uncomfortable
  • arthritis
  • restless legs
  • working long hours or the night shift
  • working two (or more) jobs
  • caring for elderly parents
  • depression or anxiety
  • stress
  • and the list could go on…

If you can relate to any of the items listed above, you know as well as I do that you would LOVE to get more sleep… you just can’t. And the suggestions to “take a nap” or “take it easy” or “sleep when your baby sleeps”  don’t work either because you physically can’t take a nap, or your baby doesn’t take a nap, or you have 4 other kids who don’t all take naps at the same time, or you’re working 2 jobs and literally don’t have any extra time… or any other number of reasons.

Of course, I knew my beloved sleeping schedule would change significantly after Nora arrived… I just never imagined it would change as much as it did :)

So, if you are tired, exhausted, and unable to get more sleep, here are 6 tips that have helped me… hopefully they will help you too.

1. Stay hydrated.

I drink SO much more water now than I did before. I constantly carry a water bottle with me and am always drinking something while I sit at my desk or work around the house. We have 2 huge pitchers of lemonade and orange juice in our fridge at all times, and any time I start to feel my energy level dropping, I head to the fridge and get something to drink; non-alcoholic — although… :)

I have started to drink a bit more pop (soda) than I used to — but that’s only out of desperation and because I can’t get myself to drink coffee or tea.

2. Eat regularly throughout the day.

I’ve always been a frequent eater — probably because I played sports all through high school and college and just got used to eating smaller amounts several times throughout the day.

When I’m tired — or getting tired — my first instinct is to grab a cookie or candy bar. And while I definitely still eat my fair share of cookies, I also make it a point to keep several healthier snack options on hand for my many snacks throughout the day.

I always (ALWAYS) take food with me where ever I go, and not only has this helped me to keep my energy level up, it has also helped me to resist fast-food drive-throughs!

3. Take showers mid-day.

This might sound odd — and it will seem really weird if you’re used to taking a shower in the morning or at night… but it works!

There were many days last school year when I would hand Nora off to Dave as he walked in the door and then I’d go take a quick shower. Even now, I will often take a shower right after dinner to “wake up” and get a little extra energy so I can make it through the exhausting evening hours when we’re trying to get Nora to sleep.

4. Go outside.

Even if your health is bad or you can’t physically walk around or exercise, just simply sitting outside, breathing in fresh air, and soaking up a little sunshine should boost your energy. At least this almost always works for me!

Thankfully Nora loves being outside, so we go for LOTS of walks, play in the grass, etc. Even on a rainy day, sitting on the front porch or taking a quick jaunt to the mail box and back might be just what I need to make it through a couple more hours without crashing.

5. Give yourself something to look forward to.

If you have something to look forward to, your mind won’t focus on how tired you are… and this “something” could be as simple as a favorite TV show, taking a long hot shower, going out for a special dinner, inviting a friend over for the afternoon, having ice-cream sundaes for an evening snack, spending an hour on your favorite website or searching on Craigslist, working on a hobby, etc.

I know this sounds crazy, but it has worked really well for me. I constantly try to give myself something to look forward to and before I know it, I’m feeling less and less tired and the hours are going faster!

6. Give yourself grace.

I’ve gotten lots of somewhat negative/snotty comments and remarks from people if they hear us say something about being tired or if we’re talking about Nora’s lack of sleep. Some of them don’t believe us, some think we’re just trying to complain or make a big deal out of nothing, some think we’re “enabling” Nora, and some tell us it’s because we’re just too busy. But they don’t know the whole story — and honestly, the comments don’t really bother us any more.

I’ve also noticed that Dave and I are starting to say no a lot more. We’re just too tired to spend any energy on activities outside our family, our jobs, and our home… and we’re OK with that. We’ve given ourselves grace to say no to committees and volunteer work, we’ve given ourselves grace to turn down fun activities and family parties, and we’ve given ourselves grace not to worry what anyone else thinks of us right now.

This has helped us a lot!

Please note that I am honestly not trying to complain, I’m not looking for sympathy, and I’m definitely not looking for more advice to help Nora sleep.

I just know (based on the number of emails I’ve been getting) that there are lots of other people out there who are exhausted and don’t have the option of “getting more sleep”. I also know how frustrating it is when people tell me — “you need to sleep when your baby sleeps” or “just make sleep your #1 priority” or “this too will pass”. It’s all good advice, but it doesn’t work for everyone… and it doesn’t work for me!

Need-less-to-say, I no longer flippantly advise people to “get more sleep” as a magic solution to their productivity problems :)

So, for those of you who are tired but don’t have the luxury of getting more sleep, I hope some of these ideas will work for you.

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81 comments

  1. Tammy @ Fresh Vermont Air

    09/06/2012

    Hang in there, Andrea! You’ll get through this! My only advice is to try and be consistent and don’t make a habit of sleeping with her to get her to sleep because you could form a habit that may be tough to break in the future. Good luck!

    [Reply]

  2. Cathy

    09/06/2012

    Thank you so much for including everyone, not just those with kids. Me and my husband have been trying for 7 years to have children with no luck :(. However, because of stressful jobs, a very spoiled dog that has been having issues lately, and other contributing factors, I have not slept but a couple hours each night for the past several months and am exhausted!! Whenever I mention how tired I am or I say no to someone I always get the reply that I shouldn’t be tired and I should be able to anything because we don’t have kids. I’m so tired (pun intended!) of hearing this! We have actually had friends drop us because we wouldn’t help them every night with their housing projects when we had stuff going on in our lives. They actually got mad at us telling us that we should be able to do anything that they needed us to because we don’t have any responsibilities because we don’t have kids. Everyone’s life is different and I’m sick of the judgements and poor advice from “well-meaning” people. Thanks for the very honest and helpful blog!

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  3. Elizabeth

    09/06/2012

    I just love your blog! Now I am going to try to sleep….again…

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  4. Melissa

    09/07/2012

    I feel you pain! I am up with baby 3 times a night and chasing a 2 year old all day. Thanks for the tips and honesty!

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  5. Victoria@Snailpacetransformations.com

    09/07/2012

    I have so been there. My first child did not sleep through the night till around age 2, my second not until 4 years of age and my third not till age 2. I also suffer from insomnia around once a year. I agree with all you above tips, I have used them all and they all work. One more suggestion I would add, for the at home mom with several kids, is I would save TV time for the baby’s nap time. I purchased napping mats like they have for schools. Stored them under the couch and brought them out after I got the baby napping. I would then get the older children to grab a blanket and a pillow and two quiet toys. I placed a pile of picture books between them, and turn on the TV to their favorite show (it was their only tv time all day) then I would grab my own blanket and pillow and rest on the couch in the same room. Sure it was not deep restorative sleep but it was rest! and it gave me the energy to make it through the dinner hour and bedtime.

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  6. kristen

    09/07/2012

    We just had our first baby and totally agree that I knida laugh when. They say to sleep when baby does b/c our lil man takes power naps that are too short to even be able to lay down with him……

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  7. Deb

    09/07/2012

    That just stinks……it is only for a season, or maybe 3 seasons so far……….hang in there, it is funny how lots of people have the best parenting advice when their kids are small, but you live a while and your kids grow up and your realize that extending grace to the tired, overworked mom is the only appropriate response. My firstborn used to cry until he passed out and boy, would I get a LOT of FREE advice………the only thing that worked was time…….he is at college now and hardly ever does that………. :)

    It seems like FOREVER when they are small, just do what you can and be encouraged. God really does have every aspect of your life and Nora’s under His control and is molding and shaping you through this difficult time. I mean really is it not sanctifying to run on no sleep and still have a baby to take care and run a business and still be cheerful?

    You seem to be doing a great job and you are smiling in all the pictures! Just keep on, this too shall pass……….

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  8. Liz

    09/07/2012

    My dh has never been able to sleep more than 4 or 5 hours a night…and it’s not for lack of trying. He’s tried everything. His eyes pop open, the mind starts rumbling and it’s over. So he’s always dragging….

    Just the past few years, he’s decided to give up on all the “sleep remedies” and just stop stressing over it. He just gets up and starts working or cooking or whatever he feels like.

    No he’s not any less tired. He’s just less stressed about it. And THAT has made a huge difference.

    Moral to the story: Just go with it. Eventually Nora will be 18 and keeping someone else awake.

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  9. Lynn

    09/07/2012

    My first child didn’t sleep well at all for 4 1/2 years!!! We use to do the most ridiculous things to get him to fall asleep….and it only worked half the time. He didn’t nap on schedule and only for 45 minutes, and he’d wake up with night terrors 3x per night. It was challenging.

    My second child had great sleep habits….as long as he was calm before he was put down, so a routine was a must.

    I was a miserable reck for years. Now my eldest, who at 7 started sleeping like a teenager, up late and he’d sleep late if it wasn’t for school, 12 hours at a stretch. but at least I get some sleep now :)

    Good luck, we all just manage the best we can.

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  10. Katie

    09/07/2012

    Great tips! I work 12 hours shifts and I rotate day/night shifts. Before I had kids, I could get caught up on my sleep when I’d have a few days off in a row but now with kids, I never get caught up! I have found staying hydrated and eating right to be very helpful in my energy level. I like #4, 5, and 6 too!

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  11. k

    09/07/2012

    My advice isn’t for getting Nora to sleep, it’s for you! After our second child my husband and I started taking turns sleeping in or getting up – even if it meant sleeping in another room. With a three year old and a newborn who got up every 3 hours to eat for 6 months, we were zombies. We started trading off nights to get up – one would go to bed at 9pm, then get up for the 5am, and we’d switch off. On weekends we’d take turns sleeping in – whoever got up in the night stayed in bed in the morning.

    You really do need your rest too!

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  12. Laurie

    09/08/2012

    I’m sure you have tried everything, but we used the baby wise book. At 6 months we used the controlled crying technique. Which worked!! It was hard to do but changed our life. We were able to sleep a little more and felt human again.

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    Michele Reply:

    I was going to suggest the same thing. We have 6 children and used this (Babywise) method. While I don’t agree with everything in the book (I do believe that children are made in the image of God; I don’t lean towards behavioralism.), I found the basic principles to be a great help.
    Hope that helps!

    [Reply]

    Michele Reply:

    I have to admit, I just read the article fully right now.

    I just saw that you said, “We are not looking for any more advice on getting Nora to sleep.”

    I am sorry for being just one more person giving unsolicited advice. I know that, no matter how well meaning, it can get old very quickly.

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha — no biggie Michele :) We’ve tried almost every piece of advice people have given us and nothing has worked… so we’ve just stopped trying. Nora will sleep eventually!

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  13. Chris

    09/08/2012

    I don’t have a baby – my son is in college – but I just read on another blog about a book called The Happiest Baby on the Block. Also, I have a friend who quit dairy b/c her baby had colic. Maybe that could be causing problems? I hope Nora starts sleeping better soon.

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  14. Pkay

    09/08/2012

    I feel your exhaustion! And I remember thinking during the first year with my daughter, like everyone told me, this too shall pass. Well, 17 years later, it hasn’t. She still has to this date, not slept a full night. Some people just do not take much sleep. The truth, for me, now as I watch her getting ready to enter the next stage of her life, (this being her last year of high school and as she is preparing for college) is that I am grateful for having that extra time with her alone without the distractions of day time life. I see for me, one night much to soon, she will not be living under the same roof as me, waking me up every night, and I will miss the reason for my years of exhaustion terribly! I know this is years away for you, but I hope you do not take as long to realize, as I did, how precious those hours are, and how fast they grow up.

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  15. L

    09/08/2012

    So good to read this! I have a 2.5 year old who does not sleep through the night and it has only recently been that I am feeling TIRED and not EXHAUSTED. I know what you are going through and you are so right – sometimes, you just can’t get more sleep. Now I just let 2.5 year old and the 5 year old crawl in bed with us when they wake up. At least we are all sleeping and not up and down all night long. Is it ideal? No. But it works. Do we get criticized? Oh yes, so I just don’t talk about it a lot and I just don’t care what other people think. If you have spent YEARS getting up to feed babies all night and then they don’t sleep through night even by age 2, and the older one is having nightmares or bed wetting and then your husband snores and the dog barks and the cat cries…. well it’s life…. it’s easy for others to criticize your choices and lifestyle and I just accept that not all kids are good sleepers – just like not all adults are. But give your little girl some time and it will get easier! Hang in there!

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  16. MsD

    09/09/2012

    You so deserve an easy baby next time – and they do exist!

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  17. Chris

    09/09/2012

    I am cracking up that people actually leave snarky comments about you exaggerating Nora’ s sleeping habits. They are just asking for their next baby (should they be in that age bracket) to be a non-sleeper. If it is any consolation, I have been told many times that “gifted” children don’t need as much sleep… maybe she is just a genius!

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  18. Laurie

    09/11/2012

    I wrote a post earlier and offer advise. I missed the part that you didn’t want advise. I completely understand that! I went on a family vacation recently and had my mother in law (who I normal really like spending time with) telling me my daughter eats to many vegetable that’s why she so small. So I’m sorry for giving unwanted advise.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    no big deal Laurie :) I just wrote that “we’re not looking for advice” because otherwise I get crazy emails tell me what to do… and I didn’t want all that “advice” to take away from my post!

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  19. Elizabeth D.

    09/16/2012

    I know exactly how you feel! And it will get better: from the first night he was born until he turned one and was weaned from breast feeding, my now-fourteen-month old slept in 2 to 3 hour increments every night. I feel like a new person; sleep matters! He is more happy too!

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  20. Vicky

    09/20/2012

    Thank you so much for the tips! I suffer from a severe lack of sleep, and although it’s mostly self-inflicted, it’s something I sacrifice for what I see as being more important. Between us, my other half and I work five jobs – one 9-5.30 Monday-Friday, we work in retail on Sundays from 9-5, and in my spare time I bake and decorate cakes to sell, which is starting to hit off, all because we’re trying to get some savings together to eventually move back to the States, where he’s from (I’m British). We’re also studying for degrees part time in the hope that this will make us look more attractive on paper to potential overseas employers, and as I have very little else to offer experience-wise, I need all the help I can get! But I am starting to feel it – we struggle to find time to meal plan and organise our flat, although thankfully it’s small so mostly we’re forced to make time now and then, and this week with all the cakes, work, housework and having assignments due I think I’ve got about 15 hours sleep in five days? If you don’t mind, I’m going to print this post out and pin the ideas in various rooms to remind me of how to make things a little easier.

    Good luck with Nora, I hope she starts sleeping through soon so that you and Dave don’t HAVE to find ways of feeling more alert without sleeping! <3

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Wow Vicky, you ARE busy! Make sure you take some time for yourself and for “fun” otherwise you might totally burn out (yes, I speak from experience!)

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  21. MaryAnn

    09/21/2012

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of realizing the many different reason people may be tired. I have bipolar and for some reason one of the ways it affects me is that I have very little energy. Most days I have to be content to get a very few essential things done and let the rest go. For example, today I will work 4 hours and if I get anything else done I will be happy about that. Hopefully eat 2 more healthy meals and if I really get motivated take a short walk. Based on how I feel I probably wont get any housework done. I struggle to clean house and do something meaningful and if not, try not to feel guilty and depressed. Most importantly I know I treat people with kindness. I feel bad about not being able to contribute equally in my relationship. Congratuloations on standing your ground and knowing you are doing the right things and the best you can.

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  22. Rachel

    09/25/2012

    I can relate completely. My daughter didn’t sleep either and I tried everything! I, like you, finally just decided to let her be because she would sleep eventually. And she did slowly. She was 3 when her nighttime wake-ups reduced to once a night and it was pure bliss being able to sleep for “so long.” She was 6 when she finally would sleep an entire night without waking up. I never realy told people about it after a while cause I got tired of people giving advice and thinking that I wasn’t trying hard enough to get her to sleep. I did notice as she got older that she usually talks in her sleep and her dreams are very vivid to her. My theory is that her brain was just working overtime so much it would wake her up. :) She is now 14 and a freshman in highschool. And I am thankful every day for my non-sleeper. Her sleep pattern has followed her throughout elementary, middle school and now highschool. As I heard horror stories from other parents about the fights they have with their kids trying to wake them up for school I would quietly do happy dances in my head because she is so easy to wake up. If I could go back in time and had a choice for a do over, I wouldn’t change a thing and would choose a few years of my non sleeping baby over fighting with her every morning for many years. Hopefully your little one will keep her sleep pattern as well. And she will sleep eventually and you will get your energy back and when you do you will feel like superwoman and it will be great.

    In the meantime, everything you are doing to help keep your energy up sounds great. One thing I was lucky enough to have was my mom who once every couple weeks and spend the night so I could sleep. Sometimes it worked and sometimes my body was so out of wack that I still couldn’t sleep straight through the night. I would pump so she could do the night time feedings. Also, if you know any teen or preteen kids, having them come and play with your daughter for an hour or so every now and then can allow you to get a nap in and you are still around in case of emergency. Take care. :)

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  23. Jackie

    11/18/2012

    We are in the same boat as you! We have tried everything to get our 10-month-old son to sleep well (on occasion he will take a long nap, but they are usually very short. I guess I should be happy he will at least nap for a half and hour twice a day!), and I have finally settled on the conclusion that it won’t last forever and he’ll eventually learn to sleep… but man, 10 months of such little sleep is taking it’s toll on me!

    I actually came across this article by googling “how to get more energy when you can’t get more sleep”. Haha I’m just so tired all the time! So thank you for this article! I hope sleep is in your near future (and mine, too!)!

    Take care!

    [Reply]

  24. Stephanie

    12/29/2012

    Bless you, Mama. I’m new to the parenting game too. Exhaustion was one of my biggest struggles for the first number of months. I wish I had something like this to read a little earlier in the year.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yes Stephanie — we’re still struggling with sleep over here (and Nora is already 13 months) so I feel your pain. People used to tell me “it will get better” but now that she’s still not taking naps or even close to sleeping through the night, people now tell me “some kids just don’t sleep that much” :) Sigh… and good luck!!

    [Reply]

  25. Julia

    03/28/2013

    Hi there. I just read this post and wanted to post a little encouragement. :) I haven’t read all the other comments on this post, so I’m sorry if I’m repeating anything anyone else has said, but I can very much relate to having a child with sleep struggles. My first-born did great on Baby-wise (I don’t agree with everything in the book, but the basic concepts helped me establish a schedule). My second-born promply defied EVERYthing I thought I knew about babies, lol. I, too discovered many ways of coping with exhaustion and caring for my then preschooler. One book that offered me some helpful insight and helped me feel like I wasn’t losing my mind (I’m very familiar with other people thinking we were exaggerating the situation ;), is The High Needs Baby by Dr Sears. It may not apply to you but it was very encouraging to me. And, there is hope! My second-born is now a happy three-year-old who sleeps wonderfully AND naps! It really is nothing short of miraculous. :)

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Julie — I might have to check that book out from the library!
    And I can totally relate to what you said about others saying we’re exaggerating — that’s probably the most frustrating part for me. People just think we’re making it up, or making it worse than it really is because Nora is SO sweet and happy when she’s playing with others. Meanwhile, Dave and I haven’t had a full night sleep in over 16 months (we’re still up at least 2-3 times a night!)
    So even though this is an old post, I still appreciate your encouragement very much.

    [Reply]

  26. LR

    05/03/2013

    I’ve not been blessed with a baby yet, but I can relate to your lack of sleep. I used to work one full-time job and several part-time jobs. Due to all the stress from those jobs, I was suffering from several illnesses that I was not aware of at that time and just could not sleep at night. I hope your whole family can sleep through the night–very soon!

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  27. Rui

    07/16/2013

    I might be a little late, but I only had 4 hours of sleep last night and it happens to me very often, so this was really helpful. Thank you so much for your tips :-)

    [Reply]

  28. Jamie Snyder

    03/21/2014

    Thank you! Finally someone gets it. I work 5 overnights a week go to school all day two days a week have a 2 year old and an 8 year old stepchild with adhd, oppositional defiance disorder and reactive attachment disorder that I homeschool. WHAT IS SLEEP???? Lots of water definitely helps on the overnights. I don’t even drink pop that often anymore.

    [Reply]

  29. Sleep Deprivation |

    04/24/2014

    […] Sleep deprivation can do bad things to a person. It can make you cray cray and when there’s no way to actually get more sleep, there’s not much you can do but suck it up.  Andrea Dekker has some good tips on how to deal with exhaustion when more sleep just isn’t an option.  You can find her article here. […]