Desperately seeking sleep: advice for exhausted mums

"Even when the little ones sleep, how do you quiet all the ‘to dos’ that race through your head?"
"Even when the little ones sleep, how do you quiet all the ‘to dos’ that race through your head?" 

Sleep deprivation can play havoc with your mind, body and soul. You know that, right? You know this because you are the mum of a new baby or an older baby or a toddler or perhaps a baby and a toddler. So how exactly are you meant to get sleep when your kids don’t get any sleep of their own?

Baby sleep studies define ‘all night’ as five hours – five hours in a row would be a dream come true … if it ever came true! And yes, you’ve heard all the clichés about sleeping when the baby sleeps, but when else do you actually get anything done, like the endless washing that one tiny baby manages to create, or the food the rest of the family – including you – needs to eat.

Even when the little ones sleep, how do you quiet that mummy brain stream of consciousness of all the ‘to dos’ that race through your head? What about the crazy voice in your head that does maths all night: you know, the ‘if I get to sleep right now, I’ll get two hours and 45 minutes sleep before she next wakes’ dialogue? You are so busy doing the mental arithmetic as the clock clicks over that eventually you’re in a total panic because you KNOW your baby will be awake in less than half an hour – so you just lie there frozen, frustrated and angry, waiting for the yell that says she’s awake. Relief: I can feed her and get back to sleep, I’ll still get a couple of hours before the sun comes up. Better check the phone to make sure. Oh, I’ll have a quick look at Facebook first. Half an hour later… hell, the room is getting lighter, I can hear the traffic … damn!

Sarah, mother of a four-month-old, knows it all too well. “I’m utterly exhausted and it’s making me more anxious during the day,” she says. “It’s not my baby – she’s sleeping pretty well, mostly only waking for one or two feeds. It’s me. I don’t know how to switch off. 

“It’s a vicious cycle: I’m so overtired that my mind won't let me sleep. Then sometimes I can go to sleep okay and get a block of two or three hours, but once I wake up for her first feed I can’t get back to sleep.” 

Sarah’s experience seems to be fairly common with mums. But not being able to snooze while your baby is sleeping peacefully can be a red flag that you may have a treatable medical illness, such as postnatal depression, especially if your wakefulness is accompanied by other symptoms such as anxiety, teariness, mood swings and feelings of hopelessness.

Of course, some decent sleep may be all you need to help you feel better – it’s a vicious cycle, isn't it? But it’s worth having a health check, especially for your vitamin D, thyroid and iron levels – as Thuy, a mum of two, found.

“I found I couldn’t sleep after having both my babies, even when they were sleeping,” she says. “It turned out that my iron and vitamin D levels were low –taking liquid iron twice a day made a huge difference.” 

Once you’ve ruled out any underlying medical reasons for your mummy insomnia, there are some things to try to help you get those essential zzzs …


Prepare your sleep environment
Switch off screens an hour before bed, and banish them from the bedroom. The light from devices and computer screens affects the brain’s production of melatonin, your natural sleep-inducing hormone. Dim lighting as you read or relax before bed will help trigger melatonin production.

Banish clocks from the bedroom
If you can’t get rid of the clock entirely, place it where you can’t see the time, to help you avoid those midnight mathematics (‘how long have I been awake now?!').

Create a gentle bedtime routine for yourself
Have a nice warm bath or shower – a sleep trigger is a slight drop in core body temperature, so after a warm bath, as your body cools, you’ll naturally begin to feel drowsy and more relaxed (this works for kids, too!). Make a warm drink and take it to bed to sip. A snack of carbs will help release tryptophan (bananas are rich in tryptophan), which is a precursor to serotonin, a relaxing hormone.

You can also practice deep breathing and/or a guided relaxation to help you switch off and enter more relaxed sleep.

Download a talking book or some podcasts
If you find yourself awake after you’ve fed your baby, instead of focusing on sleep, pop in earplugs and listen to your download. This will distract your busy mind and help over-ride your anxiety. Rather than keeping yourself awake, you will actually find you ‘miss the plot’ because you dozed off – and this is much better than missing sleep!

Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby and Parenting By Heart. She's holding baby sleep seminars in Melbourne and Hobart in July; book online at