Of all of the essential aspects of self-care, one theme stands out. It’s so important that a large portion of our time with clients is spent discussing and working through this one critical component. Can you guess what it is?
In the perinatal time period, sleep is in short supply. Somehow, mothers and parents manage to figure out how to get sleep between nursing/feeding, night waking, bed swapping and many of the pieces that they don’t have control over. But if that’s not enough, at times it may feel like our own mind is an added wild card and sleep is interrupted not by our children, but by our own brain.
This loss of sleep due to our mind’s gymnastics is so common and too often underestimated. Trying to engage our minds in the middle of the night to think and reason is counter to our mind’s job at that time of the day. Let’s look at the mechanics of waking and sleeping. Put simply, during waking hours, our brains are engaged in keeping us safe, getting our basic needs met, problem solving and thinking critically about our environment. When we are sleeping energy goes towards healing, restoration, and consolidating memories. Our ability to attend or respond to stimulation in the night is significantly diminished. When we try to muscle our mind to work creatively or critically when it should be sleeping, frustration, exhaustion and anxiety often are the result.
In working with our clients, we see two classic thinking patterns that often disrupt sleep.
- Night “epiphanies and planning” born from the desperate need to get the child back to sleep
- Night worrying preventing a return to sleep
Let’s explore these two scenarios.
Scenario One “Epiphanies and Planning”:
Your baby is 3 months or 5 months or (FILL IN THE BLANK) months old and waking every few hours to feed, play, or get comforted. You have experimented with sleep training and feeding strategies to manage the baby’s behavior but – it’s not working! This is the 4th time that you are woken up and you determine (at 3:47 AM) to scrap the current plan and figure out EXACTLY what you need to do, how to implement it, and why this is the perfect solution. You feel the urgency to apply this idea immediately. Your fuzzy, exhausted night brain is working desperately to create a plan which inadvertently may include some parental squabbling. Now the baby is awake, you (and possibly partner) are awake – everyone’s nervous system is in high arousal with peaceful sleep a distant possibility.
Scenario Two “Worrying Mind”:
At 2:00am you wake up to use the bathroom and as you lay back down to go to sleep your brain kicks on – not gradually but like a motor revving up. Maybe you are focused on that overdue bill, or figuring out the best preschool or college for your child. Maybe you’re working through a marriage conflict or a work issue, maybe you are considering the upcoming birth of your baby or the perfect car seat based on the recent reviews. The issue that you’re contemplating feels as large as an asteroid hitting the earth and is uncontainable. You are pretty certain that you have to work this out and if you keep thinking about it, you will. However, often this thought snowballs into the next and the next and you are left ruminating for hours, fatigued and without solutions.
Can you relate to either scenario? Maybe a hybrid of both? So how do we support ourselves in quieting our brains and transitioning back to sleep? In these situations one of the best things that we can do is to keep our nighttime thinking and problem solving as simple as possible. In our practice, this concept evolved into the “8 to 8 Rule”. Many parents laugh when they hear the simplicity of it.
The 8 to 8 Rule:
Here’s how it works. Between the hours of 8pm and 8am, sleep is prioritized and big decisions are deferred. If decisions need to be made in the night, keep them basic. New creative plans can be devised in the morning (probably after coffee), when the executive functioning part of our brain is reengaged
So let’s explore how to apply this idea in our two scenarios:
The 8 to 8 Rule for the Epiphanies and Planner:
If you are a “scenario one” type of person”, plan for the 8 to 8 rule by clarifying the plan for the night either by yourself or with your partner. Write it down. This will alleviate the midnight “rock/paper/scissoring” to decide whose turn it is to care for the child or how to best manage the situation. Outside of the necessary micro-adjustments, remind yourself that the plan doesn’t get changed until the sun comes up the next day.
Make a plan for the typical, NOT IDEAL night scenario. For example, don’t think “tonight, he will stay in his bed all night” or “she will only nurse 2x’s tonight”. In making a plan for the normal routine, you will take into account the potential 4 nursings or 3 toddler wakings/bed swappings.
Now, in the middle of the night, when you find yourself waking again with the child, remind yourself that you have a plan, even if it’s imperfect. If it is a challenging night and your brain wants to figure out an entirely new plan, remind yourself with some self-parenting, self-soothing, truth that the night is for sleeping and not creative problem solving. In the morning, when the sun comes up, you will think through the puzzle of the night.
In the morning, you must make time to think it through so that your brain knows it can trust you. In doing so, you may want to explore what worked in the plan, what was tricky and what needs to be adjusted.
8 to 8 Rule for Night Worrying:
If you are a “scenario two” type of person, consider this – sometimes, thoughts rush in during the nooks and crannies of the night when there isn’t time for them to be considered during the day. These thoughts need a daily escape route so they don’t erupt at night.
Therefore, during the day or early evening, take out a journal and jot down all of the thoughts, concerns, curiosities and wonders dashing around your mind. Give yourself some time for a brain dump in the form of a journal entry, a list, or a mind map. However it looks, allow time and space to get all of the bits out, otherwise they will keep you up.
Before the sun goes down, remind yourself of the “8 to 8 Rule”. If you wake up for any reason in the night and drift towards thinking, tell yourself out loud or in your mind, “The night is for sleeping, I jotted down these thoughts and will consider them in the morning or during the day tomorrow”. If the thought du jour is not on the list, maybe write it down so you can rest your mind.
*Crucial component – if you tell your brain that you will think these things through tomorrow, you actually need to do that and keep your word, so your mind can rest and trust that you will deal with this pressing issue.
The Secret Ingredient – Soothing your Mind:
In both scenarios, soothing your mind is an important component. Just like in parenting, when our child is agitated, approaching the situation with ease, comfort, truth and soothing words helps create a sense of safety and in so doing, our child (or ourself) is comforted and able to move towards self-regulation.
We can’t determine the best strategy for sleep training or managing the specific concern that is bubbling up urgently for you in the night. We can suggest this useful tool: “ The 8 to 8 Rule.” Here’s a review:
1. Decide to implement the “8 to 8 Rule” as an experiment
2. Make a plan for sleep – write it down
3. Remind yourself (and partner) of the “8 to 8 rule” before you go to bed
4. When you wake up in the night for the first time or the fifth, remind yourself of the plan
5. If/when your brain starts to wander into planning, thinking, ruminating etc, remind your brain that night is for rest, day is for thinking
6. Sooth your brain with true statements. For example:
“We will get through tonight as we have gotten through the last 129 days of the baby’s life.”
“Tomorrow is a new day and we will consider new strategies after some rest.”
“The baby will eventually fall asleep, she always does.”
“This is a temporary phase, like all of the preceding temporary phases since he was born.”
“This thought/issue feels so big right now, and tomorrow with time, rest and support, I will figure it out.”
Lastly, (as always) take out a sticky note and jot down this sound bite in big letters that you can read in the middle of the night:
“Remember the 8 to 8 Rule ”
Now stick it beside your bed and rest easy knowing that you have a plan to lean on.