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The first week after my son was born, I thought to myself: no sleep? No problem! I’ve got this. My baby is amazing. I could stare at him all day and all night. Sure, I’m a bit tired, but what’s the big deal?
Three weeks in, of course, I was singing a different tune. And by the time that dreaded three-month sleep regression hit, I truly thought I was about to die of chronic sleep deprivation. That three-month point is, of course, when maternity leave ends for many moms in the United States. Meaning that on top of the sleepless nights, they’re expected to be “on” during the day.
I was lucky to be able to take 20 and 16 weeks off, respectively, after the births of my first and second sons. But I was not so lucky in the sleep department. Neither of my boys truly slept the night until they were about 13 months old, and wow were those the hardest years of my life. Three hours seemed to be the magic number for me; if I got a block of three consecutive hours of sleep the night before, I could function at work (relatively well). Anything less than three hours in a row, though, and I was truly a mess.
In my years of sleepless nights and busy work days, here are a few things I learned on how to get through your day at the office on little to no sleep.
Identify three — and only three — things that MUST get done at work that day, and do those. Write them on a yellow sticky note and put that note on your computer monitor. When your mind wanders or you start to nod off, take a sip of coffee (if that’s your thing) or stand up and go for a short walk. Shut off your email and put down your phone so you can focus on the task at hand. Then, bring your attention back to that sticky note.
If it’s at all possible, try to take a nap before you go into the office. I know this is not always realistic given different roles, schedules, and obligations. But if you have some flexibility in your day, drop your child off at daycare and come back home to sleep for an hour before you go into work. There were a handful of days when my babies were little when I was so ridiculously exhausted that I was in tears at daycare drop-off, not sure how I was going to function during the day. Two or three times — when I knew I was truly a hazard to myself and others — I went home and slept for an hour before going into the office. The nap saved the rest of the day for me.
The chaos and sleep deprivation of motherhood inspired me to begin a practice of finding the good in life daily. When you get into the office and aren’t sure how you’re going to make it through the day, pause and write down a few things you are grateful for. Yes, I know this can feel like work (when I’ve reached my limit of sanity and am up all night with a little person, there’s often not a whole lot I’m automatically feeling grateful about). But the practice always forces me to zoom out, think about how quickly these stages of life do pass by, and to focus on the fact that, all in all, my life is full of wonderful people and opportunities.
When evening rolls around, choose sleep over clean up. It’s easy to get a second wind in the evening, particularly if you turn on a phone or computer and let its light wake up your brain. On a day like this, though, leave the dishes and bottles in the sink, don’t do that load of laundry, and don’t log onto Facebook. Instead, commit to collapsing into bed as soon as you are able. The piles of things can wait. Your Facebook community can wait. Just get yourself into bed so you can do a reset for the next day.
For today, just focus on survival. It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other and making it to the evening so you can collapse and try to make it to tomorrow. Days like this are not about achieving major life goals, curing cancer, or making any big decisions. Repeat after me: “I am enough.” And mean it. Tomorrow is another day, and somehow you WILL get through this.
My boys are now 4 and 6, and I’m happy to report that we’ve definitely turned the corner on the sleep front. No, not every night is undisturbed, but a much bigger percentage of them are. The prioritization and gratitude skills I learned during those early baby years, though, still serve me well both at work and home.
There are many hacks for getting through the workday on little to no sleep, such as:
• Splashing cold water on your face
• Going for a quick, brisk walk
• Eating foods high in carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and healthy fats
Check out these additional strategies for more suggestions.
Staying hydrated, eating the proper foods (see FAQ #1), and drinking coffee around 9:30 am (don't overdo it!) can help you function through the day.
Your brain will try to compensate for your lack of sleep, but your tasks will be more difficult than they normally are. The above strategies (coffee, movement, power naps, and others) can help you stay awake throughout the day. DO NOT engage in any activities that might be dangerous to perform when you're not fully alert, such as driving.
According to Healthline, the longest recorded time without sleep is approximately 264 hours, roughly 11 days. It is very rare for someone to die from lack of sleep. Staying away for 24 hours is unlikely to have any long-term effect on your health, though the impact becomes greater the longer you stay awake. If you believe you are suffering from insomnia, you should see a physician.
Pulling an all-nighter once every couple of months likely won’t do any long-term damage. But if they’re happening more often — intentionally or not — talk to your doctor.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of "Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave," and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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