What every sleep-deprived mother really needs to know

Sleep deprivation is a bitch! And if you dare complain how exhausted and crappy you are feeling, you are sure to get the same old answer: “you need to do ‘sleep training.’

You know in your heart, your baby is going through a rough patch, perhaps he’s getting molars, maybe he has food allergies, he’s in childcare all day and he needs some extra connection with you at night. You don’t want ‘advice’, at least not unhelpful advice that undermines your confidence and makes you feel as though you are depriving your child – for life! But, if you don’t want to leave your baby to cry, you are likely to be told, “you are just postponing the inevitable,” and “you are making a rod for your back.” Or, “you are depriving your baby of an important skill.” And, the ‘kicker,’ “well, you have brought this on yourself.”

Sleep is not a learned skill like riding a bike or playing a piano – it’s a neurological process influenced by many factors, for instance:

Hunger – is your baby feeding well during the day or is he distracted? Is he experiencing a growth spurt and corresponding appetite increase? Or, have you been advised to space out feeds? Consider, your baby needs a certain amount of food in a 24 hour period so if you restrict feeds during the day, he will wake more at night to get his ‘quota’.

Separation anxiety – consider playing gentle music on a low volume or safely co-sleep;

Food allergy or intolerance – do you have a family history of allergies, asthma or excema? See here for information about foods and unsettled babies.

Practicing new mobility skills in her sleep – babies process information in their light sleep. While this is an important brain process, it can affect sleep temporarily. The good news is that when she masters the new skill, your baby will sleep longer again. See here for more information about baby sleep regressions.

Teething – elevate the head of the cot – extra circulation to the head and jaws from lying flat can create pressure);

Need to suck – check your baby’s feeding history with a relevant health professional such as a lactation consultant – babies with tongue tie, for instance, may be more prone to breathing interruptions and may need to suck (breastfeed or dummy) to re-regulate breathing;

Pain – could sore ears or some acid reflux be causing wakefulness (reflux babies usually wake suddenly with a yelp as though being pricked by a pin)?

Low iron levels – for toddlers, consider a simple blood test, as insomnia can be a symptom of low iron levels.

Looking for gentle, respectful ways to help your baby (and you) sleep without compromising breastfeeding or the beautiful bond between you and your little one? See my book Sleeping Like a Baby (it’s available on Audible too, if you don’t have time to read). You can download the first chapter FREE HERE.

As your baby grows and matures neurologically through the early milestones, it’s much easier to help him sleep longer, without tears for you or your little one. Meanwhile though, this can be difficult to believe when there is so much noise about what you ‘should’ be doing. So, as some comfort to you, here are some things real life sleep deprived mamas tell us they need to know (and hear) when they are feeling exhausted and questioning themselves – you might want to print this list out and hand it to friends and family so they can support you:

I need to hear that I’m not alone and I’m not doing it all wrong!

“I feel like I’m going certifiably insane. This would all be made easier if I knew I wasn’t alone. I honestly feel as though I have the most sleepless toddler in the world right now.”

We need a safe space to lament our fatigue and a kind, reassuring ear without fear of the “Well, you bought it on yourself” & “try this great sleep trainer” comments.

“I remember feeling that when my son was waking to feed constantly, that because I wouldn’t sleep train him, it somehow meant I wasn’t permitted to ‘complain’ about my exhaustion.”

Taking care of yourself is key. (I keep forgetting that)

“The better my needs are met, the better I can deal with the nights. And, when I’m having an extra hard time dealing with it, often my iron or magnesium levels are low, so that’s something to watch out for.”

infant sleep changes constantly and there is no magic solution that works every time with every baby.

 “Teething was often the cause of extra-unsettled-ness for us. There was a kind of gap of better sleep between second-last and last molars that lulled us into a false sense of security. Sleep was much better after the end of the teeth.”

It does get better and the connection you will have with your child is absolutely worth it.

They say, the two greatest gifts you can give your child are ‘roots’ and ‘wings’ By showing your child you are there for her day and night, she will develop secure ‘roots.’ As she grows beyond this intense baby stage, she will develop the confidence to ‘fly’, knowing you have her back if she starts to free-fall, whatever stage she is at.

You are doing a great job, Mama!

Every mother needs to hear this, every single day. Tell a tired mother this today.


Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised breastfeeding expert and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), mum of five (so she has had her fair share of sleepless nights) and best-selling baby-care author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). See Pinky’ s books, baby massage video and recordings HERE.   

baby not sleepingbaby sleep consultantbaby sleep trainingcontrolled cryingexhausted motherinfant refluxInfant Sleepnight time parentingPinky McKaysleep deprived mothersleeping like a babyteethingtired motherwakeful baby
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  • Mrs M

    Oh how true is this. I remember being so extremely sleep deprived after my first child was born as he would feed every 2 hours or so. When he was 4 weeks old I thought ‘stuff it, I’m having him in my bed so we can get some sleep’. Best decision I ever made. Some babies just sleep and others need their mums close by. Everyone just needs to do whatever they can to get some sleep and not worry about what others are saying.

  • Lisa

    Firstly thank you, secondly the statement about not being able to vent about being tired due to not wanting to sleep train is my life , when ever I mentioned that I’m tired all I seem to get is, ‘well you know the solution, cio’, I’m snappy, I’m tired, don’t tell me to go against my heart

  • Michelle

    Thank you for posting this. For the past 4 months my now 7 month old has woken every 2 hours or less to feed. We are beyond exhausted and on those days when it hurts I would love to be able to vent without being told either the things you mention – or even worse being told how other people’s kids didn’t sleep until they were 3! Yeah – thanks for that really inspiring message guaranteed to make me feel better – not! Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason – and whilst we love our children – sometimes it is hard and we need an understanding hug and a “you’re doing a bloody brilliant job”! Thanks x

  • carli

    Thank you for posting this. Thank you for advocating having baby close, and making them secure. I wish I had found you years ago. my, now 3 1/2 yr old, was a horrible sleeper, i was so sleep deprived and tired of being told to ‘just let him cry, he just wants attention’, We went to sleep clinic and left early as I was told there was nothing else they could do to help me. I was exhausted, going days without sleep, I wanted to end it all. My husband suggested he sleep with us. Anyone I mentioned it to would frown and question my ‘crazy decision’, but I have slept well for the past 2 years because I have not been getting up to him 6-7 times a night. I am expecting baby #4 and my husband joked that the bed is going to be too small for the baby, my son and us, my son heard this and said he would sleep in his own bed. Well, for 7 nights now he has slept all night, soundly, in his own room. I can not believe how he made this decision at 3 1/2 and followed it through. I honestly think it is from the security he felt by being close to us and not left to cry by himself.

  • David

    Can you please advise where you got the information about sleep not being a learned skill from? This goes against the advice we got from our sleep consultant as well as our paediatrican. What are your qualifications in relation to giving sleep advice?

  • Amanda

    i feel like I’m the only one with a one year old that still nurses every 1-2 hours all night and can’t self sooth enough to get past the first 45 minute sleep cycle during naps and at bedtime. I sometimes wonder if our sleep deprivation could have been avoided if I had done sleep training rather than nurse on demand.. I am on baby number one and there is no way this would work if I had more kids. It is so hard being a human pacifier, but I have to hope that I’m doing what’s best for my child.

    • Danielle

      My so did exactly this for so long! From memory he stopped it around 15ish months 🙂 he used to only sleep in 30 minute blocks.. Even through the night. It was EXHAUSTING! He’s now 19 months old and sleeps for 2.5 hours during the day, and wakes once during the night. I did nothing to change what I was doing, just let him fall into his own ‘routine’. You are not alone! And your bubs is very normal 🙂 sending you loads of positive vibes, I know how hard it is! There is light at the end of this tunnel!!

    • jo

      Sorry this is late – I only recently became a sleep-deprived parent myself! It may not be up your alley but here is a piece that gives an alternative viewpoint: https://uncommonjohn.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/self-soothing-possibly-the-biggest-lie-ever-foisted-on-parents/

      I am curious myself to know if any ongoing research about sleep training has been done. I don’t know any adults who struggle with sleep because they weren’t “trained” as a baby. I do know people who remember nightmares and loneliness from childhood though! This is all new to me – I have no judgment, just curiosity and instinct. And overall I think more parents should be encouraged to trust their instinct.

      Lots of love and respect to all of you!

  • Jacqueline

    I brought up three kids and recently took over the care of my granddaughter I had forgotten about about sleep deprivation. Although I’ve had her since she was six months old, (she’s now 15 months), she’s never slept through the night, sometimes waking like I’m sticking pins into her. Maybe time we visited the doctor. Thanks for a great article.

  • heather

    Great article. Look at what other animals do. Don’t get into a cry for a feed cycle. Pick baby up and feed often through the day and give cluster feeds in the late evening before settling. Bed safely with you and get a good restful sleep. Habits are learned so persevere. Feeds in the night should not see you climbing out of your nice warm bed.

  • Mikaela

    I must be tired, this made me tear up. I need to hear this.

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  • Kristy

    Sleep training does NOT equal Cry it out. I wish Mums were aware of other gentler subtle sleep association techniques to encourage, not force, sleep. I also wish the media would stop perpetuating the myth that sleep training starts and stops with letting them cry. I started sleep training my first at 2 weeks old by introducing sleep association and gentle techniques. My second had medical issues which delayed my starting and I struggle with her more…but we are getting there and keeping consistent in our approach. Don’t think you have to just put up with a horrible sleeper either. Just like mums don’t have to put up with the baby blues, there is help available. If you are happy with the situation, thats ok too. But if you want to change it, please know that you don’t have to cry it out to sleep train your child and make them feel safe, protected but also get some sleep!

  • Naomi

    Completely agree with Kristy! Sleep training does not have to be leaving your child to cry. Do what is right for you and your family but if you are having a hard time don’t think there aren’t options available that treat your child with love and respect. And while things will pop up that will disturb their sleep from time to time if it’s been months since you slept through the night and your baby isn’t a new born you might need some help.

  • M

    I keep seeing people say there are gentle ways to sleep train. You have to remember YOUR baby is different than mine. I tried EVERY gentle method and worked my butt off for months. My 21 mo old still nurses all night long and is just one of those high needs babies. I wasted SO much time trying every method. CIO would most likely work if I did it and stuck to it but because of his nature he would have cried for hours and hours and been traumatized. I’m telling you nothing else has worked. So at 6 mo we started cosleeping and I get enough sleep to function but he is nowhere near ready to sleeping through the night.

  • belinda

    I am supportive of whatever other mums feel works best for them and their kids. As a mum who did choose to “sleep train” her child (I use the term loosely, it was nothing so formal but the principles behind our decisions were consistent with sleep training), I would like to point out that this article and other similar articles give the impression that mums who do sleep train are uncaring, not responding to their child’s needs, not developing a bond with their child, aren’t there for their children etc etc. Let’s just stop shaming mums who are all generally trying to do what they feel is best for their child and their family.

  • Nick

    I ‘ve been there. As a mother, it is very hard to bear the nights you have to wake up to feed your baby. This article is great. Yes, you are not alone in this. We all go through all these stages and knowing that there is help in the way comforts us so much. I love this. Thank you for the tips.

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  • Bamboo

    Thank you for posting this! I’m going through this sleep deprivation right now with my son and it’s been giving me a hard time trying to deal with this. I have to say though that moral support from my family and loved ones is helping me pull through. Make sure everyone goes to speak to their doctor if this is a serious concern. Sleep deprivation is something to be taken very seriously and can have ramifications on your health!

  • Lizzy

    My little fella woke every 2 to 3 hours for longer than I can remember. I fed him 13 times a day. This all took a huge toll on my health and I was at a loss of how to change things. One night he slept; it just changed overnight. Next he was up and down just like the weather. At 4 years we started seeing a fabulous chiropractor and the sleep is now amazing.

    You could try reading this?
    I know it isn’t helpful but it is funny 😂
    Good luck people.