Life as a mum is a big practical adjustment, as well as a physical one. Someone else is in charge, and you have to follow someone else’s schedule.

So, what do you do when you want to exercise but you also want to sleep? What should you prioritise?

Sleep is important for:

  • allowing the brain to process the day’s events and the information it has received during the day
  • your metabolism
  • your immune system
  • stress management (the stress hormone cortisol drops as you sleep)

If you don’t get enough sleep, you might:

  • be tired
  • have memory problems
  • experience mood swings
  • have difficulty concentrating
  • have poor reaction times
  • be overweight
  • experience increased hunger (because of increased levels of the hormone ghrelin and reduced levels of the hormone leptin – these two hormones control our sense of satiety and appetite. People tend to eat more when they are tired and stressed.)
  • be more susceptible to illness (everyone knows about the toddler years and the non-stop colds!)
  • have an increased risk of depression (postpartum depression, for example, can show up long after giving birth … take care if you are feeling depressed as well as tired and seek help if you are worried about how you are feeling.)
  • experience muscle pain (you are tense when you sleep and can’t relax)
  • experience higher cortisol levels (that’s perfectly natural – mother’s bodies are ready to protect their babies if necessary. We are programmed to sleep less in the first months after giving birth.)

How do you know if you’re experiencing sleep deprivation?

As a mother, you just KNOW – it doesn’t even need defining – but it’s still useful to go through the symptoms. Even two weeks of poor sleep can be defined as sleep deprivation.

  • Do you wake up several times a night?
  • Do you wake up too early, earlier than you used to?
  • Are you tired during the day and feel ‘hungover’ (did someone say PIZZA?)?

Yes, yes and yes.

An adult needs about 7.5 hours’ sleep, and young children and teenagers need more. But it feels like we mothers just get what we are given! So, how do you define good sleep? It’s when you are not disturbed while you sleep, you don’t wake up often, you go through all the sleep stages, and, above all, when you get enough deep sleep. But how realistic is that with little ones?

The 4 stages of sleep

Stage 1 – This is where you oscillate between being awake and being asleep. Muscle activity and eye movements slow down, and neurons begin to synchronise. No significant recovery occurs during this stage. The sleep where you dream, or REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep as it is also known, is part of stage 1, which means that you are relatively awake when you dream. During REM sleep, your breathing rate, blood pressure and breathing increase slightly while your body is paralysed so that you don’t have to ‘live out’ your dreams. You experience REM sleep during the first part of the night. This usually happens for the first time about 90 minutes after falling asleep. During stage 1 and REM sleep, brainwaves are very short and fast.

Stage 2 – The body enters a more subdued state and a person typically spends about half their sleep time in stage 2 sleep. No significant recovery occurs during this stage either. Brainwaves are a bit slower with some peaks.

Stage 3 – This is where recovery begins, although the slow brainwaves may be interrupted by occasional bursts of fast brainwaves.

Stage 4 – In this stage it is difficult to wake anyone, the brainwaves are very slow which means that most of the brain is resting and you can get your much needed recovery. Brainwaves are very slow. After 4–5 hours of sleep, stage 4 stops as body temperature and metabolism slowly begin to rise. Melatonin also begins to wane, leading to shallower sleep. This process is controlled by your internal body clock. That’s why you sleep best if you go to bed on time. A person who goes to bed later than 1 am risks missing out on dreamless deep sleep before their body temperature and metabolism start to rise and the sleep hormone melatonin wanes, which can mean no recovery periods or too few. For most people to get the best possible sleep, they should sleep somewhere between 10 pm and 7 am. The risk of sleeping too little or scheduling sleep outside of the night-time period is that you risk getting less deep sleep and poor or no recovery.

Can you catch up on lost sleep?
The idea of catching up on sleep on a Saturday morning is appealing, isn’t it? That trick works if you haven’t slept well for a couple of nights, but not if you have chronic sleep deprivation (which many mothers do).

Some important advice!

  1. Prepare for a change in sleep patterns. Plan your nights with your partner before your baby arrives. Who will look after the baby and when? Will you take it in turns? How will that work? Will you do the night shift but sleep late while your partner gets ready to go to work? What about weekends?
  2. Say no to too many commitments.
  3. Sleep when your baby sleeps. It might sound like a cliché – but it’s also good advice. Everything can wait – apart from your baby. You need to have enough energy to take care of your baby, and the people around you should understand that.
  4. Seek help if your child doesn’t sleep at night or wakes up unusually often and has trouble going back to sleep.
  5. If you are breastfeeding: pump some milk to allow your partner to feed your baby while you sleep.
  6. And take comfort from the fact that your baby will sleep sooner or later!

So, what about exercise?

It can wait.

My rule of thumb is – the tougher the night, the easier your exercise should be. A simple walk with your pram (not a power walk!) or light abdominal exercises should be more than enough. Daylight and fresh air are good for you! Exercise helps with sleep issues and exercise should give you energy – not drain you of all the energy you have left. Don’t even think about ‘intensity’, it shouldn’t even be part of the equation. Not sleeping enough and doing a tough workout on top of that is a dangerous combo because you need to recover properly and have energy during your workouts to avoid getting hurt. Also, if you use all your energy exercising – how will you manage to take care of your baby?

The same applies to soreness after exercising. If it lasts for longer than 3 days, you need to rethink your exercise routine. You shouldn’t be exercising at that level at all – you shouldn’t be crawling away from the session and then not being able to pick up your baby from the floor because of muscle soreness.

When it comes to diet, a lack of magnesium, calcium, iron and some B vitamins can affect sleep so a nutritious diet is very important if you are a mother, even though you might be craving fatty and sweet foods. Don’t give in to temptation – choose with your head.

Photo iStockphoto