How to survive returning to work when your baby doesn’t sleep

An exhausted, sleep deprived going back to work after maternity leave with a baby who is waking frequently at night

Being a Mum can be so tough. You’re up all night, you’re trying to work out naps, feeding and weaning and it feels like a full-time job just keeping your baby alive. For many, the reality is that we have the difficult task of being a Mum as well as working part-time or full-time outside of the home.

You may be dreading the return-to-work date that is looming and wonder how on earth you are going to be able to concentrate on anything whilst feeling so sleep-deprived. It’s all very well when you are on maternity leave and can just focus on getting you and your baby through each day but throw a career into the mix on top of having to get your child to and from daycare at set times and understandably the overwhelm soon kicks in.

As a sleep coach, I often get calls from Mums whose maternity leave is coming to an end and are wondering about how on earth they are going to manage going back to work. I am pleased to share with you some practical tips to help guide you through the first few weeks of your return to work.

My back-to-work story

First, I would like to share with you a little of my own back-to-work story. I had my first son back in 2007. Like many first time Mums I just assumed that he would wake up frequently when he was a newborn but sleep would then gradually get better and better as he got older.

Oh, how wrong I was!

My son woke up many many times through the night. Sometimes every single hour. I was really concerned as I was returning to work part-time as a pharmacist. I can remember fighting droopy eyelids and mental fog as I tried to make sure I was giving the right medication to the right person at the right dose. Sleep deprivation was so real and this didn’t feel good. I knew I had to change something but was not prepared to leave him to cry. This was when I started my research into the science of sleep and gentle and responsive approaches to improve sleep. I made some changes to his daily routine as well as his bedtime routine and saw improvements within a few weeks. There was a light at the end of the tunnel!

So aside from directly working on sleep and reducing your baby’s night waking, here are some top tips to help you with your return to work:

1. Enforce an early bedtime

As tempted as you may be to squeeze in all the chores in those precious hours between your child’s bedtime and your own, please don’t! Aim to go to sleep as early as possible, even if it’s a time that seems ridiculously early. Even though there are a million things you could be doing, just go to bed. You may be destined for wake-ups later in the night, but getting a few continuous hours of sleep earlier in the night is crucial when it comes to feeling refreshed in the morning and you will thank yourself for it.

A consistent sleep routine and good sleep hygiene which includes going to bed and waking up at the same time within an hour or so every day is key to feeling rested. Try to keep your phone or tablet off and out of sight for the hour before bedtime and through the night as the blue light they emit can stimulate your brain, prevent melatonin release and make falling asleep harder.

2. Teamwork

If at all possible, try to share the nights with your partner. Parenting through the night is hard work and you cannot do this alone. Perhaps your partner could deal with any wakings for the first part of the night whilst you get some sleep and then agree a time when you will swap over. Another option might be to have a system of two nights ‘on-duty’ and then two nights ‘off’. Decide what works best for your family’s situation but please do not do this alone. If you are single, consider asking a relative or friend to sleep over some nights.

3. Get outside

As soon as you wake up, flood your room with as much sunshine as possible. This signals to your body that it is morning and helps to regulate your circadian rhythm through releasing cortisol and suppressing the production of melatonin. Cortisol will help you to feel alert, it makes you feel able to move and want to move throughout your day for work. Ideally aim for about 15 minutes of time outside in the morning, which you can achieve while walking the dog or taking your child to daycare. When you get to work, make your office as bright as possible, and try to go outside for even a minute or two of sunshine anytime you start to get sleepy. While grey skies may make you feel drowsy, you’ll still receive the daylight-spectrum light your internal clock needs.

4. Get moving

Being active may also give you a boost. You’re enhancing circulation and releasing endorphins. As little as one to two minutes can give you a lift. Start doing a little exercise every day, even if its putting a favourite up-tempo tune on in your earbuds and going for a walk around the block. A quick outdoor jaunt can provide a triple boost: fresh air, sunshine, and pumping endorphins. Taking a lap around the office floor or even climbing up or down a few flights of stairs will suffice if weather prevents you from an alfresco stroll.

5. Fuel your day

A vending-machine chocolate bar may seem enticing when you’re running on fumes, but the lift it provides will be short-lived. It is much better to eat something that will provide slow and steady energy. A winning snack is usually the combination of carbs, protein, and fat. Good choices include a banana or wholemeal toast with nut butter.

And remember to drink water. Lots of people don’t realize that being dehydrated is a major cause of fatigue. The less water you have in your system, the lower your blood volume—and that means your heart has to work harder to get oxygen to your brain. Busy mums may not think about drinking water throughout the day, but it can really reinvigorate you. Have a bottle of water with you and take regular sips.

6. Connection

You may be apart from each other all day but use the time you do have together and the end of the day to reconnect. Put your phone away and all other distractions and have some really focused one to one time with your child. Co-bathing, breastfeeding, playtime, tickle fights and cuddles can all help you child to feel loved and connected and child that feels connected at bedtime is more likely to sleep well.

7. Know when to reach out for help

I know from my own experience and from supporting many Mums returning to work, sleep becomes more of an issue when you are juggling work and motherhood. You wonder if your child will ever sleep through the night or even just sleep in much longer stretches. It’s totally understandable as you feel the pressure from being at work as well as trying to enjoy being a parent. This is one reason why I created this free guide, Gentle Sleep Solutions for Exhausted Mums Returning to work. It’s free to download and contains 7 proven strategies to go from hourly wakes to sleeping for long stretches at night without leaving them to cry.

If you need any further help please get in touch with me or head over to my Facebook Group or Instagram pages for regular sleep tips and advice.