The 5 Stages of (Sleep) Loss

Ever since my son was born, I’ve been in deep mourning over a significant loss.

I didn’t lose a friend, or a loved one, or a job. I didn’t lose my engagement ring or anything of sentimental value.

But still – this loss has affected every single aspect of my life.


I’m talking about the loss of sleep.

I’ve discovered that the five stages of grief and the five stages of sleep loss have uncanny similarities.

Stage 1: Denial

When I was pregnant, I wasn’t immune to know-it-all veteran moms waxing poetic about how blissfully unaware I was about the inevitable sleep deprivation. I smiled politely as they bestowed me with clichéd trinkets of wisdom like, “get all the sleep you can now” and “you’ll never sleep again after the baby comes.”

I thought back on all the all-nighters I had pulled in college. I thought about all the late nights in my twenties when I stayed out until last call and then dragged my butt to my office job the next morning. I thought about the incessant insomnia that had plagued the majority of my pregnancy. I thought I was prepared.

It turns out I was in complete and total denial about just how fucking terrible it would be. You see, all those other times I had lost sleep, I was able to make up for it. Sure, I might’ve stayed awake for 24 hours to get a term paper done, but then I’d have the opportunity to sleep away the entire weekend. And sure, I was dead-tired and super uncomfortable while I was growing my tiny human, but at least I didn’t have to feed and change and bounce and rock and pump and bathe and pace – with absolutely no break. All I had to do was let him chill in my belly while I laid in bed and mindlessly watched Netflix while eating an entire box of dry cereal.

I was in denial over how easy pregnancy is compared with motherhood. And the hardest part of motherhood, at least for me, was – you guessed it – the loss of sleep.

Stage 2: Anger

I’m not proud to admit it, but the fact that I basically haven’t slept in a year has done quite a number on my once-cheery personality. I used to be the type of person who would wake up and announce, “Today is going to be freaking awesome!” And I meant it. 

Now, once the fog of four hours of choppy sleep punctuated by the screams of my baby has cleared, I think “Today is going to suck because I’m so goddamned tired.” I think that every single day.

I’m not saying that every single day totally sucks. I’m not saying that at all. Even though I’m beyond exhausted, I still manage to fully comprehend the joy that is new motherhood. But that joy, no matter how strong, cannot erase the bitterness I feel when my alarm goes off every morning and I’ve calculated my net total of sleep for the night.

I think the main source of my anger is that there is really no solution to any of this except time. (Please, please no more sleep tips. When I tell you I’ve tried everything, I mean EVERYTHING). I know, realistically, that one day my child will start to sleep more at night. I know this is just temporary. I know I will look back on this and tell my son in a most lighthearted way, “You were the best baby but the worst sleeper.”

But until then, I’m really pissed off. So please don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Since we became parents, my husband and I like to play a silly little game that I call “What Would You Trade for Sleep?”

Here is what I would trade for a full night’s sleep: chocolate, sex, my sense of smell, the internet, comfortable underwear, and air conditioning.

Here is what I would trade for a full week of sleep: my soul.

Stage 4: Desperation

When my son was around 3 months old, he was still in a brutal pattern of needing to eat every two hours, 24 hours a day. I was exclusively pumping and it was also time for me to return to my full-time job. It was a very dark period where all I did was cry and obsessively think about sleep. That is not an exaggeration; I was incapable of thinking or talking about anything else.

My body hurt everywhere. I wasn’t eating much. I had lost every pound of baby weight and then some.

My family was worried about me. 

Upon my (too soon) return to the workforce, I was required to go on a cross-country business trip. I would have to spend two nights away from my new baby. Not only was I desperate, my anxiety was at an all-time high. I honestly have no idea how I got on that plane.

My first night away, I crawled into my hotel bed at 5 pm, pulled the comforter over my head and woke up at 7 am the next day. I slept for 14 hours straight. I did the same thing the next night – engorged boobs be damned.

I returned home feeling refreshed and energized and ready to tackle life as a working mom. All it took was two full nights of sleep for my desperation to lift.

Of course the desperation has periodically returned but it is always directly correlated to the amount of sleep I get (or more accurately, don’t get). Now I know that when I’m starting to feel down, I need to make sleep a priority.

Stage 5: Acceptance

I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’ve made peace with the hand I’ve been dealt.

In talking (okay, complaining) to my mom tribe, this is what I’ve come to realize: Every single baby has their “thing.” Some babies are picky eaters. Some are constantly sick with ear infections. Some throw temper tantrums. Some refuse to be put down. Some have developmental delays. 

My baby’s thing just so happens to be that he’s a challenging sleeper.

In the words of my own mother, “It is what it is.”

 That’s not to say I don’t still mourn all the sleep I’ve lost. Sometimes I still find myself in various stages of the sleep-grieving process.

Just the other night, when my 13-month-old decided it would be a good idea to wake up every hour, on the hour, I cried real tears and thought to myself, “This cannot be happening.” Denial. I threw the covers off myself, got out of bed, and muttered, “This is complete bullshit.” Anger. I picked up my fussy kid, rocked him and begged him to go back to sleep and stay asleep. “If you sleep for the rest of the night, mommy will buy you a pony.” Bargaining. Later on in the night, around 4 a.m., I cried some more. Desperation. The next morning I dropped him off at his babysitter’s, both of us overtired and grumpy, and I kissed him goodbye like I always do and said, “Have a great day, my little sleep stealer.” Then I moved on with my crazy, wonderful, painfully exhausting mom-life. Acceptance.

Related: Interview with a Sleep Consultant
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The 5 Stages of (Sleep) Loss

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  • Ahh love this!! I felt all of this – especially the pre-baby over confidence. Aahh the ignorant bliss 🙄. I tried “sleep training” (teeeeny bit of cry it out little one) at 11 months and finally got four hour stretches of sleep. NOT advice!! Just my (sort of) happy ending. Now if I could sleep without waking myself up every four hours…

  • I haven’t slept longer than 5 hours in 3 years. Most of that time it’s 2 hour stretches, sometimes it’s 30 minutes. Even just 4-5 hour stretches and I feel sooo much better. I’ve tried EVERYTHING. I wanted to hug you for understanding. I also hate you for getting 14 hours sleep twice :). On the 8 nights in her life my daughter has slept through the night, I still wake up now. After 1.5 years I was just conditioned to wake. At 3 years I’m screwed. And I used to be an exceptional sleeper. When people complain oh my 6, 9, 12, 18 month old doesn’t sleep, I laugh maniacally. I’m hoping the next child sleeps better.

  • Omg thank you for this post. Every. Damn. Word. Yes.

    Thank you for putting my feelings in black and white. We are going through a little sleep relapse and I needed this article.

    Thank you. <3

  • My youngest is 10 months old and still waking several times a night some nights every 2 hrs. My husband sleeps downstairs on the living room couch so he can sleep. Its bery frustrating. By the 7 month of my pregnancy I was getting terrible sleep due to waking several times a night myself and now with son still doing it at 10 months Im just so beyond exhausted!!!! I also have a 4 yr old and work 25-30hrs a week. It has to end!!! Or I might not make it!

  • “Here is what I would trade for a full night’s sleep: chocolate, sex, my sense of smell, the internet, comfortable underwear, and air conditioning.”

    How about trading $250 and hiring a baby nurse for the night? Or better still hire for 6 weeks and have him sleep trained. You know you have options. You can also sleep train your baby yourself / let him cry it out.

  • I seem to have the same model son…no sleep but pretty much the perfect baby in every other way. This article is basically my life. I have never been so tired in my life and so far, almost 9 months in I think my maximum hours of straight sleep was 8 one night when my baby decided to give me a break. That has happened about 3 times and oh what a difference the one night makes. I am just waiting for the day he outgrows it.

  • Thanks for sharing this article. I honestly thought I was the last mom standing with a 13month old who wakes up most nights every hour on the hour. I’d give anything for just 3 hours consecutive sleep!! I agree with your post completely and pray that one day she’ll sleep through the night.

  • My husband and I laughed so hard we cried. This is our deal too! Thanks for the real article that only the sleep deprived new parents can relate to.

  • I’m 6 months pregnant and always had trouble getting a full night of sleep. Needless to say this has tormented me my entire life and I am so afraid of the sleepless part of having a newborn. Eek!

  • I have four kids, and was blessed with not one, but TWO kids with bona-fide sleep disorders! I feel you! I’m going to pitch an article on “How to survive long-term sleep deprivation,” and by long-term, I mean longer than 5 years.

    I don’t mean to freak you out, because I’m 100% sure that I won some cosmic “Sucks to Be You” Parenting Lottery. Maybe the universe is making up for the fact that my kids are so dadgum awesome in other ways—if they didn’t have a condition that could make me nod off & crash into a lightpole at any moment, maybe I would have become one of those halo-enshrouded Sanctimommies who was convinced that I spawned new light into the universe through the fruit of my loins.

    But no.

    On my best days, I’m a hag, a nutjob, a Mombie shuffling around looking for coffee, and my two youngest kids are like, “We love you so much!!” I wanna growl and say, “Then sleep, dangit!”

    I feel you.

    Yeah, I’m gonna send in that pitch.

  • What is this word “sleep” you speak of? Lol! That pregnancy insomnia you mentioned is real. I had it for all of my pregnancies and everyone would say “you better sleep while you can” as if I was staying awake on purpose. I haven’t slept a full night’s sleep since early 2015. My twins just turned 11 months and they are STILL on a three hour feeding schedule. My two older boys didn’t sleep through the night until they were 13 months. So, I feel your pain and I’m sending you hugs.

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