Friday, May 8, 2009

Sleep Deprivation and Multiples

I've been trying to find some useful data on the effects of sleep deprivation on the internet. Most of it is useless for my purpose - lots of prattle about how most of us today are so sleep deprived that we need 5 or 6 hours on the weekend just to catch up. Since the general rule of thumb goes that the average adult needs 8 hours of sleep a night, if you only get 6 or 7 a night during the week, you need those long Saturday mornings or your Sunday afternoon nap to catch up. Our society is apparently chronically overworked and over tired - all leading to debiliating effects physically, psychologically and emotionally.

When I look back on my first few months with the twins, I AVERAGED 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night - interrupted usually into spurts of 2 hours.

When I finally found a site I thought might be useful it explained that the ethics of sleep deprivation were such that carrying out research was impossible. (I'd suggest studying the mothers of new born multiples, not in jest, but as an area that really requires research and that would benefit future mothers of multiples.) "The effects on the human body and mind are so serious that researchers find it difficult to investigate sleep deprivation." (

Mothers often joke that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Ha ha. According to this same site, "Sleep is a stronger basic need than food and water. Simply, the human body cannot do without sleep."

And yet mothers of multiples do it for months.

Looking back on the feeding charts I had for the first 6 months, I am appalled and relieved at how little sleep I had. Appalled because it is humanly impossible to survive the way I did those first few months. Relieved because I am finally realizing where I lost myself.

The twins were born on July 4, 2006. July 5 was my first night with no sleep. July 25 was my second night with no sleep. In between I slept approximately 3 hours a night, with no naps during the day. On July 12, I note that I slept from 10 PM - 12AM and stayed in bed while nursing Matthew from 1 - 2AM. (From 12 to 1 AM it looks like I was nursing and caring for Aidan.) I then slept again from 4 AM to 5:45 AM. At 2AM I had been changing Aidan's diaper and at 3AM I was still trying to nurse Matthew and get him to sleep. Looks like Aidan was nursing again at 5:30 AM.

According to the site, "Few people ever experience real sleep deprivation". My Psych 101 professor at Cornell University was a sleep expert, and I remember something about requiring not just sleep, but REM sleep, in order to function - also that it took 2 -3 hours of UNINTERRUPTED sleep before you hit the REM stage.

Some nights were better. On August 4 Aidan slept from 11 PM to 6 AM and Matthew slept from 8 PM to 1 AM and then again til 5:30. That gave me 4 and a half hours of UNINTERRUPTED sleep, to make up for the nights when I'd had less.

During the day I had the older two to get to school by 8 AM and to pick up again at noon. Since Ryan had just started first grade, I was walking with her. I'd get home at 9:30, nurse both boys with the cushion, and by 10:30, try to get up off the couch without waking them. It never happened. By 11:30 I was on my way back to school.

The afternoons were a blur of feedings and preparing meals for the older two.

A lot of twin books talk about the blur of the first few months, but sleep deprivation literally causes disorientation, impaired brain function and memory loss. When I started swaying on my feet after three months, my doctor diagnosed hypothyroidism - but even pills couldn't help a metabolic system with no sleep. A few months later, I was also diagnosed with anemia, and more pills. Also, could the fact that I now had an autoimmune disease - the Hashimoto's thyroiditis that caused the hypothyroidism - stem from the fact that my body had literally not been able to rest for months? Again, the research isn't there, because it isn't ethical to subject anyone to such conditions.

My friends with one new baby all looked fanastic, fit and happy, well-rested and content, in comparison to myself. So I took to jogging for an hour every day in the spring, when the twins were 9 months old and taking a momrning nap fairly regulary around 10 AM. (The twins, not I.) Or I took them with me in the stroller. I lost weight, I ate well, gave up meat and carbs, alcohol and caffeine. Before I finally collapsed the spring before the twins turned two, I looked good, and was still chronically exhausted.

I haven't wanted to put this into print - because it's not the picture I was painting for friends and neighbors. Or frankly, for myself. And I don't have a lesson or a moral for this. I can't tell someone who is now pregnant with twins how to avoid it. Getting night help is an obvious answer, but not real practical for most of us. (In case you were wondering where my husband was all those nights, I honestly can't remember, but he did do his best to help out as well.) And I do mean to confront La Lache at some point about their militant stance on nursing - not ALL women can or should nurse twins, and nursing two babies full-time just can't be in the best interests of most of us also trying to stay healthy enough to also raise other children - without help. (My mom was with us the first two months - during the day only, but she was as overwhelmed and exhausted as I was; it helped to have another two hands around, but they were a supplement, not a substitute for my own.)

I guess that's why we have all those books on surviving the first year with twins. But the useful hints can only take you so far. The humor, it's a way of dealing with the difficulty. Is it going to help anyone to know HOW HARD this is REALLY going to be? Honest numbers on how little sleep you are really going to get? Yeah - yeah - I read the books too - get them on a 3 -4 hour schedule, feed them simultaneously so you get it all over with at once. And, between 6 and 12 months it DID get easier, and by one year, my guys were sleeping through the night.

I think it might help to know that it isn't as pat and dried as the tips suggest, and that it wasn't as easy - or humorous - in practice as it looks in print. (And let's be fair - noone pretends it was a walk on the beach.)

And that's why the best advice out there is still to know that this too shall pass. I loved every minute of the first six months - the reality of the impossibility of my situation didn't hit me until the second six months - but I'm wondering where to go from here. What are the lasting effects of chronic sleep deprivation? How long does it take to recover emotionally? Will the physical effects ever resolve?

I don't regret giving everything I had and was to my children. I'm just wondering if I can have her back again.


  1. I think you give it all at a time when you can, somehow, and later it seems so impossible because it IS - at some point you lose that capability because it's no longer necessary.
    But still I plan to have the hubby doing some bottle feedings in the night. I find THAT some great advice of yours - not being so adamant about nursing two babies full-time!

  2. And -like I said - I loved the first six months despite the lack of sleep. Other nights were okay - one or the other was sleeping through the night at three months sometimes - just never together. By 6 months it was doable. There are couples out there who claim they didn't have this sleep deprivation - either they have forgotten, or they did have two kids who slept well and were synchronized. My boys still are as different as night and day - one needs almost no sleep (less than 10 hours at night) the other could still do with a 3 hour afternoon nap. One eats anything, the other is never hungry enough to bother. They are just two totally different kids and getting them on the same schedule was harder than for some folks. It was still a great time for me - all about the kids and nothing else.

  3. Also- looking back at the charts - they were sleeping in 5 to 7 hours intervals very often by the time they were one month old - just not the same intervals. I couldn't bring myself to wake a sleeping baby on purpose when I was just so tired - but maybe waking the second when the first is up is something to try? And to be fai, hubby DID help too - it was me trying to be superwoman, but I did call for help finally!