In all our discussions of milestones—from rolling over to riding a bike—there is a sizable category we never seem to touch: our own. Of the many benchmarks of parenthood, the transition from easily explained exhaustion (see: sleepless nights) to that of a more nebulous variety is foreign territory. After all, the expectation is that when our kids begin sleeping through the night, we will too. And maybe we do, but we’re bone-tired anyway.
As sleep specialist Dr. Caleara Weiss shared, paying attention to the hours we spend asleep each night is just one piece of the puzzle. As it turns out, there are a host of factors contributing to the deep sense of fatigue we feel raising little ones. To root out these issues and finally shake free of our exhaustion, we brought in a team of health and wellness experts. Below, they share life-changing advice for finally putting our fatigue to rest.
1. Regiment your sleep
According to Dr. Weiss, when it comes to good sleep, it’s not simply a numbers game. “Looking at the number of hours of sleep is only the tip of the iceberg. Parents may still feel exhausted if their sleep is fragmented, meaning they have several wake-ups during the nights,” she said. “Those interruptions in the sleep cycle, brief or long, indicate they are not benefiting from the full potential of sleep for physical, mental, and emotional recovery.”
While there’s little parents can do to curb sporadic wakings from our children, we can arm ourselves with better practices to make the most of the sleep we get. Sleep specialist Dr. Meredith Broderick recommended adhering to a regular sleep schedule, hitting the sheets around the same time each night.
Looking at the number of hours of sleep is only the tip of the iceberg. Parents may still feel exhausted if their sleep is fragmented, meaning they have several wake-ups during the nights.
2. Put your phone away
Dr. Weiss advised parents begin with cleaning up their sleep hygiene, stowing away screens at least an hour before bed. Need help unwinding before bed without an Instagram scroll? Relaxation habits like meditation, prayer, and deep breathing can ease you into sleep.
3. Request blood work
When a full night’s sleep leaves you feeling less than rested, checking in with your healthcare provider is the best place to start. “It’s important to regularly check things like iron levels, thyroid function, fasting blood sugar, and vitamin B12 and vitamin D,” said Dr. Stephanie Wallman, a family medicine physician at Parsley Health. When any of these is off-balance, Dr. Wallman noted, you may feel an unshakeable sense of fatigue.
In particular, iron levels and thyroid functioning may be impacted by pregnancy and childbirth, so if you have recently welcomed a new baby, checking in on these makes good sense. “Many [people] become iron deficient after pregnancy and delivery because it takes a lot of iron to make a baby, and there is significant blood loss after delivery,” she said.
4. Nap strategically
To help reset after a night of fitful sleep, Dr. Weiss recommended a 20 to 30-minute nap taken no later than 2 p.m. She explained that sticking to these rules ensures you won’t upset your circadian rhythm nor enter into a deep sleep that would leave you drowsy when you wake.
5. Combat cortisol
Hormone guru Dr. Tara Scott recommended getting cortisol levels in check. “Cortisol is the hormone that increases with stress,” she said. “Whether you are running from a bear or chasing around toddlers, the effect is the same, [brain fog and sluggishness].” To find hormonal balance, Dr. Scott suggested three simple lifestyle changes: limiting processed food and sugar; prioritizing sleep; and practicing stress relief. Dr. Wallman encouraged parents to build in daily, purposeful movement into their routines, too. As she explained, even 5-10 minutes of walking or yoga can help reduce cortisol levels.
6. Drink more water
One of the simplest ways to combat exhaustion is to drink enough water throughout the day. “So many parents fail to drink enough water, which often contributes to feeling sluggish and leads to certain food cravings,” said Caitlin Kiarie, a registered dietitian nutritionist.
7. Eat breakfast
In the chaos of parenthood, it makes sense that many of us might forgo eating first thing in the morning. But Kiarie encouraged parents to start the day with a mindful meal, no matter how small. “Sit down and pay attention to your food and how it satiates your body, as this will give you greater energy and satisfaction throughout the day,” she said.
8. Enjoy proteins and fat
Who among us isn’t guilty of scarfing down a handful of goldfish crackers and calling it a meal? Kiarie cautioned against this method of light snacking, encouraging parents to pair fruit or carbs with a protein or fat, (e.g., an apple with cheese, or guacamole with chips). “When we don’t pair [light snacks] with a source of protein or fat, our body uses up that fuel very quickly and efficiently but then leaves us back at a low energy state just as fast,” she said.
When we don’t pair [light snacks] with a source of protein or fat, our body uses up that fuel very quickly and efficiently but then leaves us back at a low energy state just as fast.
9. Consider supplements
You should always consult with your healthcare provider before adding supplements to your routine, but once you have the green light from your physician, Dr. Wallman offered a useful place to start, “If I were to suggest one supplement, it would be Omega-3 to help with brain function, concentration, and brain fog.”
She explained that our bodies rely on stores of Omega-3 throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding, which may result in robbing us of the important nutrients we need.
“[It] is being pulled from your own brain to be given to your baby, which is why many parents develop ‘baby brain,’ [or brain fog],” she said. “Supplementing this can help prevent the pull from your own supply.”
10. Warm up your meals
Ashlie Martin, a licensed acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, emphasized eating warm meals—especially at breakfast. “Over night, our bodies drop in temperature and our digestive energy takes a break. In order to warm up the digestion and ease into the day, drink some warm lemon water before eating, and make yourself a warm breakfast like oatmeal or scrambled eggs,” she said. This, she explained, will help address what TCM termed a “spleen qi deficiency,” which is a key player in exhaustion. Martin suggested three cooked, warm meals each day for a week to see improvements in energy.
11. Ease up on exercise
If you’re feeling exhausted despite a full night’s sleep, Martin recommended easing into that call for slowness. “Listen to your body,” she said. “It may be telling you that rest is best, or perhaps your body will be best served by calmer movement like yoga, meditative walks, qi gong, or even a slow bike ride.”