Is it any wonder working moms feel like they’re slogging through their days? A full two-thirds are sleeping no more than six hours a night, according to a joint survey of 1,400 working moms by Working Mother and Whitney Roban, Ph.D., a family sleep specialist and consultant. And it’s not six hours of uninterrupted z’s, either: Three-quarters of women are woken at least once every night by their kids.
The busy moms who follow prove you can take back your nights. Some are lucky enough to work at places with perks and programs to help their employees get much-needed rest. Others took matters into their own hands.
1. She Was Only Getting Five Hours of Sleep a Night
Molly Beare, PR communications adviser; mom of a 6- and a 1-year-old, Henderson, NV
The problem: Molly’s shift as a Zappos customer-service rep started at 5 a.m., but her toddler wouldn’t go to bed until 11 p.m. With just five hours of shut-eye a night, Molly found it tough to concentrate at work.
The solution: Zappos encourages its employees, from the CEO down, to use the company’s nap rooms. Molly started heading to one at lunchtime for a 20-minute siesta. She set an alarm to wake up, then would eat after.
The result: “I got the quick boost I needed to focus on customers,” she says. There was payoff at home too. “Before, I’d be so exhausted, I’d sit on the couch and get fast food instead of playing with the kids and making a home-cooked meal,” she explains.
Her advice: “Sneak in a nap in your car or the break room.” Molly also recommends speaking to your manager or company execs about power naps’ benefits to persuade your workplace to allow them.
The expert’s take: While your body’s not performing health-boosting functions during naps, they do put a dent in your sleep debt when you’re deprived, says Flavia B. Consens, M.D., of the University of Washington Sleep Medicine Center. If you can nap, take one in the early afternoon in a cool spot for no more than 20 minutes. Snoozing too long or too late will affect your ability to fall asleep at bedtime.
2. Every Little Noise Woke Her Up
Andrea Buccellato, manager of support-services programs; mom of three young adults and a 16-year-old, Enfield, NH
The problem: Waking up to see her youngest daughter, then a preschooler, in her bedroom left Andrea ultrasensitive to nighttime noises years later. Anything would rouse her—the furnace clicking on, her cat jumping on the bed, birds chirping.
The solution: Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital’s “Live Well” program. Andrea kept a log for two weeks, writing down when she dozed and awoke. After reviewing the log, an employer-provided sleep coach suggested changes: going to bed at 10 p.m., not 9; avoiding looking at clocks when she woke up; and getting out of bed when she couldn’t sleep. Also, no coffee after 1 p.m.
The result: “I lost the anxiety I had when I wasn’t sleeping, and began accepting the ebb and flow of good nights and not-so-great nights,” she says. She usually sleeps well now—and has become less grouchy at work and at home. On the nights she wakes up, she heads to the family room. “It’s hard, but when I do it, I get back to sleep more quickly.”
Her advice: “I even tell my sisters to stop watching the clock. The minute you do, you set off a stream of thoughts that makes it hard to sleep: ‘Look at the time, I have to get up in two hours, how am I going to get through the day?’” she says. She turns the alarm clock away from her at bedtime; if she goes to the bathroom or another room, she doesn’t peek at clocks along the way.
The expert’s take: You’ll need to retrain your body to associate your bed with sleep instead of anxiety. So yes, stash that clock and go to another room if you toss and turn for more than 20 minutes—the average amount of time it takes to drift off, says Dr. Consens. Read with the light on behind you until you’re sleepy. Don’t watch TV or look at your phone; the direct light keeps you awake.
3. Her Baby Wouldn't Sleep Through the Night
Sasha Pantel, project manager; mom of a 1-year-old, Cambridge, MA
The problem: Formerly a good snoozer, when Baby Jacob hit month four, an infamous sleep-regression time, Sasha would spend an hour feeding him then putting him down. If he woke up, she’d have to restart the process. “I was chronically exhausted and getting frustrated with Jacob. I would walk away to cry to my husband, who would go in and rock him until I was calm enough to try again.”
The solution: Her employer, Broad Institute, held a sleep seminar with Dr. Roban as a speaker. Sasha had a phone consult with her during which they discussed Jacob’s sleep history and issues. They then decided on “a soothing bedtime routine (most of which we already had), followed by putting him down in his crib awake, telling him I loved him, and walking out until morning,” says Sasha.
The result: The first night, Sasha cried more than her son, who whined for 25 minutes, and then fell asleep. “I couldn’t believe it!” she says, adding that the next night he was asleep in 15 minutes—and put himself back to sleep when he woke up. By 7 months old, he was sleeping about 11 to 12 hours a night. “He goes down pretty easily, and if he wakes, he generally doesn’t cry,” says Sasha.
Her advice: “If you can afford it, a sleep consultant (about $200 to $600 for a call and follow-ups) is totally worth it,” says Sasha. “She gave me a plan to follow and provided daily feedback, encouragement and advice for two weeks, which allowed us to fine-tune our strategy to include Jacob’s naps.”
The expert’s take: “The key to sleep training is 100 percent consistency—and that’s easier with the ‘extinction’ method, which usually lasts two to three nights, than with other methods, which take longer,” says Dr. Roban. If you deviate from the plan—like by going in when your baby cries—you have to begin anew the next night. Wait until your baby is at least 4 months old and can sleep through the night without a feeding and until major changes, like a divorce or a death, are behind you.
4. She Couldn't Stick to a Sleep Schedule
Melissa Carey, customer relations; mom of a young adult and a 7-year-old, Whitesboro, NY
The problem: Years of juggling work and household and parenting chores solo stretched Melissa too thin—and without her own nighttime routine. “One night I might go to bed at 11 p.m., and another at 1 a.m.,” she says. It left her sluggish by 2 p.m.—and through the evenings after work.
The solution: Melissa’s employer, The Hartford, offers the Sleepio program. She logged into a weekly webinar for six weeks that took her through a series of questions about the quality of her sleep and how she felt when she woke up. Little by little, Melissa, under the guidance of Sleepio’s sleep tracker and tips, began tweaking her schedule until she arrived at the right one: Every night she went to bed by 11:30 and woke up no later than 7 a.m. After about four weeks, she was able to wake up without the alarm.
The result: “I have energy, I feel younger, and I can do more with my family,” says Melissa, who sticks to the schedule two years later. Now when her workday is over, she plays kickball, bikes or just walks the dog with her kids, instead of sitting on the sofa watching TV. Another bonus: All that outdoor activity has led to her losing 32 pounds since starting the program.
Her advice: “A lot of us think we’re tired because we do so much—and just accept it as life,” says Melissa. “There were a few nights those first three weeks I’d have to get out of bed because I wasn’t sleepy at 11 and then try again 20 or 30 minutes later,” she says. “But once they were over, I was a happier woman.”
The expert’s take: We all have a natural circadian rhythm, but it can get out of whack with erratic bedtimes, leading to insomnia and daytime drowsiness, Dr. Consens explains. A regular sleep schedule—within an hour of the same bedtimes and wake-ups seven days a week—makes your body more efficient at doing all its restorative functions; it’s why you wake up feeling refreshed.
5. Her 3-Year-Old's Bedtime Battles Were Getting Worse
Tonya Simpson, attorney in a DA’s office; mom of a 15-, an 11- and a 3-year-old; Babylon, NY
The problem: Because he couldn’t stay up as late as his older siblings, nothing could entice Tonya’s youngest, Xavier, to go to bed and stay there. His mom tried new sheets (not even the Minions worked), rewards (like special breakfasts), sound machines and getting into bed with him for “a little while.” “I even went as far as getting a fancy night light. That was an epic fail because my son kept bringing it out to us!” admits Tonya.
The solution: A couple of times, Xavier skipped his nap—and slept all night without waking. Although Tonya didn’t purposefully allow it, she knew a good thing when she saw it; now if he doesn’t nod off by 2 p.m., she keeps him up.
The result: He gets sleepier earlier and goes to bed more willingly—at least 99 percent of the time. Xavier gets a little cranky in the p.m., but as long as they keep him moving in the backyard or playground, he is OK.
Her advice: “Skipping a nap is worth it. You get an earlier bedtime, which has been beneficial,” she says, adding that her husband, who works shifts, isn’t around to help most nights.
The expert’s take: A Johns Hopkins University study suggested that when kids are ready to give up their nap (usually around age 3 or 4), it can lead to longer nighttime z’s—and longer attention spans too. Just be warned: “If you take away a 3-year-old’s nap, you must commit to an earlier bedtime,” says Dr. Roban. Kids this age still need 11 to 12 hours of sleep, so you must make up the extra time at night, as Tonya did. Otherwise, the sleep deprivation can lead to night waking, early rising and more, says Dr. Roban. Just don’t ditch naps for kids younger than 3; babies and toddlers still need ’em.