Updated: May 10, 2020
Despite the special needs of your particular child, I’ve found that there are a few things that most parents experience at one time or another and can bond over. Almost all parents have experienced the sleepless nights of the newborn phase, but sleep deprivation with a child with special needs is a completely different ball game. Some children have medical needs at night, others may have a sleep disorder, but the bottom line is that I don’t know many parents who haven’t experienced sleep deprivation at one time or another.
There are lots of places to get advice on how to get your child to sleep. I read them all, and I followed the advice religiously. I did all of this even though I knew that my son’s diagnosis included an inverted circadian rhythm. His brain literally flip-flops day and night. But still I tried. Our black-out curtains were expertly placed, our bedrooms were doused in lavendar, we had a perfectly orchestrated bedtime routine, and yet he still was not sleeping for the majority of the night. I kept following all of the advice to the letter of the law, but inwardly, I started to despair. The endless nights were wearing me down, and I was having a difficult time functioning. I read articles about self-care for caregivers, and I felt even more depressed. They all insisted that I get enough sleep and make time for myself, but how could I? I was just plodding through the day, trying not to let too many balls drop.
After a few months (and many dropped balls), something dawned on me. I thought about the way that I planned for a trip or the beginning of a school year. I realized that I could bring that same thoughtful, methodical advance preparation to help us survive sleep deprivation. I had to accept that we would likely not be getting a solid eight hours anytime soon and adjust our lives accordingly. Only after I made this act of acceptance was I able to receive the grace and help that God was offering. He was not going to make it all magically go away like I had been begging, but He was offering real, tangible help.
I started prayfully considering our day. I quickly realized that I would have to scale back on a lot of outside committments. I couldn’t keep white-knuckling through my days. I had to let go of some things, and that was very hard. Even what remained had to be simplified. If I could not get rid of this cross, I had to figure out how to carry it well. I tried to research how to handle sleep deprivation, but most advice focused on how to get more sleep. I had begun to understand this as a vocation, as something God was asking of me (or at least allowing me to undergo) as part of being a mother to my son with special needs, and I longed for spiritual advice. My husband wisely suggested that I use the hours that I was awake each night as a time for prayer, but I felt like a failure. I could barely have a coherent thought, how could I pray? I kept trying, kept fumbling around in the dark (literally), and God slowly began to show me a way forward.
So here is my short guide of the spirituality of sleep deprivation, the lessons I learned through sleepless nights and weary days.
1. Think of yourself as a child, and parent yourself. I likely don’t need to tell you that sleep deprivation affects your emotional health. It can make you more prone to anger, anxiety, depression, and confusion. I realized that I was an emotional mess, and one day it dawned on me that I was about the same as my toddler. So, I began to think of myself as a toddler and treat myself accordingly. No, I could not have a sleeve of cookies, but I could have a simple, comforting meal that was actually good for me. No, I could not wear those dirty sweatpants that I had been wearing for days, but I could wear something clean and comfortable.
2. Make a nest. If you know you are likely going to be up with your child at night, make it as comforting as possible. If you are always tripping over toys or laundry at night, find some way to make sure the way is clear before bedtime. Do you have a comfortable place to sit next to your child? Make one.
3. Pave the way to prayer. I mentioned that at first I could not figure out how I could possibly pray when I was so exhausted. I realized that God was not asking me to recite a perfect rosary or mentally write a theological exegesis on select Bible passages. There are many ways to pray, and all I really had to do was fall into the Father’s waiting arms. I put up a few icons in the place where I knew I would be up with my son at night. During the day, I set up a playlist of my favorite chant music so that all I would have to do is press play once I was up at night. Sometimes I simply held a small cross or a rosary. These small actions yielded a surprising amount of spiritual fruit.
4. Ask the saints for help. I was so disappointed when I first searched my trusty patron saint list and could not find a patron saint of sleep. I eventually landed on Saints Simeon and Anna as fitting patrons. They waited and longed for the coming of the Savior, and only then could they find rest. They did not have to achieve anything, they only had to wait on the Lord. Every night at Compline, the Church prays St. Simeon’s canticle, and its accompanying antiphon took on a new beautiful meaning for me: “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.” What a fitting prayer for those of us who are not getting much sleep!
5. During the day, take a walk. God, in His mercy, has made nature a healing balm. I believe this even as a person who is incredibly grateful for air conditioning, bug spray, and heated car seats. It can be tempting to stay inside and “rest” when you are sleep-deprived. However, I never regret taking a simple, short walk. Our bodies and souls truly need the fresh air and sunshine, and it can make a real difference when you are running on empty. If the weather is truly horrible, just stand on your porch for five minutes. I’ve even found it helpful to sit next to an open window for a bit (yes, even when it’s freezing).
6. Remember you are not alone. Some of the most difficult moments of my life have been when I was awake in the middle of the night with my child. It can be so lonely. The spiritual reality is quite different. We are not alone. Think about the many other parents keeping vigil with their children at night, in hospitals, in homes, in war-torn countries. Also, remember the holy monks, nuns, priests and other religious around the world who are awake at this very moment praying for you. The work that you are doing is no less holy than theirs.
Jane Stanley is a mother to five children. She reads, writes, and homeschools in Central Virginia.