She's Not ..., She's Just Sleep Deprived: Returning to Work After Baby

Article by Kate Gerber and Mary Ann Downey.

Have you ever heard an exasperated sigh from a co-worker who wonders why you can’t remember anything, speak in complete sentences, or why you’re unable to keep up with a conversation? Has that sigh ever come from you? If the answer is “yes,” you may have just had a baby. The emotional rollercoaster and cognitive dysfunction (a/k/a brain fog) that comes with pregnancy doesn’t hold a candle to the kind of dementia that sleep deprivation causes once the baby is born. As hard as you try, you just can’t get out of the fog. There is a good reason for this: you’re not getting any sleep! For a brief period of time (usually around 6 weeks), you have the ability to figure out your new role without any work deadlines, phone calls or meetings to attend. But what happens when you go back to work?

When you were younger and in college, you may have gone days without sleeping. Whether studying, waiting tables or engaging in some well-deserved partying – being sleep deprived was a badge of honor. With this frame of reference, the idea that your new bundle of joy is going to challenge your ability to perform on the job seems far-fetched.

The number of things new parents need to do to prepare for returning to work would make the most organized of us dizzy. Certain decisions will need to be made, such as: How the baby will be cared for during working hours; if you are breast-feeding, how to manage maintaining the milk supply; and what the new work schedule will be like (it might be different from what was communicated during pregnancy – see The Great Unknown blog). For new mothers, even deciding “What do I wear?” becomes an immense decision, as nothing fits like it should. Money is also typically tight, as expenses have just increased and often, even with disability insurance, the money coming in has decreased. All of these logistical questions weigh heavily on a new parent, which causes stress – and this does not count the constant “Am I doing this right?”

Add to these stressors the new little person in your life, who needs to eat every 2-3 hours, may sleep intermittently and often seems to cry for no reason. This triple whammy causes a kind of sleep deprivation like no other. There is one last “gotcha” for women who are breast-feeding: producing breast milk and pumping is exhausting! While it may sound great that breastfeeding burns 250-500 calories per day, burning those calories is extremely draining (pardon the pun).

Studies have shown that stress can trigger sleep issues that lead to sleep deprivation. Sleep recommends, “To fix the stress and lack of sleep problems, the most important thing to do is find out what is causing the stress. When you find out what the underlying problem is, get rid of the stress and sleep will follow.” This is not a practical solution for a new parent.

The real issue with baby-induced sleep deprivation and going back to work is the timing. During the first few weeks of your new baby’s life, you have increased adrenaline, extra hands (from nurses, friends, and/or family), and your baby is sleeping almost 18 hours a day. Once the “honeymoon period” is over (right about the one month to six week mark), the cumulative effect of weeks without enough sleep can keep you from bringing your “A” game.

This is why it is important to set expectations for employers and co-workers alike. Regardless of how “on top of things” women think they are, their co-workers will still notice they are a bit slower, and perhaps grumpier, than usual. This is to be expected, and most people will understand, especially if they have gone through it themselves. The key here is to set the right expectations and try to keep a sense of humor about it. Here are some ways to ease back into the grind:

  • Flexible work arrangements. Telecommuting enables the breastfeeding mom to put in a full day’s work, while allowing her to pump in the comfort and privacy of her home.
  • Part-time schedule. Working a few days a week or half days may allow a new parent to re-acclimate to the work environment and discover how long it now takes to complete tasks. This is necessary for good time management and for setting realistic expectations for yourself and your employer. From a practical standpoint, while the baby is in child care you can also get some rest!
  • Assignment choices. The high profile client or project may not be a good match for a new parent just returning from leave. You do not want to set yourself, your team or your organization up for failure. It may be appropriate to collaborate with your co-workers on projects, which will help you get back into the swing of things without taking on the responsibility and success of the entire project.
  • Wellness programs. Your health and well-being are critical. Eating well, exercising and getting enough rest are all keys to your success at home and at work. As many books will tell you, don’t neglect yourself! You are no good to anyone if you are too weak or sick to do your work or manage your home and family.
  • Meet with your manager regularly. Ensure the communication channels are open. You need candid feedback as you get back into the swing of things, and you need to let your manager know what challenges you are facing. It is your manager’s role to help you be successful, so they need to know how much can be placed on your shoulders and what they can do to help.
We would love to hear tips, tricks, and comments from members on their return to work after a baby. Also, look for our upcoming baby blogs “Letting go of Superwoman” and “1 is 1, 2 is 4”.

Kate & Mad