The Five Stages of Sleep Deprivation

I have some good news and some bad news.

Good news: there have been signs of progress in Eitan’s sleep training. Last week, on consecutive nights, he slept straight through until 4:30 and 5:15.
Bad news: he woke up three times during each of the following two nights.1

Good news: Eitan only woke up once last night.
Bad news: it took him close to an hour and a half to fall back asleep.

Good news: Trudy has been able to get a better night’s sleep because I’ve been getting up to put Eitan back down at night.
Bad news: there is no bad news here. Trudy chases after Eitan all day, every day; I can deal with being tired at work.

Good news: I came up with an idea for a new blog post.

I’ve been studying for my clinical social work exam lately, so I’ve had a lot of information floating around in my head. Therapy modalities, counseling approaches, types of groups, developmental milestones, mental health diagnoses, medications, theories, theorists and other little bits of social work knowledge have invaded my thoughts. The good news (yup, here we go again) is that my studying has been a sort of refresher for my current practice, as I’ve come across information to help enrich the work I’ve been doing with my clients that’s either new or that I had forgotten. The bad news is that I feel like I’m back in Psychology 101, diagnosing my friends and family based on their “symptoms.” Then, last night, as I worked to get Eitan back to sleep, I realized that my attempts were a very close mirror to the five stages of grief and I knew what I would be writing this morning.

And so, I present to you, the five stages of sleep deprivation:

1. Denial
It doesn’t matter what time it is. All you know is that you hear something through the baby monitor. It starts as shuffling, as your child tosses and turns, trying to return to his peaceful, relaxed state. Then you hear a whimper or two. As you listen, you try to focus on something else, like the television or your pillow or the fact that all of the blankets have somehow migrated to your spouse’s side of the bed. You tell yourself, “He’s just having a bad dream. It will be over soon. He’ll get himself back to sleep. I don’t need to get up. He’s fine.” Meanwhile, you know that your child is in the process of pulling himself up to stand at his crib railing and is about to throw all of his stuffed animals, his blanket and his pillow out onto the bedroom floor.2

2. Anger
You come into the room and try to soothe him, to quiet him, to coax him back down to his mattress and back to being comfortably numb. But he resists. He cries; he asks for mama; he walks to the other side of the crib; he points to the bedroom door; he tries to throw out the blanket and pillow you’ve just replaced. If you pick him up, he lunges toward the door and squirms to slip out of your grasp and make his escape. That’s when the tone of your voice changes. “Look at me. Stop crying. It’s time to go back to sleep. Get back in bed, lie down and close your eyes. Enough of this b.s.”3

3. Bargaining
As with the stages of grief, the stages of sleep deprivation are not distinct consecutive phases. They are fluid and the people experiencing them can move between them as circumstances change. Interspersed between your stern commands are offers of negotiation and pleas for a decision. “Would you like something to drink? Do you want to sleep in your crib or on the bed? What if I put the music channel on? Here, I’ll even give you the big Mickey blanket. Can we go to sleep now? I’ll even lie here on the bed next to you. Please?”

4. Depression and Despair
The time when despair sets in varies from case to case. If this is the first night that the child is fighting sleep, you may not experience this phase until you and your child have been awake for a few hours. On the other hand, if this is the fifth night in a row that your child has woken up multiple times, depression may set in much sooner. The key question during this phase is along the lines of, “You’re never going to go to sleep, are you?”

5. Acceptance
You’ve given up. You’ve pleaded, you’ve bargained, you’ve commanded. You’ve offered water, juice, milk and even let your child peer into the fridge to decide what they want to eat. You’ve changed their diaper. You’ve put the television on. You’ve put the mobile on. You’ve offered stuffed animals, toys, different pillows and different blankets. You lay down next to your child on the bed, next to his crib and on the floor. At this point, you’ve either fallen asleep yourself while your child stays up watching television or you and your child are peering out the window watching the sunrise together.

I’ve gone through all five of these stages at one point or another, which I believe is one of the developmental milestones of being a parent.4 Sometimes I hit them all in the same night. Sometimes Eitan lies right back down to sleep the second I come into the room, so the only anger I feel is the fact that I had to get up in the first place. From what I’ve been told, though, this is just a phase that he’ll grow out of and sooner or later he’ll be sleeping through the night on his own again.

And that’s definitely good news.


1. Worse news: the second of those two nights was the night we moved the clocks ahead for daylight savings.
2. The number of casualties has been growing steadily over the past two weeks.
3. Adam Mansbach wrote a fantastic book about this.
4. Not only am I not the first parent to experience this, I’m not even the first person who thought of writing a blog post like this. The How to Be a Dad guys even wrote a book about it.

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