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A peril



Published: Sun, November 11, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By LAURA MEYN

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

elley Schuler is the mother of three, all under the age of 3, so she knows a thing or two about sleep deprivation.

One of her most sleep-deprived periods was during the weeks after the birth of her twin girls. Schuler's then 18-month-old son, Tres, had developed a fondness for two new activities: slamming doors and flushing toilets. After changing the diapers one morning, Schuler headed out to the garage to deposit the dirty diapers into the outdoor trash can.

Exhausted, she looked up just in time to see Tres slamming the door shut, which locked her out.

With two infants and a toddler alone in the house, Schuler panicked and began knocking on neighbors' doors, trying to find someone who might let her borrow the phone. Finally, Schuler got in touch with her husband, who came home from work to unlock the house. The girls were fine, and so was Tres, who had kept himself busy in the interim by flushing the toilet over and over.

As far as sleep-deprived moments go, this really wasn't a big deal; nobody was hurt, and there was a happy ending to the story. But even Schuler, who is about as calm as they come, admits that sleep deprivation has, at times, gotten the best of her.

"You do turn into a witch and feel like you want to ride a broom through the house," she said, recalling how irritable she felt when first adjusting to the two-hour intervals of sleep that most new mothers deal with.

Effects on body, mind: According to Sharon Phillips, an associate professor of nursing at Youngstown State University, moodiness is a common side effect of sleep deprivation, which can also wreak havoc on word memory, fine motor skills, attention span, response time, reasoning and judgment. In some cases sleep deprivation can cause hyperactivity, heightened sensitivity to pain or even body temperature fluctuations.

How to prevent all of this? As Phillips said, "There's only one cure: enough sleep."

The advice most new mothers get is to take a nap when the baby naps. But most will tell you that this is easier said than done; nap time is when they can take care of business.

Heidi Bills, the mother of 15-month-old Noah, said she tried napping in the very beginning. But after a few weeks, she started using his nap time as her chance to get things done, from doing the dishes to writing thank-you notes for baby gifts.

Prioritize: Phillips' best advice for sleep-deprived mothers is to let go of some less important tasks that they don't have time or energy for.

"It might sound unrealistic, but you have to set your priorities around what's important to you," she said. "You can't worry about the floor being clean anymore."

Phillips explained that it takes time for people to adjust to their new roles, and that mothers shouldn't be too hard on themselves. "You can't be perfect and it's OK," she said. "Don't be afraid to ask for help. Get someone for a few hours during the day if possible. Even if you are new to the area, there might be someone from your church who would love to help."

She says that mothers (or fathers, if they are the primary caretaker) need time away from their children, and they shouldn't feel guilty about it.

Time for herself: Haley Stanish, the mother of three children ages 10 weeks to 5 years old, has been able to reserve a little personal time in spite of her hectic life. She has been successful at trying to nap (or at least having some quiet time) when her baby naps. Stanish also relies on her husband to watch the kids after work sometimes, which gives her a few moments to read a magazine, take a walk or take a bath, all luxuries that stay-at-home moms don't usually enjoy during the day.

She has also found that exercising regularly gives her more energy. This doesn't mean that she escaped sleep deprivation entirely.

"With the first child, I was constantly exhausted; there were so many things to learn," she said. When she was most sleep-deprived, Stanish found herself forgetting things and overcommitting her time, and her regular Thursday nights out with friends had to go.

"The first month is basically a fog, then you get more tolerant, you get used to it," she said. "We have the schedule down after three kids; I do the 3 a.m. [feeding] and he does the 5 a.m. so I can sleep until he leaves for work."

Schuler, Bills and Stanish were all professionals before becoming mothers, and it can be particularly challenging for someone who is used to doing it all to let go of certain responsibilities.

Suggestions: Phillips recommends that mothers not only take naps and, whenever possible, accept outside help with child care and cleaning, but that they also get together with other mothers for support and for the reassurance that other people are going through the same thing.

So if you find yourself forgetting your firstborn's name or putting the milk in the cupboard and the cereal in the refrigerator, you aren't crazy -- just a little sleep-deprived.

XTo chat with other parents or learn more, visit www.babycenter.com, www.sleepfoundation.org or sleepdisorders.about.com.




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