10 things you should never say to a sleep-deprived working mum

Want to offer advice to a struggling new parent? Here are 10 things you should never say to a sleep-deprived working mum – and what to do instead. 

When you have a baby, your world changes for many reasons. Some are wonderful and positive. You’ve brought an amazing human into the world! You’re now a mum (or a dad – all the advice below applies equally to fathers).

But others are less welcome. You can kiss goodbye to eight hours of unbroken sleep for a few years. And you need to get used to being the recipient of advice and opinions – whether you’ve ask for them or not.

As a new mother, you’re suddenly bombarded with often well meaning, and sometimes unhelpful advice. Older relatives and acquaintances (and sometimes complete strangers) suddenly feel a need to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Or could do differently (i.e. better).

This is hard enough to cope with when you’re mentally and physically at the top of your game. But when you’re not getting enough sleep, and are juggling work and housework with the demands of having a baby, it’s enough to tip you over the edge.

10 things you should never say to a sleep-deprived working mum

That said, we get the desire to help. If you see a mum or dad who is clearly struggling, it’s natural to want to offer wisdom that helped you in that situation. Or to share a news article you’ve read recently with new tips.

But we need to be careful around new parents. Research shows that prolonged sleep deprivation is a risk factor for postnatal depression.

And, as we explain below, sometimes that well meaning advice we’re desperate to share can just make things worse. Make a struggling mum feel like she’s failing. Not good enough. Not doing the best for her baby.

So, to help make sure that you offer genuinely helpful advice and support, here are 10 things you should never say to a sleep deprived working mum. And what you can do instead.

1) “You look so exhausted!”

Let’s get this out of the way right now: yes, a working mum with a small baby is going to look exhausted. Because she IS exhausted!

Not only is she pulling her weight at the office, but when she gets home, she needs to tend to her baby’s needs, and probably do more than her fair share of cooking and household chores too. And on top of all of that, she doesn’t even get an unbroken night’s sleep to recover.

So yes, she knows she probably looks as exhausted as she feels. But telling her that isn’t going to make her feel any better. In fact, it might just push her over the edge if she’s had a particularly bad night with her baby.

A much more helpful approach would be to say something like, “You must be tired with a young baby and a job. Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?”

This does two important things:

  • It relates to how she’s feeling, so she feels acknowledged and appreciated.
  • It offers something genuinely practical and kind.

So next time you meet a clearly exhausted mum, simply empathise with how she must feel (not look) and offer some practical help or small kindness, if appropriate.

2) “You should give up work and spend more time with your baby”

Ah, the guilt comment. The presumption that a mother must always be working by choice, rather than necessity to pay the bills. And if she is working by choice, then this is the wrong choice. Because a mother’s place is firmly by her baby’s side.

Let’s deal with this advice too. Yes, a mother may be working because she has to, not because she wants to. And if this is the case, how helpful is your comment? Especially if she’s already sleep deprived, exhausted and emotional.

She’d LOVE to spend all her time with her baby, but unless your opinion comes with a huge wad of money to enable her to actually do it, it’s not going to happen. All you are really achieving is making her feel worse about the financial trap she’s in, and probably more guilty at ‘abandoning’ her baby.

And what if she does have a choice? If she’s working not out of financial need, but emotional or intellectual need?

The best mother for any child is a happy mother who is emotionally fulfilled. And it’s not for anyone to say what fulfils another person.

So perhaps, for the mother you’re speaking to, working is something she needs to do in order to be happy and a great mum. Working can help stave off post natal depression. There have also been several studies that show that babies don’t suffer when their mothers return to work.

It’s hard enough for mothers to cope with their own inner feelings of guilt, and wrestle with all the media and personal interpretations of what makes a ‘good mother’, without people around them wading into the debate.

So please, never tell a mother than she needs to be at home with her baby, rather than at work. Or, indeed, the other way around. In fact don’t tell a mother she ‘needs’ to do or be anything at all.

Let her be the mother she wants or needs to be, and simply offer practical help and support if it’s welcome. Judgements don’t help anyone. And they certainly don’t pay the bills.

3) “You’re doing this wrong! Have you tried…”

Don’t you just love unsolicited opinions and advice? No? Then what makes you think an exhausted mum will welcome them?

There’s something about becoming a mother that gives other people permission to wade into your life and comment on the choices you make.

Suddenly, everyone has an opinion on what and when you’re feeding your baby. How much or little they sleep, and the part your routines (or lack of) are playing in this. Even how you wind your baby can open up heated discussion.

And much of the advice other people wade in with can conflict with what you may have read, or been recommended to try. It can all get very confusing, and worse, damage a mother’s self-esteem. After all, she can’t be a natural, intuitive mother if all her decisions are so wrong.

So before you approach a mother and offer unsolicited advice, just stop yourself. Providing that she’s not putting her baby in actual danger, leave her alone.

If she asks you for advice, or whether you think her approach is working, then she genuinely wants your opinion or recommendations. And you can give them freely.

But if not, there’s a good chance she doesn’t want your advice. She may think she’s doing a great job on her own (and she probably is). It’s as important to nurture the confidence of a mother as it is to recommend a different brand of nappy rash cream.

So keep your opinion or experience to yourself unless asked outright for it, and just tell the tired mum that she’s doing a fantastic job. Because she is.

And who knows, if you’re there with generous support (without judgement), she may trust and respect you enough to actually ask you for help and advice.

4) “My baby easily sleeps through the night!”

Every exhausted mother of the brink of a sleep-deprived nervous breakdown has met one of these: the person with the perfect sleeping baby.

Yes, we know some babies miraculously sleep through virtually from day one. And you were lucky enough to bag one of these. Good for you!

But trust us, we really don’t need or want to hear about this when we’re barely surviving on caffeine and our nerves.

And we certainly don’t want advice from you on all the things we may be getting wrong. All the ways we can quite possibly be causing our own sleep torture.

Because the simple fact is that some babies just don’t sleep. And yes, there may be some things we can try, but (see point above), unless we’ve asked you how you do it, please don’t tell us.

There are few things more unwelcome than unsolicited advice. And when it comes from a fellow parent who won the sleeping baby lottery, or who (by implication) is doing this whole parenting thing better than you, it just comes across as smug.

5) “I am tired too!”

Yes, we know that we’re not the only ones who are shattered sometimes. But sleeplessness isn’t a competition. (And if it is, trust us, we’d retire from it in a second if we could.)

When an exhausted, sleep-deprived mother or father tells you they’re tired, they just want sympathetic acknowledgement. Telling them that you’re tired too, can be taken as code for ‘don’t complain about it’.

Or worse, it can feel like their exhaustion is comparable to getting a late night. Or being woken by a rowdy drunk outside at 3am.

Unless you’ve been in the trenches of nights with a sleepless baby or toddler, you really won’t understand the sheer, painful, desperate tiredness that comes from being woken as often as every half hour.

And it feels never ending. You can’t possibly picture a time when your baby IS going to sleep through. This hell feels like it’s going to last forever.

If you’ve been there in the past, you’ll know exactly how this stage of parenting feels. And you’ll also understand that it’s not helpful to either diminish or compete with their exhaustion. Just let them take the sleep crown and own their tiredness right now.

6) “Being a mother is the best thing, you should enjoy it”

Yes, being a parent is wonderful. It’s even more wonderful when you’re looking back at those exhausting earlier days through rose-tinted lenses.

But, if you can recall, actually living through the early months and years of raising a child isn’t always easy. Especially if you’re caring for a newborn, or wrangling toddlers on a broken night’s sleep.

And really, the last thing a working mother who’s running on empty, and possibly close to the end of her tether needs, is to be told she needs to appreciate this period of her life more.

Yes, she knows these early years are precious. She knows she’ll never get them back again. She knows her baby will grow ‘too fast’. But right now all she needs is a cup of tea, a sympathetic ear and possibly a hug. And reassurance that things will get easier.

Telling her she should enjoy this time more is just piling more guilt on her (and if she’s a working mum, she’s probably got enough of that already, thank you).

Let her have whatever feelings she has right now. It’s not for any of us to tell someone else how they should feel. And yes one day she’ll look back and realise how precious this time was in so many ways. But right now she’d just kill for a few hours kip.

7) “Just take a nap while your baby’s sleeping”

How many mums actually manage to nap while their baby is sleeping – especially if they work? We don’t know about you, but when our baby went down for a nap, we rushed around trying to get all the things we needed to do finished by the time they woke up again.

We’d do housework, tidy up, call a friend, work, have a cup of tea, go to the supermarket, have a bath… basically do anything other than sleep.

That precious hour or two while your baby is sleeping is your chance to be baby-free. Or to do all the things you need to do that are difficult with a non-sleeping baby.

Possibly there are some mums out there who did manage to sleep when their baby slept, but we were too busy to have this luxury.

And there’s another thing here: telling a mum that she should sleep when her baby sleeps can be taken as code for ‘if you take the opportunity to sleep when your baby does you won’t be exhausted and can stop complaining’.

It feels like a hidden message that, actually, you DO have all the opportunity to sleep that you need. You’re just not taking it, so it’s your fault.

But even if we did have the luxury of being able to sleep when our baby did, not everyone can miraculously drop off to sleep at any given time. On occasion we tried this advice, but just lay awake, worrying about all the things we weren’t doing.

And trying to snatch a few minutes of sleep when your baby deigns to take a nap is like having your sleep controlled by a tiny dictator. Personally we’ll take a nice, big, unbroken chunk of sleep at night please. Not random hours in the middle of the day.

So, as with all unsolicited advice, please don’t tell a mother when she should sleep.

8) “Well, you said you wanted kids!”

Thankfully no one uttered this gem to us. And we’re actually quite shocked anyone would even think this, let alone actually say it to a sleep deprived working mum. But apparently they do.

Let’s just say that, when you’re shattered and overwhelmed from tiredness, responsibility, and juggling all your roles and work, being told you should be grateful (or just shut up) because you chose to have a child is not helpful.

It’s also not welcome. And it’s certainly not kind.

Yes, maybe we did consciously choose to have kids. Maybe we even wanted them enough to go through IVF to have them. And yes we absolutely adore our child, and would go through this again in a heartbeat to have them. So yes, the situation we now find ourselves in is our choice, and our ‘fault’.

But right now we don’t need to hear that. We just want to be listened to, to be supported, and to be told yes, these early years can be bloody hard. But they’ll pass.

Oh, and that it’s all worth it in the end.

9) “Just let the baby soothe herself, she’ll cry it out”

Reading this list back, we’ve realised how much of it relates to unsolicited advice. And probably the most contentious (and unwelcome) area of advice is on what to do with a crying baby.

Yes, you may personally believe that the exhausted mum in question could possibly get more sleep if they let their baby cry it out for a couple of nights and learn to self-settle. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re not.

The point is that it’s not your baby. And, as before, unless the exhausted mother asks you for advice in this situation, don’t presume to offer it.

Mothers are conditioned to want to soothe a crying baby (apparently mothers’ brains are hardwired to respond to a baby’s cry), so picking up her screaming baby is a natural response.

Yes, some mothers do choose to sleep train their baby, but that’s a personal choice for the parents of the baby. Telling them that they should do this is unhelpful, and insinuates (even if it wasn’t your intent) that it’s somehow their fault if they continue to not get enough sleep. After all, the option to let their baby cry it out is there.

There’s also a subtext that they’d be better parents if they followed your advice. That perhaps they’re too weak or indulgent if they respond to their crying baby’s every demand. Or even that they’re not doing their baby any favours by not training it early.

So please, as a general code for talking to exhausted parents, never offer advice unless it’s explicitly requested. You may believe you know better (and perhaps you’re right), but that’s another opinion best kept to yourself.

10) “You worry too much, take it easy”

The best description we’ve ever read of becoming a parent is by author Elizabeth Stone:

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” 

To us, that’s exactly how it feels to have a child: that your heart is no longer protected and contained within you. Part of you is in your child, and you can never be happy again unless your child is healthy and happy.

So it’s a given that becoming a parent opens up a whole new world of worry. It’s also natural to worry. After all, you want to do the best for your child.

And telling a parent that they need to stop worrying is both impossible and unhelpful, especially if they’re sleep deprived, and everything will naturally feel larger and harder.

Instead of simply dismissing a parent’s worries, it’s more helpful to break them down and help them rationalise or solve the problems that are troubling them.

So instead of saying “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine” (even if you can see this is true), you might want to respond with “What specifically is worrying you? Let’s see if we can find a solution together.”

Sometimes just talking through a worry can help to rationalise it in an exhausted mother’s mind, and she may realise it’s not as bad as she feared, or come up with a solution herself. Or you may be able to gently suggest alternative ideas to try.

(Note the word ‘suggest’ – there’s a big difference between offering suggestions someone can choose to adopt, and telling them what they should do!)

It’s always more helpful and kinder to be there for a mother with a patient ear and a cup of tea, than it is to tell her what she needs to do.

Mothers (and fathers) need our support

So the next time you speak to an exhausted working mother (or father), try to offer them as much support as you can. Hold any options or advice to yourself, unless directly asked for them.

Instead, just a simple kindness like making them a cup of tea and being there to listen can work wonders. It can be all they need to regroup, gather what remaining energy they have left and continue with their day.

One day, the young parents you speak to now will be passing down their own kindness and wisdom to someone else. They’ll know then that these hard early years pass (often to be replaced with even harder teenage years, but that’s a whole other article!).

And one day they’ll know how precious and wonderful these early years are – even with the lack of sleep. But right now, they probably just need a hug.

Practical help you CAN offer an exhausted working mum

If you did want to offer practical support to a struggling parent, here are some ideas:

  • Offer to babysit one evening so they can have a date night.
  • Offer to sit with their baby in the daytime so they can catch up on sleep/work/housework/have a coffee with a friend.
  • Offer to cook a meal for them to give them one less thing to do one evening.
  • Offer to do housework for a couple of hours.
  • Offer to do a food shop for them.

(Note that all these suggestions start with offer. Please always offer help – don’t force it upon someone.)

And finally, it’s always lovely to be told you’re a great mum or dad, that you’re dong really well and that it will all get easier one day.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema