The sleep-deprived mum’s guide to surviving at work

Ever wondered how you’ll make it through a work day after sitting up (what feels like) all night – again – with a sleepless baby or toddler? A fellow sleep-deprived mum shares her tips for survival.

Freelance journalist and mum of two Samantha Downes shares her well-used strategies for preventing sleep deprivation, and if that fails, her survival strategies for coping with less than two hours’ sleep.

The joys of accumulated sleep deprivation

As I sit here I have a slight, but not overwhelming, buzzing in my head. My body also feels mildly achy all over, though sadly not in a went-to-the-gym-and-did-a-Tabata-/spin/yoga class-yesterday kind of way.

I’m also having a bit of trouble concentrating. Not great as I’ve got a news story to file and then a one hour commute home to look forward to – and that’s after a mad dash through the city of London.

In case you haven’t guessed, and I’m pretty sure some of you have, I’m suffering from accumulated sleep deprivation.

I’m feeling about the most sleep-deprived I’ve felt in quite a while. I feel sorry for the editor who has to put this blog up and the features editor who has to put my piece online because they are probably littered with typos and excess line spacing,  probably even a few weird issues with the tense I’m writing in, or should that be ‘was’ writing in. Aarghhh!

My children sleep fairly well, however all it takes is a bad cold, teething, the new school year starting, for our little darlings to turn into temporary insomniacs. This can play havoc with the energy levels of someone, like me, who has spent most of her adult life getting at least eight hours sleep a night.

How sleep deprivation lost me a job

As a working mum I’ve learned to live with sleep deprivation but it doesn’t always make for the most professional working environment.

I have had at least one work-related sleep-deprived disaster story to tell. A specialist magazine who I’d been working for regularly and who paid well, commissioned me to write a piece about Lloyds of London.

I got stuck in, interviewing top bods and researching like mad. When I finished writing the article I felt quite proud and even a bit emotional. I was really pleased of the piece, especially as it was written up with a heavy cold, managing to breastfeed three times during the day, and on about three hours sleep  (over two nights), plus my three-month old appeared to be starting the teething process.

I filed the story and got on with life. Then, a week later I saw I’d missed an email from the features editor who had commissioned me. The email had been sent a few hours after I filed the copy.

Alarm bells went off and with a sinking heart I opened the email. In it the editor berated me for sending something that had apparently needed intensive editing.

I looked again at what I’d sent, the unedited version of the feature. Aarrgh and double aaargh.

I have to say I cried at this point and then sent her an apologetic email. Later on  – when I was feeling more rational and less emotional I realised that it was her who had acted unprofessionally, as soon as she had started to read the copy she should have emailed me or called me and the matter would have been sorted.

But sleep deprivation or not I never heard from her, or the magazine again. And now I always, always get someone else to read through my stuff before I send it in.

My working mums guide to sleep deprivation

So how to avoid sleep-deprivation impacting on your job? Over the years, I’ve picked up some tactics to help me prevent it from completely taking over my life – and some cures for coping with less than two hours sleep.


  • Exercise – you need an aerobic activity that gets your blood flowing, and your body sweaty. You don’t have to do it for long (and a walk doesn’t cut it either unless you are getting breathless). Taking regular exercise means that even when you are totally exhausted, you can get away with just look tired, not 10 years older, that’s because when you do sleep the quality of your sleep is better.
  • Water – one of the reasons a hangover feels so terrible is because your body is dehydrated. You don’t have to have consume several glasses of red with the girls to get the same feeling. So keep drinking the not-so hard stuff.
  • Going to bed early – as having a lie-in will be something you will probably never be able to do ever again, or not for at least four/five years, you might as well give in and go to bed early.
  • Vitamins – I’ve switched from a breastfeeding supplement to one that gives me energy, the extra B vitamins help to deal with the stress your body goes through when it’s forced to survive on little sleep – apparently.


  • Caffeine – I find tea (with sugar) helps. As long as you top it up with plenty of water. Just avoid the double espressos which will make you even more jittery.
  • Mix your carbs and protein – eating too much of one and not enough of the other will leave you feeling sluggish. Scrambled eggs on rye bread, or sushi (I love salmon) with a small amount of rice, can help pep you up and give you some useable energy.
  • Take a day nap – if you can – and there are ways and means – take a lunchtime nap. Or head to your gym and sit in the steam room.
  • Be easy on yourself – stress can also make those night hours seem longer and will mean another restless night.
  • Have a plan B – get someone else to back you up, whether it’s childcare or getting a hubby to check your copy (in my case). Never be afraid to ask for help.

And with that, I’m off to bed…

Samantha Downes is a freelance journalist and the author of several finance guides and books.