What To Do When Sleep Is Not an Option

by Katelyn Denning April 17, 2024

mother holding her son

Ahh, sleep. No one appreciates sleep more than parents.

Whether you have a newborn, a child going through a developmental leap, or sick kids, there are seasons when sleep feels elusive.

Seasons where you hope, pray, and cross your fingers that everyone sleeps through the night, only to be woken just a few hours later by the sound of crying, illness, a wet bed, or a scary dream.

Seasons where your days are so full that the only way to keep up with all of the things that need to get done is to work when you otherwise would be sleeping. There’s work to catch up on, chores to do, time that you want to spend with your partner, or better yet, time to just be alone!

When it feels like there’s not enough time, something has to go. And that something is often sleep.

While I would argue that there are seasons of life when you should do all that you can to prioritize sleep and to clock as many hours as possible, even if it's broken; I know from first-hand experience that it's just not always realistic.

Existing on Caffeine, Chocolate, and Adrenaline

I know, because after three kids and nine total years as a parent, I’ve had some truly sleepless seasons. I’ve had babies who loved partying in the middle of the night, who only wanted to sleep while being held, would only sleep for 30 minutes at a time, or with meditation music, or pacifiers, or a hand on their back. I’ve had toddlers who were scared of the dark, who wet the bed, and who would wake up at ungodly early hours of the morning. And I have school-aged kids to this day who wake up sick in the middle of the night or who “aren’t tired” long after I’m ready for bed. You name it and we have done it.

I have existed on caffeine, chocolate, and sheer adrenaline for longer than I ever thought was humanly possible.

I’ve hit the afternoon wall so hard, so many times, that it took every ounce of restraint to not curl up under my desk at the office (remember working in an office?) for a cat nap.

And speaking of cat naps, I’ve perfected the art of a lunchtime nap in the car, in the mom’s room, and during conference calls (sleeping with my eyes open). Sleep deprivation as a parent is R-E-A-L, real!

But I’ve learned something along the way, that while it didn't magically add uninterrupted sleep to my days, did help me continue to function in my daily life and helped me offset the continual deficit I was running.

How to Offset the Deficit

I figured out that when sleep is not an option, everything else that contributes to your health and mental well-being MUST be an option.

Because your ability to get sleep is dependent on another little being, one who doesn't understand that lights out means sleep, there's not a whole lot you can do to get more. I get that.

So instead, you have to think about the things that you can control - other things that give you energy and help you function. Things like...

  • what you eat and what you drink,
  • how much you move your body,
  • how you quiet your mind and manage stress,
  • how often you smile and have fun,
  • how you manage your time, and
  • what you do to supplement your body.

When you're running a sleep deficit, you need a surplus in the other areas of your well-being to balance it out.

I recommend creating your own short list, or cheat sheet of ideas because it can be really hard to think creatively when you’re sleep-deprived. Knowing what your options are when that overwhelming, body and mind-numbing sleep deprivation starts to set in, will help you respond more quickly.

What You Eat & Drink

The first thing that I always want to grab when I'm tired is chocolate candy. I love some peanut m&ms and Oreos. But what I also know is that I always feel worse the hour following eating those things than I did before.

So I summon every ounce of willpower and opt for fruit, vegetables, or protein and I remind myself that I’m eating for how I WANT to feel (energized), not how I feel right now (tired).

I also know that when I drink TONS of water, I feel more refreshed. I consciously drink glass after glass on the days when I'm feeling particularly tired and it really does start to wake me up.


It’s well-known that exercise actually increases your energy levels, even though the thought of it when you’re sleep-deprived might leave you feeling even more tired and exhausted.

Maybe you just start with a short walk around the block on a work break or hike up and down a flight of steps. I also love starting small with simple stretches or a sun salutation to wake myself up. I've even done this in a conference room when I'm feeling that urge to nap under my desk.

Quiet Your Mind / Manage Stress

I’ve never found meditation as meaningful as I have when I'm tired. Because when I’m tired, my emotions are often magnified. I’m quick to anger; I succumb easily to stress; and I just feel, in general, like the sky is falling.

Meditation is like a nap on steroids. It helps to calm my mind and my emotions and leaves me feeling like I got a little sleep.

It looks different for everyone, so do what works for you. It could be counting your breaths in cycles of 10, staring at a candle, listening to a guided yoga nidra meditation, or using an app like Headspace or Calm. Even 5 minutes can make a difference.


I always make sure that I’m taking my daily vitamins and whatever else I’m into at the moment. At different stages that’s been Vitamin D, probiotics, magnesium, Vitamin B complex, digestive enzymes, etc. (Of course, I’m not a medical professional so consult with your healthcare provider before trying anything new.)

When you’re tired, eating balanced meals can feel more challenging, so getting a little extra boost from vitamins and supplements is never a bad idea.


...also known as a little something extra. Everyone has their thing that helps them feel their best. Whether it’s doing a little journaling, talking with a friend, hugging it out with your spouse, you name it. Try to add it in when you can. For me, it’s drinking an afternoon mug of green tea while lighting my favorite candle that immediately relaxes me or helps me focus when I get tired.

What’s your lagniappe? Don’t forget about it and add it in when you can for a little extra boost.

Let’s be honest. Nothing truly beats sleep when it comes to feeling your best.

But it’s time that you accept whatever season you’re in and do what you can to offset that deficit.

Katelyn Denning


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