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"For 5 years, I haven't had more than 3 hours uninterrupted sleep. It's affected everything."

This week is Sleep Awareness Week. So, let me make you aware of this. I haven’t slept through the night for five years. Yes, you read that right. Five years. That’s 1825 nights of broken sleep. And 1825 days of wondering how I’m going to make it through to bedtime.

My children, now five and two, like to wake at regular intervals through the night, and have done since the moment they were born. No matter how much coaxing, encouraging or bribery my husband and I attempt, they still wake – and therefore wake me up too – every three hours or so (on a good night).

When I first became a parent, I expected a certain amount of sleeplessness. In the first year of a baby’s life, the average parent gets just four hours and 44 minutes of sleep a night, according to a UK study. What I didn’t expect was to still be severely sleep-deprived five years down the track.

Sean Szeps shares how to sleep again with young children. Post continues after video.

Video by MMC

There’s no way round it – sleep deprivation is awful. It’s affected every area of my life; my friendships, my career, my marriage and my health.

I look in the mirror and am horrified by what I see. I’ve aged insurmountably. Gone is the plump creamy skin I used to be proud of. Today, my face has a pallid grey sheen to it, no matter how many brightening or tightening creams I use. I don’t go to the gym anymore; sleep is prioritised over everything else.

Although the physical effects of prolonged sleep deprivation are hard to stomach, it’s the emotional consequences that are really damaging. I’m undoubtedly less patient with my children than I would be if I’d slept properly. Some days I wonder which arguments could have been avoided or how many tears wouldn’t have been shed (mine or theirs) if I’d had a good block of shut-eye the night before. Which games would I have played with them if I wasn’t so exhausted that I opted out and let them amuse themselves for an hour or two?

Some days I feel as though I’m trying to walk through tar; my body moves in slow motion. Sounds are muted, conversations are distant. I turn down invitations from friends because I’m too tired to even contemplate going out. I forget everything unless I write it down. Once I couldn’t even remember what my daughter’s name was. Trying to get my brain up to speed for work is so difficult that I spend hours on projects that should take half the time – ironically making me even more tired.

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"When I first became a parent, I expected a certain amount of sleeplessness... What I didn’t expect was to still be severely sleep-deprived five years down the track."Image: Getty.
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Lack of sleep has had a huge impact on my marriage too. The bedroom has become a battleground. There's no "Good morning" anymore. Instead it’s “You only got up once last night,” or “I’m more tired than you.” When we’re both exhausted, arguments are more frequent, tolerance harder to come by.

Everything I’ve experienced over the past five years is normal for someone with sleep deprivation, confirms psychologist with the Sleep Health Foundation, Dr Melinda Jackson.

“The first things that suffer [when we don’t get enough sleep] are related to our brain function,” she says. “We can't hold our attention, our memory becomes poorer, our reactions are slowed and our mood fluctuates more than normal. If inadequate sleep continues to occur regularly, our physical and mental health may be at risk.”

In many ways I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had depression or a chronic illness as is common with long-term sleep deprivation. I take power naps whenever possible and have a supportive extended family who sometimes come over so I can retreat under the covers for an hour or two. Dr Jackson advises that this is essential. “Broken sleep [naps] is better than none,” she explains. “Catch up sleep is necessary – use weekends to get some extra. If you’re really struggling, see your GP for help.”

I’m resigned to the fact I’ll be tired for the foreseeable future. And although it’s been harder than I could have imagined, some good things have come of it. Instead of concentrating on making rational decisions, I’ve learnt to trust my instinct; moving overseas on a whim has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and perhaps something I might not have been brave enough to consider if my neurons had been firing on all cylinders. I conserve my energy for things that really matter; ironing and tidying take a back seat to playing with my kids. And for all our sniping, being in the sleep-deprivation trenches with my husband has shown us that even when things are tough, we can stick together.

For now, the thought of a full night’s shut-eye is still a dream – if I can squeeze a quick dream in before I get woken up.

Sleep Awareness Week is 5-11 August. For more information on sleep, you can visit their website here.

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