A child's sleep is rarely unaffected by mum's return to work. For those families where sleep is already challenging, a further decline can be particularly hard at a time that is often stressful enough without upping the ante through sleep-deprivation! Here is my guide on what to expect and how to ace the return-to-work sleep test.
Prior to a mother’s return to work, she has usually been her baby’s biggest constant. As such, her absence is notable. Whilst little ones do adapt, a period of adjustment is somewhat inevitable. Many mums also find the upcoming shift back into “work mode” daunting – as Corporate and Executive Coach, Nikki Alderson, explains: “With each and every career break returner I have come across, a loss of confidence presents as a challenge.” On that basis then, know that you are not alone. On top of the extended time away from work, I find consistently with clients that having struggled with their little one’s sleep has left a mum doubting her abilities. Rest assured that child sleep is complex and often counterintuitive – and many extremely competent parents struggle with it!
When a child first begins to spend extended time away from mum, he will look for opportunities to reconnect – even if that is at 2am! Children may need lots of extra reassurance to navigate this tricky period - it will pass, as your little one settles into his new routine and realises that you always come back.
As well as connecting with your child, Nikki advises that aligning yourself with a supportive “team” at work can really help to navigate any feelings of being [ the only] person experiencing a return to work lack of confidence. Listening to the shared experiences of an empathetic boss, a friendly co-worker, inspiring role-models, a mentor or coach, can help you realise your experiences are completely normal, not unusual and most importantly, not insurmountable.
If the return-to-work can be phased, there are a number of advantages. Initially spreading working days out means more chance to recover after a night of broken sleep. At the very least, temporarily keeping weekends relatively clear can make a huge difference. Shorter working days, if possible and at least initially, enable quality time with your child ahead of bedtime, thereby filling up the “mummy and me” tank prior to the separation of sleep.
This is a point on which Nikki agrees: “There is certainly something to be said for a gradual build up to you return, for you and your little one, in terms of having at least one Keep In Touch day, discussing a possible phased return, combined with a morning/afternoon working from home familiarising yourself with Continuing Practice Development and other new developments within your area of work, and practising using any new technology”.
For many children, childcare is a way of life. There are fantastic nurseries and childminders out there but sleep-knowledge varies greatly. The biggest stumbling block I see is dropping to one nap before a little one is developmentally ready. Typically, children sit best on two naps until around 15 months and those who drop to one nap much before this often struggle. Yet many childcare settings push children from two naps to one around their first birthday which can create overtiredness – the nemesis of sound sleep.
Whilst sleep expertise is not guaranteed amongst childcare providers, most are willing to accommodate parents’ requests so it’s always worth being clear about how you want the daytime schedule to look. If your little one is still taking two naps at home, don’t be persuaded that dropping to one, especially with other significant changes also occurring, is best for your child.
Changes, even subtle ones, to the time a little one is up for the day and even when they eat their meals has the potential to affect their sleep. This is because the circadian rhythm is anchored by environmental factors such as exposure to light and also meal times. Babies and toddlers clearly don’t have the benefit of being able to tell the time – rather they are driven by what time it feels like. As such, if the circadian rhythm cues move, little ones will typically be ready to sleep for the night earlier or later than you are used to – either of which can make bedtime challenging.
Childcare providers are clearly unlikely to move mealtimes to suit one child so the best way to approach this is to understand exactly what your child’s new schedule will be and to make gradual adjustments so as to ultimately implement those timings at home ahead of your return to work.
A common theme running through all of these tips is to limit the number of changes a little one is exposed to in one go. Some children are naturally more adaptable than others but almost all deal with change better when it is incremental. Mapping out everything that will be different for your little one upon your return to work enables you to manage the process as a series of smaller changes as opposed to asking a child to deal with a much larger, and therefore more unsettling, shift.
With some prior planning and the knowledge that any transition period will come to an end soon enough, you can be confident that your little one will navigate this change to domestic arrangements well. But who is looking out for you? Returning to work after an extended period undertaking a new, demanding and very different role, can be daunting. Here are Nikki’s top tips for rocking your return.
“I’ve heard it said on countless occasions that those working part-time can often end up in a situation where there is an expectation that they do their normal full time work simply in less hours. It is imperative then that from the outset, lines of communication are open with the managers/ leaders in your organisation so that not only do they HEAR what it is you communicate about back to work expectations but more importantly they UNDERSTAND it. Likewise, when enquiring about how you and they define and understand in practice the term “Flexible working”. This can differ wildly depending on in which sector, company/organisation you work. Communication is key – both verbal as well as written.
My experience both personally and professionally as a coach of women career break returners, is though that when they have to leave at 4.30pm for example, they simply HAVE TO leave. The positive consequence of this is that their productivity within the hours they are actually in the office increases immeasurably. That said, in an age when digital distractions have sadly become both reality and the norm, there are certain things we can put in place to better manage a return to work.
It is absolutely essential that you have the ability to not only plan your day in terms of the priorities you have, and the order in which to tackle tasks, but also to have a clear ability to categorise tasks in to important, urgent, not important and not urgent, as Stephen Covey does in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “Put first things first”.
Once categorised, tackle each in a manner that allows you to be fully present in the task to maximise focus and time. When in the office working, make it clear to colleagues that you do not encourage interruptions; when you are free to chat, go to the communal areas for a proper break. At home, if you are with your family, in the same way, be with them, don’t constantly be checking your phone dealing with work problems. Delineating work and family time in this way is so important for our own wellbeing and peace of mind, particularly when we might be carrying round a heavy load of parent guilt for good measure.
Make life easier for yourself where you can: turn off email notifications, only check emails at set times in the day, activate airplane mode for full immersion if needs be and use your automatic out of office notification during the working day where necessary as opposed to simply when you are away. Remove Social Media apps from your mobile devices and adhere to strict times for access. Give yourself proper if short breaks.
Going back to my original point about communication, learn to say no: how many of us take on too much, spread ourselves far too thin and end up doing lots of things badly rather than a few things well? In a situation like returning to work after maternity leave, there can be an eagerness to please which if left unchecked can leave us running on empty. Take the time before stepping back across the threshold at work to think, “Whose plan am I working to?” Be honest with yourself about “To what am I prepared to say yes?” and be prepared to communicate it. And learn the art of saying no through practice, and a lot of it.”
Nikki Alderson has 19 years’ experience at the Criminal Bar in Yorkshire, working from Broadway House Chambers, Bradford & Leeds. Nikki now works as a specialist Corporate and Executive Coach:
Nikki has learnt a lot from her successful career as a barrister, having gained great insights into the responsibilities, pressures and “expected” career paths of those, particularly women, working in law. She sees a challenge within the profession of retaining talented female role models, given the dearth of women in senior partnership roles and within the judiciary, and is passionate about addressing these issues through the coaching services she provides.
Nikki specialises in 3 areas of coaching, whether for individuals or for law firms/ Chambers:
Although Nikki’s work is focused predominantly on 1-1 coaching within the workplace, she also offers bespoke workshops and speaker events.
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Or refer to www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com
When your child isn’t sleeping well, it can be all-consuming. I know because I have been there! To save you spending hours trawling the internet, only to end up more confused than when you started, I have created Sleep Solutions On-Demand - allowing you to access the best-quality information and gently improve your little one's sleep, without tears or training.
Sleep Basics On-Demand is a series of ten concise, easy-to-digest videos to help you nail naps, banish early-rising and everything in between, putting my knowledge and experience at your fingertips 24-hours a day.