I Got Tips For Living With Sleep Deprivation From Navy SEALs
I couldn't stop worrying about sleep deprivation. It's what I what I feared most about becoming a first-time dad. Of course I was also worried about the normal things—'Am I cut out to take care of another human being?' or 'What if my child becomes a Juggalo?'—but I was always able to talk myself out of those worries.
Sleep was different. After years of insomnia (the sleep-onset and the sleep maintenance variety), I'd finally settled into a semi-normal sleep routine. I wasn't ready to go back to the zombie state that resulted from long stretches of only getting a few hours of sleep a night.
But what if I didn't have to? What if I could forgo the doctor-recommended sleep time and still avoid the effects of sleep deprivation that had plagued me in the past? I convinced myself this was possible—with the right guidance. And this line of thinking led me directly to the most elite units of the United States military: The Navy SEALs and the Green Berets. I'd read about how SEAL training forced recruits to endure the most physically challenging conditions imaginable—including extreme sleep deprivation.
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With these thoughts in mind, I reached out in earnest to both the Navy SEALs and the Green Berets for tips on how I could deal with the sleep deprivation that accompanied a new baby. Here's the email I sent:
I know this is going to sound unusual, but I'm writing to see if there were any tips the [U.S. Navy/—specifically the [Navy SEAL/Green Beret] division of the [U.S. Navy/Army]—could offer to help me deal with sleep deprivation. I'm having a baby any day now, and I'm pretty worried about how the lack of sleep is going to impact me. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I'm very serious about my question. People tell me you just have to sleep when the baby sleeps, but that's not really an option.
I have sleep issues where I need a very specific set of conditions to fall asleep. So I'm thinking the sleep deprivation thing could be extra terrible in the first few weeks—and I really want to be as helpful, productive, and present as possible during the baby's first few weeks with us. I figured it was at least worth a shot to see if one of our military's most elite units was able (I don't know how much training is classified) to offer me some tips on how to help my body adjust to the lack of sleep I'll no doubt be experiencing soon. Anything at all would be greatly appreciated.
Looking back, the email clearly sounds like it's coming from a lunatic. What type of person asks the military for secret and potentially classified tactics to help them parent more effectively? I'm not sure what kind of response I was looking for. Maybe I was hoping for specifics like:
Keep a basin of ice water and a hammer in a strategic location. When fatigue starts to set in, submerge your head under the ice water for 30-45 seconds. Then, as soon as you exit the basin, immediately drop the hammer on your bare foot. The pain and adrenaline rush should mask the effects of the sleep deprivation for 48-72 hours after which you should repeat the process, or sleep.
I actually heard back from both military units, and their responses weren't what I was expecting. Due to scary language about the SEALs' email being an official Department of Defense communication, I won't reprint the entire email transcript here.
Essentially, the anonymous SEAL recruiter told me there wasn't really a magic workaround for sleep deprivation and that the condition could be harmful even over the course of a short period of time. He said the SEALs overcome the loss of sleep because "they are in a life-threatening environment where adrenaline makes up for it. Don't do that to yourself."
The recruiter also urged me to split up the parenting duties, catch up on sleep whenever possible, and get family help if possible. Then he wished me luck with the new child.
The Green Berets' respondent offered me the following advice:
I'm sorry, but we only answer recruiting questions. However, as a mother of four children, I can advise you to get someone to help with the baby as much as possible in the first few weeks until you can adjust. Congratulations and I hope things go well for you!
Looking back on this message, I can't believe a woman who had not one, not two, but four children, had the discipline not to call me a whiny little wimp because of my fear.
But what struck me the most about the responses from both elite military units was the common message: Get help whenever possible and take advantage of any available family.
Their emails made it clear they thought parenting was far from an easy job that any parent can do alone. Somehow that made me feel better. After all, if a Navy SEAL, someone who survived drown proof testing and Hell Week (when 7,000 calories a day are consumed and people still lose weight!) thinks taking care of a baby is hard, then I shouldn't be too tough on myself for getting a little overwhelmed with the prospect of becoming a dad.