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The Competent Parent: Memory Tips for the Sleep-Deprived


Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Memory Tips for the Sleep-Deprived

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Among the many joys and challenges of parenting that have, at least temporarily, affected my brain, I’m finding that persistent sleep-deprivation is making it tough to remember things. Such as: where the car keys are, why I came to the grocery store, whether I took my vitamins yet, and what date and time the doctor’s office just told me to come in. I used to pride myself on remembering names, and used to know the first names of everyone at the family practice office. It’s so embarrassing to call back and say, “I was just talking to . . . Shirley? No, Sheryl? No, you know, the one with the pony tail who makes the appointments for Dr. What’s-his-name.” It’s not so bad that I can’t remember my own name – “Mommy!!!” – but if I’m both tired and upset, I have been known to use the dog’s name instead of my child’s.

Mommy, just Mommy

Click here to read last week’s column about disciplining kids.

Dear MJM,

Sleep-deprivation can affect memory skills after just one insufficient night, and can make a muddle of an otherwise intelligent and functioning adult when it goes on for weeks, months and years. Happily when good sleep returns, so will your mental functions. (You may however, still find opportunities to be upset with your children.)

Here are a few tricks to keep things on track when the engineer is only half-awake:


Pick ONE place to keep things like car keys. If you usually carry the same purse with you, the purse (with keys in it) goes in one spot – and stays there -when you’re at home. Otherwise, an ideal spot for a key ring would be a nail hook, a drawer or a small bowl (kept above small child height) near where you come in from the car. When you’re out, get in the habit of putting keys in an outer pocket of your purse or jacket. Or join your fellow key-location-challenged peers and get a neck-strap key holder to hang around your discombobulated head.

Alphabetical Order

If you have a short grocery list or errand list, put the items or stops in alphabetical order before you head out. For example: Drugstore, Library, Post office. Incidentally, the memory-challenged should NOT be attempting long lists unless the lists are written down and checked off as you go. It’s best if this order works geographically, but if not, see below.


If your grocery list is: Mangoes, Carrots, Broccoli and Rice Cakes, think of a string of words those initials could represent. M C B R. Mommies Can Break Records as you admire how little sleep you are running on. Or My Children Bring Rewards as you bask in the gloriousness of it all.


Silliness is one place sleep deprivation can take you. Let’s say you are trying to remember muffins (whether it’s to bake them, to buy them, or to throw them out because they’re moldy). When the thought occurs to you, bring to mind the children’s song “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” Sing it aloud to teach it to your children, and they can help you remember, too. If there isn’t a song to match the thought you want to be reminded of, make one up. Let’s say you don’t want to forget to fill out a survey for a chance to win a shopping spree. Change “She’ll Be Comin’ “Round the Mountain when she comes” to “I’ll Be Filling out the Survey when I can.” Until you do.


Daily habits –vitamin taking, backpack packing – can be done with very little brain power if you use a more conscious moment to put the tasks into a logical routine. Make this plan when you are wide awake and to get started, post a reminder in the place you will be when it’s time to do it. For example, to remember to take your vitamins in the morning, put a note to yourself on the kitchen counter to put the vitamins on the counter as part of your closing down the kitchen at night. After you take them, the bottle goes back in the cupboard until tonight. To prevent locking your keys in the car, NEVER use the inside locking toggle, and ALWAYS pat your pocket or shake your purse afterward to assure yourself they’re there.


If you consider yourself a “visual learner,” this one is for you. See yourself doing what you don’t want to forget to do. And take a mental image of where something is that you will need to find later. For example, as you are running home for a quick pit stop, visualize yourself going upstairs to get the children’s sweatshirts they’ll need because it will be colder than they dressed for when you head back out to pick them up, then imagine a quick dash to the kitchen to grab the bag of rice cakes that will sustain them in the car until their dinner is in front of them. A clear picture in your mind of the route you will take through the house will make it less likely the cat or a phone call will distract you in your mad dash.


Professionals are taught to learn names by repeating and frequently using them when they first meet new people. The theory being that repeated thoughts create stronger neural pathways. Here’s an additional hint that will keep names (and other things) fresh. For a common name, quickly think of someone you already know who has that name. As your new acquaintance speaks, come up with at least one solid reason he or she reminds you of that other person with the same name. Curly hair? Short stature? Talkativeness? Glasses? For an uncommon name, make an association with a word or two that the name makes you think of. For example I was introduced to a friend’s niece, who happens to be named Roniece. Many years later I saw her working in a store and the word “niece” popped into my head, followed immediately by the unusual name that has the word “niece” in it.

And if these tips don’t help because you can’t remember to follow them, just remember to take care of the children. Things that really need to be remembered eventually are.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected].

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