You may be having one of two responses to that headline. One, a burst of laughter at the mere folly of trying to help parents of newborns sleep. Or, two, a desperate, fragile hope that this article will come to your rescue in a sleep-deprived, hazy, hard time. Both are understandable, but the truth is that this article is here to rescue you. Because getting good sleep is one of the best things you can do for your wellbeing and your child.
Why sleep is so important
“Sleep is the foundation for everything,” says Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and author of the forthcoming book, How To Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids. “Trying to function well when we are exhausted is like trying to drive a car with a flat tire.”
Sleep is when our bodies and brain repair themselves. It helps us consolidate memory and process information. And not getting good sleep is linked to an increase in mood disorders like depression or anxiety, as well as irritability and loss of concentration.
“Sleep deprivation is not a badge of honour,” says Jill Krause, creator of the blog Baby Rabies and the family lifestyle platform Happy Loud Life. “For me it triggers bad anxiety, which means I am useless to my whole family. You have to come up with a plan of how you are going to protect your sleep.”
Go for quality, not quantity
Getting a 7 to 8 hour stretch of sleep is not a realistic expectation for parents of infants, but you can do something almost as good: Get in a full sleep cycle. A three-hour chunk of sleep will give you the time to go through all the stages of sleep, including the most restorative phases, which come at the end.
So, how do you do that?
Split nighttime duties equally
If you are parenting with a partner, there’s a good chance the nighttime parenting is a little lopsided. Often a breastfeeding parent or one who is home with the baby may end up managing the bulk of the night shifts.
“One of the things I have heard from women is that when they had help available to them during the night from their partners, they felt guilty for accessing it,” says Leslie Swanson, a sleep specialist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “They had the sense they could do it all, and that’s just not true. It’s impossible.”
If you are on full-time night duty, release yourself of any guilt and ask your partner to pitch in. “Maybe the other partner has to get up and go to work, but if you’re home with an infant, that’s hard work, too,” says Janet Krone Kennedy, author of The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You).
Create a rotating shift schedule where you each get three-hour chunks of sleep. This can be pretty straightforward for bottle feeding parents. If you are breastfeeding, try pumping right before you go to bed so the other parent has a bottle ready to go, and then sleep through the first feed.
Ask others to pitch in
For solo parents, or those whose partners can’t take enough shifts for whatever reason, ask friends or family members if they will give a night here and there to share duties with you. Let them know how important sleep is to you and tell them it’s the only gift you want from them. There’s no item of baby gear more important than a rested parent (well, maybe diapers).
Another option is hiring a night nurse or postpartum doula. To cover the expense, ask for donations to the Nighttime Support Fund from friends and family (maybe even keep a jar by the door).
MeiMei Fox, a writer and mum to twins in Paris, France, put “night nurse session” on her baby registry.
“We hired a night nurse to come three times a week,” Fox says. “I couldn’t have survived preemie twins without her. Getting three to four hours of uninterrupted sleep, then pumping and going back to sleep was a godsend.”
Switch things up when you need to
Parenting is a continual process of adapting to a new normal, and that goes for sleep, too. You might have an approach that works for two weeks and then flies out the window when your baby is teething or gets sick. When that happens, take a look at what has changed and see what you can move around to keep getting those three-hour chunks.
That old chestnut “sleep when the baby sleeps” worked well for me, and I was able to get solid cycles of sleep during the day. But not everyone likes to (or can) nap, so think about other ways to work in sleep.
“If you feed the baby, she’s down to sleep at 8 p.m. and you’re tired, there’s no reason you can’t go to sleep then,” says Robyn Stremler, a registered nurse who researches infant sleep in Toronto, Canada. “If you feed your baby at 6 AM, he goes down, and you feel like you could still sleep, go back to bed.”