by Karen Kostohris CD(DONA), CPD, CLC
Congratulations, new parent! Having a newborn is so amazingly beautiful; there is nothing quite like the sweet cuddles and smells of a newborn baby in your arms, especially if you’ve waited a long time to be a parent. But, as you have probably learned by now, the postpartum time is also filled with its share of challenges.
One of the most challenging things about being a new parent is dealing with sleep deprivation. Many parents report that they are up several times during the night with their new babies. This is not easy! It can seem almost impossible for new parents, especially mothers, to get the sleep they so desperately need. I’m here to tell you, however, that it can be done. Yes. Really. It does require some clever planning and strategies, however. But, first, I need to make one thing perfectly clear: NEWBORNS DON’T SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT! Nor should they. Ever. In fact, a newborn that sleeps too long, could signal something seriously wrong. If your newborn baby has a few night wakings, be happy that you have a normal, healthy baby!
When will my baby sleep through the night?
“Does your baby sleep through the night yet?” Ugh! Oh, how I HATE that question. Unfortunately, you will probably hear it a lot. As a doula, nothing causes me to go into a rant as this question does. First of all, newborns aren’t supposed to sleep through the night. Their tiny stomachs don’t hold that much milk and they need to eat often. They are hardwired to wake every 2-3 hours to eat. They need to eat. Their brains are developing and growing at a very rapid pace and they need constant nourishing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
As moms, when we hear that question, we start to resent that our babies wake often to eat, especially at night. We begin to wonder if anything is wrong with our baby. Why won’t my baby sleep better? Am I doing anything wrong? Is there something wrong with my baby? Is there something wrong with me? …Don’t let this happen. It only robs you of the joy of this newborn season. Okay, here’s the doula lecture now: your baby will only be a newborn for a few shorts weeks. True, you are exhausted, and even though it may seem like an eternity now, this season will pass quickly. Trust me. Instead, try to accept that this is only temporary and try to adapt to your current situation. For example, you may need to readjust your expectations. Are you trying to take on too much? Instead, focus on these two things right now: 1) Taking care of baby and 2) Taking care of yourself.
Getting good sleep needs to be one of your main priorities! You simply cannot be healthy and heal without sufficient sleep. A well-functioning immune system depends on good sleep, and so does your milk supply, if you are nursing. Fatigue also puts you at greater risk for postpartum mood disorders. Take care to get the sleep your body needs. Everything else you do to be healthy can quickly be sabotaged if you are sleep-deprived.
Sleep Hack #1 – Adjust Your Expectations
Remember, this is a very temporary season. It is vital that you try to adapt to your current situation and learn to let things go! There are no household tasks that are more important than your health and recovery. If you are a control freak (like I was) then make sure that you plan enough help when creating your postpartum plan. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you will just “wing it” or that people will magically appear out of the woodwork to help you out. You could be setting yourself up for major disappointment.
Try to delegate household tasks such as laundry and meals. This means you will need to reach out for help. If there is nobody around to help you, try to let those things go. Give yourself permission to rest during the day and let the dishes (and emails) pile up if necessary. Since you are waking often to feed your newborn, you will need to get the extra sleep during the day. When people come over to visit, they will (hopefully) notice your pile of dishes and offer to lend a hand in the kitchen. If not, learn to ask for help. Only accept visitors who are willing to pitch in!
Sleep Hack #2- “The Go-Back-to-Sleep Trick”
What was your pre-pregnancy sleep requirement? 8 hours? 9 hours? Whatever that ideal sleep quota was, make that your sleep goal now! You may need to adjust that time to get a bit more sleep during this time of healing, but that is a great place to start. As you wake to feed your baby during the night, keep track of how many total hours you have slept so far. Keep going back to bed in the morning, until you have reached that sleep goal. It may take until noon before you get enough sleep, but that’s ok! Once you have reached your goal, take a shower and get ready for your day. If you have other children who need care in the early morning hours, this is a great time to hire a sitter, a postpartum doula, or ask grandma to come and hang out with the kiddos while you get more sleep. This is something you can add to your postpartum plan, too.
Sleep Hack #3- Shift Sleeping
Try taking shifts! Ask your partner to take one of the late night feedings so that you can get a longer stretch of sleep. (If your partner can’t do this, consider hiring a postpartum doula for night time, or asking friends or family. You can usually find someone who is a night owl who would be willing to help you out here.) If you are breastfeeding, pump enough for one feeding during the day, then after the evening feeding, go to bed early. (If you are a night owl and your partner or helper isn’t, the reverse will also work.) For example, let’s say that your baby nurses around 8 PM. After this feeding, you would head to bed around 9 PM or so and get some sleep on the front end of the night. Partner/Dad would be “on call” for the next several hours, soothing the baby if needed. He would also offer the next feeding around 11 PM. Meanwhile, you will get a good chunk of sleep and wake to feed the baby again at the next feeding around 2 AM. This scenario would allow you to sleep from 9 PM until 2 AM. That’s 5 hours! Some moms worry that this would negatively affect their milk supply to go this long without nursing or pumping, but it is my personal belief that lack of sleep is more detrimental to milk supply than missing one feeding. If your body wakes you early to pump or nurse, at least you won’t feel as groggy.
When Partner/Dad goes to bed around midnight, he will get a chance to get his chunk of sleep next. Feel free to adjust this system to meet your needs, but many parents find this a sanity- saving tip! Combining these hacks together will help assure that both parents get the rest they need.
Sleep Hack #4 – Co-Sleeping or Bed-Sharing
If you find that no matter what you do, sleep still eludes you, then consider co-sleeping or bed-sharing. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend it, many parents do experiment with bed-sharing. The AAP does, however, recommend that babies co-sleep in the same room with mom (not the same bed) to lower the risk of SIDS. You can read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ official Infant Sleep Safety guidelines for more information.
Because it is believed that most parents bed-share at some point (usually out of desperation), I think it warrants a discussion of its own. If you decide to bed-share, it is important that you learn the importance of safe sleep practices before choosing to co-sleep. There are many IMPORTANT do’s and don’ts to keep in mind before you decide to sleep with your baby. Make sure that you create a safe sleep environment. Here’s a great resource for this. Bottom line, if you decide to bed-share, make sure that you do the research and do so safely and with confidence in your decision.
There are many variations to co-sleeping, so you can easily modify and adapt to suit your needs. If you don’t feel comfortable having the baby right next to you in bed, there are also great co-sleepers, bassinets, and pack and plays you can buy that provide your baby with her own sleep space nearby.
My favorite book on infant sleep, including bed-sharing, is a fantastic book by Dr. Sears called The Baby Sleep Book. I highly recommend it! The authors discuss the many benefits of co-sleeping along with practical and safe sleep tips to ensure a safe, restful night’s sleep for everyone. Another great resource on infant sleep, particularly for breastfeeding families, is Sweet Sleep, published by La Leche League.
Karen is a certified postpartum doula, birth doula and lactation counselor. When she is not working with new mamas and babies (or blogging about them), she is a wife, mom and grandma! She also has a passion for holistic health and wellness and spends lots of time researching ways to keep her family healthy (naturally). Check out her blog: https://healthymamahacks.net/