Life before the baby came was so different. You were cleaner. You ate out more often. And can you remember the hours and hours of sleep you used to get!
If you’ve recently had a baby and are having a hard time getting enough rest each night, you’re not alone. According to a study by PLOSone, new parents, particularly breastfeeding parents, are often sleep-deprived. And this deprivation can last for a long time, registering “medically-significant levels of sleepiness” even after 18 weeks.
Besides having nightly sleep cycles interrupted with feedings every 2 – 4 hours (or even 1-2 hours!), new parents also experience a combination of euphoria and nervous energy, which can also keep them awake all night long.
They are zombies the next day – zombies who are still expected to take care of their newborns while working an outside the home job, or being a full-time caregiver and also expected to clean and go grocery shopping amongst other everyday necessities.
But sleep deprivation can be very dangerous. According to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, people who sleep less than five hours per day are four to five times more likely to be involved in a sleep-related crash. This is because a lack of sleep hinders our physical coordination and reaction times as well as our ability to focus.
If you’re a new parent who would give her front teeth to get more sleep each day, here are 4 helpful strategies:
- Lie Down, Even If You Can’t Sleep
Sometimes, just getting off your feet for half an hour is enough to help your body relax and rejuvenate. Don’t stress if you can’t fall asleep, simply lie there and let your body relax. Closing your eyes eliminates a significant amount of sensory input, meaning you’re filtering out most of the tiring stimulation when you rest your weary peepers.
Diana Lynn Barnes, president of Postpartum Health International, tells new parents, “Get off your feet, relax on the couch [when possible] and stay off the phone.” I’ll add to let go of perfectionism at any chance! In her recent book, “The Highly Sensitive Parent,”  Dr. Elaine Aron reminds us there will be plenty of time for neatly organized drawers when our children go off to school and beyond.
- Get Help with Nighttime Feedings
One of the best ways to get a solid stretch of sleep is to get help from your partner, in-law, friend, a night doula, or anyone you trust who is willing to take on those nighttime feedings. It is more convenient to hand over this job if you’re bottle-feeding, but even if you’re breastfeeding, pump so that someone else may feed the little one during the nighttime hours.
You get your deepest sleep during the first half of the night, so aim to schedule the most help then.
Or make things even easier on yourself by having your partner get the baby and bring your little one to you in your bed, and return your angel to their sleeping space (if separate from yours). That way you are at least partially sharing in the duties of nighttime feedings. Many breastfeeding parents find much relief in safe cosleeping, about which you can find more information from James McKenna’s research .
- Don’t Partake in Counterproductive Activities
It’s important that new parents don’t unnecessarily or unintentionally sabotage their own efforts to get sleep. For instance, though it may be tempting to chug down a mug (or three) of coffee in the morning, overdoing it tends to mask your need for sleep and can actually prevent you from taking those much-needed cat naps if the opportunity arises. Babies’ bodies are unable to process caffeine the same way as adults, with a caffeine half-life of several days ! That means their sleep could be disrupted for days if breastmilk has a significant amount of caffeine in it.
Also, after a hard day of being a new mom, many women sit down in front of the TV or computer to unwind, but the light that is emitted from these devices is stimulating and typically keeps us awake and alert. Try blue-light blocking glasses if you insist on watching screens before bed, but even the visual stimuli can be enough to keep some minds busy and inhibit deep sleep. It’s much better to practice something soothing, such as: take a warm bath, get into bed, read a physical book or magazine, and drift off to sleep – or in some cases of severe exhaustion, conk out immediately.
- Realize Sleepless Nights Won’t Last Forever
Sometimes just the stress of what you’re going through is enough to keep you awake. Though caring for a newborn has been described as The Longest Shortest Time , it won’t last forever. Remind yourself of this every chance you get. Sarah Ockwell Smith also has a fabulous way with reassuring words when it comes to the ups and downs of babies’ and young children’s natural sleep patterns .
As a new parent, it’s natural to be scared and worried about this new and significantly important role in your life. If you find that what’s keeping you up many nights are the overwhelming emotions you are experiencing as a new parent, talking with someone can help. If you’d like to explore therapy, please give me a call, and let’s discuss how I may be able to help. I have a list of additional resources for new parents on my Mental Health Links page as well.
- This is also the name of an amazing podcast for new parents: https://longestshortesttime.com