If you’ve recently gone through the beautiful, life-altering, heart-opening experience of welcoming a precious new baby into your life, there’s probably one burning question on your mind right now: Will I ever sleep again?
Although it might not feel like it today, or this week, or even this month, the answer is certainly: Yes! We’ve already talked a bit about strategies to help babies who don’t sleep through the night, but what about sleep-deprived parents?
Anyone who has ever experienced insomnia, for any reason, knows that there is a lot of inherent anxiety involved in not getting enough sleep – and that anxiety, in turn, only makes it harder to sleep. Add to that all the stress of looking after a brand new baby, and the infinite midnight feedings and changings, and real, restful sleep can begin to feel very out of reach for many new parents.
Some of the established strategies to help parents sleep include sleeping when baby sleeps (instead of using that time to try to be productive), taking naps to catch up on lost nighttime sleep, and turning down the monitor so you don’t wake every time baby gurgles. These are all great tips, but for many of us who have previously taken sleep for granted, and who are trying to juggle work, family, and a new baby all at once, we might also benefit from rethinking our relationship with rest to cope with those first few difficult months.
Instead of trying to provide a laundry list of advice for how new parents can sleep more and worry less, we thought we might try to put the issue in perspective and offer some different way of thinking about the intersection of rest and parenting a newborn.
Adults and Babies Have Different Sleep Cycles
We touched on this in our previous blog on babies who don’t sleep through the night, but it’s a point worth revisiting.
As adults, our non-REM sleep (the sleep that is most restful) happens as soon as we fall asleep, and last about 90 minutes, after which we drift into REM sleep (the sleep that is most active and dreamful) for about 10 minutes. Both types of sleep are important. We need non-REM sleep to restore our bodies, and we need REM sleep (and dreams) to help us sort through the information from our day. If you’ve ever experienced “mommy brain” (feeling exhausted, finding it hard to focus, and making lots silly little mistakes throughout the day) you can attribute this, in part, to a lack of REM sleep.
As the night progresses, we experience less non-REM sleep, and more REM sleep. So, we tend to get our deepest sleep during the first third of the night, and our brain is dedicated to organizing and processing information closer to the morning time.
On the flipside, babies tend to experience lighter sleep initially, and they spend the majority of their night in REM cycle sleep. This means babies are more prone to waking regularly during the night, because their sleep is generally lighter.
This may complicate the ideal of literally “sleeping when baby sleeps”: if you fall asleep at the same time as your baby, she may stir and wake you while she’s sleeping lightly and you’re sleeping deeply. To overcome this, you can try staying close to baby for the first twenty minutes after she falls asleep; keep your hand on her to soothe her as she enters deeper sleep – then once she stops stirring, it’s your cue to get some shut-eye.
Rest Is A Legitimate Priority
In the U.S currently, paid maternity leave is capped at 2.8 weeks after baby is born, assuming you have the type of full-time job that allows for maternity leave. Additionally, many of us do not live in the same city, state, or even country as our extended families. So, the expectation is that we welcome a newborn into our lives at the same time as keeping up with our older children, our jobs and the plethora of other daily obligations. Sometimes it can feel like there is literally no time to sleep.
However, in many other cultures around the world, there is a period of time after baby is born, when the mother’s sole responsibility is to rest and to bond with her new baby, while the family takes on all other burdens like cleaning and cooking and caring for the other children. In Latin American cultures this custom is called la cuarentena (quarantine) and lasts 40 days while the new mother’s body is deemed to be vulnerable; mom must remain in a state of rest, with no sex, no heavy or spicy food (she often won’t wash her hair!). A similar practice of lying-in takes place in China, where for a month, a new mom is mandated rest, must only eat yang (or warming) foods, and avoid iced water. Indian and Malaysian customs disallow new moms from cooking or cleaning for 40 days. The emphasis in all these practices is on giving moms unburdened rest whilst bonding with the new baby.
Of course, in its purest sense, this cross-cultural tradition of la cuarentena or lying-in, is simply not possible for many of us – especially those of us without the benefit of having lots of family close by. However, it may be helpful to reframe our attitude to our plethora of responsibilities. Instead of feeling guilty or anxious about giving extra attention to our other children, keeping the house clean, cooking every night, keeping up our appearance, being a good employee, friend, and lover: it may be helpful to remember that in many parts of the world, for the first couple of months, it’s okay to ask for and accept help and actually: prioritize rest.
In a practical sense, that may mean having family come to stay with us for a few weeks while we get our bearings, saving up in advance to hire some extra help, or relying on our friends more than we normally would. It also means sharing the midnight feedings between both parents (and other family members) if possible, even if one parent goes to work during the day.
The Light At The End Of The Sleepless Tunnel
From about 6 months of age, most babies can sleep for 7-hour stretches, undisturbed. It can be helpful to start talking to your pediatrician or maternity nurse early on about good feeding and bedtime habits to help your baby achieve this milestone. In fact, staying in touch with supportive health professionals has the added benefit of alleviating some of the stress of being a new parent that can lead to insomnia.
It can be challenging to reframe our perspective when we’re sleep deprived. We cope as best we can and take each day as it comes. Try to remember that:
#1 Our sleep cycles differ from our babies’: if the sleeping tips out there aren’t working so well for you, that might be a factor.
#2 Rest is a bona fide priority for new mamas all over the world: don’t feel guilty about reorganizing other responsibilities to fit your need for sleep!
#3 The hardest part is the first 6 months: you will get some of your sleep super powers back after that.
Simply having an awareness of these ideas can reduce some of the anxiety around not getting enough sleep, and ultimately improve the quality of rest you are getting.