Helping new parents cope with little sleep

September 22, 2020 4 min read

Sleeping baby

Life’s greatest gift, a newborn baby, can also seem like a burden when parents miss out on sleep. Most people say the struggle is well worth it, but parents’ sleep loss in the first few months of a newborn’s life is a challenge.

In the wee hours of the night, babies need to be fed, have their diapers changed, and sometimes they wake up and just need comforting if they’re being fussy.

It is a challenge that you can meet with some strategies that will make it easier for you to cope and even get some more shut-eye.

The problem of new parents missing out on sleep is especially trying for the mother if she’s nursing. You and your partner can’t take turns staying up with a hungry infant if you’re nursing the baby, so what’s a mother to do?

Getting through the hard part

There are strategies to navigate the world of the newborn with respect to sleep. But it won’t be that long, say about two three months, before your new baby will sleep longer—up to four to six hours.

If you can make it through the first three months, you will soon be back to near normal in terms of sleeping at night.

We said you can’t take turns staying up with the baby if you’re nursing, but you can if you feed the baby pumped breast milk. Prepare a bottle before going to bed, and let your partner get up and feed the baby the first time so you can get in a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Some new mothers don’t have partners. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend or relative for help so you can get a few hours of good-quality sleep.

There is no way to avoid sleep loss during the first months of a baby’s life unless you can hire a nanny. It is a reality of parenting. But we will offer some advice on ways you can get at least some more sleep than you would otherwise.

Sleep strategies [1] and the Sleep Foundation [2] have advice for parents coping with those sleepless nights:

1. Good sleep hygiene

The first thing is to practice good sleep hygiene. That is, have a good routine that works for you that helps you get to sleep. The CDC says [3] good sleep hygiene consists of:

  • Going to bed around the same time every night
  • Making the bedroom dark, quiet, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature—for both you and the baby, if the baby sleeps in another room
  • Removing electronic devices from the bedroom
  • Avoiding large meals, coffee, and alcohol before going to bed
  • And getting exercise in the daytime, but not too soon before bedtime

2. Sleep when baby sleeps

No matter what time it is, when the baby goes down to slumber, turn off your cellphone, turn off the TV and stereo, pull the shades or curtains, and sleep as long as the baby does.

If one partner is working away from home, unfortunately sleeping when baby sleeps is possible only for the one who is with the newborn.

3. Take turns when possible

If you have a partner, take turns getting up with the baby whenever you can. As we said, you can pump breast milk and prepare a bottle or two so the other partner can feed the baby.

If you are bottle feeding, there is no reason why you can't take turns. If the baby needs a diaper change or is just being fussy, you can also take turns for that.

The trick is to know why the baby is crying. If you just finished feeding the tyke, and they wake up a half hour later, you can assume they are not hungry.

4. Go for a morning walk

A morning walk will reset your body's circadian rhythm after a sleepless night and get you exercise that will help you get to sleep that evening.

5. Don't take caffeine too late

You can still enjoy your coffee or Viter Energy Mints [6] before around 3 p.m., but avoid any stimulants too late in the day. Of course, if you anticipate you and the baby getting a nap around 1 p.m., it might be wise to avoid caffeine earlier in the day too.

Caffeine's half life [7], or how long it remains in the body, lasts about 5 hours in adults, though the length of the half life varies from person to person. So plan accordingly.

6. Take naps when possible

Napping may be your greatest friend during the early days of your newborn's life. You never know what the night will bring, so if you can get in even a half hour of sleep in the daytime, it can help you cope.

Experts with the Sleep Foundation say even 15 minutes of sleep benefit the body and mind.

Another tip is to try sleep training your baby; this YouTube video gives some tips.

7. Try separate beds

Put the baby in a separate bed, and if you and your spouse need to, you sleep in separate beds, too. Sleeping one person to a bed can make the quality of sleep better and duration longer.

Things to watch out for

When sleep deprivation gets too extreme, talk to your doctor. Sleep deficits can cause depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and impaired glucose tolerance.

Also, don't come to rely on sleeping pills. A board-certified doctor of sleep medicine, David Brodner, tells Healthline that potent prescription sleep medicines can result in more automobile accidents and more fractures from falls in older patients.

He mentioned Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone), and Sonata (zaleplon) as possible problem medications.

But Brodner adds that melatonin can help.

Many people can benefit from a high-quality melatonin product, ideally one that lasts 7 hours, which can help regulate sleep cycles and support healthy REM sleep.

Of course, melatonin is more for after the baby is on a normal sleep schedule. Good luck with that newborn. Sweet dreams.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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