- Everything you need to know about safe sleep for infants
- Bassinet vs. crib
- How to choose a crib
- Newborn keeping you awake all night? 9 Tips for the sleep deprived mom
- Co-sleeping: Putting the controversies to rest
- I hired a pediatric sleep consultant so you don’t have to
I remember going to my neonatologist for a wellbaby checkup of my son feeling exhausted, sleepless, and praying he’d say something positive about the sleep-wake cycle. He remarked, “Babies will take up to 4 months, or in fact up to 6 months to learn the sleep-wake cycle,” and I remember being so mad at him for having said that.
Ironically, my son (who was born a good 7 weeks early) is now 18 months old, and only since the past week have we managed to have him sleeping through the night, with the occasional waking up and patting back to sleep. For new and sleep-deprived parents, it is a paradigm.
Newborns typically sleep for 16-17 hours each day, but that doesn’t interrupt their feeding schedules. With such baby sleep cycles, they will generally suck, sleep, suck, and they don’t need to be awake or wakened during each feed. Infant sleep is vital for their growth.
The reality of new motherhood
Yet, the lack of sleep after baby is well documented. Postpartum sleep deprivation is an established form of torture, but nobody mentions this cruel “side effect” of the tiniest addition to the family. Even during your pregnancy, nobody tells you how physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting having a newborn might be.
Due to the inherent tininess, this tiny human can only consume enough milk to last them 2 hours. This means from the day the baby arrives, mom is literally the access to nutrition every second hour of life, for a minimum of 6 months. For non-breastfeeding mothers, the work isn’t any less demanding as bottle feeding the expressed breastmilk or formula feeding also has its own set of chores, including the tedious sterilization of equipment after each feed. And there will always be another chore.
Having had a preterm baby myself, I was sleepless for the whole first week, which in fact, may have contributed to my developing postpartum depression. Following the week-long stay at NICU (neonatal intensive-care unit), I had to breastfeed him for 15 minutes only. Otherwise, he would lose weight if he breastfed longer since the calories expended while sucking surpass those gained from drinking breastmilk when feeds exceed a certain time threshold for a preterm baby.
I would then express breast milk and feed him using a palada (a traditional Indian spoon for babies), then burp him post feed, which would last up to 20 minutes. He needed to be held upright after each feed due to the constant reflux, which left me with barely about 20 minutes until the cycle repeated itself. This is one of the reasons I devote myself to educating women about having realistic expectations and addressing the parenting process as an equal partnership process.
The decision struggle is real
In his book Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, Dr. John Medina states that, neurodevelopmentally speaking, babies are only ready for sleep training after the 6th month mark. Until then, whatever sleep training successes or failures are largely coincidental. Only after babies turn 6 months are they equipped to handle the concept of day and night wakefulness and can last for longer hours without a feed.
My cousin visited a sleep consultant in the US when her baby was about 4 months old, and in her case, sleep training seemed to work like a charm. They would say goodnight to their tiny tot at about 7 pm and see her a whole 12 hours later, baby monitoring through the night, of course.
My situation, however, couldn’t be more different. We tried the entire host of sleep training tactics to no avail. Not to mention the many tears shed during an attempt at Ferberization, which too was a failure because of our inability to hear our son cry and watch him bang his head on the wooden crib. We also made peace with the fact that perhaps sleep training is an area we have failed at and graciously accepted defeat.
However, the defeat took its toll on both of us, particularly being doctors. We had to turn up to work fully attentive each morning. We chose to co-sleep in a family bed, which for the first 6 months of breastfeeding was super convenient because I needed only to roll over to nurse him, and he’d fall asleep. However, during weaning, the same pattern needed to be broken.
As a new parent, you are overwhelmed by an influx of decisions, including choosing to have them sleep away or co-sleep. Figuring out what parenting style you gravitate towards is a struggle in itself. To tackle new mom sleep deprivation, some parents vouch vehemently for attachment parenting and the idea of nursing a baby to sleep as innate and human. In contrast, some swear by feed-play-sleep as the pattern to impart. Others insist on either a white noise device for good sleep, putting the baby to sleep while drowsy, or having a nighttime routine, and the list goes on.
Emily Oster, author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool addresses the onslaught of choices that flummox parents and how best to tackle them. When you add sleeplessness to the mix, your ability to make wise decisions is undoubtedly impaired.
Gentle parenting approaches mention that while it’s essential to nurture a baby, filling your own cup is critical to being a good parent. Many experts argue that you must feel completely at peace and assured that putting your baby down to sleep is an act of kindness and teaching them to sleep on their own is a gift you’re giving. At the end of the day, it boils down to what resonates with you as parents.
How to get through sleepless nights with newborn
Just how much sleep do new parents get? According to sleepjunkie, new parents fall short of sleep by around 3 hours every night in their first year of parenthood. The social restrictions imposed by the global pandemic and the fear of a caregiver transmitting the deadly virus to either mom or baby have further aggravated the plight of sleep-deprived parents with trademark dark circles dealing with strange newborn sleep patterns.
Consequently, the village it takes to raise a child has been converted to an island of burnout. That leaves us with the question, how do you work around this situation?
Here are our 9 tips:
1. Have a postpartum care plan
I cannot stress this enough. It makes sense to foresee all these variables, especially in a pandemic situation, and delegate specific duties and times to activities using a postpartum care plan. When pregnant, we tend to see through rose-tinted glasses and aim for perfection, which is where we fail.
2. Divide and rule
Nighttime feeding is generally encouraged since this is when prolactin levels (the hormone responsible for breastmilk production) would be higher. There’s a stimulus from baby to mom to continue the breastmilk supply. Most often, between 9 am-1 pm or so is a window that caregivers can help you catch up on uninterrupted sleep.
Mothers are generally biologically programmed to respond to every cry and ooh-aah of their little one. Perhaps sleeping in a different room during this interval and rooming-in for the rest of the time can help you get your sleep and bonding time with the baby. As each woman is different, you can work out a schedule that allows each caretaker to catch up on their much-deserved sleep.
3. See what works for you
There’s no right fit. Whatever you and your partner feel works is the best way to go. For me, what really helped was experimenting to see what worked or didn’t.
4. Give up control
Especially for an organized person and a lover of order, it was disconcerting to have my plans wrecked a thousand times over. But then, somewhere, I also saw the purpose in the madness. Having a hundred goals in mind with strict timelines is a surefire way to send you down the rabbit hole. Instead, embrace the timelessness of this phase, and take each day as it comes. A house full of laundry is still a house full of love.
5. Sleep train your child
While some sleep training methods are highly controversial, researchers have found that “graduated extinction” and “bedtime fading” have no adverse effects on the child’s mental health and parent-child attachment. Also, sleep training techniques, in general, have no long-lasting negative or positive outcomes, but will get your infant sleeping through the night.
There are 3 practical strategies that most sleep consultants agree upon:
- Have a sleep routine of at least 3 things in the same sequence done each night.
- Put your baby down to sleep while drowsy as it enables them to learn to sleep on their own. Break free of sleep associations like nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep, singing to sleep, patting to sleep, etc.
- Have predictable routines in the day and put your baby to sleep at the same time each night. Although counterintuitive, the baby doesn’t need to get tired to sleep. Putting them to bed early by 6-7 pm instead of 10-11 pm means they sleep longer and better.
6. Co-sleep with baby
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly advises against co-sleeping, the ease of nursing a baby and falling back asleep has been found to have better sleep patterns for moms in the baby’s first year of life. If you’ve decided against co-sleeping or have safety concerns, you don’t need to give up breastfeeding altogether. You could express or pump a feed or two while you catch up on your sleep.
Since prolactin is better produced at night, it makes sense not to skip a night feeding and to catch up on uninterrupted sleep from the early morning hours until late morning or afternoon.
7. Visit a sleep consultant
Suppose you live in a country where getting access to help around the house is either too expensive or unavailable, or you are in a financial position that requires that both partners return to their jobs as soon as possible, or you feel you would definitely benefit from the guidance of a sleep consultant. In that case, it makes sense to have a customized sleep specifically for your baby’s needs.
In a country like India, where I come from, human resources are plenty. Thus, despite my sleep deprivation, I could still get by with the help rendered from various sources.
8. Make lifestyle changes
Finding and incorporating an exercise routine that serves you daily is a time-tested method of driving out the negativity that sleeplessness brings. Dedicate some time to get some exercises in as it allows your hormones to balance themselves, increases happy hormones, and has a host of other health benefits.
Practice mindfulness. Although it sounds impossible to incorporate, even 10 minutes a day of just focusing on your breathing allows for some restoration of balance, calm, and happiness and can give clarity to the difficult situation.
Limit your caffeine intake because postpartum caffeine addiction is real. I didn’t know how to function otherwise, but that aggravated my sugars and added to postpartum urinary incontinence. Limiting caffeine will definitely let you fall asleep a lot quicker and generally reduce your anxiety levels. You could consider switching to Matcha tea instead. It has a host of antioxidant benefits without the detrimental effects of caffeine.
9. Mind your mental health
Postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety are more common than you think. If you experience negative thoughts or feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of self harm or harm to the baby, do not hesitate to seek professional help from your psychiatrist.
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, MD, founder of Gemma Women and a perinatal psychiatrist, mentions that helping the mother to have at least 4-6 uninterrupted hours of sleep is key to preventing postpartum depression.
We often want to be perfect mothers through the media messaging we have received growing up or the subconscious messages we received through our parents’ parenting styles. It’s this idea of perfection that I learned to overcome. Journaling your thoughts helps you see what you expect of yourself as a mother versus what you can do.
You also need to carve out time for yourself that has nothing to do with the baby. It helps you establish your own identity. Whether it means taking a stroll, getting a massage, speaking to friends, taking a shower, sitting in silence, or watching a movie or TV show, you deserve some time just for yourself.
Remember, you’re never alone—many women and parents before you have similarly struggled. Networking with a group of new mothers will help you realize that this period is an incredibly depleting one and unchartered territory for all—regardless of how many parenting books you read prior to the delivery of your infant.
This too shall pass
Although each trying moment of getting no sleep with a newborn seems very real and eternal as it happens, the truth is this too shall pass. There will be days ahead when you fondly remember these days and perhaps share a cherished memory from this time and it will bring a sweet smile to your face. They really do grow up in the blink of an eye.