Sleep deprivation is one of the most difficult aspects of new parenthood. And babies vary tremendously in their sleep patterns and needs. I read all the articles, heard all the advice, and then my baby was born and it all went out the window. My partner and I had to rely on our knowledge, our instincts, some research, and, mainly, trial and error.
Since this is such an important topic, I wanted to cover it broadly. This article draws from three sources. First you’ll find stories and tips from individual parents I surveyed. Next, I’ve shared some online resources with a variety of angles, selected because they offer something new or different. Finally, I’ll share some advice from my own experience with sleep during Alexi’s first year. If you have any thoughts or tips that weren’t mentioned in this piece, I’d love to hear from you. If I get enough of a response, I’ll do a follow-up on this story, so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hacking sleep deprivation: tips from experienced parents
“Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is a construct. It’s best to give up on chasing something that is an ideal. There will be times when sleep is great, and then a tooth will come, or a bug, and then you will be back to sleepless nights. My advice: keep your babies close, because then you don’t have to actually get up out of bed. The more you complain, lament, talk to other parents of little babies, the worse it feels when people ask how much sleep you are getting. Don’t get into it. And, know that sleep deprivation will make you crave junk food.”
-Jacki Kohleriter, Oakland, CA
“My sleep after the birth of my first son was difficult, chaotic, and absent! I have two pieces of advice for new moms: 1) the books on baby sleep do not work for all babies, and 2) even if we are on maternity leave, we should never feel guilty about asking the other parent to get up sometimes, even if he or she is working…it goes toward the health of the mama AND the baby!”
-Mélanie Goupil, Montréal, QC
“Co-sleep. My sons chose to sleep in their own beds around age 3-4. The eldest had a built in alarm clock and would join me each morning around 3:00 a.m. I really missed it when he stopped climbing in with me. By about seven months they were both pros at latching on without waking me up. I miss those days.”
-Kris Pavek, Barre, VT
“Do whatever works until it doesn’t work anymore. Babies are human and therefore go through phases. Nothing stays the same, so the ‘plan of attack’ needs to constantly morph (oh but during the phase, consistency is key!!!) with the needs of the whole family. It’s really freaking hard so try not to beat yourself up for doing what you need to do.”
-Jennifer Marlow, Albany, NY
“1. Always put the baby to bed in its own room from day one.
2. Never ‘be quiet for the baby’ while it is sleeping. It is your house and the baby needs to adjust to your noise.
3. Put a comfy rocking chair you can sleep in in the baby’s room so you can rock it to sleep.”
-David Scott Foshee, Athens, GA
“First of all, a mother will always be a mother, so, considering that she always has her baby on her mind, she could visualize her baby sleeping peacefully. This image can help her relax and have a nice sleep herself. Stay off electronic devices at least one hour before sleeping. It is preferable, after baby’s nap hours have been established, to sleep in his or her bed during which time mom does the same. A nap in the stroller while mom takes a healthy walk is nice, but she cannot sleep at the same time.”
-Rachel Poirier, La Prairie, QC
“Both of my babes were colicky, my firstborn much more severely than my second. Dinnertime became the witching hour in our house. Like clockwork, with the first bite of food came the alarm bell of shrieks from my son’s room. We would have to take turns eating our food, and from that point on it would be pacing the floors, hoping for sleep. Honestly, if I had figured out with my first what I did with my second, I would have saved myself a lot of headache. The focus was always on what could be done to calm him down. In fact, that was completely backwards. The best thing we could have done was to figure out what would work to calm us down. Babies pick up on vibes from their parents and they reflect them like a mirror image. My recommendation is to 1) sleep when your kids sleep, even if it’s odd times of the day, and 2) dance, sing, cry, do whatever you need to do to be in a good emotional space. If you are calm, your babies will follow suit. It’s also important to remember that it’s not a personal vendetta your children have against you. It’s just a phase that passes.”
-Cyndi Osgood, Fletcher, VT
“My experience with sleep: of course there never seemed to be enough time to take care of my baby, get enough sleep, AND keep the house clean and in order. I felt guilty if the baby was sleeping and I didn’t use the time to keep up the house. Advice: get over it. Now. It is amazing how much true dirt we can survive in and never get sick. Just keep the toilet clean and you are golden.”
-Dody Fisher, Danville, PA
Hacking sleep deprivation: online resources
I looked hard for useful links that had more than the standard advice.
1) The Chimerical Capuchin has what I think is the best review of methods for helping babies sleep and the books that propose them. I highly recommend blogger Ava Neyer’s annotated list if you’re looking for new ideas and want to see what others have tried, what they recommend and why, plus some specifics of this writer’s experience. http://thechimericalcapuchin.com/the-guide-to-baby-sleep-guides/
2) This is a method I’ve never seen nor read about before. http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/family/baby-wont-sleep-simple-trick-5478739
3) You’ve probably heard of co-sleeping even if you don’t practice it; it’s one of the most controversial issues in the infant parenting world. Check out this very thorough article from Mommypotamus, who also discusses how breastfeeding can help with sleep challenges. http://www.mommypotamus.com/5-reasons-to-co-sleep-with-your-baby/.
4) This list was a hilarious compilation of parents’ unusual methods…like putting the baby on a blanket and dragging her around the house, installing the bouncy seat in front of a roaring fire (they went through a lot of firewood that year), and saying “Bingo!” while touching the baby’s face. http://thestir.cafemom.com/baby/184927/17_weird_trick_to_get
5) Finally, this New York Times article featured an interview with two specialists about managing maternal sleep deprivation. http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/30/new-parents-in-need-of-sleep/?_r=0.
Hacking sleep deprivation: my tips
1) It really does take a village. When somebody offers to help, take them up on it. Immediately. While they’re making goo-goo eyes with your baby, grab a nap. For some people, hanging out with a baby for an hour is pure bliss. Just make sure the person knows how to change a diaper and that she’s not wearing a raw silk blouse.
2) Split the night into shifts. My partner and I did this and it was a lifesaver for me. We found that the sanity threshold, the number of consecutive hours of sleep we required in order to not feel homicidal, was four. Shift sleeping took care of that. Since I was breastfeeding, I would pump before my shift so my partner could feed Alexi with expressed milk from a bottle. Use earplugs if you know your baby’s crying will wake you during your sleep shift.
3) For nursing moms, try feeding baby lying down. Alexi and I napped this way during many a sunny afternoon. This took tremendous discipline on my part because often we would be there for several hours. We called them “nursing naps.” But once I realized I could have the curtains open and feel the sunshine on my face, it became a time for quiet and pleasant resting even if I didn’t sleep. This was the ONLY way I could get Alexi to take an afternoon nap longer than 20 minutes. Having the result now, I know it was a good decision for us, though many books warn against linking nursing with sleep. Once Alexi was weaned, he no longer needed to be sucking to fall asleep.
4) For working moms, see if you can arrange to use your lunch hour for a nap. A car can be a quiet and private place to catch some shut-eye. You can even put on your Ipod and relax to some crashing waves, crickets, or relaxing music.
5) I remember reading Dr. Sears on “nighttime parenting,” understanding his theory that you are teaching your baby that sleep is a safe and pleasant place to go to. My partner and I did a lot of work at night with Alexi and I have to say, he is one of the best sleepers in our social circle. This method, however, probably exacerbated my sleep deprivation, so there was a cost. But it also brought our family closer together, having that nighttime contact. I’m happy we co-slept and ecstatic that my son will sometimes now, at six, go up to bed early if he’s tired. He also has little fear associated with the dark or nighttime.
When all else fails, don’t despair! Regardless of how you might feel at the time, that first year will go quickly. Sleep deprivation will soon be a thing of the past for you. And before you know it, your baby will be transformed into a person who actually doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning!