More sleep? How?!

Three weeks old, really not sleepy.

Three weeks old, really not sleepy.

Until you’ve been home with an unexpectedly alert newborn for a few weeks, it is hard to imagine the feeling of desperation, bitterness, injustice, and exasperation that can wash over you when someone asks you how your baby is sleeping. And it only takes a few weeks home with a wakeful newborn to learn that “sleeping like a baby” is not exactly ideal. There are babies who happen to sleep something like 20 hours a day – I heard about them here and there when my son was an infant, but that was not at all my experience, and if you’re here reading this article, I’m guessing your baby sleeps way less than you expected, and you are nearly at the end of your rope.

So what is there to do? Alas, this blog does not include a list of tips and tricks to get your baby sleeping better, sorry! In the interest of authenticity, I hereby confess that I tried a great many “tips” and “tricks” to get my son to sleep longer and nearly wore myself out emotionally, mentally, and physically in the process. The big lesson I learned from my first 4 or 5 months postpartum was that you (or maybe it was just me, I don’t know) can’t make a baby sleep more. 

Instead, here are some ideas for getting more sleep for yourself. It all begins with a mindset shift, then an adjustment of expectations, and lastly, a call for back-up help.

“Normal” newborn sleep

Firstly, I wish I would have accepted the reality of my newborn’s sleep patterns much earlier on. Of course no one wants to scare you when you’re 8 or 9 months pregnant, so there’s a lot of good-natured teasing: “Rest while you can!” “Get ready to never sleep again, ha ha!” and then through month 10 and 11, lots of sympathy: “Is he a good sleeper? No? Oh dear, I remember those days! You look great, by the way!” and plenty of advice in the form of questions: “Do you swaddle him? Is he breastfed? Have you tried putting him in your bed/his crib/his own room/a carrier/rock and play/bouncy seat?”  

But what no one told me was that my experience was pretty normal and to brace myself for a few more months of it. Every book I read, every friend I talked to, and even the doctors and nurses I talked to were very reassuring. “Don’t worry,” they said, “in a few weeks he’ll settle down and start sleeping more.” Especially the books I read were very comforting: “newborn sleep is very disorganized, but baby will start consolidating nighttime sleep between 8-12 weeks. Then you’ll start seeing longer overnight stretches and naps that follow a more predictable pattern.” A few more weeks was a manageable stretch of time, but my fitness tracker continued to report four or five nighttime wakings and a total sleep time of less than five hours for months and months on end. By that point, I had lost all hope and anyone who asked me about whether the baby was sleeping any better quickly regretted it. 

Four weeks old and chatting it up with our neighbor.

Four weeks old and chatting it up with our neighbor.

Accepting the reality

I fought the reality of baby sleep patterns, hoping and wishing for more and easier sleep which is simply not typical of infants under six months of age. The fact that nearly everyone I talked to also thought it was highly unusual only added to my dread that there was no solution and no end in sight. If I had just accepted the reality that was, I might have been able to tear myself away from the problem I thought I had and work on solving the actual problem instead. 

So for you, if your baby hardly seems to nap more than 20 minutes at a time and wakes up every hour or two overnight, you are likely praying to any and all higher powers that things will change, and maybe tonight will be a good night. But I’m saying it might be more helpful to accept that you have a baby who just doesn’t sleep much, or easily, and it is likely to be that way until he or she reaches some unknown developmental milestone, or you get some professional baby sleep help later on. When you let go of the way you think these first few weeks and months were supposed to go and accept that things are the way they are, then you are ready to take the next step and work on the problem you have: you need more sleep

More sleep, whatever it takes

One way to get more sleep for yourself is to give in to whatever (safely**) works for now, for everyone

Are you trying to avoid nursing the baby to sleep at all costs? Have you been trying to get your newborn onto a schedule without any real success? Do you sometimes give up trying to get the baby to sleep in her own bed in the middle of the night and bring her into your bed and when morning comes, you swear you’ll never do it again? Are trying so hard, following everyone’s advice, but it’s just stressing you out and not actually getting anyone more rest? Then it sounds like it might be time to re-evaluate. 

You might be able to get a few more hours of sleep if you drop the worries and the fears you have internalized about creating bad sleep habits for the baby and instead just nurse the baby to sleep, and keep him in your bed all night, for example. There are safe ways to do so, and if it helps you work off some of your sleep debt, it can go a long way to restoring your mental wellness during these early months! If you decide later that it’s no longer working for you and you want to change strategies, at least you’ll have the emotional resources and energy to put together and implement a new plan for a slightly older baby. The important thing is more sleep now.

**Safe baby sleep means baby sleeps on his or her back on a firm flat mattresses without blankets, bolsters, straps, or toys. Please avoid using items like baby seats, bouncers, rock’n plays, or baby swings as baby’s primary sleeping place since these are not intended for sleep but for awake time. Also, let me be super clear here: never add anything to baby’s milk for more sleep. Just don’t. Better to just skip to the next step: call for backup. **

Bring in reinforcements

Another straightforward way to get more sleep for yourself is to accept all the kind offers for help and start actually taking the good people up on their offers. Get the baby properly fed, and then have someone else hold the baby while you both takea nap. Does the baby almost always fall asleep for a walk in the stroller or a drive in the carseat? Strap them safely in and have someone else take them out of the house so you can rest. 

Can you share a bit more of the overnight work with your partner? I understand that someone needs to be able to function at their paid job the next day, but surely not at the expense of your well-being? 

And if you’re not sure you can count on the voluntary help of neighbors, friends, and family, you might really benefit from hiring a postpartum doula, daytime babysitter or nighttime nanny, even if it’s only temporary. You matter too, after all, and you were really not meant to do this whole thing on your own with so little sleep. It is good to take care of yourself!

Self-care is not selfish

Six weeks old and mad 'cause we won't let him watch Parks and Rec...

Six weeks old and mad 'cause we won't let him watch Parks and Rec...

Quick summary: my son was not a sleepy baby. He was alert, fussy, curious, hard to please, and reached many baby milestones quite early, except it seemed he never fell asleep on his own, nor consolidated sleep cycles as predicted. It was really hard on me because my days had no downtime and no real rhythm or routine, except feeding and changing my son, and then trying to get him to sleep for a little while. Everything I read suggested he should only be awake about an hour or two before napping an hour or three or else he would become overtired and fight it harder. Every day was just like the last – I was exhausted from the physical effort of baby care without proper rest, and also felt guilty and incompetent for not figuring out how to get my baby to sleep 12-15 hours per day as recommended. It was not the tranquil, happy, mysterious magical fourth trimester I had been looking forward to.

Three years later, I am much better rested and would offer this advice to past-me (and also present-you, if have a sleepless newborn): keep trying those baby sleep tips because it will sometimes make you feel better and maybe something will work, but maybe just face it: your baby is not a sleepy baby. You won’t see it for several more months, but you, as the mother, will take a lot longer to recover from all this sleeplessness than he will, so do what it takes to get more sleep today and get through this newborn stage in good health. 

For the sake of your emotional and mental wellness, and your relationship with others in your family, let the baby (safely!) sleep however works for now, and when someone asks if there’s anything they can do to help out, pull out your calendar and schedule their visit right then and there. If nothing else, hire some help so you can get some solid daytime naps in. More rest is good for your soul and will help your body heal.

If you want to learn more about baby sleep and are curious about safe sleeping environments, bedsharing, and the ‘attachment parenting’ philosophy, join me in reading “Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family” published by La Leche League International. Through the month of May (2018), we will make our way through the 4 sections of the book and meet in my Facebook Group, The Moderately Crunchy Motherhood, every Friday to unpack the previous section and talk about Sweet Sleep’s recommendations and how and whether to adapt them for your own family’s use. 

I’m not a die-hard attachment parenting fan – I’m only moderately crunchy, after all, but Sweet Sleep is often encouraging and reassuring, and offers practical help for families whose need for sleep is quickly becoming a top priority. Join me on Fridays even if you’re too tired to read Sweet Sleep. Maybe we can get some more rest for you anyway!