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Some way, somehow, get some rest: What you can do to cope with sleep deprivation as a new parent 

Unfortunately for you – and for all new parents – no one can just ask their one month old baby to please put in a solid 8 hours of sleep overnight so that you can get the same. The truth is that new babies wake every few hours, and probably will for a while. Eventually, most babies do start to sleep for longer stretches between 4 and 6 months old, and even through the night by about 6 months time – some babies sooner, some babies later. But in the meantime, this means you’re getting fragmented sleep, which can be particularly brutal and make your days fatigued, foggy, forgetful, and leaving you feeling pretty raw. This is a long time to have to wait for a good night’s sleep. And even then, it’s totally normal for babies to go through sleep regressions every so often, for toddlers to wake up when they’ve wet through a diaper, or for school age kids to wake up after having a scary dream. 

What we’re saying is that even if better sleep is in your future – and it is, we promise – becoming a parent means that you probably have many nights ahead that involve a little less sleep than you had been planning on. Right now, when you really really need it, we do have some tips for how you can at least deal with – if not solve – your current state of sleep deprivation. And you can take at least some of these tips forward with you in the years ahead too. Even recognizing the reality of your current situation – and recognizing that new babies need some time to learn day and night, how to put themselves back to sleep, and even just get bigger so they can go longer between meals – you do deserve good sleep. Getting more sleep, and better sleep, will help you have that much more fuel in the tank to rock being a parent in the daylight hours – or to rock your little one on those surprise late-nights. So while these tips aren’t a magic bullet for suddenly getting all that really good, restorative, full-night’s worth of sleep you were getting before you became a parent, they can help you manage until your baby gets a bit bigger and does move toward sound sleep overnight. 

  • Sleep when baby sleeps. We know, we know – some parents hate this advice. That’s because it sounds simple, but is far from easy. When baby is snoozing, it’s really easy to want to take advantage of that time and do dishes, laundry, shower, or hop online or pop on a tv show or do any number of other things for yourself that will give you a sense of normalcy. And, really, it’s not that you shouldn’t do those things – after all, you definitely do need to do many of these things just to get by and function – but you need sleep to function too, so you may want to see if maybe possibly sometimes at least you could sleep when baby sleeps. Sure, make sure you have clean underwear and plates to eat off of, but you definitely have permission to let some things, like a perfectly clean house, slide for now. So ignore any to-dos other than “take a nap,” silence your phone, and get cozy. A 20 to 30 minute nap can leave you refreshed without feeling groggy, but in these early days when overnights can be such a free-for-all, listen to your body and sleep longer if you need to. Just don’t sleep so late or long that you want to stay up later than an early bedtime.   
  • Turn your bedroom into a place that prioritizes sleep – meaning a place that’s dark, quiet, and cool – and invest in a few sleepytime goodies to help you really relax. Get a sleep mask to block out light, turn on a white noise machine, and even pop in ear plugs if someone else is going to be keeping an ear out for your little one.
  • If you can’t sleep, rest. Whether trying to sleep overnight, or to catch a nap, if you don’t feel like you can sleep, just take some time to relax. Don’t beat yourself up over undone chores or even that you can’t fall asleep. Snuggle up, and remind yourself that it’s great to be cozy and you should feel good about prioritizing your rest. 
  • Have someone babysit so that you can just take a nap. Yes, really. This is babysitting time well spent – make sure to have some pumped milk or formula ready for the babysitter, pop in those ear plugs, and check out for a few hours. 
  • If you’re parenting with a partner, alternate whole overnights, take turns with your partner for each wake up, or split the night into two shifts where you each take one early or late shift. Here, too, you may need to have pumped milk ready if you’re breastfeeding. If you alternate nights in this way, it can allow each partner to switch off getting a good night’s sleep. And if you take turns, you’ll each get to sleep for longer stretches. Both are good options, so see what might work for you. 
  • And if you’re both home together with parental leave or have days off together on the weekends, you can even take turns with daytime caregiving and let each other sneak away for a nap. Even if you don’t nap, splitting the load in this way can also give you time to shower, rest, or do something restorative for yourself, like read a book, watch a show, stare off into space – whatever you really need. 
  • If you split time with your partner in any of these ways, you may even want to consider sleeping in a separate space away from your partner who’ll be up for feedings – and away from baby if you roomshare. (Just bring along that eye mask, ear plugs, and white noise machine when it’s your turn to sleep.) This will allow for more uninterrupted sleep. 
  • Turn down the monitor. Newborns are active sleepers, and if you listen for every little peep or whimper, it will be really hard to get any shut-eye. If you hear just a little bit of stirring, you actually want your baby to learn to put themself back to sleep – which they often can if you let them. This is called watchful waiting. It can take a little while to know the difference between a brief little groan that you can ignore versus something your infant really needs you for. But, we promise, once your baby is really awake, they will let you know, and you will hear them.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff, and focus on what’s most important to you. This will help you feel more relaxed at the end of the day, even if you’re exhausted, and it will likely make sleep come a little easier. Maybe this means you really want to make sure you can shower before bed every night but don’t sweat the laundry piling up, or you want to lie down in bed to rest or nap during at least one of baby’s naps, but after baby is asleep in the evening you want to watch one short TV show with your partner to spend a bit of time together. It’s all about balance. Figure out what’s best for you. 
  • Only welcome the right sort of guests into your home. This is a really unique time in your life, and you want people around who can help make it easier for you, not those who want to be entertained or only want to hold the baby but not really babysit or won’t lend a hand. You want guests who will babysit while you shower or go take a nap or who will fold laundry and do the dishes while they visit. Don’t think the usual polite rules apply to this time, and don’t feel the need to host. 
  • Get outside in the morning. Sunlight will help you feel more alert, even when you’re really sleep deprived. 
  • If you breastfeed, do so lying down, for a bit of added rest. Just don’t fall asleep with your baby in bed with you, and if they – and you – are ready for a nap, move them into their bed or bassinet. 
  • Go to bed early – at least when your little one goes to sleep at a relatively normal bedtime. If you were used to going to bed much later before your baby was born, this could be the time to try to move that up by a few hours. Even if a lot of your sleep is fragmented overnight, this still may allow you to get in a bit more. If you start to get in the habit of doing bedtime for both you and your little one, you’ll begin to get your baby into a bedtime routine too (yes, even this early) and eventually teach your little one that nighttime is when everybody should be sleeping.
  • Toss out what were some of your regular routines from before, like binging TV shows late night with your partner or scrolling through Twitter before bed. You do, of course, want to maintain some sense of normalcy, but if you used to watch a lot of late-night TV, this could be the time to maybe just do that once a week as some quality time with your partner, instead of every night. It’s only a few months before your little one should sleep through the night, so do prioritize your sleep in the meantime – you’ll thank yourself, trust us. 
  • Find a new relaxing bedtime ritual or routine that helps you wind down. Listening to music, reading, deep breathing, having a cup of decaffeinated tea, listening to a guided meditation, writing in a journal – over time, all of these can help your body learn to know that it’s almost time for bed and make it that much easier to fall asleep.  
  • And as you add relaxing details into your bedtime, cut out the stuff that will keep you up. This includes caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, or exercise in the hours before bed. (Exercise earlier in the day can help you sleep better at night. But with your baby being so new, exercise definitely doesn’t need to be a priority just yet.) It also includes the blue light from the screens many of us stare at close to bedtime. Limit screen before bed, set a timer so that your phone goes into a nighttime mode that cuts down the blue light being emitted, or leave screens outside of your bedroom entirely.  

Even if you just incorporate one or two of these ideas into your days and nights, we hope some of these ideas will help you get a little more rest. But if the exhaustion really feels like too much for too long, do talk to your healthcare provider and your child’s provider about what’s going on. They may be able to help you find ways to adjust you and your baby’s routines to get some relief. They can also help identify other issues, including mood disorders or sleep disorders, that might be contributing to tiredness or trouble sleeping. And do take heart knowing that this won’t last forever. The sleepless nights may be long, but this period of little sleep is short. 


Sources
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “New parents: Getting the sleep you need.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, October 12 2017. Retrieved February 11 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/healthy-baby/art-20046556.
  • “Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,  Fri, 2019-02-08 . Retrieved February 11 2019. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
  • “Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep.” Healthy Sleep. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, December 18 2007. Retrieved February 11 2019. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips.

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