One of the toughest parts of the postnatal period for many is navigating it all on little to no sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect our mood, our appetite, our focus, patience and our overall sense of wellbeing. No wonder people tell us to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps!’ Every second counts, right?
Sleeping when the baby sleeps seems such harmless advice on the surface, but it can be the source of rage for anyone who’s baby doesn’t nap for long, wakes frequently during the night or needs constant contact in order to sleep soundly. Before having children, we set boundaries around how we will behave around our baby’s sleep or set great goals for what we will do during baby’s naps. How many of us have said ‘No way, they aren’t sleeping in our bed!’ or ‘oh it’s okay, I’ll just do the that when the baby naps!’ Soon to realise that you aren’t even sleeping when you’re in your own bed and the dishes?? Sod the bloomin’ dishes!! What was I thinking?
Truthfully, nothing prepares you for how much a baby alters the way your family sleeps. I frequently recall our family’s naivety of our first night at home with our baby. We went upstairs at 10pm, put her down in her moses basket and expected to all sleep soundly. Spoiler alert: she woke up immediately and my husband and I then never slept at the same time for the next 2 months… maybe longer? Who can really remember those first few months?
We don’t discuss normal infant sleep enough. Whether this is due to the Western way of living where we rely heavily on a full nights sleep, our expectation of infants becoming independent as soon as possible or because we don’t want to terrify new parents about what to expect. But it is the fear of scaring expectant parents that stops us from discussing the realities of labour, birth and beyond that leaves them scared, unprepared and potentially traumatised by the experience no one prepared them for.
Baby sleep is fragmented. For safety. So they can fill their tiny tummies up. Because they don’t have an established circadian rhythm yet. Because their tiny limbs just shot out from their body in a way they couldn’t in-utero. Or a thousand and one other reasons they can’t understand or explain to you. So, they cry. For their parent. Because they only know you and they feel safe with you. Some babies can’t fall asleep without you in the first place. Because they have suddenly gone from the warm, watery, loud and dark embrace of your womb into this big, bright, cold, empty world. When baby can’t feel you anymore, they don’t know where you are. This is a lot to take on, particularly when you're recovering from birth, trying to establish feeding and exhausted all while trying to remember to take care of yourself.
So, what is the solution? That is up to you as a new family. No one can say what is best for your family, except for you. Many families have tried many scenarios until they find one that works for them. Then when that no longer works, they change their strategy. But the most important thing to recognise is that fragmented sleep for baby is not harmful, it is normal and it is short lived. Most of the first few weeks and months are all about survival and that is hard. Accepting that it is hard can be a challenge in itself but your baby isn’t broken so therefore does not need to be fixed. So, if you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, then you have to go through it.
Sleep deprivation is almost an inevitable part of parenting and I firmly believe that it is both the hardest part AND makes everything else seem that much harder too. But finding support that will help you not only rest or nap, but relieve some of the pressure of daily life can be worth it’s weight in gold. Even just knowing that there is support on hand to just listen to you when you’re going through the thick of it can relieve some of that stress too and be incredibly cathartic. Having 8 hours sleep a night is not the goal (although, how amazing would that feel?!), but being better rested can come from simply having a quiet half an hour to yourself, meditating, a peaceful walk or listening to a podcast with your headphones on. Improving the quality of your sleep can be just as, if not more effective, than the amount of sleep you get. Having the support to clear your mind from some of the other stressors in your life and not worrying about how to get through the day on a poor nights sleep can be the difference between taking an hour to settle after the night feed and being able to drift off peacefully in 15 minutes.
Consider roping in some support, either from family, friends, a doula, however you can to help you rest, take on some of the housework or cook you a meal you can reheat rather than trying to “fix” your baby’s sleep. Your baby didn’t read the book on how they “should” be sleeping.
N.B. I will ALWAYS recommend Lyndsey Hookway as an essential resource on infant sleep. She doesn't focus on providing strategies to get your baby sleeping longer, but she will help you learn what to expect and bust the myths around infant sleep that have caused harm to society’s expectations. She has a range of books, she trains practitioners with her Holistic Sleep Coaching Programme and provides an unreal amount of free advice on her website and her Instagram.