No matter who you are, you know that having a newborn means you can expect many sleepless years. A new survey conducted even suggests that parents lose an average of 6 years of sleep from their life per child. That has become the new standard in postpartum, and with it, an array of health, safety, and relationship issues.
Getting good sleep with a newborn is a multi-million dollar industry. You’ll find articles, books, programs, consultants, and every kind of information available to you about how to make your baby sleep longer so that you can in turn, sleep better.
Although some of these books, programs, and consultants have helpful information, most of them are full of misleading and even dangerous advice (if you hear your baby is abnormal if they wake more often than every two hours, or that you need to follow a routine schedule, RUN).
The truth is that infants aren’t the ones who need to be trained (that comes much later in life). It’s parents who need the sleep training.
Most new parents expect that having a baby won’t be disruptive on their day-to-day lives. Although most of us know that adding a family member will be life-changing, those very words are a bit vague and unclear. Certainly, we know things will be different and that sleep will be minimal. But most don’t know what that means until they’re in the throes of it (and desperate to get out, I may add).
Infant simply don’t fit into our bust lives. We, as parents, have to change up what we know as normal to fit what is typical and ordinary for them. Sleep training is never to be used before your baby is 6 months old, as it can have dangerous repercussions. It’s far easier to retrain yourself and learn how to maximize healthy sleep for you and your newborn (and in a way that goes beyond “sleep when baby sleeps”).
The Dangers of Too Little Sleep
Women on average need 8-10 hours of sleep and in postpartum (not just the first few weeks), that number increases to 10-12 hours per day. Our need for ample rest is due to our body recovering from not only birth but also from using our body to grow a human being for 9 months (which is no small feat, by the way).
Unfortunately, most women get significantly less, especially in the days after birth. A newborn’s needs coupled with the desire to awe over what you’ve just created keep you wide awake. Sometimes it takes the brain several days to process the labor and birth experience before sleep can take place. Sometimes the overwhelming need to nurse and get to know how best to care for our little one makes sleep and rest feel impossible.
Exhaustion isn’t only frustrating; it also wreaks havoc on health. When you don’t sleep well, you don’t have the energy to eat well either. Your ability to make sound decisions, drive safely, and simply think clearly, are impacted.
And even more, in postpartum your hormones become completely out of balance. Hormones in postpartum are not naturally out of balance. They take several weeks to regulate but their shift and changing is a normal part of your body taking care of you and baby. However, when sleep doesn’t happen (and those hormones aren’t supported), they cannot synthesize or regulate, throwing the entire system off.
Exhaustion in the extreme is considered sleep deprivation (a torture tool, by the way). In my own experience with my first baby, having gone months without sleep, I began hallucinating in the middle of the night, watching my curtains come alive and sing me a song. Nothing felt more terrifying! Sleep deprivation deeply affects every organ in your body, and is one of the biggest leading causes of postpartum depression and anxiety.
Why Your Baby Wakes Often
Newborns are biologically programed to wake every few hours. Not only are they needing to refuel their body, they also wake as a survival mechanism. Not waking every few hours is associated with far more developmental issues, sleep problems, and an increased risk of SIDS. In other words, you WANT your infant to wake up often as it’s a necessary component to a thriving baby.
It’s also important to note that a newborn’s tummy is the size of a cherry, filling up on one teaspoon on their first day and holding around 3 ounces of milk by the end of the 5th week. Because of the nutritive properties of breastmilk, these small amounts get digested rather quickly. This is why nursing on demand is so critical. An infant’s rapid growth in the first year of life has them chowing down as soon as that little belly empties, which could be in 15 minutes from their last meal.
Side note: newborns have had the privilege of never feeling hunger when they were growing in your womb. The feeling for them is new and may be uncomfortable but at this age, newborns don’t comfort nurse. They are only wanting more because of their biological need to eat or innate wisdom to satisfy their suck reflex. At this stage, both needs should be met with the breast only.
When It Isn’t Normal
For any baby, especially an infant under 6 months old, it’s typical to wake often. Most programs recommend that your child remain sleeping for 2-4 hours with a few wakeful periods in between, and that waking any more than that means there is something abnormal. The focus here is all wrong. Infants may fall asleep and wake 15 minutes later wanting to nurse again. Or wake again after being set down to sleep alone. THIS IS ALL FAIRLY NORMAL.
If your infant doesn’t have a handful of sleep sessions that last 2-4 hours when sleeping on mama in a 24-hour period, and tends to wake several times without getting any of these deep sleep opportunities, then consider that something may be off.
Keep note that the key here is frequency of these wakeful periods after being put down and whether or not they are happening while baby sleeps on mom. Most of the time, a newborn’s need for comfort of their mother is strong and they will not remain sleeping without her touch.
If your baby has very few sleep periods that last 2-4 hours and cannot remain sleeping whether by them self or on mom, consider something else may be at play. The most typical scenarios for this is food allergies or lip/tongue tie that causes gas or acid reflux, or a physical problem from birth, or their position in utero that requires a chiropractor and/or occupational therapist.
Important Things to Know about Newborn Sleep
Infants don’t know a thing about day or night. This is a more complex knowing that takes time to develop. Expect your baby to be “confused” about day and night and not know when it is they are to sleep most.
You can never spoil a newborn. Ever. Nor can they try to manipulate or take advantage of you. When they cry, it’s because they have a need that has yet been met. This is one of the reasons why allowing a newborn to cry it out is never okay. CIO (leaving a baby to cry alone for longer than several minutes) is associated with several developmental consequences.
Essential oils at this stage in life is not safe. Although I absolutely love my oils and their medicinal properties, they are still medicinal, and should be avoided completely (whether diffused or diluted on the skin) until at least 6 months old. The only exception to the rule is the use of lavender, which can be combined as 1 or 2 drops of lavender to ¼ cup of oil for lotion. Lavender is known for it’s ability to help with sleep but shouldn’t be used for newborns or in the amount necessary to help one doze off. It’s use is strictly for skin support.
There is no schedule. Newborn sleep without pattern or form. Their wake, sleep, poop, and nursing times have zero pattern and cannot be placed on a schedule. Their body is growing too fast that their needs are constantly changing. Once they hit about 6 months of age, a pattern develops. Until then, don’t even try to wrap your head around what’s coming next in their day. You’ll go crazy trying to figure it out!
Tips for Getting Amazingly Good Sleep
- Understand baby sleep cycles. It’s much easier to support a newborn with their sleep and get better sleep as an adult when sleep cycles are fully understood. Adults reach a full sleep cycle in 90 minutes and require about 4 of these periods in a 24-hour time frame (some require more, as a postpartum mother does). A newborn, however, reaches the same sleep cycle in a 60 minute period. Knowing this makes certain things a bit easier. For example, their deepest sleep will happen about 20 minutes into their rest, making it the perfect time to transfer them elsewhere if needed.
- Tired infants sleep worse. If you’ve got a newborn who’s overly tired, they will wake more often, on top of being fussier during wakeful periods. So, if your newborn falls asleep on you and they wake the moment you set them down (and this pattern continues), you can bet to have a harder go at getting the sleep you need. Newborns have only known their mother’s comfort and in the first few weeks of life, and prefer only this as they navigate this massive life transition. Allow your newborn to rest on you for a few of their sleep periods and as they get older, they will feel more comfortable transitioning to someone else or to their own sleep space.
- Co-sleeping has different meanings. Although the natural desire (of all mammals) is to sleep together while touching, it may not be safe in every situation. Statistically, mothers get far more sleep when they breastfeed with their infant that’s close by. Co-sleeping can also mean that your infant is sleeping next to you in a bassinet or in a crib in the same room. The closer, the better in terms of the amount of sleep you get. Always do what’s safest for your family first.
- Mental health plays a role. Your brain has changed in such a way postpartum as to allow you to crash the moment your head hits the pillow. If you find that you are having a difficult time falling asleep, or that you wake often even when your little one still sleeps, consider your mental health. In the first week after birth, many women will feel this if they have gone through a particularly difficult birth experience and their brain needs time to process what happened. But not being able to sleep is also a sign of postpartum mood disorders. Anxiety and depression are stress responses to whatever is going on in life. Eliminating stress and asking for help are great ways to get back into a sleep rhythm, which in turn, supports your hormones and your mood.
- Nutrition matters. Do you know what is responsible for helping you sleep? Hormones. And when they don’t get the nutrients needed to produce those hormones and regulate them, your sleep gets thrown for a loop. We already know that pregnancy takes quite a bit of nutrients. If we aren’t eating a balanced meal, those get depleted from our body (not to mention that most women start into their pregnancy with a few deficiencies already). All this plays a role in your mental health. Which in turn, impacts your sleep. It’s also important to note that your postpartum body isn’t able to take in the nutrients it needs as it once did due to the lack of enzymes to break down the food. This is why nearly every culture on the planet has a different diet strictly for the first 6 weeks postpartum. You can learn more here about what to eat and how to support your body nutritionally in postpartum here.
- Rest counts. We’ve all heard that resting while your baby rests is necessary. Although that’s true in the sense that it will help you get more sleep, it isn’t always doable (hello multiple children running around!). It’s important to know that even if you aren’t able to nap, resting can be just as beneficial, especially in these first few months postpartum.
- Mimic the womb. Some newborns need a little extra support to fall asleep beyond breastfeeding and your warm touch. Offer your infant comfort measures that resemble the womb environment. Bouncing your baby on an exercise/birth ball is the closest feeling to what it was like in the belly. Swaddle to offer that condensed space and to prevent the startle reflex from jolting them awake. And consider how loud it was living inside you; from your heartbeat to your digesting juices, it was never a quite space. Some parent’s find a noise machine, fan, or even a vacuum cleaner to be helpful.
- Sleep regressions. Newborns don’t typically have regression periods, which are massive brain developments happening in a short period of time. The first regression is usually around 4 months old. Although there are plenty of things you can do to support your little one and your sleep during this time, it’s critical to understand that it’s just a phase, and a very normal and exciting growth at that. Expect that these regressions earlier in age to be in the form of cluster feedings. This isn’t generally a sign that your milk is drying up but that your baby is growing and requiring more of it. Always give the breast and feed on demand and you’ll see your supply pick up to accommodate.
- Don’t expect to do it yourself. Even with breastfeeding, your partner can burp, change, and put baby back down to bed. By sharing the load or splitting the responsibilities, you’ll both get more of the sleep you need (and avoid some arguments in the process).
- Your expectations matter. It’s far easier to plan your days and weeks ahead with the idea that sleep may not be easy right away. Expect to have to troubleshoot and fine tune your strategy, only to do so again when things change in a few weeks’ time. Expect to need to spend a good portion of your time making sleep your number one priority.
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