Newborns sleep sixteen to twenty hours a day, but new mothers are lucky if they get more than two consecutive hours.
It’s a paradox my child-free friend struggled to make sense of: “Okay, yesterday, you told me you were worried because all Celia does is sleep,” I remember her saying. “Today, you say you can’t sleep at all because of the baby … Well, which is it?”
Both, of course.
Yes, newborns sleep a lot, so much that I called the pediatrician twice to make sure Celia’s penchant for sleep wasn’t a sign of a listless, unhealthy baby. (I was assured her sleeping patterns were normal.) The rub: babies don’t sleep for very long at one time.
Newborns typically operate in cycles of about four hours, says Dr. Gary Montgomery, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “They sleep, they eat, they poop, and they sleep again.”
The key for new mothers is to grab sleep just as baby is nodding off in hopes of getting two or three uninterrupted hours. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of advice that rolls off the tongues of experts and been-their-done-that moms with such ease, you know it can’t be that simple.
As a new mom, I wasn’t used to grabbing a couple hours sleep here and there. And I wasn’t used to being in a constant state of OH-MY-GOD-I-HAVE-A-BABY-AND-SHE’S-MY-RESPONSIBILITY. I was tense. I couldn’t just conk out whenever my baby did.
And I had this other infuriating trend going on. Celia seemed to sleep all day and then party all night. By day, I could barely rouse her to feed her. At night, I couldn’t get her to sleep for more than a few minutes to save my sleep-deprived soul.
“Didn’t you know?” my mom friend told me, her sleeping-through-the-night, eight-month-old baby on her hip. “Babies are nocturnal.”
She went on to explain that while incubating in the comfort of a womb, a baby is lulled to sleep by the mother’s activity. At night, the baby is somehow energized by mommy’s slumber. After birth, baby keeps on the same schedule, sleeping during the day and wiggling all night. Or something like that. I don’t remember exactly what she said, only that I felt like a fool for having missed the memo. As a lifelong devotee of a Good Night’s Sleep, it’s a piece of news I could’ve used.
Even though it may not be true.
“It’s a myth that they’re awake more at night than during the day,” Dr. Montgomery tells me. “You just notice [their awake time] more.”
Silence on my end of the phone as I ponder his claim. He assures me the babies-as-nocturnal notion is a figment of the exhausted mother’s imagination.
I don’t, as a general rule, get into tiffs with sources, especially those who are experts in their fields, so I moved on. But I will state for the record that my daughter was a better sleeper by day than by night for the first four to six weeks. I was there.
Dr. Montgomery goes on to say that as much as new mothers are forewarned about sleep deprivation, “it’s even worse than they expected.” Amen, brother.
Here are some tips for coping during the first six weeks:
- Mark on your calendar with a big star the following dates: the one-hundredth day after your baby’s birth, your baby’s four-month birthday, your baby’ six-month birthday. Remind yourself that with each milestone, your baby’s sleep habits will improve. By six months, babies can make it through the night without a feeding. As your baby sleeps longer at night, so will you.
- Try swaddling. It works better for some babies than others, but it is worth trying. I practiced swaddling techniques on my husband, using a king-size comforter, before Celia’s birth. I got a better lesson from the nurses at the hospital. And I really got into swaddling when my mom-friend gave me a specially-designed baby straightjacket called “The Miracle Blanket .”
- Help baby know what he’s supposed to do by keeping the environment bright during the day and dark at night. Dr. Montgomery recommends a stroller walk between 8 a.m. and noon for direct sunlight. At night, keep all the lights in the house dim.
- Watch your caffeine intake if you are nursing, Dr. Montgomery warns.
- Some babies are lulled to sleep by sounds such as the bathroom fan or white noise. Try tuning a radio between stations or download  newborn friendly sounds.
- Once your baby is asleep, lie down. Don’t get on the computer. Don’t do the dishes. Don’t run just one load of laundry. Even if you can’t fall asleep, just resting your eyes for a few minutes is helpful.
- Measure small victories. Your definition of a “good night’s sleep” will change. Instead of needing eight hours, you’ll find that with four hours, you’ll feel revitalized. If you manage to get three hours and change, remind yourself that you’re getting close to four whole hours.
- It’s a dramatic step, but if you have your mother or other trusted family member in town, take her up on her offer to spend a night with the baby while you and your husband go to a hotel … to sleep!
- Finally, now is not the time for an I-can-do-it-all attitude. Ask your partner for help. And if family members such as your mother, mother-in-law, sister, or aunt offer to help, “have them do the housework,” Montgomery says. “Your job is to take care of your baby.”
When I think back to last November when Celia was itty bitty, I remember the sleep deprivation. But mostly, I remember those as happy days. I was finally a mother. Her every facial expression was a miracle. I even admired the sheer force of her will to fight off sleep. Yes, sleeplessness is hard. But now that I’ve lived without sleep, I don’t take it for granted. These days, I can usually get seven uninterrupted hours. Man, does that feel good.
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