When you are expecting it becomes commonplace for experienced parents to offer unsolicited advice on how you should prepare for “those sleepless nights” and to “rest up” while you still have the opportunity. The natural reaction, and frankly, your only line of defense, is to laugh these comments off as you think to yourself, “come on, it can’t be that bad’. That is of course until your little one arrives and you get to experience firsthand what it really feels like to be awakened every 2-3 hours (or more) across a 24 hour day while simultaneously juggling the ever demanding responsibilities of life with a baby.
Oftentimes, new mothers (and fathers) are more sleep deprived than they realize; and that sleep loss can take a serious mental and physical toll. For many mothers, the effects of sleep loss begins prior to baby’s arrival with restless uncomfortable nights and only increases after the birth during a stay at the hospital. It is not until you arrive home with your new baby, who doesn’t follow the day and night pattern of wakefulness and sleep, that sleep deprivation and the impacts it has on your overall wellness sets in. and it is like nothing you have ever experienced or could have prepared for.
Sleep is as necessary a biological function as breathing air and eating a healthy diet, yet for some reason, its importance seems to fall lower on the totem pole. Dr. Christina Hibbert, an expert on women’s health, says “Sleep is the body’s way of restoring health and well-being. Sleep loss is associated with poor attention and decision-making, poor performance on routine tasks, more mistakes, diabetes, obesity, and a host of emotional symptoms like depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, anger, frustration, and poor coping skills. At its extreme, sleep deprivation can actually induce psychotic symptoms!” At the very least many parents have a story about the time they put the milk away in the cabinet or went to work wearing two different shoes, but sleep loss can be very serious, even triggering postpartum depression. So what is a parent to do?
Strategies to Help you Achieve Sleep During the Postpartum Period
- Make Sleep a Priority: Have you ever heard the term “A happy mom makes a happy home”? In order for you to be happy and healthy and be the best mother you can be, you need to sleep. All of the things on your to do list truly can wait. The importance of sleep trumps things like doing the dishes, or the laundry or even taking a shower. Driving your baby safely to her check-ups are more important than smelling good. Trust us, your pediatrician will agree.
- Ask for Help: If family and friends are willing, take them up on the offer to hold and care for your baby while you get some sleep. If you would rather spend that time with your new baby then ask for help with preparing meals and doing laundry and sleep when your baby sleeps. If you are able, plan a schedule with your partner to share nighttime responsibilities when baby wakes so each one of you is able to get at least 5 hours of consolidated sleep.
- Create and Optimal Sleep Environment and Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: Establish a bedtime routine for yourself. Even if your bedtime becomes inconsistent with a baby, you can cue yourself for sleep each night by engaging in the same calming rituals before bed. Try activities such as; listening to soothing music, deep breathing or practice visualizations and positive mantras. Write worries or racing thoughts down in a notebook next to your bed. Keep your room cool, dark and quiet and avoid electronics in the bedroom an hour before going to sleep.
- Educate Yourself: Just like there are developmental milestones for smiling, talking, crawling and walking, there are developmental milestones for sleep. In the first year of life, a baby’s sleep needs change dramatically and understanding the development of sleep will help you set realistic expectations. It will also help you understand that this part of parenting is only
- Seek out a Social Support Network: Many mothers report that they have never felt lonelier or more isolated than during the first weeks and months after having a baby and sleep deprivation only exasperated those feelings. Combat loneliness and isolation by connecting with other moms who are going through the same thing. Hello Mama’s is an amazing mom connecting website that allows you to find local moms and create a support network of people who may be sharing a similar experience. Seeking out a new moms support class in your area is also a great way to connect with other mothers and babies. Oddly, talking about your exhaustion with another exhausted parent can help.
- Get Sleep Support for Your infant: Some babies just need a little sleep shaping to get them on the right track. During the first few months of life, newborn sleep is fragmented and unpredictable patterns occur because of their developing circadian rhythms. Once they reach 4-6 months (gestational age), however, it is appropriate for a nighttime sleep schedule to take shape. Books, websites, and talking with friends may offer ideas to help you get baby sleeping better, but it can also create an information overload and leave you more confused and frustrated than ever. Working one-on-one with a reputable sleep consultant can be invaluable.
If you and your family need more sleep, set up a consultation so we can create an individualized sleep plan.
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Kristen relies on her many years of experience, as well as her education and background, to create individualized sleep or specified parenting support for every family she works with. She enjoys living in a small town north of Boston with her husband, son and daughter.
Joanna is an educator, holistic health counselor and mother of two young children. She has 15 years of teaching experience with children from infancy to 18 yrs of age, focusing the last 4 years consulting schools and young families.