“The first 6 weeks after the baby is born are the hardest!” “Sleep now while you can!” “All of your trouble sleeping at night now is getting you ready to wake up with your new baby!” I heard all of these words of advice and more when I was pregnant with my daughter, and they were generally accompanied by a hearty “Ha-ha-ha.” I would respond with an uncomfortable and somewhat irritated: “Ha-ha, thanks” having no clue what I was in for.
What I knew then.
Before my daughter was born I worked as a dietitian for the WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants & Children). You’d think I would know infants, right? Wrong! Sure, I could teach parents about breastfeeding and feeding their toddlers or preschoolers, but when my own little one was born, she didn’t follow any of the rules I had learned! I had even taught classes about Baby Behavior to new parents, but figuring out my own baby’s behavior and sleep “schedule” was like trying to decipher a complicated puzzle.
When my daughter was born 2 years ago, I had learned a little bit about what normal infant sleep looks like and knew that waking was healthy. I knew that her sleep patterns would be a bit unorganized her first few weeks of life, but that knowledge alone did not prepare me to cope with the exhaustion those sleepless nights would bring. I did have one salvation- I knew that if I could just survive those first 6 weeks of my daughter’s life, it wouldn’t be long before she would begin sleeping for longer periods of time, and we would all be able to get some rest.
What I know now.
The first 6 weeks of your baby’s life are hard; there is no way around that! But knowing more about newborn behavior and learning a few coping strategies can make your life a whole lot easier. One thing that makes the first 6 weeks hard is that as new parents, we have visions of this perfect, quiet baby smiling up at us or sleeping soundly in her crib. This “perfect baby” rarely exists…at least not for a few more months! Newborns don’t follow any of the “rules.” Their sleep and behavior can be erratic (as will yours, thanks to sleep deprivation and hormones!) Initially newborns wake every 1-2 hours and when they do sleep, most of it is active (dreaming) sleep (see Baby Behavior Basics Part 1), and they are easily wakened. That’s right: it is NORMAL for your newborn to wake every 1-2 hours. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s not fair, but that’s just how newborns are wired. Research shows newborns need to wake up to be healthy. They wake if they are too hot or too cold, hungry, lonely, etc. They need to wake easily so that they can let us know they need our help; how else would we figure that out? Fortunately, all of this waking doesn’t last very long (in the scheme of your life as a parent).
This too shall pass.
Whenever I would get really tired and frustrated I would think to myself: “If I can just make it through these first 6 weeks, things will get better.” And I did make it through, and things did get better…slowly. My daughter finally figured out the difference between day and night (day is for playing, night is for sleeping). She slept for longer stretches and woke up less at night by the time she was about 6-8 weeks old. By about 2 months, she also developed a more predictable nap “schedule;” these “breaks” gave me a chance to get a few things done (like take a shower!)
Get some rest.
After living through those rough first 6-8 weeks, I’ve learned a few ways to cope with the lack of sleep. Hindsight is 20-20, right! Well, at least someone can benefit from what I learned during that sleepless time, though now it is all a bit fuzzy. I’ve also learned quite a bit over the last 2 years working here at the Human Lactation Center and with moms as part of the Baby Behavior Study. As difficult as your baby’s first 6 weeks are, I have discovered a few tried and true ways to help you and your family get some rest…starting now. I'll share these important tips with you next time. Stay tuned...
Do you have a story about sleep deprivation to share? What has helped you deal with lack of sleep while caring for a newborn?
Next Time: Tips from the Trenches: Surviving Sleep Deprivation