Monday, July 6, 2009

Thoughts from a Sleep Deprived Mom: Part 1

By: Jen G
“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


  1. My previously mild mannered two month old has been having fits of crying for hours and hours on end. It doesn't seem like there is anything I can do to soothe her. Could it be colic? If it is colic, is there anything I can do to help her?

  2. I certainly know how you feel! Since this crying has started so abruptly, it is important that you see your baby's doctor just to make sure that there is no ear infection or some other illness. "Colic" in babies isn't really a meaningful term but usually refers to crying that doesn't stop with normal soothing. Sometimes babies with problems digesting things will cry a lot but they will also have lots of gas and loose stools or stools with mucus or even little bits of blood in them. Of course, you should see your doctor if you see these things or your baby is not growing well. If your baby seems healthy but still cries and cries, there could be many reasons. I'm going to do a post early next week with lots of details. In the meantime, remember "repetition, repetition, repetition" to soothe your baby. Pay close attention to what has gone on right before your baby has a crying spell. She might have a tough time with being sleepy or she may be very sensitive to stimulation or change in routine (like my daughter!). Watch for early cues that your baby needs a break. Fortunately, this won't last forever. Lots more details to come!

  3. My 9 month old ”sleep cries” when I finally get her to sleep after her throwing a fit the whole process and then tosses and turns all night long. She was perfect in sleeping up until 7 months then this started!?

  4. If you click on the "infant sleep" key words on the left, you'll see several posts that might help. If you have other questions after you read them, let us know!

  5. I need help my baby is 9 months old and well hasn't been sleep for 9 months ( no exaggeration) ...My pediatrician says its new mom syndrom...but wn I hear that babies are supposed to get atv least 11 hrs of sleep and he gets 4 im starting to worry...despite anything that I do...still no sleep not for me not for him not even my husband....he wakes up at least 6 times a night. Wanting to breastfeed for comfort and after 30 min hes back to sleep 25 min later hes up again and round and round we go any suggestions??? Plz help

  6. To the reader who posted the previous comment,we can tell that you are having a difficult time. Please speak to your baby's doctor about your concerns and ask friends and family for help so you can get some rest.

  7. I totally agree, the first 6 weeks are the hardest for a new mom. Even so everybody warns you while you're pregnant, what you experience during those first weeks are definitely beyond your imagination... it's so cliché and so true: "Just wait and see!"