One of the most common fears of expecting parents is ‘how am I going to cope with sleep deprivation?’ As your pregnancy nears the end often our friends, families and co-workers will all start giving us wonderful advice such as “the first six weeks were hell but then the fog started to lift” or even something as helpful as “I thought the newborn phase was bad but wait till they start teething”, or the winner of positivity, “I don’t think I’ve slept through the night once in the last five years and I can’t feel my feet anymore!”.
This all sounds daunting and down-right impossible, how can I wake every 2 hours for weeks on end and still continue to function like a normal person?
The good news is that maybe you will need to wake every 2 hours and maybe you won’t, every baby is different.
The hormones in your body that have helped it sustain your baby throughout your pregnancy will undergo a radical change after birth as you transition from a pregnant woman to a lactating woman. This can be hard going for some of us for the first few weeks but things do settle down eventually. Many mums speak or feeling ‘high’ after birth and some even complain of not being able to settle down and get some good, deep sleep. This is nature’s way of keeping mum up and functioning after the tumultuous experience of birth so she can see to the needs of her new baby this feeling can last a few days to a week or so. Overtime it should settle down and soon enough you’ll be fully immersed in the wonderful world of ‘baby bubble’ where life seems to revolve around baby's schedule and the hours and days melt away like your supply of newborn nappies.
One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that when it comes to babies and sleep, there is no normal. Some babies really do suddenly starting sleeping through the night at 6 weeks and others are still waking regularly at two years old. Since at least the 1950’s expectations on babies to ‘fit’ into our modern schedules meant that people started to put newborns into two categories; babies who slept a lot at night and were known as ‘good’ babies' and all the rest who must be ‘not good babies.’ So, if you have a ‘not good baby’ are you not a good mother or could it be that your baby is just normal?
Most newborns will feed between 8 to 12 times in a 24 hour period, so if you work it out you will most likely be waking regularly during the night, one way or another. How often you are going to wake and how quickly you can get back to sleep again is going to depend on your baby and how you have chosen to embrace the newborn period. I don’t want to talk about ways of getting baby to sleep here, rather looking at ways to get you through those sleepless nights and still have enough energy and presence of mind to enjoy those beautiful first days and weeks at home with a new baby.
All humans move through periods of deep sleep and active, light sleep know as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) even young babies do although they tend to spend more time in REM sleep and their cycles are shorter than an adults. It is not uncommon for mother’s sleep patterns to sync up with their baby’s. Breastfeeding and keeping baby close can help a lot with this. Often a breastfeeding mother will instinctively wake just as her baby is about to wake for a feed and this is a lot easier for our bodies to deal with than being woken from a deep sleep.
Co-sleeping can include having baby by the side of your bed in a bassinet or bed-sharing where you have prepared a safe sleeping environment next to you in your own bed. This is what most babies crave and studies have shown that safe bed sharing mothers will get the most sleep and be the least disturbed by night waking during those early days. Co-sleeping with your baby in a bassinet is a great option for mums who feel uncomfortable having baby in their bed as they can easily sit up during the night, feed baby and resettle without too much disturbance to themselves or baby. More information about safe co-sleeping can be found here.
Sleep When Baby Sleeps
Your first thought may be ‘should I vacuum when baby vacuums too’? It’s not always practical to crash out for an hour in the middle of the day just because your newborn is asleep, especially while you are still on that after-birth high but even if you can’t sleep just lying somewhere comfortably and resting can really help to recharge your batteries. Relax in a nice warm bath, seek out your favorite comfy chair and leave the too do list for a while.
Let Dad help too
Every relationship is different, maybe Dad or your partner isn’t in the picture or your partner works long hours and can’t take time off, in any case it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’ve heard lots of stories of new Dads who despite not being able to take a lot of time off work after their baby was born were still happy to take turns with mum pacing the halls at night or settle the baby back to sleep after mum has finished the feed. I even have a friend who woke every 2 hours and syringe fed his newborn expressed breastmilk for the first 3 weeks of his baby’s life. Every family is different and what works for one may not work for you but it doesn’t hurt to start the conversation, you may find it gives your partner more time to bond with the baby and a greater sense of personal responsibility for their care which will give them greater confidence handling the baby in the future.
Call in the troops
Shore up some helpers during the day. Don’t be frightened to ask for help, everyone loves babies and friends and family will flock to you if they think they can get some extended cuddle time. Leave the vacuum in the corner of the room, tell them you were going to get to it eventually and see if they take the hint! Asking for help doesn’t mean you are a bad mum, it just means you are normal and people will be so glad you asked. This is what people mean when they say it takes a village, humans weren’t designed to meet the needs of their new infant on their own, we are biologically primed to work as a team. Speaking to friends and family before the birth can be a great way of getting ‘team baby’ up and running smoothly. You can use a meal planning roster and organise helpers for an hour or two every other day. If you don’t have close friends or family near-by or if you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to them you can always schedule a meeting with a postnatal doula who can help support you through the early days.
Generally little babies sleep a lot, just not all at once and not always when you would like them to. There may be times when you just can’t get them to settle after a 2am feed, this is normal, you know it is but it still doesn’t stop you from freaking out when you realise its nearly 3.30 in the morning!
Sometimes we just have to accept that this is what our baby needs to do right now and no amount of shushing, rocking, bouncing or pacing is going to change that. If you can just be in the moment and not worry about how you may feel later or how much you wish you were asleep right now both you and baby will instantly feel calmer and better able to cope.
For the first six weeks of life your baby is still very much coming to terms with life on the ‘outside’. Moving from a life where food was constantly ‘on tap’ and there was very little if any variation in temperature, suddenly they find themselves experiencing things such as cold, light, quiet and stillness such as they have never felt before, it can be scary and even painful, you would cry too if this happened to you, in fact you probably did. You can’t spoil a newborn baby or teach them ‘bad habits’, this is just your baby learning how to deal with life earthside. One thing is for sure, they will get use to it and then they will change. Things will get better, then they will get worse and then something else will change again (and this is only the first four months!)
This week I have kept being reminded of how important it is to get your past in order before welcoming a new baby into your family.
It all started when I met with a birth doula friend of mine and she mentioned how common it was for women in her care to suddenly call out for their mum while giving birth. If there has been some unresolved issues in their past or present or their Mum is sadly no longer around it is all the more certain that this is going to happen. The Mongan method of Hypnobirthing also talks about the importance of unpacking our past and releasing hidden fears or issues before the birth as they can act as a block during the birthing processing even stalling labour. To me it seems like the importance of ‘unpacking’ and letting go is just as important for a successful and enjoyable postnatal period as a satisfying birth.
I have a friend who recently birthed her second baby, the labour was great and the baby is a dream, feeding well and even having the courtesy to nap when his older sister is napping. When I first visited Mum I was expecting to help her debrief from the birth and perhaps even discuss how her older child was coping but instead she felt like she needed to debrief about her experience of the early days with her older child. This baby had an undiagnosed tongue tie and some very serious latching issues which lead to a lot of pain and worry for Mum and a failure to thrive for baby. She ploughed through some very dark days before she was able to get the help she needed to have her daughter properly assessed and begin to work on their issues. The tongue tie was revised but the pain, worry and guilt were all still lurking unknown to her, deep down in her heart and it all came flooding back to her with this new birth. She wasn’t able to be proud of how great she was doing and how well her nursing relationship was going this time until she finally met again all the problems she had experienced before and heard the magic words she knew but perhaps didn’t really believe “this is not your fault, you are a great mum!”
In some cultures in South or Central America women preform a Closing Ceremony where mothers are ritually bathed and then ‘tucked –in’ with shawls and blankets which are wrapped around them over their head, chest and pelvis. It symbolises their body being ‘closed’ and marks the end of the pregnancy and birthing process. A woman can do this any time after the birth of her baby, even years later and still find that it can help them to ‘unpack’ their pregnancy and all the life changes which that can entail.
I really can see how valuable this could be, even in our modern society where this kind of ritual can look a bit silly. What we are really talking about is taking time out, stopping to reflect on where we have come from, meeting these feelings with an open and raw mind and then gently putting them down, not forgetting about them but releasing them and leaving our hands free to meet the challenges of our next great adventure.
Hello, my name is Celeste. I am a postnatal doula, a breastfeeding counselor and a mother.