Christine Sweeney, LICSW Program Manager, Parent Connection, BIDMC
MARCH 01, 2017
If I were a contestant on the game show The Family Feud, and the question came up, “name the number one question parents of a newborn are asked,” I’d hit the buzzer so fast. The number one question is, hands down, “is your baby sleeping through the night?”
No matter if your baby is two weeks old, two months old or whatever…this is the crazy-making question parents of newborns get all the time, and it’s a loaded one. If your answer is “yes, baby is sleeping through the night,” you win! You’re an awesome parent! If the truth is “no, baby is not sleeping,” cue buzzer, you are failing at this parenting gig. Hopefully, you learn quickly that whether your newborn is sleeping or not is no indication of your parenting prowess but simply a matter of luck. The reality is how well your baby does or does not sleep is directly correlated with how well you are sleeping, and that can be a real challenge.
Most of us can manage a night here or there of insomnia or disrupted sleep, but put together weeks of interrupted sleep, and it starts to take a toll. You don’t need to be a sleep expert to know that sleep impacts mood, mind functioning and general well- being. In the new moms groups I lead, we joke (but not really) that living with a newborn you suddenly have a very real understanding of how sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Not knowing what to expect can be brutal and especially difficult. Newborn sleep is not a linear process. You might have one really good night of four hours of continuous sleep, followed by a horrific night of hourly waking with no way to identify, and thus control, the cause.
The advice to sleep when the baby sleeps is well known, and yet, most moms report that as logical as it sounds, they find it just doesn’t work. So then the question: what does work? In the first 12 weeks of parenting, when newborn sleep is typically the most erratic and babies are too young to do any kind of “sleep training,” how do parents survive? To start, try and let go of finding any solution to fix the problem and instead shift to a mindset of how to manage a challenging time. This shift helps parents let go of a sense of failure or success around their newborns sleep and, instead, accept that this is a normal part of the newborn period. It takes a lot of pressure/stress off once we stop judging ourselves.
While many moms find it difficult to sleep when baby sleeps, you can certainly allow your body a chance to rest. That means that when your baby is sleeping, you are not rushing around doing laundry, emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom. It means that you lie down and put your feet up. Ideally it also means that the television is off, you are not checking emails or posting baby pictures on social media but, instead, are sitting and enjoying whatever precious moments of silence may come. You may learn to mediate or, if silence isn’t your thing, listen to some very calming music. When moms do this, they sometimes find that they’re eyes start to close, and they do drift off for a little while. It’s funny what can happen when moms actively make room for sleep!
One of the key components to this idea, however, is that there is someone to assist with all the things that need to get done when mom is making room for sleep. Ideally a partner, spouse, family member or network of friends is available to help with bathroom cleaning, grocery shopping and all the other daily living tasks that need to still happen. For some moms who find it hard to ask for help, or find it hard to let go of control, now is the time to learn. It doesn’t mean that it’s forever, only for a little while.
When moms leave our postpartum unit, they are given lots of information and written instruction about how to manage their physical recovery after delivery, yet we say either very little or nothing about how to protect sleep during a time when sleep is naturally and quite significantly disrupted. Couples would do well to be prepared to think about how they will cope and what strategies will work for them.