How to Find Time to Sleep after Your Baby Is Born

Even new parents need to sleep. Learn the high cost of sleep deprivation and how you can minimize your sleep debt.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

If you’re a new parent, you don’t need a scientific study to tell you that you’re sleep deprived. You live that reality every day with a short temper, an even shorter memory, and a general inability to concentrate on anything for very long. Mostly, you drift zombie-like through your days from one feeding and diaper change to another until baby’s next naptime when you might try to catch some Zzzs. But just how long will you have to survive on just a few hours of fragmented sleep? Sorry, you’re not going to like this:

A new study published in the journal Sleep found that it may take as long as four to six years after the birth of your first baby to reclaim your pre-pregnancy sleep satisfaction.

The study also found that both parents endured the worst sleep at three months after birth, with mothers bearing the brunt of the deprivation. At three months, mothers lost an average of just over an hour of sleep each night compared to their pre-pregnancy sleep schedule. Over the course of that first year, mothers gained back just 20 minutes over their sleep at the sanity-defying three-month mark. Fathers fared markedly better, losing only 13 minutes of sleep even in the dark days of three months out.

But don’t blame your baby. Newborns just haven’t gotten with the program yet. According to Richard Ferber, director of Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston, babies’ circadian rhythms are not synchronized to those of adults. They’re not capable of sleeping for eight hours at a stretch. They fall asleep and wake up in three to four-hour cycles throughout the night and early morning hours.

Your baby’s tummy is about the size of a marble, so they need to eat every two or three hours. Then, of course, they need to pee and poop all that they’re eating, which means frequent diaper changes. Colic, gas, teething pain are just a few of the myriad reasons why your baby doesn’t sleep the way you do (or the way you used to). And because it will take some time for your baby to learn sustainable and healthy sleep habits, you’ll need to be awake to teach them. 

Lost Sleep Takes a Big Toll

You might think that losing 40 to 60 minutes of sleep per night is not that big a deal, and you should just try to push through the fatigue. If you feel like you could fall asleep while checking in at yet another well-baby visit to the doctor, you’re not being lazy. Your fatigue is real.

One study that appears in Sleep concluded that the effects of sleeping six hours per night over the course of just two weeks were equivalent to the effects of being awake for 24 to 48 hours straight. Yes, there’s a reason why being a new parent reminds you of your college days – and it’s not the social life.

Furthermore, those six hours of sleep you might be getting are likely fragmented beyond recognition. In between nighttime feedings and diaper changes, you may never reach the deep sleep stages and REM sleep when physical restoration, repair, and memory consolidation occur. And if you do sleep through complete sleep cycles, including deep and REM sleep, it is likely too few to be healthy. Most adults need four or five complete sleep cycles to feel refreshed and restored in the morning. So even if your sleep total is only an hour less than your normal schedule, you’re gonna feel the effects of sleep fragmentation the next day.

The High Cost of Your Sleep Debt

Long before I began researching sleep issues for Mattress Advisor and even before I had children, I thought that losing sleep was just an inconvenience, sort of like an itchy mosquito bite. Yeah, it doesn’t feel good, but it won’t kill you, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Wrong.

Sleep deprivation affects every system in your body. The long- and short-term effects of sleep deprivation and interrupted sleep include

  • Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease that could lead to heart attack and stroke
  • Impaired balance and memory (much like being drunk) that make everyday tasks difficult and put you (and your baby) at risk for falls
  • Weakened immune system leaving you susceptible to illness
  • Impaired hormone production that can affect growth, weight gain, and libido
  • Lack of attention and focus making the risk of auto accidents very real
  • Moodiness that can escalate to anxiety and depression

Yep, prioritizing sleep after the birth of your baby is important and requires a plan because the odds of sleeping well naturally are stacked against you. This plan calls for creative thinking, a cooperative support network, and perhaps extreme measures to make sure you and your partner are getting the sleep you need.

Tips for Getting the Sleep You Need

Sleep when baby sleeps.

Even though newborns sleep about 17 hours per 24 hour period, they rarely sleep more than four hours at a time. The good news is that several times during the day you may have the opportunity to rest if you let yourself. Resist the urge to catch up on laundry, kitchen clean-up, or paying bills. Sleep must take precedence over all other non-baby tasks. Even a 20 to 30 minutes nap can take the edge off your fatigue and refresh you for the next few hours until you can rest again. That may not seem like a long time, but sleep experts advise sleepy people, parents and others, to nap for no longer than 45 minutes to avoid sleep inertia that can make you feel groggy and sluggish for a long time after you awaken.

Lighten up on your household chores.

Your life now is about survival for you and your baby and that includes a high priority on sleep. Dishes in the sink, dusty furniture, and unmade beds can wait until you have the energy to get to them, and even then, dust? Really? No one will judge you on the cleanliness of your house, and if they do, you might invite them to help you clean up.

Accept help from family and friends.

If they don’t know how they can help, suggest the following:

  • Cook a meal. Donate a casserole (or two or three) that can be reheated when dinner time rolls around and there hasn’t been a chance to go to the grocery store or cook. Or come to new parents’ home armed with groceries, cook a meal, then clean up. Huge!
  • Lighten the load. Take older siblings to school or activities to avoid having to pack up baby and go out or to give you a chance to sleep when baby sleeps.
  • Wash, dry, and fold laundry. This tends to pile up quickly when there is a baby in the house. Babies sometimes will wear two or three outfits in a day, so that hamper can be full more often than not. Towels and wash cloths should be kept clean and free from illness-causing bacteria, especially when baby’s immune system is immature. Yes, laundry is a big thing.
  • Hold the baby while you shower and dress. You might feel a little awkward asking your friends to come over to simply hold the baby, but…
    • Friends and family would love to hold your little bundle of joy
    • You’re only imposing on them for a short period of time
    • Girl, you need a shower
  • Do a grocery run. You make the list then let your friends do the leg work. Bonus points if they stick around to help you unload bags and stock your pantry and fridge. Or use your store’s online ordering service. This may require some planning on your part and may seem like more trouble than it’s worth, especially if you’re not in the habit of shopping from a list. Trust me; the time you spend planning will reap large dividends later in the week.

Start with a detailed menu that covers each meal. As you plan each meal, add the ingredients to your list. Yes, it will take some time to prepare a menu and list but look what you’ll gain:

  • Because your menu is detailed, and you’ve composed it while making your grocery list, you are less likely to forget an item you need for a meal. Nothing can derail your carefully planned mealtime schedule than an unplanned emergency grocery run.
  • You don’t have to drag your sleep-deprived, still recovering body around the grocery store hoping that the baby doesn’t decide it’s mealtime while you’re shopping.
  • Each meal is already planned, and you should have all the ingredients as mealtime approaches. This is an enormous benefit when dinner time rolls around and you haven’t yet showered, you’re exhausted, and the baby is crying. Who can think about planning a meal?! You still have to cook it, but at least the preliminaries are done.

Help baby learn how to sleep.

If baby sleeps well, parents will sleep well (or at least better). There are many methods for getting baby to sleep out there, but sleepy parents need to find ones that meet their baby’s needs and suit their lifestyle and personal philosophy about child care. Here are four tried and true methods for teaching your baby to sleep shared by new moms who found ways to get the sleep they and their babies needed even in the early days.

Share the load.

This is especially easy to negotiate if both parents work outside the home, But, even stay-at-home parents need sleep. The work of taking care of a new baby (and even older children) is both physically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding. A careless moment of inattention could lead to disaster, and even meeting baby’s normal daily needs requires relentless activity and emotional stability. Yes, parents whose primary job is to take care of children work just as hard if not harder than their partners who work outside the home. So, sharing the nighttime feedings and diaper changes just makes sense (and may help to smooth the path to Baby #2 ‘cause if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.)

Keep baby close.

Especially for nursing moms, a bassinet that attaches to your bed or sits next to it makes nighttime feedings just a seamless part of your night

Minimize disturbances.

Keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark. You never know when your baby will need you in the night, so while you are in bed, you want to be sleeping and sleeping well.

  • Keep it cool. The ideal temperature for sleeping is an astonishing 65 to 68 degrees. Snuggle beneath the covers but keep the air temperature cool.
  • Turn down the baby monitor. While you want to be awakened if your baby really needs you, you don’t want to be disturbed every time they stir or whimper in their dreams. Keep the volume low enough to ignore rustling noises but loud enough to wake you if baby cries. (This may take a few nights of experimentation.)
  • Block the light. You may think you can sleep with the light on or not be disturbed by the ambient light outside, but even a dim light can affect your circadian rhythm and suppress the melatonin secretion that signals to your brain that it’s time to power down. Blackout blinds are great, but sleep masks are cheaper and easier to install.
  • Activate the Do Not Disturb function on your cell phone. If you haven’t done this already, now is the time to do it. Your friends know you have a new baby and need all the sleep you can get. News alerts, phone calls, and text messages can wait until morning. Believe me, it will be here soon enough!

Babies don’t stay infants for long and children grow up quickly. Your sleepless nights will not go on forever, present evidence to the contrary. In fact, your baby could begin sleeping through the night (which sleep experts define as five hours straight) as early as three months old. More often, by six months, many babies will allow you undisturbed rest for as much as nine to twelve hours a night.

Work hard to think about taking one day (or six-hour period) at a time. If you think about how you will manage feeling this way for days, weeks, and months on end, you will become overwhelmed. You just have to get through today. Tomorrow you can tackle tomorrow. And you never know when your baby will be able to sleep through the night just as you don’t know when they will get a cold, be bothered by teething pains, or have an upset tummy. It’s all part of the wild ride of parenting.


If you’re expecting your first child, have already been broken in by your first, or are simply struggling with sleep issues, read Mattress Advisor’s exhaustive guide to sleep from infancy through the teenage years. And if you have more questions about sleeping after the birth of a child, drop us a line (not during nap time). We’ll do our best to find you an answer.


Sources
  • Sleep: academic.oup.com/sleep/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/sleep/zsz015/5289255?redirectedFrom=fulltext
  • Parents: parents.com/baby/sleep/issues/our-baby-wont-sleep/
  • National Institutes of Health: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12683469
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
  • Healthline: healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body#5
  • Sleep Review: sleepreviewmag.com/2000/09/circadian-rhythms-in-infants/
  • The Guardian: com/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/27/napping-guide-health-wellbeing
  • VeryWell Health: verywellhealth.com/how-does-sleep-inertia-make-it-hard-to-wake-up-3014826
  • The Sleep Doctor: thesleepdoctor.com/2018/04/01/chilipad/
  • National Sleep Foundation: sleepfoundation.org/articles/melatonin-and-sleep
  • Bed, Bath, & Beyond: https://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/store/product/dream-zone-trade-sleep-mask/1012375425?poc=1010654335
  • Today’s Parent: todaysparent.com/baby/baby-sleep/how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep-through-the-night/
  • Parents: parents.com/baby/sleep/schedule/when-do-babies-sleep-through-the-night/

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