If you are mum who is struggling with the lack of sleep, or experiencing anxiety about how much your baby sleeps, then this blog post is for you! We will look at how babies sleep, what is normal sleep behaviour for an infant, and strategies for you to get some all important rest!
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Becoming a mother has been the most extraordinary experience of my life. Motherhood is an incredible love story, and like all epic love stories there are challenges in Act Two. Much bigger challenges than you have ever seen a Disney princess try to combat! And sleep deprivation really is the worst one.
Sleep Deprivation as a New Parent
The sleep deprivation as a new parent can be excruciating. And sadly, there is no magic wand. No magical solution that you can buy online with next day delivery (and if someone tries to offer you one, run for the hills!). The truth is that parents will always have to adjust themselves to their baby’s sleep cycles. That being said, there are ways to cope. And we can actually entirely avoid the suffering that comes from believing there is a problem with our parenting or our baby.
So let’s jump right in!
THIS BLOG POST IS AN INFORMATIVE, OPINION PIECE WITH SIGNPOSTING TO EVIDENCE BASED RESOURCES. I AM NOT A HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. IF YOU NEED MEDICAL ADVICE, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR HEALTH VISITOR OR FAMILY DOCTOR.
How do babies sleep?
First things first, do you really know how babies are supposed to sleep? I didn’t! My knowledge of babies was based on a bit of babysitting, short visits with friends and family, movies and TV shows. All of which give you the impression that it’s easy to put a baby down and get things done. WRONG.
The Fourth Trimester
Have you heard of the ‘fourth trimester’? If not, you need to get reading! This is the reason for your baby’s desperation to cling to you at all hours of the day and night! I will provide a short description below, but please learn more here.
When babies are born they are being evicted from their warm, safe, internal home. Suddenly they are being introduced to a loud, cold, scary world where their mother can actually leave them alone. This is terrifying. All your baby wants is to be close to you and feel safe. Physiologically your baby’s body isn’t ready to survive entirely on its own either.
Your baby’s body mirrors yours and still uses you to self regulate on the outside. They use this mother-baby synchronisation to regulate their breathing, temperature, blood pressure and more! This is why skin to skin contact is so important. This is also one of the reasons for advising parents to have their baby sleep in the same room as them, day and night, for at least the first 6 months of their life. It’s not just about external risks or being able to hear your baby, it’s also about the subconscious, physiological communication that happens between your two bodies. You are meant to be together.
And being with your baby means being woken by your baby. And vice versa!
The biology of infant sleep
So how do babies sleep?
Babies are not born with a circadian rhythm. This is the internal clock which tells us it is night time and time for sleep. Babies need time to adapt to life on the outside and to process the subtle changes in light throughout the day. This means they sleep whenever they feel like it and there may not be any discernible pattern to their sleep behaviour for several weeks or even months.
Babies also have much shorter sleep cycles than adults. It’s only around 45 minutes. That is half the length of an adult’s sleep cycle! And if they get disturbed in the middle of a cycle, before reaching a deeper level of sleep, then they may well wake up after only 20 minutes. Repeatedly.
Often parents try everything to prevent these disturbances, but they aren’t always in our power to prevent. It might be an internal disturbance due to your baby’s bodily functions or even their cognitive development.
An Inbuilt Defence Mechanism
The fact is that we SHOULDN’T be trying to keep our babies asleep for longer. Human babies have evolved over thousands of years and they behave the way they do for a reason. Waking frequently is an inbuilt defense mechanism which keeps them alive. It prevents your baby from sleeping too deeply and for too long which could, in fact, be fatal.
Babies also wake to feed multiple times throughout the night, which is important for their growth and also for their mother’s milk supply. Breastfeeding is a supply and demand system. The more milk baby removes from the breast, the more milk the breast produces. If the breast remains full for too long, the mother’s brain interprets this as the milk not being needed. It therefore signals to the breasts to slow down production.
This means trying to keep babies asleep for longer using dummies, swaddling, formula, early weaning, or any other ‘magic pills’ people might suggest to you, is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Many of these suggestions have originated from profit focused industries after they have identified an easy customer type (tired parents who want more sleep) and then tried to come up with a product to sell them. Sadly, trusting nature, breastfeeding, and simply cuddling your baby isn’t seen as a good solution because it doesn’t make anyone any money!
So where do I find the facts?
I know, I know! There is an absolute minefield of baby information for new parents to try and navigate. But the good news is that there are plenty of evidence based resources that you can access.
To learn more about infant sleep I would recommend you use the brilliant website ‘BASIS’ which stands for Baby and Sleep Information Source. There is also ‘The Gentle Sleep Book’ by Sarah Ockwell Smith which looks at normal infant sleep as well as gentle, coping strategies for tired parents. For breastfeeding mamas, I also loved ‘Boobin All Day Boobin All Night’ by Meg Nargle.
All of these resources discuss evidence based information which explain why it is perfectly normal for your baby to wake multiple times a night, to only want to sleep on you or beside you, and to want to breastfeed morning, noon and night! These resources are based on real babies. Not the convenient, fictional babies created for TV – who, by the way, only exist to make for a dramatic pregnancy story line, but then need to be asleep so that the actors can get on with being funny or romantic or exciting or whatever else might be in their new story line as a fictional parent. (No really, I’m not rolling my eyes, I swear…)
‘The Wonder Weeks’ book also talks you through when to expect more difficult periods with behaviour and sleep due to developmental leaps. These are the times when babies are making huge progress in physical and cognitive growth. Not only does their entire body grow and change massively every few weeks or months, but so does their understanding and perspective of the world. And I don’t know about you, but it seems reasonable to me that when our baby’s entire world starts to move, they cling on to the one person who makes them feel safe.
Why do I need to know this stuff?
Understanding infant sleep can definitely help us to feel less anxiety and instead we can feel more confident in our parenting skills. However, it doesn’t necessarily offer obvious solutions to our own sleep deprivation. This is where we need to start connecting with other mothers and thinking outside the box.
How do I cope?
So now that you are feeling reassured that your baby is normal and you are doing a great job as a parent, let’s figure out how you are going to cope with the next 12 months (or longer) of sub-optimal sleep.
What can I do RIGHT NOW?
The priority right now is to figure out the ways in which you can get some rest. Are there times when you have someone else around who can take baby for a walk or just downstairs so you can have a nap? Can you lighten your day-to-day load so that you aren’t rushing around or trying to do housework?
Remember that even if you can’t get a nap today, resting is important too. So set out some toys, or the play mat, on the floor and lie down on the couch to supervise. Let yourself really relax. This minimises the amount of energy your body is using, lowers your stress levels and will hopefully help your mind to feel a little clearer. I actually used to put a couch cushion on the floor and use it as a pillow while lying down next to my baby reading stories!
What can I plan to do going forward?
Now that you’ve had a rest, you will have some brain space to think about ways to optimise your sleep in the future. Let’s think about what babies want: YOU and MILK. How can we give them both of those things for the longest period of time? I have listed several ideas below.
But remember this is your life and you need to build routines that suit you. So get a piece of paper and brainstorm all of the potentially sleep saving ideas you could try! If you are really too tired for thinking, I have even made you these printable templates so all you have to do is pick ideas from the list below.
Super Sleep Saver Strategies
When considering how best to feed your baby, you may not have thought to include sleep as one of the influencing factors. There are a vast number of benefits to breastfeeding and one them is sleep! You don’t even have to lift your head off of the pillow to breastfeed your baby back to sleep – just flop a boob out! Once your baby is a bit older, they may well just help themselves. That definitely beats turning on the lights, heading downstairs and trying to read the instructions on a tin of formula, while also boiling a kettle, assembling bottles and trying to soothe an impatient baby!
“Sleep when your baby sleeps” is age old advice. But most of us first time mums are guilty of ignoring it. Who will do the housework? When will i make a proper meal? What if I don’t get any time with my partner? All of these supposedly important jobs nag at us and turn our heads away from sleep. But the truth is, none of it matters! This is a season of life. Seasons change. Eventually your baby won’t need you so much and you will be able to clean, cook, and Netflix and chill until your heart is content. But just for now, go to bed early. Nap during the day. And turn down the volume on your inner to do list.
Babies generally don’t like cots. Basically, babies don’t like anything that isn’t you. If you find that you are spending hours every night sitting upright, fighting sleep and repeatedly trying to get your baby to sleep in their own bed, you may want to rethink the night-time setup.
Bedsharing is one of the best ways to optimise your sleep. Baby can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste you, when you lie next to them. Breastfeeding mothers have also been shown to sleep in a protective, curled up position around their baby which keeps them safe.
Bedsharing is the norm around the world. It is relatively recent in Western culture that babies started to sleep separately and again this can probably be linked to companies profiting from cot sales. As long as you follow safe sleep guidelines, and your baby doesn’t have any serious health considerations (such as being premature), then bedsharing is an option worth seriously considering.
There are a lot of ‘sleep solutions’ being marketed out there. The truth is all your baby really needs to sleep is you. However, I have listed below a few pieces of equipment that you might find make life a bit easier.
After buying five beds (yes, really!), our family finally found the one that works for us. And it is a single sized floor bed. You can easily make a floor bed by putting your mattress on the floor. That is exactly what we did for a while. But there wasn’t much room in our double bed for both adults and baby to sleep comfortably. So in the end we went for a single bed for both me and Joseph to sleep on in his room. This way Daddy could sleep in the double bed undisturbed and get up for work in the morning without waking us up.
The floor bed we have is a full adult single so it is a good size for me and Joseph just now, aswell as being a long term investment that Joseph can grow into. It has a wooden bed frame shaped like a house and a normal mattress. Perfect!
Side Car Crib
If bedsharing isn’t for you, or has to be ruled out for safety reasons, then the Side Car Crib is the next best thing. This is a cot which fastens onto the side of your bed. It creates a separate sleep space for your baby while keeping them close enough to see and hear you. The Chicco ‘Next-to-Me’ was the bed we used most prior to the floor bed. It is really spacious and will last until at least 6 months old.
It is helpful to consider the lighting in your bedroom if you and baby are struggling to sleep. Bright, white or blue light is unhelpful and will trigger your brain to wake up. Mobile phones and other devices can have the same effect so it is important to use an app which will filter the blue light for you such as this one.
I would say to remove all devices from the bedroom but I know this isn’t always realistic, especially for new mums. Try using low wattage or red light bulbs in your lamps or ceiling light if you need something to change nappies by. A blackout blind may also be a useful investment.
Take a bit of time to consider your comfort during the night. Do you start off hot and end up cold? Could you put socks and a jumper within easy reach for later in the night? If you experience chills due to lifting your top to feed, try wearing a stretchy vest top underneath so you can do ‘one up, one down’.
Some mothers prefer to keep a bra on for support at night and to keep nursing pads in place. You may also want to consider a onesie or something else cosy but easily accessible for feeding during colder months.
My baby was born in the early Summer and boy, do those breastfeeding mama night sweats make summer evenings unbearable! You may want to invest in a fan for the room and an ice filled water bottle!
Hot water bottle
Speaking of water bottles, if you are a Winter mama you may want to invest in the other kind! This can be a great way to keep yourself cosy without a duvet. It may also be a sneaky way of warming a side car crib before attempting to transfer your baby into it. Always remove the water bottle first though!
There are many suggestions out there for ‘comfort’ objects. As I’ve been drumming into you throughout this post, all baby really wants is you! So try to use something you can easily get your scent on. For instance, sleep with a sheet for the side car crib over a few nights. Then make up baby’s bed with it. There are also some soft, cloth toys that are often used for premature babies which are easy to pop in your bra or down your top for a while to pick up your smell. Another popular option is the baby octopus. The tentacles are meant to be reminiscent of the umbilical cord.
Routine is something most people like to have. It helps us feel safe as we can predict what is going to happen next. The important thing to make clear is that it should be a ‘routine’ and not a ‘schedule’. A routine means that you generally do a family meal, followed by bath, pyjamas, story and then breastfeed to sleep. A schedule would be expecting the bath to happen at 7pm on the dot every night.
Routines give us a bit of familiarity and structure. Whereas schedules tend to make us feel stressed. Having your routine will help both you and baby feel relaxed in the evenings. You can spend time focusing on one another and enjoying making memories that will last a lifetime.
A routine will also build up sleep associations with certain activities, objects and clothing that will help your baby understand the world as they get older. It also helps by distancing bed time from screen time.
Please remember that this is something you will probably do naturally anyway. And if there are evenings when everything is getting out of hand, then just skip the bath and get a takeaway. You can always pop baby in their jammies and let them fall asleep on you in the living room. It is not the end of the world! Just normal, adaptable parenting. The most important thing is for you to avoid any unnecessary stress.
Remember to look after YOU
Parenting is hard work and the early years are full of physical struggles as well as the emotional and practical challenges other periods of childhood offer. It’s important to prioritise yourself and ensure you are making time to care for you! Just as you care for the rest of your family. Remember that your partner and children love you and need you. And I’m pretty sure they would rather you sacked off the hoovering in favour of a bubble bath once in a while!
Here Are a few self care ideas:
Make a plan with your partner, friend, sister, or even mother in law, to schedule in ‘nap time.’ And no I don’t mean for the baby. YOU need to get some sleep! So book an appointment (every week if you can) when someone else will come in and sit with your baby in the living room, while you get back into bed. Even just half an hour can make a huge difference to your wellbeing.
If you are like me, and struggle to sleep if you can hear your baby, then it may be best to allow someone you trust to take the baby out for a walk. My husband was able to do this at the weekends or on Summer evenings. I know that as new mums we can often feel heightened anxiety, so if you really can’t sleep run yourself a bubble bath instead. Resting is just as important whether you are asleep or not! Do not use this time for housework. I have been there and done that, so please believe me when I say it’s just not worth it!
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that has come into fashion in Western culture over recent years. It is linked to Buddhism and meditation practices. The main aim is to allow you to be present in the moment. To recognise that thoughts are temporary and fleeting. It is an opportunity to take a break from our busy minds and tune into our bodies. Mindfulness has been shown to improve your wellbeing and lower stress levels. Here is a two minute exercise for you try:
Sit comfortably in an upright position. Close your eyes and take deep breaths. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on the breath. In. And out. You may notice thoughts coming into your mind. Acknowledge them, accept they are there and let them pass. Thoughts are like clouds in the sky. Feel your awareness at the back of your mind watching the thoughts float past. Feel your breath entering and leaving your body. Keep doing this for 2 minutes.
Moving our bodies is important for our wellbeing. This is something we are all used to hearing. But as new mums, we need to do this gently and joyfully. Take your time, allowing your body to recover. Walking is one of the best ways to exercise as it gets us out in the fresh air and is easy on our body.
If you are struggling with aches and pains, please consider seeing a women’s physiotherapist. Prices vary from region to region, but I was able to make huge progress in my recovery with just one £40 private appointment. Consider asking for this as a birthday present or Christmas present if you don’t feel you can afford it right now. Caring for your body, and moving it in a way that makes you feel good, is important for your overall health. Exercising for just 30 minutes a day, will lower your stress levels and help you to sleep better too.
Dehydration can make us feel awful – tired, sluggish, headaches, low mood, too hot etc. Make sure you have a water bottle and regularly top it up. Set a reminder on your phone to drink some water if you need to. Breastfeeding may also make you feel incredibly thirsty in the early days, so having water by your bed will be a life saver.
If you need more ideas on how to fit self care into your day as a parent, then read my blog post Savvy Self Care for Motherhood.
Are you coping?
I hope this blog post helps you to cope with parenting and the lack of sleep a little better. Motherhood is hard and it can take a while for our brains to adjust. If you are struggling with low moods, negative thoughts that won’t go away, anxiety or feeling that you are just not yourself, then please contact your GP straight away. If you feel nervous or unsure about talking to the doctor, then please have a chat with a trusted friend or call one of the many helplines that are available in the UK. Such as MIND, the Samaritans, the crying baby helpline CRY-SIS or the National Breastfeeding Helpline.
Need more resources on infant sleep?
If you have loved learning more about your baby’s sleep behaviour, then check out these resources below!