Once you have a newborn, there’s one question that people will ask over and over again – ‘how are they sleeping?’ Like it is some sort of measurement as to whether you have a ‘good’ baby or not (some will just straight up ask ‘are they a good baby’ – yes Karen, they’re a baby, all babies are good).
There is a societal expectation that babies are meant to sleep through the night, and if they don’t it’s abnormal and therefore sleep deprivation with a newborn is unacceptable.
There are so many factors that contribute to sleep deprivation with a newborn, it’s not just whether your little bundle is sleeping for long stretches or not. You’ve just recovered from growing and birthing a human, your hormones are all over the place, your body feels foreign and is working hard to recover, let alone the anxiety that can come with a newborn too.
But the one thing people focus on over and over again is whether or not your baby is sleeping through the night. I know, I did it too. After my son came home from NICU, he wouldn’t sleep for any longer than an hour at a time. He would wake to any small noise, would struggle to get back to sleep and wouldn’t even sleep for longer stretches if I was holding him.
This went on for so long. And I tried everything. Every bit of advice that was thrown my way, I took it. You name it, I tried it. And guess what? None of it worked. I was still sleep-deprived and I didn’t feel like I was coping. Until I figured out this one thing.
And after figuring it out at about the one year mark with my son, I applied this one thing very early with my daughter and sleep deprivation with a newborn didn’t really bother me too much. I was able to cope so much better.
You wouldn’t think such a simple thing could make such a difference but it did. The one thing I figured out and applied was this:
I stopped expecting my baby to sleep through the night.
It was that simple. Heck I was a grown woman and I couldn’t sleep through the night, why was I expecting my baby to?
As soon as I let go of the expectation that my baby was supposed to be sleeping through the night, my entire mindset changed. Instead of being frustrated and annoyed when he woke, I accepted that I was responding to my baby’s needs. And then I started to learn more about the neurodevelopment of babies and it’s no wonder they don’t sleep through.
Why Is It Expected That Babies Sleep Through The Night?
Did you know that the whole ‘sleeping through the night’ expectation is so far off what should be expected of a baby? A Canadian study found that by 1 year of age, only 57% of babies were considered to be ‘sleeping through’ and for the purpose of this study, sleeping through was considered to be a stretch of 6 or more hours.
Imagine if this was a common understanding, how different our expectations around newborn and infant sleep would be. And if we adjust our expectations, we aren’t as disappointed and we don’t’ feel like we are doing something wrong.
Another study also found that there was no link between the sleep hours of a baby and the mood of the mother. Therefore, if a baby was sleeping less, the mother was able to adapt and cope just as well as a mother with a baby who slept more.
This shows that it’s not actually the sleep deprivation itself that is making us struggle with our baby’s not ‘sleeping through’, it’s the disappointment and feelings of failure because we believe societal expectations that they should be.
There is often the argument that babies need the sleep, that it is imperative for them to learn to sleep through or to ‘self soothe’. A study showed that there was no difference in neurodevelopment in babies that slept through the night versus those who had frequent waking, as long as the number of hours of sleep needed was being met.
Night waking is biologically normal for a baby and it is believed that night wakings may also protect your baby from SIDS. Again, it is only a societal belief that babies should be sleeping through the night.
Practical Tips To Help You Get More Sleep With A Newborn:
So, now knowing that it’s okay for your baby to not be sleeping through and to be waking through the night, and that it is biologically normal for them to wake, how to you ensure that you, as a mother, are getting enough sleep? Here are a few ways you can do that:
1 – Breastfeed
Contrary to social belief, giving your baby formula will not actually help them sleep longer at night.
Studies show that mothers of breastfed babies get, on average, an extra 40 – 45 minutes sleep each night. Which might not sound like much to the Average Joe, but to a sleep deprived Mama, 40 more minutes of sleep is huge. While formula feeding has been linked to deeper sleep, this reduction in the ability for a baby to wake as biologically needed could be a reason why the risk of SIDS is considerably higher with formula fed babies.
If you’re concerned you’re not producing enough milk or that your baby isn’t feeding adequately and that is the reason for their frequent night wakings, see an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who can help you determine how much your baby is feeding (remember, what you can pump of your breastmilk is NOT an accurate representation of what your baby gets when feeding from you).
2 – Express and Get Dad To Do One Feed
A lot of the time Dads want to help, but with their lack of lactating breasts (useless nipples) they can be left feeling like they can’t do much at all. However, you can express milk for one feed for your baby and get Dad to do that feed while you keep sleeping.
Some Mamas will get Dad to do either the first overnight feed, or the first morning feed to allow them that little bit extra stretch of sleep.
If you are going to do this, if you can express milk at night and feed that milk, it would be best. Your nighttime milk contains higher levels of melatonin which helps your baby sleep.
3 – Sleep When The Baby Sleeps
I thought this was all just nonsense and that sleeping when the baby sleeps was just not possible. That was because I expected so much of myself and felt I needed to be doing one of the million or so tasks waiting for me when my baby was sleeping.
However, you’re going to function much better and much more efficiently if you’re well-rested. So, sleep when the baby sleeps. Even if it is just half an hour or so. Every bit counts.
4 – Adjust Your Sleep Routine
Are you the kind of person who goes to bed only to spend an hour or so scrolling Facebook or Instagram (hands up… I know I do). Not only does the light from your phone affect your natural circadian rhythm, you’re missing out on valuable sleep time.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t take some time to catch up, many people find reading or scrolling to be relaxing and to help them manage their adjustments to motherhood. However, if you’re feeling sleep deprived then all the benefits you get from relaxing by scrolling on social or reading, you will get tenfold from sleeping. Check your sleep routine and adjust as needed.
5 – Look At Your Own Sleep Times
I know, I know… those few hours after the kids have gone to sleep are absolute golden. The quiet time, the time when you get to chat with your husband or binge watch Netflix without disruption or whatever it is you do… trust me, I know that time is amazing.
BUT… if you’re in that major sleep-deprived mode, then getting extra sleep is very important, so you might need to adjust your own sleep times. Instead of going to bed at 11pm you might need to be in bed by 8pm for a while. The extra sleep will make the world of difference.
Join our supportive Facebook Group – The Empowered Mama Project – filled with Mamas from all over the world supporting each other through all aspects of motherhood.
Practical Tips To Help You Cope With Sleep Deprivation With A Newborn
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, sleep just doesn’t happen. So, in this time, there are ways to help you cope with sleep deprivation and these are some of them.
1 – Nourish Your Body
While sleep helps replenish, you need to be nourishing your body with good, wholesome foods in the meantime. It’s all to easy to go for the quick fix energy foods, the high sugar, high carb hit, but this spike in energy will only cause a bigger crash after the sugar hit has worn off, leaving you either craving more or feeling worse than you began with.
Avoid overly processed foods and eat simple, nourishing foods. A rotisserie chicken and a prepackaged salad is a far better option than a burger through drive-thru.
2 – Indulge In Coffee
Don’t feel like you have to give up your morning caffeine kick just because you’re breastfeeding. The body is amazing at filtering things out before passing into your breastmilk, and small amounts of caffeine may be perfectly fine for you.
You do, however, need to pay attention to whether or not this does affect your baby. Some babies are more sensitive than others, the only way you’ll know is by testing and paying attention to any changes.
3 – Remind Yourself – This Won’t Last Forever
You won’t be sleep deprived forever. Seriously. Like everything in motherhood, it is a phase and it will pass. You might find affirmations like these can help you through the hard times too, my favourite is literally the one that says ‘you won’t be sleep deprived forever’. I often save it as my screensaver on my phone to remind myself that this will pass.
4 – Understand Why Your Baby Isn’t Sleeping
Understanding why your baby isn’t sleeping can be a game-changer when it comes to coping with lack of sleep. A sudden change in sleep behaviour may be representing a developmental leap and you might even notice these changes (like rolling over, babbling, grabbing for items, talking, crawling etc) after a particularly rough sleep period.
Download the Wonder Weeks App and read the book, it will help you understand these leaps in neurodevelopment so much more.
5 – Get Out Of The House
While it may feel like the last thing you want to do when you’re tired to the bone, getting out of the house can help improve your mood considerably. Go for a walk, spend some time in the sun, catch up at a local cafe with friends (coffee, cake and someone to hold the baby… winning) or do whatever it is that makes you happy.
While sleep is important, it isn’t the only way to fill our cup and rejuvenate ourselves. Work out what makes you feel good and energised and then do that as much as you can.
Above all, Mama, be kind to yourself. It’s okay to admit that it’s hard and it’s okay to ask for help. You are most certainly not alone.