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When you bring your baby home, you might be aware of the fact that a newborn does not operate on your schedule—or any schedule—at first. In the early weeks and months, babies continue to operate with the same biological rhythm they had in utero, waking every few hours. They’re still adjusting to life without being suspended and jostled about.
“In utero, your baby had the sounds of a heartbeat and breathing and blood rushing,” says Macall Gordon, a certified pediatric sleep consultant. “There’s a bit of a mismatch between the newborn’s world that they’ve been used to and the reality of daytime/nighttime and firm, flat, unmoving surfaces to sleep on. It’s a bit of a shock to both baby and parents, and it can take time for everyone to get in sync.”
The first step to night parenting is acknowledging that parenting a newborn involves some level of around-the-clock tending: Your nighttime sleep will undergo a (temporary) shift.
Because you and your support person, if you have one, will be exhausted and in need of your own shut-eye, a certain amount of setup, adaptability, and strategizing can help ensure that you’re maximizing your own sleep quality and getting the support you need.
“There's night parenting and day parenting—and they're an equal number of hours, and they're both hard,” says Dr. Laurie Jones, a pediatrician and founder of Dr. MILK (Mothers Interested in Lactation Knowledge). “Planning night-parenting roles means dividing up the work. While the majority of the load might initially fall on the mother or lactating parent, it’s important to recognize that there are other duties that can be offloaded.”
If you like having a magic sleep number to work toward, consider that four- to six-hour chunk of sleep your target. After a solid sleep session, you are likely to be able to stave off serious fatigue and mood disorders, Gordon says. This chunk of sleep is like that oxygen mask they tell you to put on yourself before you try to help anyone else—do whatever you can do to get each partner a chunk of sleep.
Consider how you can shift your mind-set to better approach all that might happen at night with your newborn. Anticipate and accept that your sleep will be different than it used to be. You might find it extremely challenging, or you might find that you cherish the undistracted time you have with your baby. (Or maybe you experience a little bit of both.)
Regardless of the level of challenge this phase brings, it’s helpful to remember that it will not last forever—it’s just your new reality for the next several weeks or months, and it doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. Knowing that your nighttime hours will involve some level of feeding, diapering, and soothing your baby can help you adjust—and getting help from a partner or a nighttime supporter such as a postpartum doula can help relieve more pressure.
Just as you set up certain stations around your home to help you feed and change your baby during the daytime, setting up your nighttime station(s) can make for more efficient waking sessions. (And if you’re splitting the night, try to set up an ideal sleep space in a separate room for when it’s your turn to get that uninterrupted chunk of sleep.)
Many parents of newborns rely on bassinets, which are designed to stand at bed level within an arm’s reach to minimize your own movement and sleep disruption during nighttime wakings.
Consider keeping a few items easily accessible for night parenting, including:
a sound machine and eye mask
diapers, wipes, a diaper pail, and extra baby clothes, just in case
a large bottle or glass of water, especially if you’re breastfeeding
a portable freezer, bottles, bottle warmer, and pump, if you use one at night
Related Reading: Baby-Soothing Strategies
While having good sleep hygiene is helpful for anyone at any age, it’s especially helpful for parents of newborns. While parenting requires flexibility, striving for a consistent nighttime routine is key. Even if your baby doesn’t go to sleep right away, a nighttime ritual can help the whole family wind down.
Try to avoid consuming any caffeine or heavy meals late in the day that might make it harder to fall asleep. Get your bedroom as dark and quiet as you can. Turn off all screens within a couple hours of when you’d like to sleep—or, at the very least, lower the level of blue light on any screens you use, and avoid stimulating activities.
"Have true out-of-office rules,” Dr. Jones advises. “Just because you’re night parenting does not mean you should [engage with] your paid work or schooling during those hours. It will be tempting, but set firm boundaries to protect your mental health. It’s hard to get back to sleep when your mind is trying to be alert for work apps or email, or your cortisol/stress hormones kick in from reading something related to a deadline."
While co-sleeping can be dangerous, close sleeping—where your baby is positioned safely on a firm, flat surface within arm’s reach—has many benefits, including promoting breastfeeding at night4. (Breastfeeding stimulates oxytocin, which not only promotes calmness and bonding with your baby, but can help you get back to sleep5.) In this video, Dr. Jones explains how to safely close-sleep.
When you're sleep-deprived, you still need to be able to function during the day, regardless of whether you’re focusing on nurturing your baby or reporting to your boss. The best way to manage the household tasks is to share or delegate, says Chris Raines, a perinatal psychiatric nurse practitioner.
“Asking for help can be hard. However, no one is expected to do two full-time jobs,” Raines says. “Splitting the increasing duties after the baby arrives can lighten the load for everyone.”
If you have a partner or support person who can help you manage the 24-hour challenges, splitting the night is one way to get better sleep. In practical terms, this means one person goes on baby duty for the first half of the night, and the other takes over for the second.
The goal is for each of you to get at least a four-hour block of time to be “off-duty”—six hours is ideal1, but it might not be realistic. The dedicated sleep shift enables you to settle into deep sleep so your body can repair and regenerate tissues while strengthening your immune system2. Sleeping or even resting helps you restore and build resilience.
Splitting the night with another caregiver can be important, if trickier to set up, for those without partners as well. “Even with single parents, it is important for babies to understand that there's more than one person in their lives,” Raines says.
While there may be as many ways to split the night as there are households, it can be helpful to sleep in a separate, quiet space during your “off-duty” time if you’re a light sleeper. And splitting the night doesn’t necessarily work, even when there are two willing partners. If, say, your newborn refuses to take a bottle, or your partner has to work night shifts, getting a longer block of sleep might have to wait until your baby is able to sleep that long.
In the first three months, one of the few things you can count on is that your baby will have needs throughout the night. Night wakings are a biological imperative for newborns and a normal part of the 24-hour parenting cycle.
“Up until about 8 to 12 weeks, a baby distributes their sleep across all 24 hours, rather than sleeping more at night than during the day,” Gordon says. “Most parents find that their baby has some periods of wakefulness at night, when they seem ready to party, and times of the day when they are out like a light. This has to do with the still-developing pineal regulation of circadian rhythms.”
In short, your efforts will likely have less of an impact on your baby’s sleep during those first few months than you might think. Gordon says it’s more dependent on your little one’s stage of development, from the digestive system to the brain. There’s also only so much volume a baby’s tiny stomach can take in one feeding.
“It’s important not to set the bar unnaturally high for either the baby or yourself,” Gordon says. “Everyone needs some time—and grace—to gradually figure things out.”
Related Reading: Help Your Baby Through Night Wakings
Rest assured that the fourth trimester is just a snapshot in time. Both you and your baby will fall into a more predictable routine. Not only is your baby developing, but you’ll also lean into your own intuition, recognizing your baby’s needs and becoming more efficient at addressing them.
Navigating the world as a new mama is overwhelming. That's why the Willow blog gives new parents advice and insights from the experts. Check out more articles (like Preparing for your 2- and 6-Week Postpartum Visits) for resources on how to handle the transition. You can do this!
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