Let's be honest, most parents are juggling never-ending to-do lists with less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. It is commonly reported that new parents experience sleep disturbance, with recent research indicating that both mothers and fathers exhibit impaired sleep quality, high sleepiness and poor neurobehavioral performance during the early postpartum period. Having survived these early days of parenthood myself, I am familiar with the paradoxical feeling of overwhelming joy combined with immense worry, stress and lack of sleep. Finding a balance is an enormous challenge for any parent, new or seasoned. Wellness and sleep are intrinsically linked, and adjusting to parenthood seems to throw all of this for a loop. This is not news to most of us -- we've all heard some variation of "sleep goes out the window" when you become a new parent, but my thought on the subject is -- does it really have to?
I remember very clearly a conversation I had with my wife early on after our two boys came home with us -- how should we manage sleep? Although I am a sleep specialist by profession, the questions were flooding our brains, and we were not alone in our concerns about acclimating to a new sleeping regimen based on the enormous volume of personal accounts and advice online. Will we co-sleep with the baby? If so, for how long? When do we create a sleep schedule? How hard will we try to stick to it? Enter the cycle of uncertainty and, at times, exacerbation from utter exhaustion.
The scientist in me knew what we were supposed to achieve, but knowing how to get there was a more difficult task, especially honoring both my views and those of my wife, which are not always perfectly aligned. After lots of trial and error, we realized that it doesn't matter how much advice you read or take if you don't occasionally prioritize yourself. The nature of self-sacrifice in parents is put to the test in the elusive concept of sleep, because you simply cannot perform your duties as a parent without feeling rested, at least some of the time. Eventually, we all run out of gas.
While there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to address the lack of sleep that all new parents face, there are several tips to keep in mind to put you on the path to more sustainable sleep, for both you and your children:
1 -- Take naps -- If you are feeling exhausted, taking an afternoon nap can help. The key to napping is to get some feeling of rest, without causing additional sleep problems later that night. Therefore, naps should last no longer than 30 minutes.
2 -- Establish a bedtime routine -- Creating an ideal environment for sleep is half the battle. Practice a soothing wind-down ritual, such as reading or singing with your infant, 30 minutes before to going to sleep. You provide your child with a pre-sleep routine, why not do that same for yourself?
3 -- Consider sleep training your child -- Limit the time you spend consoling your baby and allow them to cry without interference. There are many methods and you'll need to find the one that works well for you and your partner. Consider, however, trying whichever method you choose for a period of time before changing. Change does not happen in a straight line. Things can seem like they are not working, when in fact they are. Also, you should only consider such training after the baby is 4-5 months old.
4 -- Divide responsibilities with your support networks -- As we all know, parenting is a full time, 24/7 job. If you're fortunate enough to have a partner in parenting or a helpful support system, sleep in shifts and discuss how to divide and conquer responsibilities such as feeding, changing and rocking infants back to sleep.
5 -- Say "yes" to help! -- If a neighbor or relative offers to babysit for a few hours, take advantage of the assistance and use that time to make your own sleep a priority.
Sleep doesn't come easy for any new parent. However, it is possible -- it just takes time and some planning. Rely on your partner, if you have one, or your support networks to find a solution that works for you and your family. Give yourself time to adjust to these changes and approach your sleep with an accepting nature. The idea that "everyone should be doing this one thing to get better sleep" does not exist, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to better sleep during parenthood. Harshly judging yourself or other parents -- which we as a society have a tendency to do -- is futile.
To get to a better relationship with sleep, I encourage couples and their support networks to rethink society's rhetoric on "throwing sleep out the window." We may not have it all figured out, and that's okay. However, finding small ways each day to prioritize yourself -- and your sleep -- can make a world of difference in finding and getting the sleep you deserve.