Hands up if you’re able to actually sleep when the baby is sleeping. OK, you, you, and you, kindly exit through the gift shop. And for the remaining millions of exhausted new mothers, here’s all the advice you need to muddle through the first few months and beyond.
Now, a collective agreement: This is not about getting your baby to sleep. This is about centering your sleep needs and making whatever rest you’re getting as restorative and healthy as possible.
Understand the mental health impact of sleep.
So what does the average new mom’s sleep look like? If you have just had your first child, it can feel very isolating to hear stories of people whose miracle babies nap consistently or sleep through the night by 12 weeks. Understanding what’s truly typical can be reassuring: The reality is, while about two-thirds of babies sleep six to eight hours straight at night by the time they’re about six months old, according to Stanford Children’s Health, the average new mother reports getting a full night’s sleep herself at just past seven months postpartum, according to a national Fifth Trimester survey. That gap can have any number of causes (and most likely several causes), including having to wake up to pump breastmilk, hormones that are still adjusting, paid (or unpaid) work obligations that can’t get handled until the baby is down for the night, and, of course, anxiety and postpartum depression. Fascinatingly, a small study in the journal Sleep Disorders found an association between lower sleep quality and depression in new moms regardless of how well their babies were sleeping.
“The impact of sleep deprivation is so complicated because broken sleep is a natural part of being postpartum,” says Julie Kupfer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and mother of three who treats women with anxiety and sleep disorders. But that doesn’t mean it feels natural. “You’re waking in the night while also recovering from giving birth.”
Physically, sleep deprivation can cause metabolic changes, lead to a rise in blood pressure and cortisol levels, and prolong the body’s healing process. The mental-impact list is even longer: Cognition, attention, and working memory are all impaired, and study after study points to the correlation between extreme fatigue and perinatal mood disorders. It’s important to realize that everything you do to protect your sleep is protective of your mental and physical health—and therefore your ability to care for your child.
While “getting at least some unbroken sleep is really sacred if you can,” says Dr. Kupfer, one strategy that’s universally helpful is “to really try to be observant, both of your baby’s rhythms and of your own needs.” People’s sleep needs vary by body and circumstance, and paying attention to when you feel rested and when you feel exhausted—and how much, what time, and what quality of sleep you got—can give you some control back. “It might not be sleeping when the baby sleeps, but just lying down for 10 minutes can feel restoring,” says Dr. Kupfer.
So how do you even find those 10 minutes? Welcome to the compromise math of motherhood: How much time can you steal from one task to do another and feel good about the balance? Your mission: In the first three months, if it allows you to sleep, steal away. A study from the Gottman Institute’s Bringing Baby Home program found that new parents take on approximately 300 additional tasks per day to care for a baby.
Make a list of your own. Identify which top-five items (perhaps bath time or choosing baby’s outfits) you enjoy the most and get the most satisfaction from. Preserve those. Now look at the rest. What can you let go of? Or outsource? Or ask for help with? If you can do that, you can find those ten minutes. The goal here is to shake off the guilt that you’re not doing enough, lower your expectations and realize that the one thing you really should be doing is prioritizing your wellness and sleep.
The other time the pressure of “shoulds” can creep up for many postpartum moms is in the middle of the night. You’ve gotten the baby back to sleep and lay your head back on the pillow, but instead of drifting off, you look at the clock and feel pressure to immediately fall asleep, which ironically keeps you up. Dr. Kupfer recommends ditching the clock entirely. “Too often, we hyperfocus on the number of minutes it’s going to be until baby is awake again and needing to eat,” says Dr. Kupfer. “If possible, tune into your body, not the baby. Practice mindfulness, and try to remember that it doesn’t matter when sleep comes, it doesn’t matter when baby needs to eat next.” The baby will tell you when it’s time to eat. And, this is a somewhat Halloween-ish trick, but experts also recommend that if you know you’re going to be up in the night in certain parts of your home, try using night-lights with red-light bulbs, which research suggests won’t disrupt your melatonin production the way regular lights do.
Make it count.
There are three proven ways to make the very most of the bits and pieces of sleep you’re getting: 1) Do your best to practice good sleep hygiene; 2) try to make sure that one of the chunks of sleep you get is at least four hours long; and 3) get into a fatigue rhythm (more on that in a minute).
First, sleep hygiene. It’s a trendy term, and it’s not meant to shame people out of their bad habits. We all know by now that being on your phone before bed is too stimulating and that lowering the lights can help your body go into nighttime mode. Dr. Kupfer recommends thinking more positively by trying to build yourself a soothing bedtime routine, just as you would with the baby. Maybe a bath, maybe a book. Do things in the same predictable order each night, and you’ll get into a deeper sleep more quickly. “And positive sleep hygiene is something you can practice during the day, too,” she says. “Going outside for some sunshine, engaging in any physical activity, eating nutritious foods” are all things you can do to promote better, deeper sleep at night.
Next, the magic of four hours. “The first time you get four hours in a row as a mom, it feels like eight,” says Dr. Kupfer. That’s because four hours is about two REM cycles, and as long as you have that one big chunk, a night of fragmented sleep is much more restorative. Of course, many newborns wake to eat at two- or three-hour intervals. Having one bottle feed in the night given by someone other than Mom can allow you to get that one longer stretch.
And about that weird term “fatigue rhythm”: Researchers looked at healthy postpartum women who were all similarly sleep-deprived and found one key protective factor. Those moms who were able to identify a pattern to their daytime fatigue seemed to handle it better, with “significantly less stress and more vigor.” Moms who felt randomly tired throughout the day didn’t fare as well. So how does one get to a predictable fatigue rhythm? The key may be an earlier sleep midpoint in the night—meaning go to bed earlier.
One way to wrap all of these recommendations together is to initiate a bedtime routine for yourself around 8 p.m., feed your baby, go to bed around 9 p.m., leaving a bottle for the 11 p.m. feeding, and then sleep until the baby wakes again at 1 or 2 a.m.
Divide nighttime labor.
For all the cultural conversations happening around things like the mental load, gender pay equity, and the division of childcare and household labor among couples, this vital topic gets left, all too often, in the literal dark. If you are parenting with a partner, that partner is your number-one resource for fighting sleep deprivation and protecting your mental health. Still, so often in heterosexual couples, mothers take on the wake-ups because they are more likely to take a longer parental leave and they don’t want to interrupt dad’s sleep when he needs to go to work in the morning. (Admittedly, most of the sleep research is limited because it is heteronormative, but research has shown that more generally, same-sex couples divide household labor more equally.) If that sounds like you, remember that the work you are doing keeping a human baby alive ought to be second to none.