There are so many things you look forward to when you’re pregnant. You can’t wait for that first cry or to hold your baby for the first time or to finally fill that special room with the little person it was decorated for.
There’s so much excitement it’s easy to let negative thoughts go by the wayside. But, say many experts, there are some not-so-pleasant things that are better to accept early on and the biggest one is sleep. Sleep, or rather the lack of it, will play a key role in your life with a baby.
“Be prepared to lose some sleep and have lots of sleepless nights,” says Dr. Poj Lysouvakon, co-director of the University of Chicago Medical Center’s General Care Nursery. “In the first two to four months of a baby’s life they may sleep a total of 16 hours a day but in stretches of no more than two to four hours at a time. … Have patience-there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
But for some, that light can seem pretty dim.
For Jennifer McHeugh of Deer Park nighttime ushered in even darker times when she brought home her first daughter, Lily, now 6. The first three months Jennifer skated through, adjusting to her lack of sleep and riding a euphoric new mommy wave. But then exhaustion hit.
Jennifer had allowed Lily to sleep in the bed between herself and her husband Dan. It had gotten to the point where Lily could only sleep if her parents were touching her.
“My husband and I didn’t have our bed anymore. We were so sleep-deprived at that point. She wasn’t sleeping at all,” Jennifer says. “I was a wreck.”
Jennifer decided the best course of action for her family would be to decide on one of the plans laid out in the books she had on newborn sleep. They first tried to be tough and use some of the “quick fix” plans, which included letting Lily scream and cry. They found it too traumatizing. Eventually they stayed with Lily in her own room until she fell asleep and then backed away-a strategy that lasted nearly two and half years. By Lily’s third birthday Jennifer was pregnant again and motivated to fix the problem once and for all.
When Liza, now 3, was born, Jennifer started a strict sleeping pattern right away and ran into none of the problems she’d had with Lily. She used the program again with her third child, Pryor.
Set sleep goals
Sleep is a tricky thing for many families to manage, says Janeen Hayward, principal of Swellbeing, a parent resource center in New York and Chicago, and a licensed clinical mental health counselor. One of the things Swellbeing does is work with new families to determine the best sleep plan for them.
“Anyone who’s sleep-deprived suffers from irritability and the inability to concentrate and focus and be attentive and it affects mood. They do show some signs of depression and then that affects them specifically with their partner,” Hayward says.
A lack of sleep also can cause you to become clumsy, often causing you to trip or cut yourself, says Jodi A. Mindell, director of the graduate program in Psychology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and National Sleep Foundation expert. For women it’s extremely important in the healing process after giving birth. Sleep can play a large role in postpartum depression prevention, Mindell says. It can also affect your driving abilities and it can make you angry.
Lysouvakon says the baby often can tell if you’re cranky. He stresses the importance of making sure you are taking care of yourself first. Too often, he says, parents try to be heroes by sticking it out, when really they would be better off handing the baby over to a friend or family member for a few hours to get a little rest.
“Don’t get angry with the baby-it’s not the baby’s fault and don’t feel bad if you feel angry towards the baby. It’s a normal reaction due to lack of sleep,” he says. “Parents do eventually get used to this sort of weird sleep pattern babies have.”
Get sleep routines
So, when’s the best time to institute sleeping patterns for your baby? The answer differs from expert to expert and you’ll have to decide what’s right for you. But most experts agree that after eight weeks your baby is probably ready to at least begin establishing a nightly routine. This could be reading before bedtime, a warm bath each night before sleep or other routines that feel comfortable for you that the baby will associate with sleep.
If you’re not a first-time parent, don’t forget your other children’s sleep is important as well. And try to fix older children’s sleep issues months before a new baby arrives.
“If you’re the one … that always puts your toddler to bed, make sure that dad or someone else gets involved early and can start doing that so it’s not such a shock to the system,” Mindell says. “Once the baby comes home it’s often very helpful to have the mom still do the older children’s bedtime and have another caregiver take care of the infant.”
No matter what happens or how prepared you are, it’s important to remember that you are not alone.
“Everybody gets tired. It’s human nature,” says Lysouvakon.
Get your baby to sleep
The 90-minute Baby Sleep Program by Dr. Polly Moore, (Workman Publishing, 2008)
lifelong study of sleep and its disorders still wasn’t enough to help Dr. Polly Moore figure out how to get her baby to sleep. Mystified by the fussy baby, like most parents Moore got conflicting information on what to do.
Then, when Maddie was nearly 4 months old, Moore recognized something: the 90-minute Basic Rest and Activity Cycle. “The 90-minute clock in babies is strongly tied to their alertness cycles,” she says.
“I remember thinking, can it be that simple?” The answer, she found, was yes.
Moore found there is a narrow window of time-five to 10 minutes for young babies-to settle in your baby to sleep. When that window closes, the babies move into their next alertness cycle. “You’ve inadvertently sleep deprived your baby because you’ve missed the opportunity,” she says.
Parents have to learn to look for the signs, such as fussiness, changes in demeanor, lost interest in a toy, and in older babies, more clumsiness.
“When you start following this, you can see how your choices and actions influence your baby’s sleep and you don’t seem so victimized by it,” she says.
Moore developed a program, N.A.P.S., to help parents catch the rhythm:
- Note time when baby wakes up.
- Add 90 minutes.
- Play, feed or pursue other activities such as grocery shopping, then, at the end of the 90-minute period,
- Soothe baby back to sleep.
- She suggests focusing on daytime naps to learn your baby’s rhythm.