My first child was not a great sleeper, but by six weeks, she would sleep two or three stretches of three hours each. My son, however, pretty much never slept unless he was latched on to me nursing. From that experience, and from the research I’ve done on parental sleep then and since, I offer the following suggestions to new parents trying to get enough sleep:
- Make day and night different. This is probably the single most important thing you can do. During the day, keep music playing, lights on, and just general action going on. At night, keep the lights soft, and keep it quiet. If you have to change your baby’s diaper or feed the little one, use as little light as possible and avoid talking to or playing with your baby. The less stimulation, the better.
- Grab a baby carrier. My favorite for newborns is one like the Baby K’tan or the Moby Wrap. You can adjust your baby so that they’re lying in a cradled position close to your body. This will allow you to get some chores done, though you should NEVER cook with a baby on your front – hot foods could splash your little guy (or girl). Getting chores done while baby is awake will let you sleep at other times. You can do this while typing, for example, if you work from home. If you’re nursing, with a little bit of practice, you can nurse hands-free this way, too.
- Decide what tasks can go undone. If you slept three hours last night, then don’t wait for the baby to go to sleep so that you can re-organize your bottle-cap collection. Wash the dirty dishes so they won’t grow mold, and then hit the bed as fast as possible.
- Delegate. If your partner can help with housework, that’s great. If you have friends who are willing to help with housework, shopping, food preparation, take them up on it. Don’t waste your baby’s precious sleep time on tasks that someone else is willing to do for you.
- Take turns. When my colicky baby rarely slept longer than 20 minutes if he wasn’t held, and my husband was working full-time while I was home on maternity leave, it was obvious that I was going to bear the brunt of the responsibility for childcare. He needed to get a full night’s sleep so that he could work effectively the next day. He would come home at 6:30pm, and I would immediately get into bed, leaving him with the kids until around 10pm, when he needed to go to sleep. Usually, he would make sure that the kids were both sleeping before he went to sleep, so I’d get to sleep until 10:20pm or so. It wasn’t much, but it was what we could manage.
- Don’t be afraid of co-sleeping if you’re nursing. Co-sleeping has gotten a bad reputation in some circles, but if you don’t drink or smoke, and you nurse the baby, the risks are minimal. If your baby wakes up every time he or she unlatches, and you can’t get them back to sleep, take the baby into your bed!
- Don’t worry about schedules and sleep training, at least for the first two months. When your baby wakes up, attend to his or her needs, and then get the baby back to bed as soon as possible with as little opportunity as possible for crying and misery.
- Use a swing or a bouncer, and sleep nearby. If your child sleeps better in a bouncer or a swing, go for it. Stay close, though, because these devices aren’t meant to be babysitters. Mothers are generally in tune with their child’s breathing and rhythms, so you will likely wake up immediately if there is any problem. Playing familiar music or voices (such as those they heard in the womb while listening to the Ritmo) may help soothe your baby even more.
- Hire a babysitter or mother’s helper. Have them take your baby for a walk in the stroller, walk around holding the child, bathe him, whatever makes your baby quiet for long enough for you to take a nap. If you can get a willing grandmother or aunt (or other friend or relative) to do it for free, even better!
- As a last resort, try the Baby Einstein videos. They will not make your child smarter, as they used to try to claim, but they will mesmerize many babies. I know what everyone claims about screen time, and I generally agree, but if you have to compromise on something to get some sleep, an hour of classical music and watching toys move around on a screen doesn’t seem like the worst compromise. On days when my head was spinning from exhaustion, I would put my son in a baby chair (strapped in and anchored), put on Baby Mozart on repeat, and sleep as long as my son was quiet. It often gave me as much as a whole hour of sleep.
(Disclaimer: This material is provided for information purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment for any condition. Ask your doctor if you have medical questions.)