Once the baby has been born and feeding is going well, sleep becomes the primary issue for new parents. It’s understandable. Sleep is one of our basic needs. If we don’t sleep enough, we can’t function. New parents who are woken many time every night to feed and comfort a baby quickly become exhausted and that exhaustion contributes to post-partum depression and anxiety.
And mothers, usually (but not always) the primary parent, believe that the only way they can get more sleep themselves, is to fix their baby’s sleep. They believe that if they are sleep-deprived it’s their own fault because they have given their baby “bad habits.” Perhaps they have nursed their babies to sleep, or rocked them to sleep, or held them while they slept, or, horror of horrors, taken their babies to bed with them!
(I’ll talk another time about why the above “bad habits” are perfectly good strategies for caring for a small baby. But for now, let’s explore the issue of getting more sleep for mothers.)
It takes a long time to “fix” baby sleep patterns. Many babies do not sleep long stretches until they are 6 months or a year. Some don’t sleep well until they are two or three years old. Some parents make the choice to sleep train, but even that does not always work and is not recommended for at least three to six months. And many parents feel that sleep training is too harsh for their children. So what is to be done?
Sleep experts recommend setting up good sleep habits and bed-time rituals. Attachment parenting proponents recommend co-sleeping and bed-sharing. All of these can work. But they take time, and desperate parents wonder “When will my baby sleep?”
The answer is, no one knows. Maybe the answer is, when you have babies and small children, you just can’t sleep the way you expected to until now. You are just not going to get 7-8 hours of undisturbed sleep every night. So how are you, as a family, going to manage this problem?
Because this is a problem for the whole family. It’s not just the mother’s problem. Very often, the mothers who come to my baby groups tell me that they can’t ask their partner to share in the night-time parenting because “He has to work in the morning.” It makes me wonder what the mother does all day – is that not work too? Yes, she can sleep in a bit or take a nap during the day, but that doesn’t get her a long stretch of sleep.
Sometimes, the lack of sleep for mom is blamed on the fact that she breastfeeds. I sometimes think, in my more grumpy moods, that breastfeeding is a great excuse for fathers or other parents to abdicate. “All the baby wants is the breast. I can’t feed the baby so I can’t comfort him. I can’t do anything for him at night, so I may as well sleep.” Really? Many babies can spend hours asleep if they are just held and cuddled and rocked or bounced. You don’t need breasts for that. Just some willingness to experiment and develop some skills!
Of course sometimes breastfeeding is an excuse for the mother to feel indispensable. The mother IS indispensable to her baby’s happiness and feeding, but that does not mean that she can’t have four hours of continuous sleep every day. And having Dad develop baby-soothing skills does not make the mother any less important to her baby.
So when mothers come and tell me they are exhausted to the point of depression and they must fix the baby’s sleep now so that they can sleep, I tell them it takes too long to fix the baby’s sleep. How can the mother get more sleep THIS WEEK? This is where you need to focus your efforts right now. When you have organized your life to get more sleep and things are under control, then you can start to think about the long term project of teaching your baby how to sleep according to our culture’s expectations.
In the next post, I will list some ideas on how to get more sleep.