Sleeping like a baby? Not necessarily a good thing, as many new parents know. Doctors say babies "sleep through the night" when they sleep an uninterrupted five hours, but that often doesn't happen for several months. The shock of newborn sleep -- or lack thereof -- can be a hard one for new parents to bear.
The shock itself is problematic. The Journal of Pediatric Healthcare reports that teaching new parents about normal sleep development can help by giving them reasonable expectations about sleep, and a chance to get ready and make a sleep strategy so they can deal with it.
"Sleep is a family issue," says Ann Keppler, a nurse and parenting author, consultant and educator. "It takes work on the part of both parents to survive the normal nighttime wakings of babies and toddlers. When sleep becomes an issue, new parents should take time to come up with a sleep strategy that reflects what the baby is able to do developmentally and that takes temperament into account."
While making a sleep strategy for your new baby, understanding infant biology can help. A baby's first months are essentially a fourth trimester. "Remember, the baby has never been cold or hungry before birth -- all of their needs were taken care of in the womb," says Debra Sheldon, postpartum doula and an instructor for a program called Happiest Baby on the Block. "Babies need parents to help them gently make the transition to life outside the womb. As they grow and mature, they will need parents less often at night."
Sheldon teaches new parents to help babies sleep by swaddling, holding babies on their side (until they are put into bed, where they should be put to sleep on their backs), "shhh-ing" in their babies' ears, swinging their babies and encouraging sucking. Sheldon says these techniques help babies fall asleep faster and encourage them to sleep longer.
Experts say new parents should resist advice to switch to formula or to feed solid foods early to try to extend your baby's sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the World Health Organization all recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months before introduction of solid foods. Dr. Jeff Ernst of Richmond Pediatrics in Shoreline concurs: "Sleep is much more complex than just hunger. In fact, early feeding of solid foods may disturb a baby's sleep."
But understanding biology only gets tired parents so far; sometimes creative problem-solving is in order. "My husband and I take shifts while our baby is sleeping," says new parent Trina Fykerud of Kenmore. "He gets Jack before 3:00 a.m., and I get him after 3:00 a.m. Most nights it works out pretty fair."
New parent Kim Reppart of Seattle also shares nighttime parenting duties and sleeping shifts for her new baby with her husband. "He responds to (our daughter) if she wakes before 4:00 a.m., and I respond to her after. Since he is a nighttime person and I am a morning person, this plays into our innate abilities and works well for our family."
Heather Pleasant from Sedro Woolley found her solution with co-sleeping. "It's much easier to roll over on your side and nurse your baby while you sleep than to get out of bed," she says. "You barely have to wake up. I can't imagine how I would have felt during the day if I had gotten up several times each night to nurse or make a bottle."
But sometimes new parents need more help with sleep strategies and a certified postpartum doula can be a lifesaver. Postpartum doulas provide emotional and physical support, including helping create a sleep plan, or just attending to the needs of a fussy baby so new parents can enjoy uninterrupted and unencumbered sleep.
New parents frequently ignore advice to "sleep when the baby sleeps," instead struggling to function like they did before the baby arrived. But as the laundry piles up and exhaustion mounts, perhaps the best advice is to be kind to yourself. You may have to reduce your expectations until you catch up on some sleep. It's perfectly reasonable to see this time as a moment in the life of your baby, and try to enjoy -- or at least survive -- those intimate moments in the middle of the night with your baby.
And remember, almost every new parent with a story of sleep deprivation says it does get better. As Seattle mom Jessica Jensen says, "Our sleep problems just sort of work themselves out, usually in favor of some new-- but slightly less exhausting -- issue."
Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer and the former executive director of Great Starts, a nonprofit parent education service. With the support of her husband, Eric, she has survived newborn sleep with her two children.
- Northwest Association for Postpartum Support provides a referral line for postpartum doulas
- The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways To Help Your Baby Sleep Through The Night, by Elizabeth Pantley
- Great Starts Sleep Consultations with Ann Keppler, RN, MN, co-author of Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn: The Complete Guide, and facilitator of the First Weeks and Next Months groups at the Community Birth and Family Center
- "Happiest Baby on the Block" classes are offered at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland and at Great Starts Birth and Family Education in Seattle. Private or small group classes are available
- Debra Shelden, birth and postpartum doula, and certified "Happiest Baby on the Block" instructor
- Guidelines for co-sleeping safety