How to get enough sleep with a new baby

Louise and her new babyOne of the toughest times to get enough sleep is with a new baby. Blogger Louise Marston tells how she copes.

In the last year I have become a lot more familiar with 4am than I ever hoped to be.

I have always been someone who loved sleep. My mum and dad will tell you that I’ve never been an early riser. It used to be that if I didn’t get a full 8 hours, I would be grumpy and ineffective the next day – I really felt the difference of a late night or an extra-early start.

Now, I am mum to a beautiful 6 week old baby who doesn’t know the meaning of ‘8 hours straight’. Of course, when you choose to have a baby, not sleeping is part of the deal. “You’ll never sleep again” is one of those knowing I’m-already-a-parent phrases that gets endlessly repeated when you’re pregnant. (Top tip: never ask a new mum or dad if they are sleeping OK – of course they’re not).

What people mention much less often is that pregnancy isn’t a great time for sleeping either. A combination of a squashed bladder, heartburn and indigestion, bump discomfort and plain old insomnia meant that I didn’t sleep all the way through the night from about 8 weeks onward. I started to become an expert at identifying what time of the night it was by looking out our bathroom window and counting the number of lights still on in the houses opposite. (At 4am pretty much no-one leaves the light on.)

So I thought I was becoming somewhat prepared for the rigours of new baby sleep, and at least once you’ve had the baby, you don’t have the added discomfort of trying to sleep with a bump attached.

So far, I’ve found that sleep with a newborn is better quality sleep, when you get it, compared to being pregnant. There is less of that overall exhaustion during the day, although to offset that, more need to keep your energy up to look after the little milk monster.

The best way I’ve found to describe new baby sleep deprivation is that it’s very like jet lag. I vividly remember a trip to New Zealand, and after the 30 hour journey, getting to a cafe for lunch and just staring straight ahead as waves of jet lag rolled in. It’s that brain-numbing combination of absolute tiredness plus knowing that you need to stay awake. For me, that jet lag feeling comes in about 7 or 8pm, just when she’s getting to her most grumpy cluster-feeding stage. This is the ideal time to hand her over to her Dad, so I can get some dinner, and ideally off to bed by 9pm.

I can then go and get somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours sleep (if all goes well) before he brings her up to bed sometime betweem 10.30 and 11.30. After that, we will often get to 3 or 4am for the next feed, allowing a longer bit of sleep, and then another 2 hrs or do before a 6 or 7am feed.

We combat these very broken mornings by trying to nap after my husband has gone to work, between about 8 and 10am or  later. This means that we don’t end up clean, dressed and downstairs until around midday most days, but it makes the rest of the day much easier to deal with.

The most common advice with a newborn is to ‘sleep when they sleep’. Whilst this is certainly a good idea in the middle of the night, I find napping in the day next to impossible. First, you need to sleep near her, which either means taking her up two flights of stairs to our bed when she’s ready to sleep (which isn’t very predictable, and risks waking her on the way), or trying to sleep on the sofa downstairs. Most naps in the day last not much more than an hour and I usually take 20-30 minutes to properly settle into sleep, so that might give me 30 minutes of sleep. I know these sort of ‘power naps’ are meant to be refreshing, but I find they just leave me dopey and frustrated that I didn’t get more sleep. And in the worst case, I just lie awake, thinking of all the other things I could be doing, and listening for her stirring. So I now use the morning to nap as much as possible, then stay awake until bedtime around 9.

The other problem with ‘sleep while she sleeps’ is that you also have to do everything else while she sleeps, as you can’t do anything while she feeds or cries. So tidying up, making dinner, expressing milk, washing clothes and muslins all need to be fitted in somewhere. And I would rather use the daytime naps for these things, if they allow me to go to bed that much earlier at night.

I’m the first to say that we got really lucky with our daughter. Thus far at least, she has been pretty well behaved. I’m sure that there are endless nights of screaming yet to come, but I’ve surprised myself at how well I can deal with this broken sleep and keep functioning. And those little newborn smiles are better than anything at keeping you going.

Do you have a new baby? If so how are you managing and how does your routine compare with Louise’s?

Louise Marston is a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and full-on food geek, as well as mum to a baby daughter. She blogs at usingmainlyspoons.com on why recipes work and what’s going behind the steps you are asked to follow.

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