Ask Sharon Postpartum

The Truth About Parenting and Sleep

When I was pregnant with my first child, who is now ten years old, I was unable to sleep well through most of my pregnancy for a variety of reasons from nausea, insomnia, heartburn, a painfully itchy rash, and other reasons.  Complete strangers, friends, and relatives would say things to me like, “You better sleep now, because you are never going to sleep again once that baby is born!”.  This caused me a lot of anxiety because, if this was true, then I was blowing my last chance at sleep.  Also, this is simply a terrifying thing to hear.  Why does anyone say this to pregnant women?  While I have some ideas on why people say scary things to pregnant women, it seems most important here to share the realities of parenting and sleep.

The Truth

The truth is that, as a parent, you are a parent all day and all night.   This reality changes your relationship to the type of activities you engage in both during the day and night.  This may seem obvious, but it also isn’t clear how this will change your life.  Part of the reason why you don’t know is because you haven’t met your baby yet!  You have no idea what their nighttime needs are until you know.  Some of the daytime needs seem more predictable because they ARE more predictable.  Many expectant and adopting parents think a great deal about how they are going to adjust their daytime lifestyle to adapt to the addition of an infant.  Everything from finding daycare so you can work outside the home, to car seats, and child proofing your environment at home are adjustments that need to be made regardless of your child’s personality or sensitivities. Night parenting requires just as much of an adjustment, but the adjustments must be made more in the moment and will constantly shift and change.  It isn’t that you aren’t ever going to sleep again!  The shift is going to be how you plan to care for your infant’s needs at night and also take care of your own needs.


Newborns must have absolutely all of their needs taken care of by others.  They are, at any given moment, eating, wetting or pooping in a diaper, or sleeping.  At many moments, they will be doing more than one of these things.  These three activities occur around the clock.  Please don’t let this scare you.  The key to working with adjustments during this time is planning for everything else as much as possible.  Creating a comprehensive postpartum plan for your household is the best way for you to prepare for this time.  The effort that it takes to feed a baby 24/7 means that you don’t have the energy or time to feed yourself for the most part for about 4-6 weeks.  While there is a person in your household that may be creating a significant amount of additional laundry, the adults that do laundry have significantly less time to do it.  Again, don’t let this scare you.  There are some things that you can plan for and some that you can’t.  If you can plan for how you will keep your household running and meet your most basic needs in the 4-6 weeks after you bring your baby home, then the sleep adjustments won’t seem as stressful.

Sleeping Through the Night

What a tin of poppycock!  As your baby grows and your child develops, they will start to sleep for longer periods of time without waking and needing to be parented.  This will happen.  How much parenting your child needs at night depends on their personality, temperament, and how you and your parenting partners adjust to changing night parenting needs over time.  While many people focus on this mythical moment in time when your baby “sleeps through the night”, it’s really the unicorn in the room.  The reason why it is mythical is that everyone defines “sleeping through the night” in a different way.  Your pediatrician will likely consider your infant sleeping four-hour or longer stretches of time during the night to be “sleeping through the night”, but this is likely very different from what your “sleeping through the night” looked like before you had a baby in your care.  And, just when your baby sleeps for four or five hours straight, they start to teethe, or they get a cold, or the seasons change and they fuss to fall asleep while it is still light out.  Your eight year old might get nightmares or your five year old might throw up at 3:00 am.  Your four year old might be scared to go to the bathroom by themselves in the middle of the night.  Basically, it just keeps changing, but the evolution over time certainly is towards going longer periods of time without needing parenting.  Rather than focus on sleeping through the night, see the changes over time, and enjoy each night for what it was—-one night.

Parenting a Baby Can Be Physically Exhausting

It can be near impossible to maintain a state of equanimity when you are exhausted.  It’s not just the parenting all night, it is the actual physical work of parenting a baby that can be challenging to your energy.  All that laundry, feeding, diaper changes (seriously—the poop!), appointments, heavy car seats, strollers, infant carriers, groceries, changing your sheets, and, uhmmm……did I mention poop?  Rather than focus on trying to get your baby to sleep more, it can be more effective to think about ways you can get some nourishment.  While I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying different methods for helping your baby sleep as much as possible, in this moment, it is easier to get yourself some rest than it is to control whether or not your baby sleeps.  If you find yourself feeling exhausted, I recommend the following:

#1: Figure out a way to get an uninterrupted nap today: sometimes this means hiring a babysitter, calling a friend to take your baby out for a walk for an hour, sleeping when your baby sleeps and not trying to do all the things that need to get done (email, dishwasher, laundry, change sheets, etc.—whatever it is, make sleep during the day a priority above all else).  Don’t try to solve all the problems!  Table all issues and errands and just do whatever it takes to get some sleep today.

#2: Hire a postpartum doula: When it is time to bring in a professional, hire a postpartum doula.  This is a special family assistant who can help you with tasks around the house, make you a meal, take care of your baby, listen to your concerns and help with some common problems that new parents have, and give you some nourishment for mind, body, and spirit.  A postpartum doula can hold your baby while you take a shower so you know that your baby who will not tolerate being “put down” is in warm and loving arms while you bathe.  Don’t feel like having to hire help is some failure on your part! Women all over the world have support for the period of time after they give birth.  Healing from the adoption process, pregnancy, birth, and developing a relationship with your new family member is a lot and all at the same time.  As parenting is 24/7, you should expect to need an extra set of hands.

#3: Needs vs. Wants List: Sit down with your parenting partner(s) and make a list of what absolutely must get done and a list of things that you would like to do.  For example, maybe you wanted to make birth announcements this week, but you are so exhausted that you don’t even know what day of the week it is.  At the same time, all you have in the refrigerator is a jar of olives, there was a menacing note from a utility company on the door and you can’t find your checkbook……….At this time, your exhaustion might lead you to focus on the fact that the birth announcements aren’t done.  If you are reading this and have never parented a newborn before, you might think I’m crazy right now.  I’m not.  This scenario will happen to you.  But, writing things down can help you prioritize with the little energy you have and also work together as a team to get what has to get done, done.  Everything else can wait.

#4: Unless it is an emergency, don’t make any major life decisions for the first year after you have a baby or ever have a conversation with your partner after 9:00 pm: Try not to sell or buy a house, change jobs, move to a different city, decide to go to graduate school, join the circus (unless you were already in the circus before having a baby), start a business, etc. for one year after adopting or giving birth.  As much as possible, keep the big life decisions to a minimum.  Additionally, try not to have any conversations with your partner after 9:00 pm that aren’t absolutely necessary.  Absolutely, never, ever, engage in an argument after 9:00 pm.  Trust me, you are both exhausted, frustrated, irritated and more.  If someone snaps, don’t take the bait!  For example:

Shouting from the couch, “Honey, why don’t you come over here and give me a foot rub?”.

Yelling from the kitchen, “How can I possibly rub your feet when the sink is piled with dishes and the garbage is overflowing like this?  Was there really no time for you to do some of this today? I had a really stressful day at work and all you have to do is hang out here with the baby!”.

Uh OH!  This evening is about to take a turn for the way worse.  Already, there were two really tired adults, presumably at least one child (maybe sleeping already?), and a kitchen that could use some serious attention.  Now we have two tired adults all set to compete in the “Who Had the Most Difficult Day Award”.  There are a lot of options for how this situation can be redeemed, but the most important thing to recognize is that being home with a newborn baby all day is not a day off by any stretch of the imagination.  And, it is near impossible to night parent, go to work and handle the stresses of those responsibilities, and come home to an insurmountable number of tasks and an exhausted co-parent to boot.  Whatever solution you come to, this is not worth the energy of an argument.  It is important for both parents to recognize that both adults are maxed out.

What IS Her Secret?

You know who I’m talking about!  It’s that mom with the mascara on whose shoes match her purse that matches her outfit.  The one who said, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about!  My baby sleeps the whole night.”  Or, the rested one who says, “I got that book, “Bubbles and Blueberries: The New B Plan to Get Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night”.  It really works!”.  This makes you mad because you become convinced that if only you followed the right sleep training program or were a better Mom that you too could get a decent night’s sleep.  I hate to tell you this, but there is no magic answer.

My Mother (I personally believe “Mother” should ALWAYS be capitalized.) always likes to say that if there actually was a cream on earth that could keep your skin looking young, then Jackie Kennedy Onasis would have not had any wrinkles.  But, she did.  Therefore, there is no such thing as a cream that removes or prevents wrinkles.  I feel this way about sleep training.  Let’s be honest, if there was any plan that worked consistently for even a significant percentage of families, then you would know about it.  Your midwife would have given you the pamphlet.  Your friends would have given you the book.  But, instead, there are as many sleep training programs as there are people who are willing to believe that there is some kind of program that would work.  The reality is that most of us just have to try, and try again, and work to adapt to the personalities and needs of our children and families over time.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t ask for advice or try new strategies?  Absolutely not!  If you feel like your routine could use a tune-up, then by all means, ask around.  But, it is important to accept that your baby will change over time and what works for someone else may also work for you, but it also might not.  Advice from experienced moms can be extraordinarily helpful.  For example, I never let my son cry at bedtime.  When he was about eight-months old, he started doing this thing where he would fall asleep nursing with me and then, when I put him in his crib, he would wake a bit and start to “whine”.  It wasn’t really a cry, per se, but it was not the sound of a happy baby.  My response was to quickly whisk him up out of the crib, but then it could take an hour or more for him to fall back asleep and, sometimes, he woke up completely and it would be hours of struggling after that.  So, I started asking around and a friend of mine said, “Just let him whine a bit.”  Revolutionary idea!  It turns out that he was kind of whining himself to sleep because within 5-10 minutes, he was OUT.  Picking him up was just interrupting his unique falling asleep process.

Is This a Baby Concern or a Parent Concern?

In some cases, parents are concerned about the amount of hours or way that their baby sleeps.  Maybe you worry if your baby sleeps too many consecutive hours in a row that they aren’t eating enough or maybe your baby falls asleep when they start to nurse and you are concerned they aren’t sucking long enough to build an adequate supply?  Absent of these specific baby-centered concerns, most of our sleep concerns are personal—they are about us, parents, feeling exhausted and like we aren’t getting enough sleep.  This is a very important distinction for how you approach solving your sleep concerns.  In order to make a plan to solve a problem, you need to identify who has the problem.

Just because you are exhausted doesn’t mean that your baby has a sleep problem, needs to be trained, or is a “bad baby” (whatever THAT is).  It means that YOU are having trouble getting as much sleep as you need.  Whatever solution you find, it’s of great importance that you are solving the problem of how you can get more sleep first.  Many parents make the mistake of thinking first about how to get the baby to sleep more, but since it is impossible to control another person’s sleep, I suggest that you work on the part of the problem that you have 100% control over first—-YOU.  Here are some things you can consider as you brainstorm this issue for yourself if you find that you aren’t getting enough sleep:

1: Environment

Is there something about your sleep environment that would make it more possible for you to get quality sleep?  Do you need black out curtains so you can take a quality nap with the baby during the day? Is there noise pollution that keeps you or the baby up?  Where is the baby’s sleep area?  Could you get a Pack N’ Play or a Rock N’ Play type sleeper and keep the baby closer to you?  Do you have everything you need for night parenting in a convenient place?  For example, would it be helpful to keep more diapering supplies right next to your bed?  Are you co-sleeping and find yourself having to get up to deal with wet sheets?  If so, maybe keep a pile of towels nearby and just cover up the wet spots.

2: Expectations

Do you have realistic expectations?  How can you make sleep a priority during the day or at times when your baby is sleeping?  Who can complete the tasks you have been trying to do when your baby sleeps during the day?  Are you over-programmed with mommy and me classes or events during the day that your baby sleeps through but rob you of much needed rest time?  Keep in mind that your baby changes very fast in the first year.  Match your expectations to reality and let go of anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

3: Co-Parenting as Partners

If this was a business and the goal was to make sure that both parents got the most sleep possible, how would you run your business?  Take all the blame and emotion out of the conversation and create a game plan.  Try things out and get flexible.  I remember at one point that I slept from 6:00 pm to 11:00 pm because this was a time when my son didn’t nurse very much and his father could care for him.  Then, I could take the 11:00 to 3:00 am shift, fully rested, with five consecutive hours of sleep under my belt.  Forget about sleeping just being a night activity.  Work together to create a unique infant care and sleep schedule that makes sure that every adult gets as much sleep as possible while also meeting the baby’s needs.  Use that plan until it stops working and then adjust as necessary.  Some people find that changing sleep arrangements is an important part of the plan.

4: Once you Learn What Works, Do It!

This seems obvious, but it can be really challenging.  Let’s say that you discover that your four-month old sleeps from 10:00 am to noon each and every day, but if you try to move them at all during this time, not only do they wake up, but it ruins the quality of their afternoon nap too.  You have a dear friend visiting from out of town on business and the only time she can meet with you for coffee is at 11:00 am.  The choice is yours, but if you want to get some rest for that time and meeting with your friend will destroy the whole day, then you have to say, “I’d love to meet, but the baby sleeps until noon.  Any way we can meet at 12:30 instead?”.  If the answer is “no”, then why should your friend’s schedule take priority over your schedule?  You may think, oh, she is here on BUSINESS and has no flexibility—–my problem is just a sleeping baby that I can move around if I choose to.  NO!  This is not true.  Your routine and sleep schedule is just as, arguably more, important as someone’s “business” schedule.  Feel confident in your ability to create healthy boundaries around your routine.  If anyone thinks that you should be more flexible because you are “just taking care of the baby these days”,  you can either educate them on what works for you or just let it go.

The main thing to remember is that parenting an infant is very much a full day and a full night job.  Although this is true, over time, the shift is towards your child being able to self-soothe more and more and for you to be able to return to your desired bedtime and night routine.  As this evolution happens over time, the main thing to keep in mind is that you can, and should, make your self-care a priority.  You and your parenting partner(s) can work together to support one another in making this possible.

Written by Sharon Fennimore, MA a doula and women’s health coach based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  If you are in the City of Pittsburgh and need some postpartum doula care, please give me a call (412) 855-5692.  I’d be happy to come over, make a meal, and care for your baby while you take a nice long nap.