Who Needs Sleep?
Sleep deprivation. The granddaddy of postpartum horror stories. The stuff of third-trimester nightmares. Nightmares you had AT NIGHT, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. YOU LUCKY, LUCKY WOMAN. How bad will it be? How long will it last? How will you cope?
I get asked these questions a lot. And sometimes I’ve shrugged them off as One Of Those Things. You just get through it however you get through it. You just do it because you have to do it.
That isn’t really the right answer. I blame the sleep deprivation!
Let’s Talk About Sleep Debt
All jokes and knowing nods aside, a new mother’s lack of sleep is serious business. It’s not just learning the ropes and a rite of passage into motherhood, an introduction to the new normal: your needs are demoted to second- or third-place forever and ever, suck it up, amen.
So sleep experts have this theory about a “sleep debt.” You have one bad night of restless sleep or a car alarm goes off at 5 am. You either make up for the lost sleep with a nap or by going to bed early, or you add those missing hours to your sleep debt, carrying it (and possibly adding to it) night after night. If you fail to make up for the sleep or your sleep debt gets too big after too many bad nights or late bedtimes, you get rundown and sick.
So that whole annoying thing people do to you during pregnancy? Saying crap like “oh, ho ho ho, get your sleep now while you still can!” Right before you ran them over with your car because you were bloated and cranky and couldn’t sleep because you had to pee four times a night and your sciatica and your heartburn and THANKS FOR THE TIP, MORON. Yeah, technically, sleep experts do recommend that expectant parents get extra sleep to bank against the coming sleep debt. I had no idea that was even possible — it’s like saving up for a down payment before taking on a mortgage. I still think it sounds fishy — I got a decent amount of sleep before Ezra was born, but OH MY LANDS, the sleep deprivation still hit me plenty hard. (I was writing POETRY about it, people. Using train metaphors. Clearly, I was really freaking tired.) I also came down with every preschool or workplace bug that Noah and Jason brought home. Colds, sinus infections, ear infections, double-ear-infections-that-leaked-out-my-eyeballs, one right after another.
Things I Did Wrong
I did not take naps, and I did not let anyone else feed the baby.
The nap thing, well, that was just stupid. My mother-in-law constantly told me to go take a nap. She had the baby, Noah was fine, GO NAP. And I would nod and go upstairs…with my laptop. I would blog, email, organize photos, check in on work-related stuff even though I was technically on leave (Shout-out thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who filled-in during maternity leave). I would play a casual web game and congratulate myself on taking a break.
What I should have done: closed the blinds and the door, tossed a t-shirt over the clock and taken a lousy nap. They’re not really my thing — 30 minutes here and there will sometimes leave me bleary and grumpy afterward, but if I was going to insist on being the sole on-call night-feeding parent at night, I should have made more of an effort to get just a little extra sleep during the day.
By the time I realized this, that the nights were getting shorter and more broken up and Ezra was sleeping in tiny, unpredictable fits pretty much round the clock, my in-laws were gone and I had no one urging me to take a nap.
(By the way: Look. Not to be mean and bitter here, but. Brand-new newborns sleep a LOT. Hours and hours, even! Many of them will even sleep “through the night.” You’ll feel all kinds of smug about how much they sleep — it’s amazing! we’re getting so much more sleep than we thought! we’re the greatest new parents in the world! It’s not going to last. Do you hear me? IT’S NOT GOING TO LAST. At some point they sort of realize they’re alive and there’s stuff too look at and mmm, where’s that milk stuff I was drinking? That was good. I think I would like some more. RAWWRRRSQUAWK EH EH EH. In other words, don’t stay up late watching some Amazing Race marathon on cable because your baby slept until 9 am the previous morning and you think he’ll do it again. Go to bed, get your rest.)
And Some Things I Did Right(ish)
As for the nighttime feedings, co-sleeping and side-nursing helped. (Ezra was too small, or something, for me to nurse while on my side for the first couple weeks, but after that we got the hang of it, so keep trying, even if it doesn’t seem to work at first.) I know I would have gotten a LOT less sleep if he was in his crib down the hall (the retrieval process would have woken me up more fully than simply reaching down to shove a boob in his mouth), or even in a bassinet in our room (I would have jerked awake at every sigh and snuffle, anticipating his waking — knowing he was RIGHT THERE actually helped me sleep through the noises and squirming). But it’s not for everybody, I know. Make sure your partner helps you at night. If Ezra wasn’t in our bed, Jason was in charge of retrieving him. After I would nurse I would often hand him over for Jason to burp and change his diaper. Invest in a really comfortable reclining rocker for the nursery — something you can sleep in, if you have to. Drag a twin mattress in there, keep measured-out formula and filtered water on your nightstand, whatever you need to do to cram in even 20 minutes of semi-half-sleep.
And look: breastfeeding is awesome. Breastfeeding exclusively is a lofty, ambitious goal. It can be done, of course, and the benefits are fantastic. But there are costs, and you’re the only one who will pay them, unfortunately. Don’t get too far into debt, particularly for sleep. If you need a break, if you need one feeding, one night, one uninterrupted chunk of sleep, let the baby take a bottle. I repeat: it is not the end of the world if you let the baby take a bottle.
You. Need. Sleep. And we’re all different, with our different tolerances for sleep deprivation and just how many hours we need. My husband can operate on a crazy-low number of hours and always has. I’m an 8-hour person. I consistently get less than that, I get foggy, irritable, absent-minded. I get headaches and forget important details. Like, you know, buckling the baby’s car seat, or locking myself out of the house with my preschooler inside. It’s not good. It’s not safe. It’s not taking the best care of my children.
Take Your Sleep Seriously
Sleep deprivation in new mothers has a HUGE impact on potential postpartum depression. The higher your sleep debt, the higher your risk for PPD or postpartum psychosis. (And also, weirdly, it can determine whether you shed or retain the pregnancy weight. Women who sleep less than five hours a day for the first six months will generally be 11 pounds heavier by the baby’s first birthday than women who sleep seven hours a day.) It’s serious, okay? You aren’t being selfish or whiny or failing at motherhood. It doesn’t matter if three hours a night doesn’t bother some mothers who are gunning for some non-existent Motherhood Martyrdom Award. If you feel yourself plummeting into a Bad Dark Tired Place, ask for help. Ask for sleep.
And know that it won’t always be like this. It will get better. Every baby is different, of course, but you’ll find something that works. A good bedtime routine, a sleep-training approach, a magical musical box that does the trick, or even just a set nap time every day for both of you. And when your friends send you desperate-sounding emails asking you how you coped with the sleep thing, hopefully it will all be such a distant, fuzzy memory that you will shrug and tell them that you just get through it when you get through it, because hey, you did.
Photo source: Flickr/vmiramontes
Published September 8, 2009. Last updated December 11, 2017.