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Who Needs Sleep?

By Amalah

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

 

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Katina
Guest

We have these safety meetings once a month (trust me, this is going somewhere). A couple months back, we had a sleep doctor come in to tell us all the bad things that happen when you don’t get enough sleep. He actually specifically stated in the meeting that you can catch up on sleep, but you can’t bank sleep. So all that “Get the sleep now, while you can” is supposedly a bunch of hooey, and it doesn’t do nearly as much good as crashing for 12 hours on a weekend. Of course since this was a thing related to… Read more »

Amalah
Guest

See, that’s totally what I thought — “banking” sleep is a stupid suggestion. If anything, sleeping a ton right before the baby arrives seems like it would have the opposite effect: your body would get nice and used to 8+ hours all the time and then BLAMMO. Rug pulled out and no sleep and total shock to your system. And yet a BUNCH of the articles I read about postpartum sleep deprivation mentioned the banking as a viable thing, but they ALSO didn’t really give any sort of practical tips. So basically, they have no idea about anything, and can’t… Read more »

wallydraigle
Guest

I’ve always thought banking sleep was bogus, too. But maybe their thinking goes like this: Almost no one (especially heavily pregnant women) has no sleep debt. I know I never get enough sleep, and my kid (with the exception of a few phases here and there) has been sleeping 12 hours a night since she was three months. I’m a night owl, I stay up late, and if I do go to bed before I’m ready, I lie awake even longer. I was like this before I had a kid, and I’ll probably always be like this. I think a… Read more »

Julie
Guest
Julie

As a bfing mom of twins, I second the advice about a bottle! And getting them used to a bottle will help if you plan to return to work…or even just be a safety net if you get stuck in a traffic jam when it’s time for the baby to nurse.
And take every nap you can eke out. It could be a long time until you see 4 (let alone 6 or 8) hours of uninterrupted sleep!

kristin @ going country
Guest

Yeah. This right here is the number one thing I am most concerned about for after my baby is born (in five months). People laugh about it, because I am very well known for needing a lot of sleep, but I really don’t find it all that amusing to contemplate.
At the moment, I’m making like Scarlett and not thinking about it today.

Shosh
Guest
Shosh

Oh my gosh – I was a total mess in the beginning b/c of lack of sleep. I wasn’t BFing, and what worked well for us was that I would give my son the 8pm bottle and go to sleep. My husband would give him the next bottle around 11pm-12am, and then I’d get the next one…at least that way I had a 5-6 hour stretch of sleep in one go (that is, if I could fall asleep when he did). Only now when he’s a year and FINALLY sleeping through the night do I feel like a human being… Read more »

CherylH
Guest
CherylH

My son is 7 months old, and we are still fighting with the sleep deprivation. He will occasionally sleep 5 or 6 hours straight, but he normally wakes up every 3-4 hours. It doesn’t seem to matter what time we put him down, early or late. It doesn’t seem to matter if we feed him a late night bottle or not. Somewhere between 2:30 – 4:30 each night, he wakes up. The lack of sleep was the biggest problem for me after he was born, also. I can only dream of the day when my son will sleep through the… Read more »

leanne
Guest

I’m right in the middle of it right now with my 7 week old newborn and it’s by far the most difficult adjustment. This is my second, but I completely forgot about this time – when all I can think, talk or dream about is diapers, feedings and sleep. And because hormones are strange and sleep is strange, often after a middle of the night feeding I can’t go back to sleep because my body is so confused.
Everything is so hazy. Yawn.

paranoid
Guest

So, about that co-sleeping thing: I never set out to co-sleep, it just kind of happened by accident. E slept so well next to me, and as long as I was getting sleep, I didn’t feel any particular motivation to train E to sleep in a crib (unlike with my first daughter, who was relegated to her crib at exactly 12 weeks). But now E is seven months old, and still in my bed, still nursing through half the night, and I’m kind of starting to think I ruined the baby. The kid who was totally easy as a brand… Read more »

olivia
Guest
olivia

@Kristin, sleep deprivation was really my biggest worry about having a baby. I’m an 8 hr a night person like Amalah. I get seriously cranky and non-functional if I get less than 7 hrs more than two nights in a row. So imagine my surprise when it turns out I am MORE rested since the baby was born than before when all that peeing kept me awake (I think bank sleep is bogus, too). Full disclosure, we are co-sleeping (or bedsharing for more accuracy). I credit this decision for me being able to sleep more. Just pop a boob in… Read more »

Bitts
Guest
Bitts

Sleep deprivation is THE thing to complain about as a new parent. Just as a data point, let me submit that it’s NOT inevitable. I was not particularly sleep-deprived with either of my children. Pretty much because (as infants) they each slept 2 or so hours at a time through the night, stretching out over about 10-12 hours. Sleeping 2 hours at a time over about 12 hours leaves about 8 hours of total adult sleep, which is enough. We’ve had a bad night here and there but none of this 4-5 hours of adult sleep a day for weeks… Read more »

geek anachronism
Guest
geek anachronism

Ah, co-sleeping. Totally saved me. I’m still moderately sleep deprived (my husband just said “well, it looks like she was hungry afterall” and I came close to screaming “well you do it then!” – with more four letter words, even though she’s breastfed) but nothing too bad.
And I totally recommend sticking with the side-feed. It took a few weeks but it is our go-to for a cranky upset baby now.

Jessica in SC
Guest

My first baby is due in 12 days (!!!) and the one thing I am terrified of is sleep deprivation. I know we will make it through and I really like the suggestion of “give the baby a bottle once in a while even if you are breastfeeding” because I have been thinking about that, but then nipple confusion and OMG I just need like 5 hours of sleep. I’m exhausted at this stage of pregnancy. I sleep for two hour increments at night, max, before I have to change positions or pee or just wake up and can’t go… Read more »

Me
Guest
Me

Every time some said to “get your sleep now!” I wanted to throw something at their head. I was also a grumpy pregnant lady… We were not going to co-sleep because it was unsafe, and we were not going to give the baby a pacifier because of nipple confusion. Then the baby came…. I distinctly remember the night my newborn son after feeding rooted and rooted and rooted even though he had just ate for 30 minutes! I wished we had a pacifier, but never bought one! I verbalized this to my husband when he looked at me confused and… Read more »

Mouse
Guest

Our (6-year-old) son co-slept exclusively for about 18 months. Then he would start in his bed and ask to come to ours at his first waking. At just over two years, he decided to sleep in his bed exclusively (other than when he’s sick or had a bad dream).
For child #2, we’ve set the crib up in our room and won’t even switch the office to baby’s room until it feels necessary. I fully expect to co-sleep again most nights.

Suzanne from bebehblog
Guest

@Oliva: We seem to have almost identical babies. I don’t know how I would still be functioning without side-nursing and co-sleeping. We do it like this: I feed the baby about 8/8:30 pm, my husband rocks him to sleep and puts him in the arm’s reach co-sleeper on my side of the bed. I go up to bed about 10 (which means I’ve gotten almost 2 baby-free hours of relaxation). Some nights he wakes up at midnight but most nights he makes it until 3 am for a feeding. I roll him into the bed and nurse him, usually falling… Read more »

olivia
Guest
olivia

@Mouse, we don’t even own a crib, the pack n play is set up in my husband’s office and she only uses it for play. Her room still has a full sized bed because it’s still needed for guests. In a couple of weeks I’ll be putting bed rails on it so she can use it for naps. @Suzanne, I think my baby sometimes wakes up more often, but I only remember the times I needs to switch sides for nursing. She may end up in our room for a long time to come, but that doesn’t bother me. I… Read more »

GM
Guest
GM

Sans baby I am an 8-hr a night gal, and I pretty much go to bed and get up at the same time all the time (including weekends); regularity of sleep is one of the best ways I found to deal with occasional insomnia and chronic migraines. Now, 5 months into life with a baby, I am absolutely shocked at how apparently normally I can function on so little good sleep. I was blessed with a nonsleeping, in pain (refluxing) newborn. After those first two weeks (Amalah is SOOOO right about those tricky little newborns), my baby stopped sleeping the… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

I did not co-sleep. My husband and I both have sleep issues of our own, and I simply could not sleep with the baby in the bed with me. Even now, when she’s 2 1/2, it’s not as restful for me. I absolutely needed time to sleep all by myself. What worked for us is having one of us sleep in the guest room, splitting the night feedings (dd was a preemie, and took bottles from the get-go, and I am totally chancing the nipple confusion thing this next go-round,) and catching up on the weekends. I also had a… Read more »

Amelia
Guest
Amelia

We did not co-sleep or co-room–I actually put the baby in his crib, in his room from day one (I know, I know, mean mommy). I had a difficult time breastfeeding at first, and the only way it seemed to work for me was sitting in my rocking chair with the boppy on my lap. So my thought was, if I had to get up to breastfeed anyway, let’s just put him in the crib. Maybe we just got lucky, but he has always slept very well in his crib, including naps. We went through our issues at different stages,… Read more »

Stacy
Guest
Stacy

Thanks for another great post. I am in the THICK of sleep deprivation at the moment. My daughter is 7.5 months, and I actually slept more and better when she was a newborn. Firstly, SHE slept more so I could sleep more. I would lie down with her every other nap or 2, and considering she wasn’t awake for more than an hour of time — my day was much more manageable. I could do the kitchen during her first nap, entertain her or just wear her in the wrap and check email as she gazed into space, then go… Read more »