It’s a common understanding that sleep is essential for better health. As adults, we’re often advised to keep to a reasonably regular schedule and to get a nourishing eight hours a night in order to feel refreshed and energised.
But for the majority of new parents, this ideal is impossible.
Long stretches of uninterrupted sleep are not realistic when combined with the demands of a newborn baby. To expect a new mother and her infant to meet such a standard is setting them up for failure. And making new parents think they won’t be able to function without eight hours is not helpful.
There’s no doubt that sleep deprivation can feel like torture for an exhausted parent. But what we are told and what we believe can make the situation worse.
3 unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about baby sleep
“The books say I should be able to make my baby sleep … “
Infants commonly wake for feeding and comfort overnight. Yet, it seems everywhere you turn there’s expert advice on establishing a sleep routine that sets up unrealistic goals for you and your baby.
When those expectations aren’t reached, a sense of failure can make everything feel worse. It’s easy to doubt your ability as a parent or fear there is something wrong with your child.
Broken sleep can be challenging enough without an unnecessary sense of guilt, anxiety or frustration that turns it into a problem. It’s only likely to make you feel more exhausted.
“Everyone else’s baby is sleeping … “
The truth is different sleep techniques work—and don’t work—for different parents and different infants at different times. And most parents struggle with sleeplessness at some point.
As with most aspects of parenting, there is no one-size-fits-all fix.
Ultimately, you are the one you who knows your baby best. Whatever settling strategy works for you and your child is a good strategy, and you can change your approach as needed especially as your infant develops.
“I’m worried I won’t be able to cope … “
And if nothing works? Worrying about sleep doesn’t make it any easier to get it. Catastrophising that your baby will never sleep or that you won’t be able to cope can reach fever pitch in the early hours of the morning.
Sometimes accepting that the present situation is outside your control may alleviate some anxiety. Your baby may be going through a wakeful stage or have a more active temperament than others.
Try finding more helpful things to say to yourself such as acknowledging that it isn’t easy but noting it won’t last forever, that you’ve been tired before but have managed, or that ‘messy is still coping’.
And in addition to modifying your thinking, there may be active steps you can take. Ask for and accept support, and plan ahead wherever possible. Take a united approach with your partner to find a strategy. Acknowledge this time is hard for both of you and help each other get some respite. Some women find they can sleep more deeply early in the night trusting that their partner is awake and listening out for the baby, and then they swap. Other times, a trusted friend or relative may be able to care for your child so you can catch up on an hour or two.
Of course, if sleep deprivation is having an impact on your mental and physical health, reach out for professional help whenever you need. If you can’t sleep even when your baby does or have any condition that is being exacerbated by lack of sleep, you may require more urgent support. Specific support plans are best put in place before issues escalate.
Despite the challenges, it’s encouraging to recognise some of the positive experiences you are sharing with your child during this time.
Building your relationship is one of the rewards of mothering. Time alone together while the rest of the world is asleep can create special moments with your baby and strengthen a sense of attachment.
Remember these nights will come to an end eventually.