Sleep is such a top priority for everyone (who is not sleeping) with a new baby. It’s exhausting and stressful when your baby is having broken sleep during the night or perhaps, they sleep at night but not during the day, so what’s going on? Why is this and how do we improve it?
What I typically see is that anywhere around 6 – 10 weeks baby will suddenly appear to be doing longer stretches overnight. As a side note this is not every baby, unfortunately some babies will continuously struggle with their sleep, that's not your fault it can be personality tendencies. Parents start feeling more normal and excited that they are doing it – they are parenting! It gives them a huge boost in confidence, and they start emerging from their homes and start looking at local activities and venturing out into the outside world. Now I might add this isn’t the case for everybody and you’re not doing anything wrong if this isn’t you. I see a whole range of different experiences and some parents don’t emerge from their cocoon until more like the 12 week mark and that is completely okay, it’s about when you are feeling ready. I’m here to support you if you need, just contact me.
Getting some more rest definitely improves everyone’s mood and getting out of the house can also help with our mental health. Interacting with other people, getting some gentle exercise in the form of walking can all have a big impact on how we feel. The problem is that once your baby has done a week or so sleeping longer stretches overnight, perhaps for a 5 or 6 hour stretch, you know they can sleep. Unfortunately, it is when this starts to feel like the norm that it can abruptly come to an end for no apparent reason. As parents we end up feeling frustrated and questioning everything! The trouble is that once our body has had a little sleep we can feel absolutely wrecked when they start waking more frequently again.
So why does this happen and what’s it all about?
It can happen for a number of reasons and often the first is another growth spurt. When babies go through a growth spurt, they often need to eat more, which means more frequent wakes up. I will also add though that after a period of intense feeding they often have a day or so of great sleeping.
They are also super interested in the world and generally more alert and awake. This can mean that when they come out of a sleep cycle any slight noise can pique their interest and so they struggle to go back to sleep without parental intervention. This can also be the case if they open their eyes and can see things in their room, which may be why a dark room can be recommended for baby to sleep in – it doesn’t however always work.
They actually start not needing as much sleep during the day so for some families it may be that baby is sleeping too much during the day and therefore doesn’t need as much during the night. This can be really challenging and take a little while to re-adjust, so that they are sleeping more at night and less during the day.
Going back to the point of being interested in the world, their development is going through so many different areas of growth. They are able to hold onto an object and bring it towards their face, tracking objects and people in the room, wanting to communicate, wanting to play and wanting to be more stimulated. These are all things that they are trying to practise often. This often can lead to being, “tired but wired.” Babies' minds consolidate a lot of their learning overnight when they are alone. Their little brains are so busy it can be very hard for them to sleep and eventually they may need your intervention to help them drift back to sleep.
Some babies may start teething which can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. Teething can last months but shouldn’t cause your baby pain every night.
Growing out of their bassinette can cause issues with needing more space. They may be waking themselves by hitting the sides of the crib and actually moving them into a bigger cot can help with this. Equally transitioning them out of their swaddle can throw up a few sleepless nights, as they get used to having their arms out. This shouldn't last long and is definitely necessary as it's dangerous to swaddle a baby that can roll.
Depending on the time of year it could be because they are either too hot or too cold, which can lead to them being thirstier and needing a drink during the night. This is the same for both breast and formula fed babies.
Some babies may start something called reverse feeding. This is when they eat more at night than in the day. It is usually due to getting distracted while feeding. I recommend trying to have a couple of quieter feeds during the day without many distractions to help prevent this from happening.
Plus of course things such as illness can upset babies sleep patterns.
Remember as adults, if we wake during the night we can get up and go to the bathroom, we can get a glass of water, if we’re really struggling, we may read a book, but we have options as adults on how to re-settle ourselves. Our baby cannot do any of these things and is solely reliant on us to help. They can’t regulate their emotions at this stage and their only way of communicating with us is through crying.
What can we do?
Start by checking in with ourselves. For example, are you having trouble sleeping in between your baby's wake ups? Are you looking after yourself, eating and drinking enough? Sometimes we become so focused on our baby that we forget some basic health care for ourselves. If sleep is becoming difficult for you it may be beneficial just to get a check up from the doctor to make sure your iron levels, vitamin B levels and your thyroid are all correct. Typical areas that women can struggle in postnatally.
Remember this is a phase for a period of time, not forever. Take it one day at a time.
Rest when you can. I know this is easier said than done. Some people can’t sleep during the day which can be so frustrating, but actually putting your feet up and watching some TV can be enough to let you relax, sometimes even drift off. Meditation can help, listening to a podcast, reading – although sometimes when you’re really tired it can be hard to concentrate on a book.
Eat and drink as well as you can. Having snacks such as nuts on hand or hard-boiled eggs, deli meats, Complan etc. Protein will keep you more sustained for longer rather than high carb sugary snacks which will create crashes in your blood sugar levels making you ultimately feel worse. Dark chocolate is better than others if you need a chocolate boost. Looking after yourself and making sure you are eating and drinking are all important things to remember when you’re sleep deprived.
Often, I will recommend to struggling parents to take shifts, so for example parent one does 9pm until 2:30am and parent two does from 2:30 until baby gets up.
If people offer to help take it, in fact ask for help – it’s not a sign of weakness asking for help. Whether it’s somebody cooking some meals for you, doing some laundry or looking after baby for you, take advantage!
If you can, get a cleaner to take some of the physical tasks off your plate or a postpartum doula to help ease the load.
For some reason we have a belief that we should do it all. Previous generations have, or have they? Other people do it so we should also be getting on, doing it all with no sleep, but why? Nobody is going to give you an award for doing it all. Nobody will stand up and say well done for not getting help. I say take all the help on offer to get you through the tough patches. Society has changed and life is hard, don’t make it harder on yourself!
It can be beneficial to look at your babies' wake ups as not being your baby's fault. They are not being naughty, trying to manipulate you or trying to upset you, they are frustrated and just need your help. Remember night-time sleep is very different to daytime sleep. During the night it is quiet and cooler. Your baby's natural circadian rhythm (their internal body clock) and the production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone) and the reduction of adrenalin (a hormone that often gets a bad rap but is vital for life) in the evening can all play a part in helping your baby join their sleep cycles together. For some babies may struggle with it being quieter and cooler, so it really is about learning about your baby and what helps them.
Good luck parents! I know it’s hard, but you are doing an awesome job. Remember it’s just a phase, a period in time and it’s not going to be forever. Take care and reach out if you need help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness!