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February 27, 2020
They were straight-up petrified. A couple of new parents sitting there on the couch in my pediatrics office. Wide-eyed and hopeful, hopped up on information about “this year’s best stroller.” Filled to the brim with platitudes their friends and family all offered about what to expect when the timer went “ding” on their little bun in the oven. “It’ll be hard but you’ll love it. Enjoy your sleep now ‘cause it will never be the same again.” They had heard it all for months and, now, they were looking for REAL answers as to what would happen to their lives in those first few weeks. For the steps they actually could take to prepare themselves for the new little baby that was about to enter their world and turn it completely upside down (for a bunch of free help as you become a new mom, sign up for our free guide here).
I see it all the time in
They have no idea about the fact you have a limited maternity leave. It doesn’t matter to them that you’ve already lived 35 years and have a social life. They certainly don’t care if you have a certain level of sleep you’re used to. Their needs and desires are the same as the needs babies had thousands of years ago. When they are first born (and for the first three months afterward), they want only to keep things going as they were in that blissful, dark, loud, warm, cozy womb from which they just came. Dr. Harvey Karp wrote all about their primitive needs in his groundbreaking book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. It’s over 20 years old at this point but IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE BABIES HAVEN’T CHANGED ONE BIT since then and so the principles are just as true now as they were back in the day.
Before birth, your baby is swayed by the motion of your body throughout the day, lulled to sleep by the small and large movements you make. At night, it’s party time. If you are pregnant and reading this right now, you know EXACTLY what I mean. It’s reassuring on some level to feel a baby kicking around all night long, but it’s also hard to get some shut-eye some nights. All throughout the night, your body is not in motion and so your baby thinks it’s time to get active. After baby comes out, it takes awhile for your newborn to get the drift that night is actually night and day is actually day.
I know, I know, you already KNOW THAT. That’s why you’re so scared about this in the first place, right? But a new parent’s perspective gets thwarted easily. Somewhere along the line, people tend to forget this basic premise: this is not like all the modern things you normally do. They start trying to fix things instead. They try to make their baby get on a sleep schedule starting week one. (I do think that bedtime routines and sleep schedules can be a great thing, they’re just not the solution really early on for most babies.) They buy every product known to man. They fight and fight and fight baby sleep. I’ve been there. I’ve searched for hours for the perfect sleep solution. I’ve gotten frustrated with my baby, with my partner, and with the whole stinkin’ situation. And I’ve even lost sight of the fact that sometimes you can’t fix it. You just have to let it ride out. Let me give you a non-baby example: Think of the last really challenging exercise class or workout you did. The one where you had to psych yourself up to even make it down to the studio or to strap on those running shoes. You just KNEW that there would be a moment when you thought, “this is so hard.” Think of the moment you had to tell yourself, “just keep breathing, use your resources (distracting yourself with music, focusing on your form, thinking about your goal).” Think about how, at some point, your options were to just give up or to keep pushing through. There wasn’t anything you could do to make it substantially better, you just had to keep going. That’s kind of how, on some level, you have to approach new baby sleep. In the beginning, there are only so many things you can control (we’ll get to these in a second). Instead, you have to focus more on your own resources so that YOU can get through this tough time with resilience.
If someone tells you they can get EVERY baby to sleep well EVERY NIGHT using their methods, you’ve gotta be a little wary. I mean, come on, you are smart enough to never buy that when it comes to anything else in your life (think get-rich-quick schemes, perfect beauty tricks). So why would it be true for baby sleep when families and children are all so individual? No, babies are like Frank Sinatra – they do it THEIR WAY. A child’s temperament is a huge influencer of how well they sleep from the very, very beginning. Environment and parents sure help, but, in the end, temperament always plays a huge role. My first daughter was a bit of a nightmare when it came to sleeping well, but my second daughter was more of a breeze. Sure, I learned a bit about baby care in between. I’m not patting myself on the back, though. I can see the difference in their personalities in one hundred other ways, too.
Create an environment that is conducive to good sleep at night. Make the room dark, get the white noise going. Read Happiest Baby on the Block from cover to cover. Then read it again. Watch Youtube videos of how to soothe your baby. Make sure your partner understands the “5 S’s:” Swaddling, Shushing, Swinging, Side or Stomach (note: Side or Stomach is not a safe sleeping position for babies – but is great for soothing when awake) and Sucking. Don’t expect it, like any other book, will work perfectly, but expect it to give you a place to start when baby gets really worked up and won’t rest. You want to avoid feeling stuck, like you have no tricks up your sleeve. So, get the basics down ahead of time and add to your toolbox as you go, making lists of calming tricks if you need to and putting them on your fridge or phone so you can refer to them as you get familiar with what works for your baby.
This is the most important tip I can give you about newborn sleep. When I finished residency, I thought I would be all set to deal with sleep deprivation. I was used to staying up all night long, sometimes for up to 30 hours at a time for one shift. But the thing I forgot when I got into the whole new baby thing was the fact that I was also used to, at some point, having uninterrupted rest for hours at a time. Plus some weekends off. That is very different from the sinking feeling that you may never sleep again when your infant is brand new. While you can’t completely control how your baby sleeps, you can make sure you optimize your own sleep. Here’s how: You need to feed your baby really frequently in the early days and weeks but you don’t need to be the only one who soothes him or her in-between feeding sessions. That means your partner (or someone else – a family member, a postpartum doula) needs to step in and become “soother-in-chief” for awhile, as my work colleague likes to say. Otherwise, you will be at higher risk for postpartum depression and anxiety. Or you could resent the people around you and be less able to actually enjoy your baby during the day. If (again, back to our ancestors), you lived with all 20 of your favorite relatives in one common dwelling, this would be easy. In our culture of isolation, it can be trickier to find help for most new moms but it is SOOOO worth it. Even if you have someone designated as a soother every other night for one week, it will do wonders for your mental and physical health. The whole point is having a time in the future you can look forward to when you know you will get sleep (even if that time is two days away).
Be patient with your baby and with yourself. For some babies, sleep is great right away but for others, you’ve got to wade through the murky water until you get to the fresh stream a little further ahead. Use your resources and mindfulness, just like you would for any other challenging obstacle in your life. Of course, if your baby seems excessively fussy or you are concerned about illness, seek help from your child’s pediatrician. Get help from a lactation consultant if things seem to be haywire in the feeding department. So, is it possible for a newborn to sleep like a baby? Well, technically yes. They will sleep like the immature, womb-seeking, still-developing humans that they are. That’s the truth. Remember how primitive your baby’s needs are. Get your mind right. Get educated about how to soothe a baby and set up a sleep environment that optimizes rest for both of you. Above all, since babies aren’t modernizing anytime soon, make sure you get YOUR sleep by getting a solid team around you from the get-go. That way, even if your baby isn’t quite up to speed on how to calm and sleep when they first arrive, you can teach them with patience and perspective until they find their way.
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