My wife, Noelle, gave birth to our first child last year, a son, who we named John. While it's a bit cliché to say, the truth is that having John in our lives has been the best thing that's ever happened to either of us. Children can add a sense of purpose and joy that a couple never knew existed before. But along with that bundle of joy come a bundle of new experiences that aren't always easy to deal with.
When a woman is pregnant, she's constantly reminded to cherish her sleeping hours while she can. Once the baby arrives, as other moms warn, shut-eye is going to be hard to come by. Noelle was told of what seemed like endurance experiments involving no sleep combined with non-stop feeding, diaper changes, constant laundry and hosting visits from well-meaning friends and relatives.
As much as this advice makes sense at the time, it doesn't really sink in until after the child is actually born...
In the beginning, John, like most babies, slept almost all the time and there was no real schedule to his days and nights. For parents, this stage can be great, because a baby's unexpected snooze can be a welcome chance for a parent to take a quick catnap. However, at least for adults, naps preclude the ability to get to the restorative, rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep stage, and that can have serious consequences.
In this Harvard Business Review article about the importance of sleep, one quote really resonates with me: "When your brain is starved of REM sleep, concentrating on a single activity is challenging. Multitasking -- an inescapable bane of managerial work -- becomes exponentially more so."
For a mother of a new baby, multitasking is paramount. Yet, in some kind of cruel twist, a dramatic drop in REM sleep makes new parents woefully bad at doing just that.
How does a sleep-deprived parent resolve this inexplicable paradox?
Well, at least for the first three months, you don't. You drink coffee, rest when you can, and trust that this, too, shall pass. Once your baby is sleeping for longer stretches at a time, so will you.
But here are some tips to make those first few weeks and months a bit more pleasant:
• Safety first. Make sure your baby has a safe sleeping environment. That means no large toys in the crib or bassinette, well-secured clothing and being put to sleep on his or her back.
• Be in the black. Blackout shades can help darken the brightest room and signal to your baby that it's nap time.
• Read 'em and don't weep. There are loads of books and online resources about babies and sleep. Page through a few of them to get an idea of what tactics might work for you. But don't feel you have to follow the advice of any one expert.
• Call in the professionals. If you're at the end of your rope, consider hiring a sleep consultant who can come to your home and ensure that you and your baby are giving yourselves the best chance possible for good sleep.
While it's important to help babies get all the sleep they need, adults need to take care of themselves, too.
After a few months, when your baby is (hopefully) sleeping for a few hours at a time, you can experiment with the techniques below to increase their nighttime sleeping and get on some semblance of a daytime nap schedule.
• Consistency is key. Most sleep experts agree that babies are creatures of habit, so putting a baby to bed at the same time and in the same place every day will help foster healthy sleep habits.
• Crying it out. Parents are divided on whether or not to let their little ones cry it out when they're put to bed. But a new study out of Australia found that crying can help babies learn to self soothe and improve both the parents' and the baby's sleep.
• Relax. If your baby misses a nap or sleeps all afternoon or if you just can't resist the urge to pick up your tearful, weary wee one, don't worry. Take a deep breath and try to be flexible. Depending on growth spurts, moods and other variables, your baby will need more or less sleep at different times of his or her development. That means your sleeping hours will vary, too.
While it's important to help babies get all the sleep they need, adults need to take care of themselves, too. For their own health and wellness, parents (especially moms) need to sleep when they can. If that means skipping a social outing or leaving the laundry until tomorrow, so be it. If your baby will take a bottle, feeding duties can be shared and one parent can go to bed early while the other takes the late shift. Even better - send one parent to the guestroom or a friend or relative's house for a restorative overnight sleep. Getting eight or nine hours of shut eye can do wonders for everyone.
I'm happy to report that John is now nine months old, sleeping through the night and napping twice a day. Noelle and I are feeling almost human again.
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