It’s hard to think of more loathed advice than ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’, but it touches on something many of us in the first few months of parenting wonder: how in the eff do you survive with no sleep?
Of course, you really can’t survive without sleep, but the few measly hours at night you manage to piece together aren’t even close to enough for most people to feel like they aren’t actively in the process of dying.
While there is no magic pill to fix your sleep woes, there are a few things you can do to help take the edge off while you get through this incredibly challenging time in your life. Just a heads up, much of this heavily skews towards families with two parents but can be modified if you have friends or family members who can be relied on for some overnight help.
Here are 16 ways to cope when you're getting crappy sleep:
1. Sleep in shifts
When we asked our FB followers how they managed to deal with extreme sleep deprivation in the beginning, this was hands down the most recommended. Basically, one person takes a string of night hours, and the other person picks up a string of morning hours, meaning each partner gets a few consecutive hours of sleep, which is really important.
2. Cut corners
Take the easy road wherever you can. Invest in a robot vacuum. Use those bleach tabs in the toilets so you don’t have to scrub them for a few weeks. Put your bills on autopay. Eat out more than normal. Get your groceries delivered, even if that means your bananas are a little sad and the salad expires tomorrow. Have a real think about what needs 100% effort and what can skate by with less of your attention for a bit and still be okay in the end.
3. Do not start a giant project
This is not the time to repaint your cabinets or turn the closet under the stairs into a magical play space for your toddler. When you're not getting enough sleep, any spare time you have is time to rest. Even if that rest looks like sitting on the couch and binging Bluey next to your toddler, it’s better than nothing.
4. Slow down
Chaining together even a few nights of crappy sleep is enough to slow your brain function and prime you to make mistakes. These might be silly, like leaving your keys in the fridge, or horrifying, like leaving your kid in the car (one big way to prevent it is to recognize it can happen to anyone and take precautions). Purposely slowing down a little and really thinking through each action you take when you're sleep deprived can help minimize these mistakes - both big and small.
5. Ask for and/or accept help
For many people, this might be the hardest one on here. Asking for help sucks, but sleep deprivation and the smattering of ill-health effects it can have on you (like PPA, PPD, poor or risky decision making, nausea, high blood pressure and more) is worse. Friends, neighbors, family members, hired help - whoever you feel comfortable with lending a helping hand, ask and/or say yes when they offer.
6. Keep your tank full
Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water is going to help you with all the things, and snacking on foods that are high in fiber and protein can help you set yourself up for better sleep once you finally get to dive into the good stuff (here’s an interesting read about why). Oh, and go easy on the caffeine. You don’t have to quit it cold turkey or anything, but be mindful that it can mess with your sleep cycle if you have too much of it, or have it too late in the day.
7. Take a load off
Sit or lay down whenever you can. Try to take any degree of effort out of whatever task you have to do, whether that means sitting down to fold laundry or laying down to feed the baby. Got a toddler? Here are a handful of games you can play without moving a muscle.
8. Set a sleep quota and stick to it
This one’s from a doula on Reddit. Their recommendation is to set a sleep quota (say 8 hours) and do not get up for the day until you’ve pieced it together - even if that means you’re in bed until noon the next day. (Realistically, this would only work if this is your first kid and you don’t have other obligations.) This could be helpful for people who feel a lot of pressure to get up and start the day even though the things they’re feeling pressured to do, like load the dishwasher or run some laundry, can wait.
9. Get creative with overnight feeds
This might mean using a bottle with either expressed milk or formula so your partner can do an overnight feed or two. Or maybe it means sleeping in a separate space and having your partner take care of all the pre and post-feed needs, so you can go right back to sleep as soon as you’re done feeding. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different options until you find one that works. Considering co-sleeping? Here’s a guide on how to do it as safely as possible.
10. Go to bed when they go to bed
Yes, even if it’s at 7:30. The key right now is banking sleep hours, whenever they might be. Remember this is just a stage, so if for the next few months you hit the hay before it’s fully dark out, just know you’ll be back to a much more normal bedtime eventually, and that getting sleep - no matter what time of day or night - is key.
11. Figure out when you get your best sleep and call dibs
Maybe you naturally fall into a deep sleep from 5-7 am, or maybe your best sleep is sometime in the night. Whatever it is, make sure that your partner takes that shift so you can hopefully score those prime hours.
12. Protect whatever sleep you might get
This might mean separate rooms from your partner, keeping a loving pet out of the bedroom for now, or getting serious about a toddler who prefers to sleep with their toes in your armpit, but don’t let anything other than the baby be the reason you wake up.
13. Chew gum
Is there science behind this? Who knows but it came recommended by a nurse and is super easy to try, so why not?
14. Get outside
This is probably a little bit Old Wive's Tale and a little bit science, but it's also easy enough to try. Daylight is important for setting your circadian rhythm, so it makes sense that getting outside and telling your body, "Hey! It's daytime. Let's do this!" might help a little.
15. Practice acceptance
You are not doing anything wrong. Your baby isn't doing anything wrong. Disjointed sleep patterns are normal when it comes to newborn sleep (we have a great piece on why that is that here). While you may be able to make some adjustments to your own behaviors, infants, like cookies, need a minute when they’re fresh out of the oven before you start fiddling with them. Understanding and accepting that this is a stage you’ll get through can help take the pressure off you feeling like you should be doing something different.
16. Let go of any guilt you might feel about making tough decisions
There are about 9 million different things that could leave you feeling guilty when you put your foot down and prioritize sleep, but do your best to let them go. The most important thing right now is letting your body heal so you can get back to you, and continue to support your baby. Sleep is an absolute must, so prioritizing it is super important - regardless of how sad your toddler or cat or partner might be about a change in routine.
No matter what, this sucky sleep situation will pass.
Hearing these words when you're in the thick of it can be pretty infuriating - or at least that's how I felt when I was in the weeds with my kids, but it's true. Eventually, you will sleep again. Until then, go easy on yourself and do whatever you need to do to get through these long days.
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Our next reco: When Your Baby Hates Sleep
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