By Charles Schaeffer, PhD
Millions of new parents struggle to get good sleep, long after their babies have mastered snoozing through the night. But with practice and a little patience, it is possible to make sure everyone in the family can sleep through the night.
Here are six steps to restful, restorative sleep:
Practice self-care. The physical, emotional, and sometimes financial, demands of learning how to care for a new person are the enemies of a good night's sleep. Stress hormones keep you vigilant and ready to dash in to your sleeping baby. Putting in place realistic self-care practices is one of the most effective ways to combat stress.
Not many new parents have the time to get lost in a good book or the money to spend a relaxing day at the spa. But most can find little spots in their day (or longer ones when the baby is sleeping) to indulge in a gossip magazine, watch a favorite TV show, or take a slightly longer shower or bath. Pick a few activities that help you unwind, and work them in a few times a week to help you release stress.
Log off and cool down. Although the connectivity and stimulation of smartphones, laptops, tablets, and TVs is useful during the day, at night it confuses your body's clock into thinking it should stay awake. This is even true of baby monitors (video or audio) that promise to reduce anxiety but actually keep you vigilant and awake, listening for the next cry.
Create a cut-off time (about an hour before going to bed) to unplug and put in place rituals that tell your body it’s time to sleep. This means no more texting, online shopping, emailing, and yes, turning the volume down on the monitor. Doing so shifts your body into what I call the "cool-down" zone. In the cool-down zone, you can practice sleep-promoting behaviors, such as dressing for bed, washing up, cuddling or (dare I say) having sex with your partner, reading a real book for 20 minutes. (Tablets don't count – the light from the screen is stimulating to your brain.) Another good option is doing a few relaxation exercises or five-minute deep breathing meditations to unwind.
Cut back on caffeine and alcohol. Many new parents find that caffeine is the fuel that keeps them going after a sleepless night, so they keep the java flowing all day long. The problem is that a single serving of coffee (half a tall coffee at Starbucks) stays active in your system for eight hours, elevating your heart rate and keeping your body stimulated. Cutting caffeine off at 2 pm has a tremendous impact on your ability to feel sleepy and stay asleep.
Alcohol, which can become a new parent's companion to unwind from the stress of the day, also undermines your rest. While a glass of red before bed may initially make you sleepy, your body uses a lot of energy and water to break it down. That dehydration and digestion can interrupt your sleep and keep you awake, even when you are tired.
Reconsider naps once your little one is sleeping well. In the early days of parenthood – when nights are riddled with wake ups – naps can be critical to getting the rest you need for your physical and mental health. But once your child is sleeping well at night, they could work against you.
Decades of research on insomnia suggest that the body's natural hunger for sleep is the key to sleeping through the night. If you think of sleep as the feast you have been waiting for all day, then napping is like snacking – it can ruin your appetite for dinner. If your child is sleeping well, and you are emotionally recovered from the transition to parenthood, skipping that nap will likely result in a significant improvement in your night-time sleep.
Make your bed feel sleepy. Associating your bed with sleep and feeling sleepy is essential for quality sleep. Make your bed an oasis for rest by only using it for sleep, unwinding, and having sex. (That means no watching TV or using a tablet or other stimulating electronics.) Another exception is nursing in bed, which can help new moms return to sleep quickly when the feed is finished.
If you can't fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed. Trying to force sleep results in a lot of tossing and turning, anxiety, and frustration, which then becomes associated with your bed. Instead, get out of bed and do something boring or not stimulating until you feel sleepy. (Think: sorting junk mail and reading a magazine NOT making chore lists, checking the baby, surfing the Internet, or watching TV.)
Go easy on yourself. Most new parents are understandably anxious about being a good caregiver, but many suffer unnecessarily under the pressure of feeling like they need to be the perfect parent, housekeeper, family financial planner, provider, and the list goes on. These worries keep many parents awake months and even years after their children have learned to get good shut-eye.
There are no new mom or dad Olympics. You're going through an incredible life transition, and you are working hard. Give yourself a break and know that getting good sleep and recharging are the keys to being a good parent.
If you have persistent difficulty adjusting to your new role, find yourself constantly worrying that your baby would be better with a different parent, or believe that you'll never be good enough for your new family, you may be experiencing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. These are common and treatable conditions, and it's worth talking with a trained clinician to help you reduce stress, recover, and get rest.