Many parents accept that sleep will be a thing of the past when they have a baby. Sleepless night’s early risings and adjusting to baby’s needs means that many people ignore their own sleep needs.
Sleep is important for physical and mental health. Even short term sleep loss can affect how you feel… Daytime drowsiness and irritability affect relationships and can contribute towards accidents in the home, driving and at work. Parents need to ensure that they have sufficient sleep to enable them to look after their new family and keep their sanity!
Sleep and Pregnancy
Nature prepares parents for changes in sleep during pregnancy…As pregnancy progresses hormonal changes and emotional responses may affect sleep. Expectant mothers are on a roller coaster as they adjust to the changes in their bodies. During the early months they may feel extreme tiredness followed by difficulty sleeping. As the birth draws nearer and baby becomes larger and heavier it is often difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep. Anxiety over the birth may keep both parents awake.
Birth and Sleep
Babies can arrive at any time – day or night. For the next few months they will sleep up to eighteen hours in twenty-four. They will wake up for feeds and need attention during the night.
New mothers will be recovering from the birth. Hormonal changes, caesareans, episiotomies, mastitis, sore nipples, breast feeding, and other physical problems may leave the body sore and uncomfortable. Again, finding a comfortable position to sleep and adjusting to changes in the body may make it difficult to get to sleep.
Emotional adjustment may also make both parents anxious and stressed. Post Natal Depression and the ‘baby blues’ can affect sleep, causing either excessive sleepiness or insomnia. Many parents are expecting life to be different, but have given little thought to how their own sleep may be affected.
Babies will gradually adjust to their Circadian Rhythm and start to sleep through the night. This will differ between individuals but normally they will start to sleep through the night by the time they are 6 months. After this time they can be introduced to a routine that will help them recognise bedtime.
Babies sleep better when they can sense some activity – movement and noise – that helps them feel connected and safe. They also need to sleep in a warm room. Adults sleep better in a quiet dark environment in a cooler temperature.
During the early months feeding and caring for baby may mean it is almost impossible to sleep through the night. Many parents find that being constantly ‘on call’ means they find it impossible to relax, leaving them exhausted and anxious.
Suggestions for Improved Sleep
Babies may sleep in their own room or with their parents. To encourage sleep the bedroom should be a calm and relaxing environment. By keeping the bedroom solely for sleeping the mind starts to connect with sleep and start to relax. Try to keep the bedroom cool and calm and remove anything unconnected with sleep from the room.
Sharing feeding duties can help each partner have a decent nights sleep. Breastfeeding mothers can be helped if the baby is brought from the cot and taken back after the feed. Reassurance that baby will be safe and cared for is often enough to encourage a new parent to take a few hours off duty.
Current research shows the value of napping. Sleep loss causes daytime fatigue, loss of concentration and moodiness. A daytime nap can help increase alertness and improve energy. Babies will sleep during the day during the early months and continue to take a daytime nap for the next year or two. Many parents use this time to catch up on work or other chores. A daytime nap or some relaxation will help parents who are suffering from sleep debt.
Many parents try to work through Sleep Debt. They may become used to doing without sufficient sleep. Baby may start to sleep through the night but parents still find it difficult to relax and get good nights sleep. They may have lost the habit of sleeping and become anxious over what used to be a natural activity.
There are many ways to help encourage the return of a good nights sleep. As the physical symptoms of pregnancy and childbirth subside, and the new mother adjusts to the changes in her body, sleep may remain elusive. This may be due to a number of factors. Lack of daytime exercise, irregular diet, caffeine and alcohol will all affect the quality of sleep.
Anxiety is one of the main causes of Insomnia. New parents are naturally anxious and may need to find ways to relax. They should be encouraged to pay attention to their own needs. Taking time to learn relaxation techniques and other ways to reduce tension can help reduce stress and improve sleep.
Most parents adjust over time and sleep improves. If Insomnia persists or there is physical discomfort or accompanying depression or anxiety medical advice should be sought. Midwives and doctors recognise the importance of sleep to parents and babies and are able to suggest ways to help.
Fresh air, exercise and a healthy diet help parents and babies sleep. Parents and babies benefit from being involved and socialising. Activities such as Baby Massage, Yoga and Toddler and Baby Groups will help baby develop and be ready to sleep at night.
The support of grandparents, friends and family helps many new parents through the early months. Their wisdom and reassurance can make all the difference, especially if they are available for the occasional night out or evening vigil.
Unfortunately many parents do not have a support system that allows them a night off. Single parents may face a future where they are the sole carer and have little opportunity to socialise or meet their own needs. When there is little support available, sleep is even more important. The consequences of long term sleep loss mean that ways need to be found that will help single parents not only recognise that they need sleep but find ways to help them relax. Learning strategies that will encourage relaxation and trying to find ways to cope with anxiety can make a real difference.