Two weeks after my second daughter, Norah, was born, instead of rejoining my husband in bed after her 2 a.m. feeding, I sent a mass e-mail to my friends, attaching a few candid shots of my new baby. The next day my friend Rosemary responded, "Thank you for the beautiful pics, but what are you doing up at 3 a.m.? Get some sleep!"
She was right, of course. But a combination of euphoria and nervous energy made it hard for me to settle down. Why bother going back to bed when the baby might be screaming to be fed in five minutes? Instead, I'd get a sudden urge to tackle my to-do list. Then I'd be a walking zombie the next day -- irritable, lethargic, unable to focus on the most mundane task.
Getting the sleep you need during those first few months is vital not only for your sanity but for your safety as well. Sandi Duverneuil, a mother of two in Bethesda, Maryland, learned this the hard way when she backed into a concrete pillar in the parking lot of her 3-month-old's pediatrician's office. "I just scratched the car, but it made me realize that five hours a night wasn't enough," says Duverneuil.
According to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, people who sleep less than five hours per day are four to five times more likely to be involved in a sleep-related crash.
But not everyone can fall asleep on a dime. "Sleep when the baby sleeps" sounds blissful in theory. In reality, taking catnaps throughout the day can be a tall order for new moms. Still, there are things you can do to increase the odds of sweet slumber.
"Get off your feet, relax on the couch, and stay off the phone," says Diana Lynn Barnes, a Los Angeles therapist and president of Postpartum Health International.
Don't stress if you can't fall asleep. "Just lying down for a half hour can be very restorative," she adds.
One of the best ways to get a solid stretch of sleep is to have your husband or visitor work the night shift for you. (My mother-in-law was perfect for this job as she lives for the 2 a.m. late-night movie.) It's easier to turn feedings over to someone else if you're bottlefeeding, but moms who are breastfeeding can introduce a bottle of breast milk early on so that someone else can provide relief in the middle of the night. An extra bottle of pumped breast milk can be liquid gold, equal to an extra two or three hours of sleep. Or you can pump at night to have the expressed milk on hand during the day.
"If the baby falls asleep after only one breast, I pump the other so that my husband or my mother can feed him in the morning while I get some additional sleep," says Sonia Park, of Brooklyn, New York.
And while breastfeeding moms may assume their bottlefeeding peers are getting more rest, that's not necessarily the case. A 2002 Australian study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that nursing mothers get more deep sleep -- the type of sleep that heals muscles and repairs the body. Nursing mothers can thank the growth hormone prolactin, which surges during lactation.
Another idea for nursing moms is to get a bassinet that attaches to the bed or sits next to it. This is what Leslie Lido, of Merrick, New York, did when she nursed her twins.
"When they began to stir, I'd scoop one up, nurse him or her, then put him or her back in the bassinet. My feet never had to touch the cold floor and I hardly woke up at all," says Lido.
For those moms who have trouble falling asleep even after a draining day of caring for a new baby, it might be tempting to decompress in front of a computer or television. But that may be counterproductive.
"The light from the computer or television can be very stimulating and keep you up," says Amy Wolfson, PhD, author of The Women's Book of Sleep (New Harbinger).
Elizabeth Lunday, of Fort Worth, Texas, found the radio to be the perfect sleep aid. "I'd often have trouble going back to sleep after waking up to breastfeed. I would turn on the public radio station that played the BBC World News from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., so I would lie there and listen to the cricket and soccer scores from around the world. Sometimes I would pass out before hearing a word. Now the radio is a surefire sleep inducer."
There are helpful visitors (mothers-in-law who make meatloaf and change diapers), and aggravating visitors (coworkers who just want to gossip). In a 2003 study Wolfson directed on changes in sleep patterns in first-time mothers, she found that new mothers with less social support ironically slept more than those with a lot of social support.
"When friends and family stop in to visit the new baby, women may feel obligated to entertain, prepare food, and keep people happy," says Wolfson. Visitors who put high demands on you or expect the same level of effort and hospitality that you had before you became pregnant will only sap your energy. On the other hand, many people are more than happy to pitch in. When you have a guest who offers to help, let her!
Although gulping down a cup of coffee first thing in the morning can give you the jolt you need to be alert, Wolfson says that overdoing it can mask your need for sleep, and may actually prevent you from falling asleep when you finally lie down. (Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that nursing moms try to limit their caffeine consumption to one cup a day.)
There were many nights I wished my husband could lactate. He certainly never has a problem listening to his body's signals to sleep! Sleep deprivation has a way of bringing out the emotionally unstable diva in me. My husband and I accused each other of all sorts of unspeakable crimes. ("Get the $%&@ up or I'm outta here!" -- We've both used this line.) Realize that if you haven't slept through the night in weeks or even months, your mind will be jumbled and your mood will often be sour.
After much midmorning name-calling and cursing, my husband and I made a pact never to take seriously the mean or ridiculous things we say to each other while we're half- conscious. Once we acknowledged that our midnight tirades were just side effects of not getting enough sleep, the rants tapered off.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), healthy babies usually settle into a routine in which they sleep for longer stretches at night (five or more hours) by 2 to 3 months of age. Almost all babies should be able to sleep through the night by the age of 6 months, but the AAP acknowledges that there can be a significant discrepancy between this statistic and what happens in any given family on a given night.
At Norah's 6-month well-baby visit, I still had dark circles under my eyes. Her pediatrician suggested that I refrain from nursing her to sleep and instead put her in her crib drowsy but still awake. Norah let me know that she had a problem with that strategy. I compromised by nursing her an hour before bedtime and rocking her to sleep while she sucked on her binky. So the happy ending to my tale from the dark end of sleep deprivation is that at 10 months, my daughter started sleeping through the night -- and so did I.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.