That New Mom Life Podcast, Episode 4: Coping With Sleepless Nights

Fear not, new moms: it won’t last forever! Listen to expert advice on how to deal with sleep deprivation during the first few months of parenthood. 

An image of a woman holding her baby while drinking from a mug.
Photo: Getty Images.

Sleep may be in short supply among new moms, but the That New Mom Life community had an endless supply of hilarious mishaps from those newborn nights. Five moms shared their stories, and you'll never guess why one of their TVs wouldn't turn on!

Even though funny things can happen, sleep deprivation is no joke. This week, Grace Bastidas and Desiree Fortin share the mic with Maida Chen, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Seattle Children's Hospital.

Dr. Chen explains the importance of sleep, what happens when moms are sleep deprived, and brain fog (it's a little different from mommy brain). She also breaks down the physiology of why newborns don't sleep through the night, and why some new moms might struggle with sleep too.

And of course, we won't leave you hanging: This episode also includes tips for how you and your baby can catch some much-needed Z's! That New Mom Life is wishing you the sweetest of dreams once your little one finally sleeps through the night. We promise it will happen. Until then, we're here to hold your hand.

Listen and subscribe to That New Mom Life on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.That New Mom Life will be back again next week with more postpartum insights.

Upcoming topics this season:

  • Mom friends
  • How to stay in the moment
  • Body changes
  • How to share the parenting load
  • Establishing routines
  • Sex and romance as new parents
  • Preparing for what's next

If you have a story to tell or want to learn more about That New Mom Life, email us at

Listen to episode 4 right now:

Plus follow along here:

Grace: You know when my daughter finally slept through the night, I should have been so rested, but I just remember getting up to see if she was breathing! I should have been out for the count, but there I was laying my hand on her chest so that I could feel it go up and down.

Desiree: I know! Why do we do that to ourselves?

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Grace: Hey, I'm Grace Bastidas, Editor-in-Chief of Parents Latina, and if you're listening to this in the middle of the night, you're not alone! All newborns wake up for a feed every few hours, it's just what babies do.

Desiree: I'm Desiree Fortin, blogger and mom of four, and yes! I think got a whopping three hours of sleep last night. How can we rest when we're on call 24/7?!

Grace: Don't worry, Desiree. Help is on the way! Dr. Maida Chen is not only a professor at the sleep disorders centre at Seattle Children's Hospital, but she's been through it herself with three babies of her own!

Desiree: This is exactly what I need to hear! First up, let's check in and hear from some moms about the wild and wonderful things we do when we're sleep deprived.

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Mom 1: My baby was a few days old, maybe a week old at this point. And I was so, so, so tired, and I suddenly turned to my husband and was like, this is ridiculous. I can't believe we still haven't named the baby. I don't even care anymore. Just name him whatever you want.

And my husband looked at me and was like, what are you talking about? We named the baby in the hospital? In fact, you named the baby in the hospital. I truly had forgotten.

Mom 2: My baby was 3 days old and fell asleep in a car seat. I was so sleep deprived and just dozed off and fell asleep.

He starts crying, and I wake up super panicked. I'm like, "What is this? What is this noise?" Just so startled. And I look at my husband like, "What is that?"

And he looks at me like I was crazy. And he says, "The baby, what are you talking about?"

I can't believe that I forgot that I had a baby cause I was so tired.

Mom 3: My son was about 6 weeks old and was waking up every two to three hours to eat. He woke up at 5, and I was so tired. I was like, "Okay, I'm going to make coffee cause he's going to be awake for a little while." Sleepy me goes out, puts my coffee pot into my Keurig, puts it to brew. And I take out my coffee creamer, and I take out the formula.

Yeah, I drank coffee with baby formula.

Mom 4: I often get so sleep deprived that I just go into autopilot mode.

I threw out the actual banana, but kept the peel, stopped myself before just about eating the peel. But the dumbest, absolute dumbest thing I've ever done was paying the utilities on an apartment that I no longer lived in.

I had moved from my apartment in Brooklyn to New Jersey and had been there a few months. All of a sudden, we couldn't get the TV to turn on. We were calling the cable company and they told us that we hadn't paid the bill. Aghast, I check my bank statements and yeah, of course I've been paying my cable bill. I've been paying my cable bill on my apartment in Brooklyn.

Mom 5: I have a newborn girl and I was feeding her. Then I heard the doorbell ring, so I got up and the lady immediately looks down, which I thought perhaps was because she might have been frustrated that it took me so long to get to the door.

However, right at the same moment, I felt a chill, like a breeze, and it immediately clicked that, "Oh! I'm standing here with no shirt on, and my daughter is breastfeeding."

But I didn't lose eye contact with the lady. I kept looking at her, pretending that I didn't notice and then slightly moved up my daughter's feet to try and cover my other side.

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Desiree: Let's get to our guest now—Dr. Maida Chen, mom of three and Professor at Seattle Children's hospital where she works with children in the sleep disorders center.

Grace: Dr. Chen, thank you so much for joining us today. We're talking about sleep, such an important topic. Can you tell us what happens when we sleep and how a newborn disrupts that?

Dr. Chen: I think a lot of people think of sleep as a time that our body turns off. And actually sleep is an incredibly active state where there is an active recharge happening, a lot of health and body functions.

It's supposed to happen in a certain order, or at least our bodies prefer it to happen in a certain order, in terms of sleep stages. And newborns don't seem to have respect for that order.

Human sleep is largely divided into REM or rapid eye movement sleep, and then non-REM sleep. Newborn's cycle in and out of REM sleep very rapidly. They will go in 60-minute cycles, sometimes shorter. Adults will sleep in non-REM sleep, in a very deep non-REM sleep for several hours before they start to cycle in and out of REM sleep.

Unfortunately, our bodies are habituated to falling asleep in that non-REM deep sleep initially. And that is exactly the moment that newborns tend to cycle out of their REM and wake up. And so it feels incredibly disruptive to an adult in that sense.

Desiree: And what would you say happens when we don't get enough sleep? What are some of the physical and cognitive effects of that?

Dr. Chen: They're huge. Obviously the physical ones; nobody is at their peak health, or if you want to call it athletic performance, in the sense of everything is clunkier. Our reaction time is slower, you just don't move as fast.

I think from a cognitive standpoint, obviously everybody is familiar with that sleep deprived sort of brain fog. But one thing I think is really important to point out is that judgment is impaired when you are that sleep deprived. And the more sleep deprived you are, the less you realize it. And the less you realize how very impaired your judgment is.

Grace: So, is there anything we should avoid under those circumstances? For example, should we be driving while drowsy? I'm thinking no.

Dr. Chen: New moms especially can be very impaired when it comes to driving. Especially if they're distracted by, you know, a new crying human in the backseat, or if there are other children, but that really goes for beyond just the newborn period. It's really a lot of adults in the U.S.

Grace: So you mentioned brain fog. Is that the same as mommy brain?

Dr. Chen: It's probably very similar. I think mommy brain has brain fog plus hormones.

Brain fog literally happens when your brain waves are still in a sleepier state. They are moving slower than when you are completely awake. And if you're woken up out of a deep stage of sleep, your brain waves literally take a little bit to speed that up.

Desiree: So would you say then, in those first few weeks that all the hormone levels that new moms are experiencing also affect our sleep?

Dr. Chen: Absolutely. So especially for first-time moms, many will describe, with those hormones in the initiation of things like nursing, or just getting up and feeding, there's almost like this surge of adrenaline that comes through.

Where you are so anxious, worried, and excited, all the things, at coming home with this new baby, you don't want to miss a thing. You are petrified that you're going to sleep through something. It's a combination of endorphins of just having this new baby at home, but also incredible amounts of stress. And those things tend to fuel adrenaline through the first couple of days at home, and then I think the fatigue really sets in.

Desiree: You mentioned that newborns have different sleep patterns to adults? Can you explain in more depth?

Dr. Chen: So newborns don't have a circadian rhythm that's really strongly built in, that does not appear until they're somewhere in the 3 to 6 month range.

So when they sleep, they sleep in, you know, 60 to 90 minutes spurts. As they start to mature, neurologically those spurts will lengthen in time, or at least one of them will lengthen somewhat, according to the sun. It usually happens at nighttime. But for the first three months, they have no attention and they heed not at all the clock.

Desiree: Yeah. I feel like I'm experiencing that right now. Would you say that at this point, your baby is coping a lot better than you on this broken sleep?

Dr. Chen: Yeah. I mean, this is how they are designed to function, right? And these, you know, 60 to 90 minutes spurts—all humans have something called a sleep pressure drive, which translates into, "The longer you are awake, the more you need to sleep."

For teenagers and adults, our sleep pressure drive, for the most part, most of us could actually stay up 24 hours. And even though it wouldn't be a pretty thing or a good thing, we could do it.

There is just no way a newborn can physiologically do that. A newborn sleep pressure rises so very rapidly. And certainly having infants in the home, you can all see that by that three hour mark, if an infant has been awake that whole time, they're completely overtired.

Grace: So Dr. Chen, you just said that the longer you're awake, the more you need to sleep. But sometimes new moms will lay in bed and not be able to get to sleep. Why does that happen?

Dr. Chen: Part of that is that sleep is a two process model. So I talked about sleep pressure. That's one driving force of sleep.

The second driving pressure is something we call our circadian process. That's the pacemaker. That is our internal body clock. And so at times throughout the day, your circadian drive will overpower your sleep pressure drive. Babies don't have that, but adults do.

So adults at something like 9 or 10 a.m., that's when we, for those who are on a more traditional clock, feel most awake. That's when we are used to really starting work and things like that. That's a really hard time for moms to lay down and nap. Yet, if you take that same mom who is equally sleep deprived and the time were 2 or 3 in the afternoon, there is a natural dip in our circadian drive at that point in time. And so we all feel a little sleepier and that is a time where if adults nap, they tend to nap during that circadian dip.

Grace: Can some adults function better than others on less sleep?

Dr. Chen: Yes. And that is actually where humans vary. So in terms of the biologic hours needed of sleep, it's really not a huge variation between adults. It's somewhere between seven and eight hours for the majority of adults. I think the difference is that some people function very well at six hours and some people don't function at all on six hours of sleep. And so that's where the adult variability comes into play.

Desiree: Let's get into some practical solutions here. How beneficial are short naps and how often should you try and take them?

Dr. Chen: Short naps can be very beneficial. Timing and duration of naps is actually kind of important. If you allow yourself to sleep too long—so, during the day, let's say longer than an hour or so, you will likely drift into that super deep sleep that I was talking about. And that's when you wake up and are in a horrible brain fog. And you feel worse for having taken a nap.

However, if you can limit your nap to 20 or 30 minutes, the so-called power nap, it's short enough to decrease some of that sleep pressure I was talking about. Sort of reset the clock a little bit, but it's not long enough for you to get into this deep sleep, where it is the point of no return from a brainwave standpoint.

Grace: But it's really hard to switch off for 30 minutes. Any tips on how we can quiet that brain if we want to get that power nap in?

Dr. Chen: I think for a lot of women, it's a very intentional choice to try to power down like their entire lives. If you are somebody who, for instance, chooses to indulge in social media, It's hard to social media just at certain times.

If you do have some downtime, your natural habit is to pick up the phone and check social media. And before you know it, you've had that light exposure. You've had that content that is engaging your mind, and your 30-minute window is gone.

And it really takes much more in terms of an intentional lifestyle to say, "I am not going to do this. I'm not going to engage in this for a little bit." And that's a hard decision for a lot of people to make, because it's very easy for me to say, "Just don't look at your phone." And it's not about just that. It's about really temporarily disengaging from some of those things that activate your mind.

Grace: Are there some exercises we can do, for example, breathing exercises, to kind of get to that point where we're relaxed?

Dr. Chen: I think those definitely help—when you are actually laying down and in bed. So having a cool dark room, sometimes having white noise in the background can be very helpful. It fills your brain with something besides your own chatter. Or non lyrical music is also reasonable in that sense. That's very soothing.

A cool room is another one that is oftentimes overestimated. People think of getting warm and cozy for bed. It's actually hard to fall asleep if you're too warm. And especially with new mom hormones, a lot of times there are highs and lows of cold and hot. And so just making sure that your temperature is regulated, but on the cooler side for trying to fall asleep.

Darkness. Darkness is huge. If you are trying to fall asleep with blinds wide open and blazing sunlight coming in, it's hard. It's really hard to do. And so investing even in temporary blackout shades for your bedrooms, can be also very helpful. It's amazing what a really super dark room can do.

I think from a mental standpoint, doing things like breathing exercises. So there's a ton of options out there, and all the ones that are suggested for nighttime insomnia would also work for daytime lens.

Things like four square breathing, like, you know, breathing in your mind, having a visual of four breaths in four breaths out, four breaths in, four breaths out, or along those lines.

Another trick that sometimes I will tell patients to use is to imagine a little red ball that starts at the top of your head. And just imagine it rolling down your midline all the way down to the tip of your toes. And many people will fall asleep by the time it hits their tummy area.

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Desiree: If you have a partner, what is a smart strategy for sharing night feeds? Is it a good idea to alternate feeds or alternate nights? So that way one partner has a whole night of sleep with no getting up.

Dr. Chen: I think that's a great question and the answer in part really lies in knowing yourself and knowing your partner in terms of how you guys each function best. And so I've certainly seen really good strategies for partners who'll alternate nights, so that each partner can at least have an alternate night of all night uninterrupted sleep.

I've also seen strategies though, where just the disruption of going from an every other night sort of being "on call" system is really tough for some people.

And so some people do better if each partner is allowed five to six hours of uninterrupted sleep. So one partner will go to sleep at, like, I know this sounds ridiculous, but like 6 to midnight, the other one will then be asleep from midnight to 6. Having each partner get a reliable five to six hours each on a nightly basis, that works better for many, where the every other night is still quite disruptive.

Grace: Do you advise maybe going to sleep when you first set down the baby at night, at 6 or 7, whatever it is, and kind of trying to mimic what they're doing?

Dr. Chen: The first two to three months are probably just completely out the window in the sense of, you know, the babies have no pattern at all. So if you can do that for yourself, that's certainly wonderful.

I would say though, around the end of the two to three month mark, and you'll start seeing this in babies, their first stretch of sleep that lengthens will be one of those evenings sleeps. And so if you can get yourself into that habit, you may just get lucky and extend as that baby learns to extend that first phase of nightly sleep.

Desiree: I feel like that's what I just experienced actually, just about a month ago. I got that four-hour stretch and it was like I was a new woman! When can we expect things to get easier? When do most babies settle into those longer stretches of sleep?

Dr. Chen: I think the majority are pretty capable by six months. I start to counsel families that around the two to three month mark, if not even sooner, starting to get into those habits of coming up with a nighttime routine. So again, they're not going to announce to you when they're going to start extending their sleep. You're going to get lucky. It's just going to happen.

And you want to be prepared for that because when it does happen, you want to be able to capitalize on that and start extending that sleep. And if that is done, and if you're sort of aware of what's happening, many babies will learn how to sleep through the night without much other effort. They just sort of learn to self-soothe, and if families can pay attention and sort of respect that timing in that sense. For a lot of babies, they are quite capable of sleeping six to eight hours, definitely by 6 months of age.

Grace: How do we encourage that?

Dr. Chen: Babies can actually learn to self-soothe earlier than that. And I think, what again you don't know is, they're not going to announce to you when, "Okay Mommy, today is the day that I am going to self-sooth."

And so it's contingent upon the parent to offer some of those self-soothing opportunities on a consistent basis, starting around six to eight weeks. And you know, for the first month you're going to feel like nothing is working. They're not going to pick up on it, but you don't know. You don't know when they are going to pick up on it.

So if you are somebody who has used a pacifier, offering the binky instead of immediately going in to pick up. Patting them gently instead of immediately going to pick up. Doing those things in a habituated response, because at 2 o'clock in the morning, nobody is going to do anything!

But again, it's contingent on the parents then to just really set up their own routine so that, you know when that baby cries, the first thing you are going to do is offer the binky and not necessarily pick up that baby right away.

Or, if you can stomach it, give that baby 10, 20 minutes to sort of figure it out. And see what happens. In the era of everybody having a video cam on their infant, this is actually—I mean, it's a blessing and a curse. I think there was a generation where without the cameras, if you didn't hear the baby, the baby just figured it out on their own because you never knew the baby woke up.

Now everybody has video monitors and things like that, but it also affords moms and dads, the advantage of being able to see what the baby is doing. If the baby's not really in distress and just sort of squirming, maybe let them squirm for a little bit.

Grace: I did that, and it was really hard. But when it finally worked, it was just like a little miracle.

Dr. Chen: You kind of want to beat them at their own game, so to speak.

Grace: Outsmart the baby!

Dr. Chen: Yes!

Desiree: So motherhood of course is very exhausting and when it comes to sleep deprivation, it can make it even more exhausting for all of us. And at what point should we reach out for help?

Dr. Chen: I would say early on, but that is something that I think every mother needs to know for herself.

I think for new mothers, sometimes it's hard to know just how sleep deprived you can get in terms of functionality. But certainly if you find yourself dozing off or having moments where you're just like, I don't even know what just happened in the last 30 seconds. Things like that. Those are signs of pretty serious sleep deprivation.

Your brain can actually fall asleep within three seconds. And in those three seconds, you will not necessarily hear, see, or remember anything that has happened around you. So if you find yourself becoming really forgetful where maybe in the past you weren't, or just unable to stay organized. If you find yourself snapping at those who are around you, those are all signs of sleep deprivation.

And when you start to see those, know that you're already sleep deprived, and it's time to reach out for help.

Grace: Finally, Dr. Chen, what is your top tip for dealing with sleep deprivation during those first weeks of motherhood?

Dr. Chen: To have grace with yourself and really let go of things that are not lifesaving and not absolutely necessary to your health. And if you really have nothing but mom brain on your mind, in that sense, you need to step back and ask for help.

Everybody has an opinion on how to best raise a baby and how to best be a new mom. You can't listen to anybody but yourself.

Grace: Thank you so much, Dr. Chen for joining us today and for all this great advice. I want to wish you a good night's rest tonight.

Dr. Chen: Thank you ladies very much.

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Grace: Dr. Chen had so much great advice on getting some much-needed rest when you have a newborn at home.

You know when I had my oldest, I remember trying to get her on a schedule. I was going to establish a routine, no matter what. Bath, book, boob. But she had her own ideas.

Turns out she was just being a baby. She wasn't being a terrible sleeper, that's just what infants do! I thought it was going to last forever. I thought I'll never get any sleep ever again! Did you feel the same way?

Desiree: I have been down the road of sleep deprivation with the triplets, and I am now in it with Cambria, and they're two very different experiences. But I also know my needs right now, and I am more aware of those needs because I feel like with the sleep deprivation with the triplets, it threw me into just, just like how Dr. Chen was saying where I really couldn't function. I felt like I was at the wheel driving and couldn't stay focused.

Now when I experience that with Cambria, I know I need to ask for help. I need to have a friend come over and watch the triplets so that way I can just rest for a little bit.

Grace: Did the triplets have different sleep patterns?

Desiree: We worked really hard to get those three on the same routine. They definitely had a mind of their own. We had a lot of reflux issues that made the sleep even more difficult for probably all of us, but Ryan, my husband was helping me at night. We were both feeding, taking turns, and trying to get in a few hours of sleep because it was, it was necessary so we could actually function!

Grace: You know, I had a similar experience with my husband where we actually called him the night shift guy because he would wake up multiple times a night. But the difference between he and I is that he would lay his head on the pillow and fall asleep right away.

And I would lay there with, you know, momsomnia, just listening to him breathe and feeling really, really annoyed. But somehow he was built for this. Dr. Chen said that some people function well on little sleep. I credit all those years that he used to party in nightclubs with him being able to stay awake through the night.

And to this day he still gets up in the middle of the night when my girls cry out.

Desiree: Aww!

Grace: Are you able to nap when Cambria sleeps?

Desiree: You know, it's just like Dr. Chen said, it's important for us to be intentional, right? Like turning off your screens, and your phones and I, to be honest, am not great at it.

You know, when you're getting your baby ready, to teach her how to sleep well, you get the dark room, you have the sound machine going, you give her the pacifier.

It's like all those things you need for yourself as well! But it is really hard to, I think, really shut down and requires a lot of intention. Did you find that you could do that for yourself?

Grace: You know, as Dr. Chen said, we all try to do too much. And that was the case for me. I was going to take advantage of all this free time doing what? I'm not exactly sure, but I found ways to busy myself and was not good at napping at all.

As I sit here talking to you, Desiree, I'm thinking about that little red ball rolling on my body and you know, and how nice it would be just to kind of lay there and sleep!

What about the first night a baby sleeps through?

Desiree: Oh Man!

Grace: Do you remember when the triplets slept through the night?

Desiree: I don't really remember when they started sleeping through the night. Again, I was in like, quite a bit of a fog. We had to ask for help, to have help in our home, because it was a struggle.

But I can tell you, Cambria, though we are not quite sleeping through the night all the way, we are almost there, so I am feeling like I'm just on fire. I'm like, "Woo! We're so close!"

Grace: We actually did the whole cry it out method, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment at the time. And my husband and I moved out to our living room to a pullout couch, and it was horrible!

But we stuck at it and, you know, she eventually slept through the night. I found it a little nerve-wracking because I remember getting up to see if she was breathing! You know, the baby's asleep. You don't want to make a peep. And there I was laying my hand on her chest so that I could feel it go up and down.

Oh my goodness. Sleep is complicated. And it makes you a little cuckoo as well, not to be able to sleep.

Desiree: I mean sleep deprivation is torturous.

Grace: It is! But it doesn't last forever. No matter how hard it seems, it's just a phase. One day you'll wake up and say, "What? We made it through the night?!" And that really is the best feeling ever!

Desiree: So true.

Grace: Sweet dreams, Desiree.

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Desiree: That's all for this episode of That New Mom Life, a podcast from Parents magazine. To find out more, head to:

Grace: Thanks so much for listening, we hope you enjoyed it. We'd love if you left us a review, and of course share with all your mom friends.

Desiree: Thanks to Dr. Chen for talking to us, to all the moms who shared their stories, and to our production team, Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, and Sam Walker.

I'm Desiree Fortin.

Grace: And I'm Grace Bastidas. Hang in there mom, you're doing great!

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