By Dr. Corrine Seeley, PhD
The first few months of life with a newborn is a whirl-wind, and let’s face it – it is exhausting! As parents, we often become focused on how our baby is transitioning. Are they sleeping enough? Eating enough? Peeing enough? Pooping enough? I spend hours talking to parents about their babies, and often forget about the other missing transition piece – you. As parents, we too are adjusting alongside our baby and learning how to create a sleep world for our family: good sleep goes beyond our baby sleeping well – it’s a team effort – a learning-curve that begins the day we bring our baby home and continues to grow and change for many years to come.
So how do we do it? How do we create our new sleep world? Based on hundreds of conversations with tired parents, I have complied four tips (and common adjustments) that have helped parents find their sleep groove!
1. Be Comfortable Saying No
Saying no seems to be the number one conversation I have with moms – and was one the hardest lesson I had to learn in motherhood. As a new mom, I remember the pressure to “do all the things”: taking road trips to visit family, hosting visitors, attending weddings, camping (ugh). I felt internal pressure to get back into shape, socialize, and keep up with friends. Although some of these were very important to me, there are definitely some I wish I had the confidence to say no to. Part of learning to sleep in this new role, may mean readjusting priorities and gaining confidence saying no to things that don’t fit with your current needs. It also may mean reflecting, and reassessing what your new needs are. Finding your sleep groove may be as simple as cutting out the things that no longer serve you – and making time for sleep.
Here are a few tips for healthy boundary setting:
- No is not forever – just because something may not work at the moment does not mean the opportunity is lost forever.
- It is okay to tell people you are tired. You have a baby – they will understand.
- Saying no can be addictive. As you give yourself permission – and celebrate how good it feels – you will become more comfortable with it (and maybe even enjoy it!)
- Celebrate the fact that you have a new life, and can create what works now. It is okay (and exciting) that your life has changed.
- Pay attention to how a commitment makes you feel. Does it brings a pit of dread into your stomach? If so, don’t do it (or wait to commit)
- Remember, ‘busier is not always better’ for your baby. Research shows that quiet time is important for infant brain development, so saying no is good for them too!
By learning to say no more, this will give your body an opportunity to feel sleepy and hopefully carve in more time for rest!
2. Embrace Being Sleepy
I always tell moms “let sleepiness be your superpower”. In our fast-paced world, being tired is considered a weakness. You see it all the time, coffee mugs reading “cool moms never sleep” and t-shirts reading “stressed, blessed and coffee obsessed”. The feeling of being sleepy is something we go out-of-your-way to avoid.
But what if we changed that?
Imagine a world where we embraced the feeling of tiredness. What if, instead of running to the nearest Starbucks at the slightest feeling of uncomfortableness, we sat with the feeling and listened to it was telling us. What would those tired signals tell you? What might they make you change? Maybe it would give us superpower strength to say no or remove something from your “to-list” list. Maybe it would drive you to go to bed earlier, or force you to pick up the phone and ask a grandparent for help. Maybe it would make you love the feeling of putting your head on the pillow, and make it that much sweeter. Or maybe it would spark a conversation with your partner about how you can find more time for sleep.
Letting yourself feel tired is okay: in fact, it’s a great thing.
Learning to listen to your body – and using it as a compass – is the only way to know what adjustments to make. You are your best guide.
3. Get to Know Your Families Tired Signals.
In my Newborn Workshop I talk about infant tired signals a lot – things like yawning, fussing, zoning out, etc. But what about your signals? Knowing your cues, and identifying them in your partner, can help you understand each other and be gentle on each other when they might emerge.
One of my very first jobs was in a ‘sleep restriction’ lab: participants were on a partial sleep schedule (4 or 6-hours a night), or a full nights sleep schedule (8-hours), then measured the brain and behavior changes that emerge. What amazed me was that on a “restricted” schedule, there were noticeable changes after only 3 nights! Imagine what happens after weeks, months, or years parents experience!
One of the biggest cues to watch for is mood and emotion. Let’s compare partial and full sleep:
After a full night of sleep, our emotion centre of the brain (known as the amygdala) is well controlled and managed. It has strong connections to an area called the frontal lobe which helps it stay calm – in more simple terms it tells it “everything will be okay”. On a restricted schedule these connections change: as you spend more time awake the connections become weaker, and lose control – so what you get is a brain that is more reactive, emotional, and shows more sensitivity to negativity in the world around it. Have you ever wondered why you might cry more at the end of the day? This is why! A tired brain is an emotional brain, and it isn’t until you get a full nights sleep that these connections are fully restored. Funny enough, if you put couples on a restricted schedule they fight more, problem solve less, and rate their marital satisfaction as lower. Let them sleep and it all reverses.
Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on our emotions, and currently the number one predictor of developing postpartum depression is how a mother is sleeping. Paying attention to emotional changes – especially if they come after a sleepless night or long day – can help you identify the need for sleep. I always encourage partners to work together to understand each others signals, and work as a team to communicate and notice when they might need some rest.
4. If you can’t sleep – rest!
We all know the feeling of not being able to fall asleep – and then worrying about the fact that we can’t fall asleep. One of my goals with infant and toddler sleep is to remove this pressure and instead focus on creating opportunities for rest (in which sleep usually follows). Through my experience, taking away the pressure teaches children that the act of laying down and resting is still a success even if they don’t fall asleep. For a busy parent, making small changes toward scheduling rest – even if it doesn’t result in sleep – is a success! This could mean going to bed 15-minutes earlier, laying down for 20-minutes of uninterrupted time, putting down your phone and just laying your head on a pillow. Even if it doesn’t result in sleep, giving your brain a break is something to be celebrated. Studies show that periods of quiet wakefulness can help restore mood, give our brain cells a break, and increase alertness and brain activity. There are benefits that can be reaped from rest periods, including fostering new habits that make sleep easier in the future. Many times, they lead to sleep along the way! Taking small baby steps toward celebrating rest (in any form) is a great first start!
I hope this helps you forge a path toward great sleep. Consider it your prescription to start taking care of you and finding your groove – doctors orders!