Why you should never tell a new mum to “sleep when the baby sleeps”

When I had my first son 11 years ago I got a lot of advice from family, friends, professionals and even the lady at the post office about what to prepare for. 

There was advice about not buying a corduroy couch because the babies spit up would get stuck in the grooves (for the record this was good advice and I wish I had listened), advice about what pram to buy, and also lot’s of advice about the need to sleep.

 Before the baby……..

“Sleep now while you can because you will never, ever sleep again” many an experienced mum would chuckle.

After I had the baby……

“sleep when the baby sleeps, it’s the only way to survive ”.

Good advice, in theory. But the effect it had on me was that the minute my baby was asleep – and I wasn’t, I would worry. After all, this was what I needed to do to be a ‘good mum’. Sleep when he sleeps!

Fast forward to today, and I have survived the lack of sleep of four children (both theirs and mine) and am very lucky to work as an Obstetric Social Worker with new parents both in the hospital setting and at home as they adjust to their first baby.

 Many of these parents have confirmed that the worry around sleep in the first few weeks and months can be really consuming. They too have had a message to “sleep when the baby sleeps” and they feel they can add that to a long list of things they have not mastered yet because sleep is alluding them.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Directly after childbirth the hormones pumping around a new mothers body include adrenalin. This can last a few days or longer, and they can keep us up day and night.
  • Memories of birth can keep us awake. Even if a woman was happy with her birth experience, the body and brain takes time to process the event. Many women find when they close their eyes they get memories or flashbacks of their birth. If the birth experience was not what a woman hoped for these memories can be distressing, and can impact sleep.
  • The learning curve of new parenthood is huge! New parents are taking on huge amounts of information about caring for and feeding their baby and accompanied with this are generally increased levels of anxiety. I mean – you need to literally keep this beautiful and fragile little person alive and it can feel like a huge responsibility. This feeling does settle, but can impact sleep for the first few weeks and months.
  • We are listening out for our baby. The little hiccups, the checking if they are breathing, and responding to their needs for comfort and food can make us more ‘alert’ as they and we adjust to life outside the womb.
  • Social pressure to sleep. When everyone tells us we need to sleep, we sleep less well. In fact, my mum used to tell us as kids when she wanted us to fall asleep in the car “not to fall asleep under any circumstances” and nine times out of ten we were out cold in six minutes flat.

The problem with worrying about getting to sleep is that sleep is a little bit like that watched pot that doesn’t boil. It’s a lot harder to come by when we focus on it. When we all tell parents how much they need sleep, we are making sleep a big issue, giving it too much air time because the truth is, people who sleep well – don’t talk about sleep.

So what should we say to parents to be instead of “sleep when the baby sleeps”?

I think we should say:

“I would love to help you get some rest in the first few weeks. Ill be checking in to see if I can provide a meal, do some housework or mind the baby so you can put your feet up and do something restful.” 

Forget sleep, just rest. Rest is restorative and that’s enough. It might be that Netflix and a bickie, an audiobook and a lie down, or a gentle walk alone might feel like just what a new mum needs, and chances are, if she is supported enough, the sleep will come.

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