Parents need sleep too

I recently watched an episode of Life in Pieces, Colin Hanks’ character Greg was detained for suspicion of intoxication but he was really just sleep deprived . I mention this scene as it is an excellent example of sleep deprivation and how it can affect every aspect of your life.  “Greg” gets arrested while on a middle of the night run to the corner store. He was so tired the police wanted a urine test to confirm he wasn’t under the influence. He was so easily distracted by hot dogs that he even forgot the diapers for his newborn daughter. The kicker is his wife Jen played by Zoe Lister-Jones, comments “you got arrested to get a break.” I’m sure that you can relate to a number of different aspects of this scene.

I don’t expect new parents to be in the same situation as Greg was but I do remember the forgetfulness, driving very tired to doctor appointments (my husband was away for days at a time and unable to help after the first 2 weeks), confusion in the middle of the night (falling asleep and waking in a panic that I had dropped my baby), desperately wanting just 5 more minutes of shut eye. The thing is that 5 minutes of sleep was never the solution.


Most new parents will face sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is simply defined as not getting enough sleep. While parents might be getting 7.5 hours of sleep on paper it is safe to say that the quality of sleep is greatly decreased. A newborn's sleep patterns are so different to those of an adult. A newborn spends 50-80% of sleep time in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep and generally has sleep cycles that last 40-50 minutes. Adults only spend about 20% of their night in REM sleep in this stage and have sleep cycles that generally starts  90 minutes into a sleep. This creates a challenge as your sleep cycle gets interrupted by a newborn’s wakings and you don’t meet your sleep needs and thus result in decreased sleep quality.

Based on the literature I would recommend a good nap of 90 minutes. This is not always possible but although a 20 minute power nap might help you feel better it will not help with the sleep deprivation you might be facing.  Some hints to get a 90 minute break is asking for help (this is okay). Most visitors are happy to help. They will even do dishes or bring food - you just have to ask.  If this is not possible track your baby's sleep and try to sleep when you suspect they will sleep the longest stretch. I didn’t have a huge network here in Calgary and their are a number of free or low cost services that can also help, don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare provider. If you have other children send them on a play date or to daycare if money allows (I sent my eldest daughter a couple of days a week after the arrival of her little sister). Making your nap a priority can be very helpful.

Additional hints for new parents include splitting the night. As I already stated, new parents often have trouble getting a good night's sleep as a newborn has very different sleep patterns than their parents. One parent can take the first shift 8pm-1am and the other can take 1am-6am. If you are breastfeeding you can switch off after the middle of the night feed or have the other parent offer expressed milk.  

Turn off technology. It can be tempting to binge watch your favourite new show or spend hours on social media but turning it off and making sleep a priority will allow you to sleep better and the quality of your sleep will improve. Watching your baby sleep and sitting down and resting is also a good idea.

Don’t bed share if you are wanting good quality sleep. I never recommend bed sharing as it does not follow the safe sleep guidelines from the AAP. If you happen to fall asleep with your baby by accident, you will likely not sleep as well with your baby next to you even if you love the cuddles or closeness. Learning to breastfeed lying down can be easier on you and allows you to relax a little more while feeding. Have someone cuddles and put your baby in the crib, you will both learn to sleep better.

Prepare your room for sleep. Use a noise machine, darken your room, turn your clock around, use earplugs if you aren’t on baby duty, turn down or off your baby monitor. Start a bedtime routine. I always do the following: Brush my teeth, Set out my medication, make sure the kettle is full of water (ready for tea in the morning), check on both my girls followed by reading my book or listening to a sleep meditation podcast.

Create your own bedtime routine. Bedtime can be fantastic for everyone. A consistent bedtime for your baby will allow you to have time to yourselves. It’s just as important that you as parents set  a consistent bedtime. This will help ensure you to get a better night's sleep. The other side of this is to have a morning ritual. Mine is medication and a cup of tea. Oh and cuddles and the joy of hearing “Mommy I have to pee” or Being tapped awake by my oldest child. between 6:30 and 7am.

Take it easy and don’t put pressure on yourselves to socialize or host. The most important part of your recovery is rest and sleep.  A couple months of feet up, napping and extra sleep will do wonders for your physical recovery as well as your mental health. As a new mother your body has coped with a lot growing and delivering a baby. Sleep is key to your physical recovery. Staying well rested helps to combat the baby blues and can help with a positive mental state.

If you're having trouble with sleep and are concerned you're not getting enough seek help. Talk to your health care provider.  I would also seek guidance for helping your child sleep.  If you are struggling consider getting a professional to give you the tools to help you establish sound, restful, consistent sleep for you and your children.  These tools will be valuable to your family for the rest of your life.

As a new parent sleep is hard but try to create a conducive sleep environment, make sleep a priority and give yourself a break.

Remember Newborns have very different sleep patterns from adults and it will get better. Work as a team with your partner, split the nights to allow a short blocks of quality sleep, create a bedtime routine, set your room up for sleep and removing distractions that decrease the quality of your sleep. None of these alone will guarantee you a good night's sleep but making sleep a priority will help you. Creating the atmosphere for sleep is only the first step. One last tip I’d like to share is finding a safe place for your baby to rest, watch, and play while you attack some of the household tasks. I used to place my daughter in her bassinet and give her a narrative on what I was doing. Place your child in their crib while you fold laundry or tidy their room. A carrier is a fantastic way for keeping your baby close while you take out the garbage or dust.

I am in no way an expert on adult sleep but I have lived through many sleepless nights with my own kids. Teaching them to sleep was the best gift I gave myself. I’m happy to help you and look forward to speaking with you if you need help.

Happy Sleep

xx Alison