Are you a new parent? Having trouble sleeping? Here are some tips for better sleep.
All new parents are familiar with sleep disturbance. Crying, feeds, nappy changes can all interfere with sleep. Although disturbed sleep is inevitable, there are ways of minimising the impact of awakenings on your sleep and avoiding getting sleep deprived and over-tired. Managing sleep is important for new parents to ensure they have the energy to look after their new baby and maintain their own physical and mental health.
Check out our podcast episode on Sleep in New Parents for an in depth discussion.
Dealing with disturbed sleep
Being woken at night is a normal part of adult sleep. Although some people, pre-kids, have the ability to sleep through the night undisturbed, that is actually not the norm for adults. Adult sleep is characterised by at least 2 awakenings during the night, and sleep feeling lighter in the last third of the night. So, being woken by the kids at night isn’t going to wreck your sleep or make you more tired the next day, it’s just a normal part of sleep. Many parents I see get caught up in the ‘story’ around being woken at night – “My kids woke me twice last night, so I had a terrible night and I’m really going to struggle today”. Whereas the reality is waking a couple of times is normal and doesn’t cause tiredness through the day.
Human sleep changes across life. As a new parent the sleep we have, and that is best to fulfil our role as parents, is different from the sleep we have as teenagers. It’s lighter and able to listen out for crying or other noises. So, whilst we can all recall the sleep we had as teenagers or in our 20s where we may have slept through undisturbed, that type of sleep is not normal for new parents.
So if you wake at night, here are a few things you can do:
- Get out of bed and do something else until you feel sleepy
- Try a relaxation strategy such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation
- Avoid trying to get to sleep
- Don’t focus on the ‘story’ or consequences of what might happen if you don’t get back to sleep
When I’m in bed I over-think things
If the only quiet time parents have in the day is when they are in bed, it can become their thinking time, or the time they discuss things with their partner. Also, if people have had trouble with sleep, they get a conditioned arousal response to bed with increases in adrenaline levels on getting in to bed. For example, people can fall asleep watching TV on the couch, then on getting in to bed suddenly feel much more alert. With this increase in adrenaline, the brain is in ‘problem solving’ mode. So even though people may not have had a busy mind before bed or feel that they’re stressed in general, once in bed and the lights are out, the over-thinking begins.
Do your thinking, and debriefing the day with your partner out of bed. Once you’re in bed, if you’re conscious that the mind is busy and over-thinking, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy before going back to bed. Don’t smash out work emails or play games on your iPad, but do something that is relaxing or nurturing like reading a book.
Trying too hard to sleep
We can’t will sleep to come. Sleep comes when mind and body are ready, not when we will it to come. Too many people go to bed at the time they wish to get to sleep, I call it their ‘aspirational’ bed time. Then lay in bed wishing for sleep to come, trying desperately to get to sleep. A better approach is to not go to bed until you feel sleepy, that is heavy eyelids or getting head nods, not just feeling exhausted and as if your day is done. Those symptoms are more of tiredness, which is a signal for rest, but not a sign that you are ready to sleep.
The principle underlying strategies such as counting sheep or recently the 4-7-8 breathing technique is that they distract people from trying to sleep, instead getting them focussing on something else. This principle is called paradoxical intention. One psychological strategy to help with sleep is to instruct people to try as hard as possible to stay awake once in bed, which paradoxically helps them fall asleep, as they’re no longer trying to get to sleep.
New babies sleep a lot. So, changing your own sleep pattern to better match that of the new baby can work well. Expecting less sleep at night, but making it up with naps during the day whilst the baby is sleeping. We’ve been taught to expect that we sleep in a continuous block of around 8 hours and don’t sleep during the day. But, changing this pattern to shorter blocks of sleep, most at night, but with some sleep during the day is a normal and healthy pattern for new parents. So, embrace the nap, and catch up on sleep when baby is sleeping during the day.
Don’t be afraid to take time out or ask for help
As a parent, having some quiet time in the day is important, and often once the kids are in bed is the only time this is practical. One way to ensure this doesn’t impact on your sleep is to ensure the kids aren’t going to bed too late, and have a set routine, so that bed time isn’t a battle. It’s also important not to feel guilty about taking time out to relax, as adults we all need some down time, and new parents often don’t give themselves permission to stop.
If you are having trouble settling your new baby or feeling that you need a break, consider getting the help of a mother-baby unit who can help both settling baby and giving parents some time out.
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Need more information about how you can sleep better?
At Sleephub we understand the struggle people endure with sleeping problems which is why we have created a comprehensive FAQs page with information for those seeking information about sleep disorders and potential solutions.
Check our resources or take our Sleep Wellness Quiz for a free assessment of elements that may be keeping you from a good night’s sleep.