Sleep can be incredibly elusive for parents of young kids. One of the most prolific pieces of advice new moms receive in the early days of parenthood is to “nap when the baby naps.” Though sound advice, it’s not always realistic. For many of us, baby’s naptime is the only time we have to get everything else done. During my parental leave — for which I was fortunate to receive 12 fully paid weeks — I would often debate in my head whether I should take a nap or make myself lunch when my son finally slept.
I was exhausted. That is, until my husband and I figured out a genius way for us both to get better sleep as new parents. Not only has it helped us be the parents we want to be, but it has also made our marriage happier. The secret? Letting each other sleep in on the weekends.
Why avoiding sleep deprivation is crucial for parents, newborns, babies, and toddlers
Impact of sleep deprivation on parents:
- Disrupted physiological processes, such as immune function, hormone production, and memory consolidation
- Difficulty paying attention to and responding to stimuli
- Poor decision-making
- High blood pressure
- Lowered sex drive
Impact of sleep deprivation on kids:
- Disrupted developmental processes
- Behavioral issues
- Lowered learning capacity
- High anxiety
Not getting enough sleep is pretty typical in the early days of parenthood, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still vital to get as much sleep as possible. Why? Well, “sleep is a precious tool our bodies use to promote physical and mental health,” says Carleara Weiss, Ph.D., a nurse and sleep science consultant.
According to Weiss, working to improve sleep for your kids means that “parents are ensuring a healthy development process and securing healthy aging for themselves.” This is because many physiological processes are sleep-dependent, such as immune function, hormone production, and memory consolidation, she says.
Laura Gournic, a certified sleep consultant and founder of Busy Beezzz Sleep Consulting, agrees that night sleep is crucial because it is when “our immune systems are rebuilt.” As a result, both parents and children can benefit from sleep as a “great foundation” for staying healthy. Plus, according to Gournic, “without an uninterrupted night of sleep, we are unable to process all of the information and stimulation we accumulate each day.” This makes it so that we feel cluttered and unable to absorb information the next day.
For adults, “this can translate into poor decision making, attention difficulty, bad memory, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, general fussiness or crying, and a lower sex drive.” Meanwhile, children can experience behavioral issues, lowered learning capacity, high anxiety, and more.
These are all compelling reasons to get good sleep. Ultimately, though, what prompted my husband and me to seek out a better night’s sleep for our baby and ourselves was making sure that we can maintain a happy marriage through the stress of parenting. “Emotional regulation, empathy, patience, interpreting non-verbal cues, and mood all benefit from getting adequate sleep,” says Dr. Chris Winter, a Sleep.com Sleep Advisor, neurologist, and author of “The Rested Child" and “The Sleep Solution.” “These are all ingredients to a healthy marriage.”
The keys to prioritizing sleep for the whole family
During pregnancy, when I lost hours of sleep due to discomfort and anxiety, my husband and I talked about how we would manage sleep as new parents, both recognizing that good sleep was crucial to our mental health. It turns out that getting good sleep as a family begins with knowing how important it is.
“It starts with making it a priority,” says Winter. “Secondly, there need to be efforts made to have your kids sleeping on a consistent schedule.” He emphasizes that this is something parents, not doctors, need to decide. If you want to create a schedule where your kids sleep whenever they like, you can do that, “but it might make getting things done and prioritizing sleep difficult if parents cannot predict the sleep timing of their kids.”
Weiss agrees, emphasizing that the best way for the entire family to achieve their sleep goals is to invest in a daytime and nighttime sleep routine. “When creating these routines, keep in mind the number of hours recommended for the age,” she says, “and allow time for play and daytime naps for the kids (and parents) as needed.” In addition, she recommends establishing good sleep hygiene by incorporating activities that mark a clear transition from day to night.
For Gournic, a good evening routine includes the same steps in the same order every night as you and your kids prep for bed. For both children and parents, it’s essential that “your head hits the pillow at around the same time each night” — such as setting a 7 pm bedtime for kids, having a couple of hours to yourselves, and then sticking to your own bedtime at 9 pm.
Of course, setting a sleep schedule and getting plenty of rest can be difficult in a society that focuses more on staying busy and less on relaxing. “But bad sleep for anyone in the family will have a negative impact on everyone in the family,” Gournic notes. She recommends that parents model the importance of prioritizing sleep for their children, creating a household culture that aims to take precedence over broader societal norms.
How new moms can get better sleep during the fourth trimester
Before you can get into a good sleep routine with your little ones, you need to get through what is known as the fourth trimester, those first three months after a baby is born. As a new mom, I remember getting so little sleep in the first five days of my son’s life that I felt as if I was crumbling by the end of the week. Postpartum hormones and physical recovery only augment the challenge. But the situation is not hopeless.
“Schedule time to sleep during the day,” says Winter. “Trying to literally set up a consistent napping time would work better than just trying to nap whenever circumstances allow.”
Weiss agrees, recommending that moms nap during the day, if possible, and to limit them to 30-minute slumber sessions before 3 pm (so as not to disrupt nighttime sleep). Additionally, she advises that moms avoid caffeine after 3 pm, avoid alcohol and nicotine, invest in good sleep hygiene, avoid exposure to blue light at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime, create a bedtime routine for you and the baby, and keep the lights dim when checking on the baby at night. Just remember that it’s okay if you can’t do all of these all of the time. “The advice for mothers varies and may not be feasible for everyone,” she says, “but can be adjusted according to your reality.”
Gournic acknowledges that there is a lot of excitement in bringing the baby home, but “the reality is that momma will be coming home very exhausted from giving birth, quite sore from her milk coming in, and extremely emotional because of raging hormones. So it’s a good idea to plan ahead ways to support momma’s recovery, especially as sleep is at a premium for several weeks as everyone adjusts to the new normal and breastfeeding every two hours is an exhausting process.”
Gournic’s best tips for as-good-as-possible sleep during the fourth trimester are:
1. Have someone bring you the baby. For nursing parents, “it is very helpful to have a spouse or even a willing friend or relative who can bring baby to you in bed to nurse, change the baby’s diaper, re-swaddle baby, and put them back in the bassinet,” she says. “They obviously can’t breastfeed for you, but having them there to offer support will not only ease the physical demands of being a new mommy, but it can play a huge role in your mental health.” If you plan not to breastfeed, split responsibilities for bottle feeds overnight.
2. Focus on eating regularly and staying hydrated. “Try to go for a walk outside each day,” Gournic says. “The exercise and exposure to sunlight will help with being able to sleep when you get the opportunity.”
3. Nap as much as possible. “For the first four weeks, don’t look at your to-do list. Laundry, cleaning, and other household tasks will still be there later.”
4. Be willing to ask for and accept help from others. “If you can afford a house cleaner for the first few weeks, do it!” she says. “You can do the same with food — maybe have a few weeks of meals planned to be delivered, so you don’t have to worry about that. Even using a meal kit delivery service can free up more time to rest.”
5. Keep an eye on your mental health. “Postpartum depression can make sleep very difficult for new mommas,” Gournic says. “Having occasional bouts with the blues is normal as hormones rage after delivery. But if those feelings are constant for more than a few days, get some support from your doctor.”
How couples can sleep in with young kids
In spite of my now-toddler-aged son getting a healthy 11-12 hours of sleep a night — and even though I still try to nap when my son naps — as working parents, we are often exhausted by the end of the week, especially since my son consistently wakes up between 6 and 7 a.m. every morning. I don’t remember exactly how my husband and I came up with what I now call our genius solution to getting more sleep, but it is something that has been working incredibly well for us.
So how do we sleep in with a baby who’s up at sunrise? We alternate allowing the other parent to sleep in and get more rest. Though it may not be viable for single parents, it’s a great option for couples.
On Saturday mornings, my husband wakes up with our toddler and closes the door to the bedroom so that I can sleep more. Yes, I still briefly wake up, but I can usually get another couple of hours of sleep. And on excellent days, I end up sleeping until 10 am. The next day, it’s my turn, so I take our son on Sunday mornings and let my husband sleep in.
Waking up incredibly well-rested — even just one day a week — has been monumental for our mental health. “This is a very nice strategy,” says Weiss, “and I do not believe that either of you is missing bonding with your children. In fact, a well-rested parent is more likely to be alert, have better concentration and mood, along with better physical performance. Thus, both of you are staying healthy while supporting each other and bringing the best of your physical and mental health to childcare.”
Winter agrees, saying that he suspects “the time with your 22-month-old (or your 122-month-old) will be better if you and your partner are well-rested.”
For parents that may be worried about missing out on valuable family time on those weekend mornings, Gournic has some advice: “Frame it as the special one-on-one time each parent gets to have with their child that they wouldn’t otherwise experience!”
My husband and I definitely agree. I love waking up on Saturday mornings after sleeping in and hearing my partner and son giggling downstairs as they play ball or run around with our dog. Meanwhile, my husband enjoys waking up to freshly brewed coffee and waffles that my son and I made together on Sunday mornings.
It may not be as easy as our pre-baby weekends of lounging in bed and going out for brunch, but it certainly works well for our family. Perhaps one day, we will all get to sleep in as a family. But for now, getting more sleep as new parents feels just right.