5 expert ways to cope when you’re up all night with your newborn
When I was pregnant with my first child, I dreaded the infamous sleep deprivation of the newborn stage. I was more nervous about how I'd handle sleep deprivation than how I'd handle childbirth!
Even an "easy" baby is still going to wake you up at night (usually many, many nights). And night wakings aren't just physically tiring—they're emotionally exhausting as well.
You're worn out from labor and delivery and desperately need sleep to recover. You feel alone and isolated because it seems like literally everyone else in the world is asleep except for you. If you're breastfeeding, you might be in physical pain—and seething with resentment that your partner is still peacefully dozing. And once your baby hits that 4-month sleep regression, you might be wondering if you'll ever get a full night's rest again.
None of these things mean that you're a bad mom or that you're doing something wrong—babies simply have a different sleep schedule than adults do. They aren't born knowing the difference between day and night, they haven't learned to self-soothe and transition from one sleep cycle to the next, and their tummies are so small that they need to eat every few hours.
Rest assured that newborn nighttime wakings are a totally normal and expected part of new parenthood. I know that doesn't make it any easier when your baby is awake for the fourth time in one night, but you can make them work for you.
Here are some expert tips for emotionally coping when your newborn is up all night.
1. Make it as enjoyable as possible—for you.
Set up a comfortable spot with everything you need in arm's reach: remote, charger, water, snacks, pillows and whatever supplies you may need to feed your baby. Then find a book or a new show on Netflix that you're really excited about so that when you wake up, you think, "Oh good, I get to find out what happens next!"
A friend of mine told me recently that she actually looked forward to nursing her baby at night because it was the only time she could watch her shows without getting interrupted by her toddler. I've even been known to stay up reading even after my son fell asleep because I was so involved in my book! You know you'll be awake, so you might as well make the most of it.
2. Check your thoughts.
Our emotional responses follow our thoughts. If we're stumbling through the dark thinking, "This is the worst thing ever! I'll never sleep again!" (this is called catastrophizing, by the way, and it happens to be my favorite way of tormenting myself at night), then we'll be emotional messes. Telling yourself, "This isn't fair, I shouldn't be awake!" only makes you more resentful and doesn't help convince your baby to go to sleep. "I can't handle this anymore!" makes you feel like you're at your breaking point.
Check your thoughts at the nursery door and gently challenge your thinking. Tell yourself, "This is totally normal. All babies wake up at night, and all babies eventually learn to sleep." The most helpful thing that I repeat to myself is, "I will sleep again. I will not be awake forever. I am tired, but I can handle this." Now that's something that should be embroidered on a pillow for a baby's room.
3. Set a time limit.
My personal time limit is two hours. If I'm awake longer than that, my coping skills disintegrate. Our family arrangement is that I handle most of the night wakings, but my husband knows that he gets tagged immediately if I pass that two-hour mark (or if I've been up a certain number of times already). I highly recommend discussing a backup plan for those really difficult nights. I know many partners are willing to help, but an exhausted mom often gets stuck and unable to find the escape hatch. Make the plan ahead of time so that you're not trying to decide at 3 am if you should wake up your partner because you feel like you're going to crack if you don't get some sleep (hint: you probably should).
4. Go to bed early.
This one seems pretty obvious, but so many of us fall into the trap of staying up later than we should in order to clean up after dinner, veg out in front of the TV or get a few more tasks done. When you're in the baby trenches, prioritize sleep over all of that. You literally can't function without sleep, so make sure you squeeze as much into your schedule as possible.
I'm not going to tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps, because I know babies sleep at weird times and you most likely have a house/job/other children to care for. However, if you know the baby will be waking up three-plus times a night, go to bed as soon as you can. Nurse or feed the baby one last time, hand them over to your partner to rock or bounce to sleep, and hightail it to bed. Leave the dishes, turn off your phone, get a sleep mask if it's still light outside, and sleep as much as you can before the night shift starts.
5. Get help if and when you need it.
Many moms report that nighttime wakings lead to some of their lowest points with a new baby. If you've been awake for hours at a time with your newborn, you might even experience scary moments.
Let's talk about those scary thoughts postpartum. If you ever feel that you might physically harm your baby or you start imagining horrible things happening to them, it is absolutely okay to wake up your partner or set the baby down safely and walk away. Sleep deprivation is literally used as a form of torture so if you've been awake for more than a few hours, you might be approaching an emotionally unsafe state. Do not hesitate to seek help if and when you need it.
Even for mamas with great coping skills, there will still be nights when you'll think you can't survive another minute awake. But to my knowledge, no new parent has literally died of sleep deprivation (although many of us think we will *raises hand*). This phase is so hard, and while no tips or tricks will make it easy, I hope that these suggestions will at least make it a little more bearable.
Just remember: You WILL sleep again. I promise! Until then, take care of yourself.