Get the sleep you need

Tiredness and being a new parent go hand in hand, but there are ways you can claw back precious moments of rest in those early months

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Everyone knows having a baby turns your world upside down. The first few months are challenging as you adjust to your new way of life. But it’s made harder when you’re doing it on less sleep. Tiredness is one of the key stress factors facing new mums, says a recent study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. Here’s our guide to handling those disturbances and getting some well-deserved rest.

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What’s happening to your baby when he’s sleeping?

During his waking hours your baby experiences a vast array of events. It’s while he’s asleep that these experiences are organised in his brain. Clinical psychologist Penney Hames explains: ‘Babies have a lot to learn – and quickly – but it’s hard to reflect on anything when there’s so much going on.’ This is why your baby sleeps so often, although it might not seem like it. ‘Chemicals in the body are renewing themselves ready for more activity,’ says Penney. Sleep is crucial for a baby to be ready to learn more, and for you and your partner to meet the challenges of parenting.

Your baby’s sleeping patterns

Your child experiences two types of sleep. If you watch him when he’s sleeping, you may notice that beneath his eyelids his eyes sometimes flicker from side to side. He may also frown or smile and move his fingers and toes. This is known as active sleep or REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement. Newborn babies spend half their sleep time in this light state of sleep, which explains why they so often wake up. When he’s not in REM sleep he’s in non-REM sleep. This is a deep sleep where there are no eye movements and the breathing is steadier. It is thought that during non-REM sleep bodily processes are restored, the immune system is boosted and physical growth can occur.

How lack of sleep affects you

Sleep deprivation is very serious. If you don’t get enough shut-eye, not only will you feel terrible, but you are also more likely to make mistakes and have accidents. Like your baby, during the night you alternate between non-REM and REM sleep, and it’s during REM sleep that you will organise everything that has happened during the day. It comes as no surprise then that when you have a baby you may need more REM sleep than usual to help your brain process all that comes with being a mum. If you are deprived of REM sleep for a long time you may become disorientated and depressed because you haven’t been able to deal with yesterday’s events before facing the next day.

Encourage a regular night-time routine

‘Newborns don’t have a day and night rhythm,’ explains David Messer, Professor of Education at The Open University, ‘the distinction is only established at around 3 or 4 months.’ This is why your baby will sleep during the day and wake up at night. However, there are things you can do to try to establish a night-time routine as soon as possible. Messer advises parents to ‘have a regular set of events, such as bath time and singing nursery rhymes, which your baby can associate with sleeping time.’ Also, avoid any daytime activity, such as play, in the bedroom and cot. Your child needs to associate the bedroom with night-time and sleep rather than with play and excitement.

Go out for an afternoon stroll

Your baby will sleep better if you take him out in the early afternoon. According to recent research by Liverpool John Moores University, babies who sleep well at night are exposed to twice as much light between 12pm and 4pm as poor sleepers.

Dr Yvonne Harrison from the University’s School of Psychology explains: ‘Higher light levels encourage the early development of your baby’s biological clock. This regulates a number of bodily functions, including the secretion of the hormone melatonin, an important factor in good sleeping patterns.’ How can you make this work for you? Take your baby outside for a walk to the local park on a bright day. If it’s miserable outside, try feeding him near a window where he will still be exposed to some light.

3 steps to baby bedtime

* Look out for signs your baby is tired and put him to sleep then. He is more likely to fall asleep at that point.

* Bathe and get him ready for bed while he is still active so that when he becomes drowsy, there’s no delaying and you can put him to sleep straight away.

* If you miss one drowsy period, it’s very likely you may have to wait an hour or so for another, as the whole cycle takes about that long to complete.

Three in a bed

Although a lot of mums like taking their baby to bed, especially during night feeds, recent news reports have highlighted the dangers of sharing your bed with a young baby. The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths recommends that, until your baby is 6 months old, he sleeps in a cot next to your bed. That way he is close enough for you to hear him at night and for it to be convenient to feed him, without the risk of overheating under your duvet or being squashed. Do not co-sleep if you or your partner are a smoker, even if you do not smoke in bed. This is because smoke has been shown to increase the risk of cot death.

The truth behind the old wives’ tales

Does exercise encourage sleep? Exercise raises your body temperature, which in turn aids sleep. According to Dr Adrian Williams, consultant physician and director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St Thomas’s Hospital, the best time to exercise is between 4 and 7pm.

Does it help to drink a milky drink at bedtime?

Like exercise, a warm, milky drink will raise your body temperature and make you feel relaxed. Avoid stimulants such as coffee as they’ll keep you awake.

Will a hot bath before bed help?

Yes. A hot bath will relax your muscles, helping you to unwind. The heat will also make you feel sleepy and ready for bed. It’s also a good excuse to have some time to yourself.

Will using lavender help me sleep?

Lavender has been used to treat sleep problems for centuries. A drop of lavender oil in your bath or a few drops on your pillow aids relaxation.

Sleep during the day

Claw back those precious shut-eye moments while your baby is having his afternoon nap. There’s no point frantically doing all the housework in those couple of peaceful hours – you’ll only feel exhausted when he wakes up. It’s important to catch up on sleep whenever you can.

‘On average, most people sleep an extra two hours at the weekend to counteract sleep deprivation during the week,’ says Dr Williams.

As a mother, it’s important to make up for missed sleep any time you can. Sunday lie-ins may be a thing of the past but drifting off watching daytime TV is now allowed. Even if you don’t fall into a deep sleep, it will make you feel much calmer.

Up in the middle of the night?

Here’s a plan to help you get back to bed as quickly as possible:

* Try not to switch on the lights or television. Your baby will associate this with daytime and it may disrupt his sleep.

* Go back to bed straight after feeding. It may be tempting to have a cup of tea, but you should avoid any stimulants.

* Ask your partner to help with soothing your baby back to sleep. Feeding may be a one-woman job, but he can settle your baby after the night feed.

* Be as quiet as possible. You need to send your baby the right signals that things are different when it is dark.

Remember, this stage will pass eventually

You can’t see the wood for the trees and are reaching the end of your tether. Will this ever end? Yes! At around 4 weeks your baby may start to fit in with your regular pattern and by 3 or 4 months, when his physiology has matured a little, he should stay awake longer during the day and sleep more at night.

By 9 months, most babies only wake once or twice a night.

When you need help

Most new mums need at least a couple of months to adjust to motherhood, and you should find that things get better, not worse, as time goes on. But if you find after 5 or 6 months you are still as tired as ever, take it as a sign that you may need help. Tiredness and fatigue can be associated with post-natal depression. So if you’re feeling low and think everyone’s coping so much better than you are, or even that your sense of humour has diminished, then speak to your doctor or health visitor. Continual fatigue and insomnia can also be caused by more physical illnesses such as thyroid problems and anaemia. So if by the time your baby is 6 months old, you are still constantly tired and feel as if you have no energy, seek help.

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50% of babies’ sleep is REM. Their eyes may flicker open and they may appear to be awake.

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