The new mum’s sleep-survival guide

Those broken nights seem endless but you can get through. Here's how

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Sleep – it’s something you take for granted before you have a baby, and something you can only dream about once they’ve arrived.

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With newborn babies waking frequently at night, it’s no surprise new mums report spending their first weeks and months feeling exhausted as well as excited. ‘Just after giving birth, I was on a real high, which meant I sailed through the first few days,’ says Hayley, 28, mum to Sasha, now 1.

‘But when the adrenaline wore off and the tiredness kicked in, it hit me really hard. I was so used to going to bed and getting up when I wanted that I struggled to get my head around the fact I was no longer in control of how much sleep I was getting – my baby was.’

Other new mums talk of their tiredness making them feel constantly jetlagged and say they fantasise about a good night’s sleep the way they used to dream about a fabulous pair of new shoes.

Unfortunately, nights of deep, unbroken sleep are going to remain a longed-for luxury for a while yet, but there are some survival tactics you can adopt…

Sleep strategies for you

It’s time to make a mind shift and leave behind any preconceptions you have about sleep. While you probably used to average about 7 or 8 hours a night pre-baby, it’s not a good idea to constantly compare that to what you’re getting now, which is probably a survivable 6 hours, though rarely in 1 stretch.

‘Every morning I’d tot up how much sleep I’d managed to get that night, realise it was only about three or four hours and then panic about how I’d make it through the day,’ says Alex, 27, mum to Joe, 7 months. ‘When I stopped doing that and just accepted my sleep was going to be broken up for a while, it helped me feel calmer and less stressed.’

Something else that may help you feel calmer is realising your body is on your side and is trying to do what it can to help you survive by changing the way you sleep.

‘If you’re not getting enough sleep, the sleep you do get becomes more intense in order to help compensate,’ explains Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre. ‘When you do get the chance to drop off, your body knows getting the two hours of deep and restorative sleep it needs is a priority, so that will come first in your sleep cycle.’

Yes, you’ll still feel tired the next day, as your natural sleep cycle is being disrupted by the demands of your new baby, but at least you can rest assured knowing your body is doing its best to cope and keep you functioning as well as it can.

Another way to take the pressure off is not to expect too much of yourself in the early days – it’s totally fine if you sleep when your baby sleeps. So what if the house is a mess and emails go unanswered?

‘I wore myself out by trying to do it all,’ says Claire, 29, mum to Ewan, now 2. ‘It took me a few weeks to learn it was much better to snatch a 30-minute sleep while my baby was sleeping rather than try to race around and tidy the house. When the mess got to me, I’d just close the door on it. I knew the washing up could wait!’

If you’re normally ‘a coper’, it can be hard to accept help, but it’s time to swallow your pride and start saying yes so you can rest and sleep.

‘When things got too much for me, I went home to my mum’s house for 2 weeks and she helped me. I still got up to breastfeed in the night, but she looked after the baby in the day so I could keep topping up my sleep,’ says Heather, 26, mum to Connie, 6 months. Likewise, expressing milk so your partner can share in some of the night feeds and getting him to take the baby out at weekends so you can have a couple of hours of quiet sleeping time also helps to share the load.

Did you know..?

While your baby is asleep, movements are kept to a minimum to conserve energy and allow her body and brain to recover from the day’s activities

Did you know..?

Your baby is likely to babble to himself as he goes to sleep. It’s his way of practising what he’s learnt about speech so his brain can work on it while he’s asleep

3 ways to help your baby sleep better

Get into some good habits so the whole family has a good night’s rest

1. Encourage a night-time routine

‘Newborns don’t have a day and night rhythm – this distinction only sets in at around 3 or 4 months,’ says David Messer, professor of education at The Open University. This is why your baby will sleep during the day and wake up at night. But you can help him establish a night-time routine early on.

‘Introduce a regular set of events, such as bath time and nursery rhymes that he can associate with sleeping time,’ suggests Messer. Also, avoid playtime in the bedroom – you want your baby to associate the bedroom with sleep, not playing.

2. Go for a stroll

Your baby will sleep better if you take him out in the early afternoon. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University found babies who sleep well at night are exposed to twice as much light between 12pm-4pm as poor sleepers. High light levels help to encourage the development of your baby’s biological clock.

‘This regulates a number of bodily functions including the secretion of melatonin, which is important for good sleeping patterns,’ says Dr Yvonne Harrison from the university’s school of psychology. Take your baby for a walk to the local park if it’s a bright day, but if it’s raining, try feeding him near a window so he’s still exposed to natural light.

3. Start winding down early

Start bathing and getting your baby ready for bed while he’s still awake. This not only helps to establish a routine, but also means as soon as he’s drowsy and shows signs of dropping off, you can pop him in his cot.

How much sleep does a baby need?

Under 3 months

On average, your baby will sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, but not in one stretch, as she’ll need to wake for small feeds. Her sleep cycle is usually two hours in the day and four to six hours at night.

From 3 months

Your baby will gradually sleep more in the night and less in the day. By 12 weeks, she’ll be sleeping around 10 hours at night and five hours in naps.

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By 6 months

Your baby will be having two one-to-two-hour naps during the day and about 12 hours at night with occasional stirrings.

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