If you’re a parent, then odds are you have heard this little gem more than a few times, from well-meaning advice-givers… “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” It’s the cute, pat little advice that new moms often hear at baby showers. The idea here is that, if you sleep when the baby sleeps, you end up getting enough sleep to get by without having to suffer through serious sleep deprivation.
Sleep when the baby sleeps? HA! YEAH RIGHT. In our opinion here at The Baby Sleep Site, this is some of the most maddening and frustrating advice that new parents hear. And in today’s post, we’re telling you why. Keep reading!
Here’s Why ‘Sleep When the Baby Sleeps’ Almost Never Works
For starters, newborn sleep is anything but predictable. This means that most parents have no idea at all when the next newborn nap is coming. You cannot predict just how long those night stretches will actually last either. A nap can be anything from 15 minutes to 4 hours. You can’t exactly count on any nap time to be long enough for you to get some sleep. In fact, catnaps are normal and healthy during the newborn stage. Often, in the time it takes you to set the baby down, get yourself ready for sleep, snuggle into bed, and attempt to drift off, your baby may have already had his fill of a catnap and be ready to eat again!
Second, this advice utterly fails to account for a very real phenomenon: postpartum insomnia. The truth is, new parents (new moms in particular) struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep after giving birth. This seems like a sick, vicious cycle. (You need sleep, but as soon as you can get it, you can’t actually FALL asleep.) It’s a fact, and it makes ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ even more maddening. Sure, every mom would love to be able to fall asleep in .2 seconds and catch a 20-minute power nap whenever the baby drifts off, but in truth, many moms need 20+ minutes just to relax and fall asleep!
It’s also a fact that ‘sleep like a baby’ rarely works well simply because our adult bodies just are not programmed to sleep that way. Your newborn’s body is designed to sleep in short cycles, but yours? Not at all. Your circadian rhythms need 7-8 hours of sound sleep at night. And maybe an occasional short nap during the day. Try as you might, you cannot sleep in short bursts throughout the day and night and then expect to feel good and rested. You probably won’t. What’s more, your body will no doubt resist your attempts to take a bunch of naps during the day.
Finally (and perhaps most frustrating of all), this advice assumes that you have ZERO responsibilities besides caring for your baby. But for so many modern-day moms, this isn’t the case. For one, many of us have other children at home to care for! And you can’t exactly sleep whenever your newborn sleeps if your toddler is standing in front of you, asking for more juice and more Elmo. But even if you have just one child at home, you may very well need to go back to work shortly after birth. And, how exactly are you supposed to sleep when the baby sleeps from the office?
Forget ‘Sleep When the Baby Sleeps’: Here’s What Actually Works
So, if ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is a non-starter, what IS a tired new parent to do? Well, we can’t hand you 8 hours of sleep every night, but we can offer you some tips that we think are more effective than ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’:
- Get help from friends and family. In the early weeks after birth, solicit all the help you can. If other people are making dinner and mowing the lawn and folding clothes, you don’t have to! This might actually leave you more time to really rest.
- Get your partner, friend, or a close family member to care for the baby. Now, this might be anecdotal, but in my experience, the only way I ever managed to sleep during the day was when I knew someone else was taking care of the baby. I knew that the baby might wake and cry, but that I was covered and free to rest at that very moment. Somehow, knowing this always helped me to relax and fall asleep instantly, and sleep for a pretty long time! Partners helped make the baby, so they can certainly help care for the baby! Same goes for the night shift. Come up with a shared parenting plan and/or ask for help. Finding what works so everyone can thrive is crucial to health and happiness!
- Cultivate good sleep hygiene. You may not be able to drift off at a moment’s notice, but cultivating good sleep hygiene will help ensure that when the opportunity arises, you’re able to fall asleep. Try limiting (or cutting out) caffeine, turning off all screens 30 minutes before bedtime, practicing deep breathing, etc.
- Sleep train. Honestly, the only way to reclaim your sleep fully is to coach your baby to better nights and rested naps. When you sleep train and help your baby learn to fall asleep independently, you are that much closer to sleeping through the night and enjoying a rested, predictable nap schedule. No amount of sleeping when your baby sleeps or asking for childcare help will get you the kind of quality sleep that sleep training will.