While pregnant, you likely fielded many dread-inducing warnings about the sleep deprivation to come, but nothing can truly prepare you for the mind-numbing effects of a sleepless life. Sleep?or the lack of it?is also a huge conversation point for new parents?note how quickly people inquire into your new baby’s sleep habits. And note how intrigued you are about the sleep patterns of other people’s babies (and note the envy that washes over you when you learn that some infants sleep more than three hours in a row).
If you find yourself patching together a piecemeal semblance of slumber, you’re not alone. It’s biology, really. Newborn babes need to eat between eight and twelve times a day and usually sleep in three- to four-hour blocks. This makes sense for their tiny digestive systems, but it goes against pretty much everything your body knows about getting a restful night’s sleep.
The human sleep cycle is comprised of several phases. The initial non-REM (NREM, or non-Rapid Eye Movement) phases occur when you fall asleep, enter light sleep, and move into deep sleep?which is when the body recuperates physically and the immune system is strengthened. The last phase of the cycle is REM sleep. This is when you process all the data your brain gathered during the day and have intense dreams. It takes about ninety minutes to move into?REM. If you are awakened at any stage of the sleep cycle you will have to start the whole process again, and may miss out on the essential REM phase. Sleep is an enigmatic area of study, but research has shown that REM helps us integrate the information we learn; it helps keep our declarative memory?that’s the storage of fact-based info like how many ounces are in a cup or?the number of states in the United States?running smoothly. REM also influences procedural memory, or the knowledge of how to do things. If you don’t get enough REM sleep, your body will drop into it quicker each time you fall asleep until you have caught up.
If you pulled all-nighters in college or struggle with insomnia, you may be familiar with the jittery hum of deep fatigue, but it probably never felt quite like this. Baby’s cries alone are a jarring alarm clock?one without a snooze button?but you’re also feeling the energetic output of breastfeeding and the hormone imbalances that can interrupt the sleep you do get. You may be experiencing red and burning eyes; fuzzy brain; cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods; chills; grouchiness; or melancholy.
What to do? The baby books tell you to sleep when baby sleeps, but if you have trouble napping during the day you may find it difficult to power down as soon as your little one starts snoozing. A sleeping baby also means that you finally have two hands free to do other things?like wash your face or put on a clean(er) pair of sweatpants. Resist the temptation to tidy the house.
It is absolutely normal to feel tired during these first weeks with baby, but extreme fatigue can be?and should be?avoided. Locking down that crew of support people in your third trimester will help you grab necessary rest whenever possible during the first forty days. Ideally this network of friends and family will pitch in during the early weeks with baby?when your body is in deep recovery mode and solid sleep is especially of the essence. If a neighbor can take your older child to school and if a friend can do a couple loads of laundry, you will be able to maximize possible sleep time. At the very least you will not overload your already taxed system with more to-dos. This is the time to delegate and receive, delegate and receive. Fortunately the uncomfortable effects of sleep deprivation will begin to subside with the addition of just an hour or more of sleep to your daily quota.
Text copyright ? 2016 by Heng Ou. Amely Greeven, and Marisa Belger