Parents of newborns: get your Zzzzzs back

Recently I’ve seen some very tired parents of newborns in my office.

Sleep deprivation, while common, leaves you prone to emotional distress and more susceptible to illness. Driving sleep deprived is as dangerous as driving drunk.  Lack of sleep can even cause brain wave patterns similar to those seen in people with seizures. 

Ask for help. If you live near family, take them up on offers to cook a meal or come hold the baby while you take a nap during the day. If you don’t have friends or family to provide free help, look for local teens trying to earn some community service hours or volunteer seniors from your local house of worship or YMCA. For a relatively small expense you could probably pay a money-starved teen to complete some household chores or to babysit in your home while you, the parents, grab some much needed sleep. Remember, too, that this is the time to get to know the baby as a family member, not to entertain others. If the people standing in your kitchen are not willing to do the dishes, then point them to the door. 

For a larger expense but sanity-saving measure, pay someone to help out overnight a few times a week, or ask a kind relative to sleep over. My husband and I still credit our neighbor, who helped us out some nights after our twins were born, for saving our marriage (sleep deprivation does not enhance a spousal relationship). Even breastfeeding moms can make this work. The helper should wake mom to breastfeed, then take the baby away so the mom can go immediately back to sleep.  Meanwhile the helper burps, changes, soothes, and settles the infant. 

Even if you never took naps before, you will learn to extract super-human refreshment from a series of short naps throughout the day and night. Remember that the frequent awakenings are temporary because newborns only have newborn sleep patterns for as long as they are, well, newborns. Although this time FEELS like centuries while you are living it, in reality it lasts at most for about three months. After that, babies naturally lengthen time between feeds because their growth rate slows and thus they are able to stay asleep for longer periods of time. Sleep when the baby sleeps. Do not try to do anything “productive.”

Other tricks to fend off the effects of sleep deprivation, I learned as a pediatric resident. In those days I worked 36 hour shifts every fourth day for three years. I found seeing sunlight and smelling coffee helps ameliorate sleepiness.  A shower FEELS like about two hours of sleep.

New parents need to force themselves to nap and put the rest of their household on hold. Hire a cleaning service if you can afford it, order take-out or eat breakfast cereal for dinner, and don’t worry about keeping up with laundry.

Sleep is an essential of life, just like food and water. If this post put you to sleep, then you are not getting enough. Sleep, that is. Hey, did you just see a sheep?  Count it!

Julie Kardos, MD with Naline Lai, MD
©2011 Two Peds in a Pod®

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  • Reply Barbara Heid July 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you for writing about this very important topic.
    Postpartum Doulas are professional “helpers” who nurture families with newborns during the postpartum “fourth trimester” by providing practical, emotional and informational support. Though a very exciting time for families, coming home with a new baby (or babies!) can also be overwhelming and certainly exhausting. By “mothering the mother” a Postpartum Doula can ease this transition, helping Mom rest and recover from childbirth and bond with her baby.
    Families can find a local certified Postpartum Doula on the DONA International website(

  • Reply Beth Mikolajczyk July 27, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this article!! As a new mom and a mom of twins I sometimes forget how important it is for me to take care of myself as well as my kids and the important relationships in my life. It’s been vital for me to learn to ask for help from others. I’ve also come to acknowledge the fact that it’s o.k. if things aren’t done exactly as I would do them, because in the end my twins are still healthy and happy babies and mom gets a needed break. Kudos!!

  • Reply K Bert April 26, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I’m sleep deprived bc my 6 mo old won’t sleep alone & cries every time he’s put down whether it be to sleep or to play! He cries for a while, I hate to his cries & now it’s happening when he’s in the car seat & that he constantly wants to be held, I know it’s bad. Is there was a better way?

  • Reply Two Peds in a Pod April 27, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    The good news is that it looks like you’ve moved on to another stage of development- this post is for babies after the newborn period

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