I conceived both of my children on my own, with an anonymous sperm donor. So that meant there was no eager partner offering to help at night... and no tired partner grudgingly willing to help, either. My mother helped with my first during daytime hours, but she was totally off duty at night.
And so with my first baby at night, I did it all.
Despite being weak from a postpartum hemorrhage, I roused myself with each cry. I changed the diapers, nursed the baby, and soothed her back to sleep.
Luckily for me, she was mostly a good sleeper and usually went back to sleep after a feeding. That doesn't mean I wasn't occasionally in tears from fatigue. In hindsight, I can see I made a mistake. I should have gotten nighttime help.
I was beyond exhausted. Some days, emptying the dishwasher was an insurmountable task. Luckily we were staying with my mother -- I was too weak to take care of us at home -- so she cooked and washed dishes and changed diapers and burped the baby. And by the time we returned home, I was more or less okay.
But still. I would have enjoyed those early days a lot more if I had had some nighttime help. Even once or twice, for a few hours, would have made a huge difference.
With my second, my mom was gone. I had no family member offering to pitch in. I had great friends but they were busy with their own young children. And I had a three-year-old who needed me, too. A three-year-old that tended to burst into my room at 6 am, ready to start the day. Whether or not I had been up half the night with my colicky second-born or not.
Let's just say I was not a great mother to my older child in those early days.
It was miserable. For all of us.
Finally, I realized that I needed help.
Through the grapevine, I learned of a baby "nurse" (not actually a registered nurse) in the neighborhood. Laurel ran a local daycare and a friend recommended her highly. Sold.
Laurel came one night at 10 pm. I felt all kinds of wrong, handing my newborn over to a stranger. Leaving them alone in my living room and going to my bedroom to pump and then go to sleep (with my white noise machine on high) was surreal.
But I did it anyway. Albeit nervously.
I sent an alarm to wake up and pump four hours later. Four hours after that, Laurel crept into my bedroom and eased the baby into the bassinet and quietly departed.
It felt so good that I had her come back the next night to do it again. I was stressed about the money but it was amazing to feel semi-human again.
After two nights of help, I could imagine a world in which I actually enjoyed having two children. I started to think my older child was kind of cute, after all.
From then on, Laurel came every few nights. I continued to worry about spending so much money while on maternity leave but I just couldn't see a way to survive without her.
My breastmilk supply was fine with pumping at bedtime and again once during the night. My little one was not any worse at nursing for taking the occasional bottle (she never had a great latch in the early weeks -- despite visiting a lactation specialist, her mouth was just too small -- but she didn't get worse).
And then at five weeks, everything shifted. Amelie's tummy troubles eased. The long hours of newborn fussing lessened. She started to sleep a longer stretch at night. And it was clear I didn't need help anymore. I gratefully bid Laurel a fond farewell... and started to recommend her to my friends.
In hindsight, I wish I had had her come more often. I was scared that I would need her for a long time, but it turned out that the newborn period of mixed up days and nights, plus colic, didn't last long. Most babies start to sleep a longer stretch at night by about six weeks from the due date, though some don't start to recover from colic until about 4 months of age.
I wish I could go back and tell myself that even with my firstborn, it would have been a great idea to get paid (or not) help. It would have been okay to ask for a baby gift of contributing to a night nanny instead of unecessary baby clothes.
And so I want to tell all of you that there is no shame in accepting nighttime help, or even asking for it. When people ask how they can help, say, "would you be willing to do an evening shift with the baby?"
It's not too much to ask a friend or family member to watch the baby from 8 pm for a few hours so you can go to sleep and get a few uninterrupted hours. Even just three or four hours of unbroken sleep when you aren't straining to listen for a newborn cry can be amazingly restorative.
There's a myth in our culture that moms have to do it all. And effortlessly fit back into our pre-pregnancy jeans by six weeks postpartum, to boot.
This is a disservice to new families everywhere.
The newborn period is incredibly hard (for many, not all). I promise, it will get easier.
In the meantime, accept all the help you can. When someone says, "Let me know if you need anything," say "yes, actually, would you be willing to watch the baby while I sleep?" The worst they can say is no. But most people relish the opportunity to cuddle a newborn. And truly want to contribute.
Pay someone if you need to.
It doesn't mean you are a bad mother (or father). It doesn't mean you didn't want to become a parent. It doesn't mean you are lazy, or weak, or unloving.
Getting better sleep will make a better, more loving parent. And your newborn is most likely happy with any warm body. It doesn't have to be you in the early days (except for breastfeeding, of course). Take advantage of this and get yourself some sleep.
And hopefully it goes without saying but please don't bake or clean or even shower to prepare for these helpers. They are there to help you. Focus on your own needs. Take the best care of you that you can so that later, you can take care of your new little family member.
Massive sleep deprivation is not good for breast milk production, family bonding, or postpartum blues and depression. You are doing your whole family a favor by accepting help.
Motherhood is a long game. You are not going to make or break it as a parent in the first few weeks. Do yourself a favor and build up your strength so that you have more to give in later weeks when the offers of help dry up.
And rest assured, there are things you can do to make things easier in the early days, even when you don't have help. My number one suggestion is always to keep wakeful intervals very short for newborns. I aim for about 45 minutes awake, or the first yawn, whichever comes first. Preventing overtiredness will make it much easier for your newborn to go back to sleep, whether during the day or at night.
Beyond that, use Dr. Harvey Karp's 5 S's to help soothe your little one and get her sleeping: sucking (pacifiers worked great for both my children and didn't affect breastfeeding... the latest research supports this), shushing (white noise or even the oven exhaust fan works great), swaddling (even if she seems to hate it at first), swinging (in your arms or in a stroller or baby swing), and sidelying (only while being supervised).
If you need more support -- and remember, there's no shame in that! -- let's set up a free chat and see if we can't get you and your little one sleeping better.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.