Life with my first newborn, almost nine years ago now, was often miserable.
She was generally pleasant during the day but by late afternoon, all hell broke loose. She cried for hours. I felt like the worst mother in the world. And I used to be a neonatal ICU nurse! How could it be this hard to comfort my own child?
I sat at my mother’s dining room table with a breastfeeding pillow around my waist and my shirt bunched above Calliope’s bald head, doing my best to wolf down food one-handed.
My mom would take Calliope from time to time and bounce her repeatedly, which calmed Calliope momentarily but then she would cry even harder a few minutes later.
About the time that I was nearing my breaking point with the crying, having not left the house all day, my mother would hand the baby over and chirp cheerfully, “well, I’m getting tired, I think I’m going to go get ready for bed now.”
I frantically swaddled and swayed and nursed and rocked Calliope in her little swing. Nothing seemed to help. I was exhausted. And as a single mother by choice, I didn’t have a partner to turn to. My mother changed diapers and burped Calliope after feedings when she could, but she was a full-time attorney and busy with her own life.
My blog from 2011 says,
Calliope doesn’t seem to have any comfort mechanisms besides nursing. I know they say you can’t overfeed a breastfed baby... but I don’t believe that. If she is eating for reasons other than hunger, to my mind, that’s not necessarily healthy, just like it wouldn’t be healthy at any other age.
However, I still let her nurse whenever she wants to... but when she cries and roots while the nipple is still in her mouth, I feel beyond frustrated and helpless. Clearly she isn’t hungry. But I just don’t know how to help her.
Finally she fell asleep and II left her swinging in the den. I gathered my strength to climb the stairs to my bathroom. And cried in the shower.
I don't know how I can keep going like this. I love her but I can't bear the exhaustion."
Then my friend Catherine, another Brooklyn single mom, told me about a book called The Sleep Whisperer, by Tracy Hogg. She said it helped with her newborn son, Jack, just a few weeks older than Calliope.
I was desperate. And so tired I couldn’t imagine staying awake long enough to read a book. Desperation won out. I didn’t love the author’s tone. It was a bit too colloquial for me -- she addresses her clients as “luv.” But I forgave her for that because the information she shared changed our lives.
I finally understood that I was keeping Calliope awake too long. At just a few weeks old, she should have been awake for only an hour at a time. She should go to bed before she even looked tired, at the first sign of a yawn. And those too-late naps were thus too-short naps... which were absolutely causing the late afternoon witching hour(s).
I promptly put Calliope on Hogg’s EASY routine. EASY stands for Eat, Activity, Sleep, You.
Eat. Rather than letting her eat all the time, and especially before sleep, I only fed her when she first woke up from a nap. I aimed for feeding every three hours. I stopped feeding her to sleep.
Activity. For a newborn, activity was simple. Mostly it was a few minutes lying on her activity mat but other times, it was even less. It turns out that newborns don't need all that much in the way of stimulation. As she got older, this period gradually lengthened out.
Rest. I aimed to put her back to sleep after only an hour awake. If I saw a yawn after only forty-five minutes, I would put her down even sooner. I used four of Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s: swaddling, sucking (a pacifier), swinging and shushing (white noise). Back then, it was acceptable to let babies sleep inclined in swings. Now we know this is a risk factor for SIDS, unfortunately. All babies must be put down to sleep on their backs.
You. The part I lived for. This was time for me. To shower, exercise, call a friend, check email or (less fun) pursue the disability insurance folks. Getting a guaranteed break for myself made all the difference in the world to my emotional health. I never managed to nap but getting time off during the day meant I didn't stay up too late at night, trying to soak up some personal time.
Within a few days of putting Calliope on this schedule, she was a different child. She literally never cried. I could figure out her needs just by glancing at the clock.
It was hard, sometimes, to be so ruled by a schedule... but it was worlds better than hours of crying every afternoon. And I found I could compromise let her nap in the stroller occasionally without suffering the consequences at night.
And with just this routine, including the feeding schedule, Calliope was naturally sleeping 8 hours at a stretch at night without any formal sleep training by 6 weeks old. (The swing might have been an unfair advantage, though!)
I am not exagerating when I say that this schedule saved my sanity. I know I was lucky that she was a good sleeper... but I know it wasn't all luck, since she wasnt' a good sleeper before this schedule changed everything for us.
Moreover, it saved me from having to do any hard sleep training. This method didn't involve any crying at all. (In another post, I'll talk about the sleep training method that got me to 10 hours by 10 weeks. That was even better.)
It's never too soon to instill great sleep habits in your child. I started this schedule on our first day home from the hospital with my younger daughter. I never did any sleep training with her at all. She slept ten hours by ten weeks, too.
If you would like to get your little one on track and aren't sure where to start, schedule a free consult with me and get your life back on track.
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.
You've taken the baby out for an outing. She got plenty of fresh air and had lots to see.
Now you are back home and it should be time to sleep. But your little darling just won't go to sleep.
Your mother suggests the baby isn't tired yet, "Here, give her to me! She just needs some time to play with her Grammy."
Your best friend is puzzled and suggests you are trying too hard, "I just didn't worry about it. Little Johnny would just drop off wherever and whenever he was tired. Maybe you are stressing the baby out by focusing on the nap so much? Just live your life and don't worry!"
But neither of these strategies are working very well. By the end of the day, your baby is fussy and frazzled. And so are your nerves.
But when you try to have her nap on a schedule, that doesn't work either.
What's a tired parent to do?
Rest assured, you are on the right track. Your baby does need a nap. Sooner than you realize.
Nearly all the time, the issue is that parents are missing the ideal window for a nap. When that happens, your baby becomes overtired and her body produces cortisol, a stress hormone that makes it harder for her to sleep.
Which can lead to lots of crying -- not only from the baby -- and miles of walking the hallways of your home, patting the back of your fussy little one.
The key to avoiding this is prevention. Watch your baby carefully and put her down for a nap at the first sign that she is tired. These signs include yawning, avoiding eye contact, rubbing her eyes, or staring into space. Waiting longer to make sure she's truly tired enough to sleep will generally backfire. Once she's fussy, you've missed the magic window of opportunity and it will likely be harder to get her to sleep and the nap will likely be too short.
For newborns, you can expect the first yawn after as little as 45 minutes awake (including the feeding). It will feel like a very short time awake. This is normal!
As your baby gets older, you will be able to stretch her time a little bit. But you still want to watch your baby, not the clock. Some days she will be able to stay awake as much as an hour and a half, but other times, it will be less. Again, watch for the yawns.
It may take a few days, but if you follow her sleep cues carefully, you should see a dramatic improvement in her mood as well as more consistent, longer naps.
Want some help figuring out her cues? You aren't alone. Schedule a free chat with me or sign up for my newborn sleep consulting or child sleep support package.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.