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A Sleep Survival Guide For Exhausted New Parents

Posted on April 23, 2024 by Elizabeth Swanson
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Welcoming a new baby is an incredible, life-changing experience – that's not without difficulties and adjustments. Especially those first three months, when newborns eat every two to four hours and don’t have a circadian rhythm, most parents will experience some level of sleep deprivation and exhaustion.

“Exhaustion can make it difficult to cope with everyday problems and can lead to issues with concentration and mood,” says Sara Gilbertson, CNM, PMH-C, a certified nurse midwife at Henry Ford Health. “It can contribute to relationship conflicts and increases the risk of postpartum depression. Birth parents have a one in five chance of experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety and non-birth parents have a one in ten chance of developing postpartum depression and anxiety.”

What’s more, Gilbertson says depression and anxiety can affect milk production, inhibit bonding, make it harder to tend to your baby’s psychosocial needs and even hinder early childhood development. So don’t neglect yourself. Sleeping isn’t selfish – it’s important for the wellbeing of your whole family. 

How New Parents Can Prioritize Sleep    

Focusing on your own sleep, of course, is easier said than done – which is where Gilbertson comes in. She offers realistic, “survivalist” tips to get through those first three months: 

1. Nap when the baby naps.

Prioritize napping over laundry, dishes or other chores. “Chores like laundry can go by the wayside,” says Gilbertson. “Here’s your postpartum laundry routine: have a dirty basket and a clean basket in each room. No folding of the clean laundry needed. In that first year, babies don’t wear anything that needs to be ironed, folded or hung up anyway.”  

2. Ask trusted visitors to hold the baby while you nap.

Newborns often sleep best when they’re held – one reason why parents don’t get quality sleep. But if a friend or family member can cuddle the baby, you can rest. “Visitors aren’t coming to see us, they’re coming to see the baby,” says Gilbertson. “And most visitors do want to help. It’s completely appropriate to say, ‘do you mind cuddling the baby so I can lay down?’” 

3. Establish a sleep contract.

Prenatal And Postnatal Care At Henry Ford

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If you live in a two-parent household, or if you have someone to help you care for the baby, split a 10-hour night into two shifts. “One person can take 8 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; the other person can take 1:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. The parent on duty sleeps in the baby’s room – or on a couch, etc. – so their partner can get quality sleep,” says Gilbertson. “The partner who is nursing can pump before going to bed so a bottle is ready for night feedings.” That said, you should wake up your partner if you are overly exhausted and don’t feel safe with the baby.

With a sleep contract, your resting hours are still shortened, but at least your body can rely upon a certain amount of quality sleep each night. “Going to bed at the same time every night is one of the most important indicators of quality sleep,” says Gilbertson. “You’ll be less likely to reach a dangerous level of exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Relationship conflicts may also be minimized because parents often feel guilty or resentful that one partner gets up more often than the other. Some well-meaning parents get up together, but that just makes two people overly exhausted, leaving no one to tap in.”  

Quick Ways To Get An Energy Boost

Some days, you might not be able to shake the fatigue. In those instances, try these quick fixes:   

  • Grab a midnight snack. Snacks that combine healthy fats, fiber, protein and complex carbs give you the calories needed for an energy boost. (If you’re breastfeeding, you need extra calories anyway.) Try peanut butter toast on whole grain bread or Greek yogurt with berries.
  • Drink caffeine. Even when you’re breastfeeding, it’s okay to drink up to 200 milligrams of caffeine. (That’s about two cups of homemade coffee or one cup from a popular chain.) Just don’t drink it close to bedtime, as you don’t want to disrupt the precious sleep you are able to get.
  • Go for a walk. A brisk outdoor stroll can give you an instant boost – and fresh air is good for the baby, too.   

Mental Health Resources For New Parents 

After those first newborn months, you will find some equilibrium. But if you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to take advantage of mental health support. 

“For Henry Ford Health patients, the Perinatal Outreach and Support Team (POST) includes a perinatal mental health clinic, which offers medication management, counselor referral and pregnancy and postpartum support groups,” says Gilbertson. “Postpartum Support International (PSI) also has incredible resources and many virtual support groups. You can also call the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-852-6262, where trained professionals are available for support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” 


Reviewed by Sara Gilbertson, CNM, PMH-C, a certified nurse midwife who sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

Categories : ParentWell
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