Dr Jonathan Bloomfield
I recently became a father for the first time and have been experiencing first-hand the desperate struggles of sleep deprivation. From clumsiness to memory lapses, severe yawning to mood swings, insatiable appetite to that constant feeling of being dazed and confused, I’ve suffered it all.
I’m writing this blog post to share some insights of my experiences of new-born-induced fatigue during the first 3 months. I also want to provide a few suggestions as to how a parent can tackle the extreme tiredness that comes with losing 1000 hours (on average) of sleep in the first year of a child’s life.
Get off to a good start
Knowing sleep deprivation is on its way for 9 months, I’d really recommend getting into a strict, 7-days-a-week sleep schedule. This should consist of regular pre-bed routines, consistent bedtimes and stable wake-up/get-up times that both parents adhere to throughout the pregnancy.
For mothers this can be tricky, given that the body is going through a number of changes and achieving comfort can be difficult. For example, back pain and pelvic pain is extremely common in expectant mothers. With this in mind, there is no better time to pay attention to the sleep system – mattress, pillows, bedding, maternity pillows – paying particular attention to pressure relief and postural support.
It is also essential to take care of your sleep hygiene by optimising the bedroom environment to maximise the quality of your sleep.
The target is to avoid carrying any sleep debt into the birth, which can leave parents on the back foot before they’ve even started facing the challenges that are presented by a new-born.
Get a few good habits going
The nine months of pregnancy should also represent an opportunity to get into a solid regime of healthy eating and exercise, laying a solid foundation for coping with sleep deprivation and maintaining a strong immune system.
Plenty of fresh food and healthy snacks are the key to a balanced, nutrient filled diet. This should be supported by regular exercise for both parents. Intense exercise may not be feasible for the mother but simply getting outdoors and taking a walk can be maintained right through a pregnancy. Aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week – ensuring that the heart rate is elevated for this period of time. In my own experience this formed a valuable part of those final days “as a 2” and helped both my wife and I to mentally prepare for the imminent changes in lifestyle ahead.
Lighten the load
On the run up to the due date, it can be helpful to start easing back on workload where possible. While it can be difficult to do this in the workplace it is usually possible to reduce other commitments at the weekend and in your social life.
Clear the diary for those early weeks after birth, too, as this important period of adjustment shouldn’t have any added pressures where possible. Once baby arrives, Dads you may really struggle to have any capacity to work for a few weeks so plan your responsibilities carefully and be prepared to drop everything if necessary. Keeping up a busy schedule and trying to look after a new-born is a fast-track route to burnout later down the line.
Ask for help
In most cases it won’t take long to start building up that sleep debt once baby has made his or her entrance into the world. Once the adrenaline of the first few days wears off, many parents begin to feel more dazed and disorientated than usual. You’ll surprise yourself at some of the clumsy things you’ll likely do (such as put your car keys in the fridge) and the frustration you’ll feel from your reduced brain power.
Recognise though, that you are now also at risk to yourself and your judgement is badly impaired. Welcome any help that is being offered to you and don’t feel guilty about asking for it either.
Think carefully before you get behind the wheel, handle machinery or carry out challenging tasks. Fatigue can inhibit your motor skills and coordination as much as several glasses of wine, so be sure not to take any chances with your own or others’ safety.
Be a team player
Once you are home from hospital, recognise that you’re best placed to cope together as a duo and your best teamwork skills are going to be essential to get through the challenges of the first 12 weeks. There will be a lot of new things to get used to and quite a bit to juggle to allow life to run smoothly for everyone. Look to share the load as much as possible to spread the responsibilities, as well as the fatigue, and be prepared to make sacrifices for each other.
In the middle of the night
One of the toughest things for new parents to get used to is usually night feeds. Whether you are a breastfeeding mother or a father giving your baby a bottle, the key here is to remain in dim light and avoid the temptations that will start to get your brain re-activated, such as browsing the internet or thinking about the list of tasks you need to do once the day gets going. Instead, stay in the moment, keep a very restful state, breathe slowly and deeply and allow many physiological recovery processes to continue. If you can, try practising mindfulness techniques while feeding.
Babies take time
One reality that will strike you more than most is the sheer volume of time that is required to attend to a baby. It’s a non-stop show. Even when the baby is sleeping, many things still need to be done to prepare for them waking up. All of this becomes a true pleasure, of course, but this was once time you used to do other things so you’ll notice a distinct change in your lifestyle. If you don’t follow the adjustment, you will soon run out of energy.
Aim for quality sleep
Help yourself out by deciding to cut out alcohol altogether for a while. As the amount of sleep becomes reduced, your aim should be to maximise the quality of sleep you are getting.
Although alcohol is used by many to help relax and induce sleep due to a temporary rise in adenosine, know that it has a significant negative impact on the restoration processes (it blocks REM) and may also disturb you to need to go to the bathroom, so you’re doing no favours to yourself if you regularly use it to help unwind or cope with the situation.
Don’t go crazy with caffeine
Be careful with your use of caffeine to combat daytime fatigue. There may be a temptation to ramp up the amount to normally take to help you through the tiredness, but this is not a good long-term approach and leads to deeper anxiety, racing heart rate, and body aches, as well as a higher dependence. It’s smart to use caffeine strategically, so aim to use cautiously and never after lunchtime so it does not impact on the quality of your sleep later at night.
Nap it up
Napping is a complex beast and can both improve and detract from quality of sleep. Naps can be an important tool in a parent’s quest to catch up on lost sleep. If you’re feeling the need for a nap, the likelihood is that you are sleep deprived and your body is simply kicking into survival mode to recover some of the debt.
It is advisable to follow these urges where possible. Of course, it is crucial that these naps are taken only when it is safe to do so (not while holding baby or driving, for example). Ideally, these naps should be limited to 20-30mins for a short nap or a 90-minute stint when appropriate to get you through a sleep cycle. Indeed, even micro-naps under 10mins will also do wonders for you.
To maximise the impact of a nap and ensure that you can regulate the length to fit you’re your sleep cycle, keep an eye mask handy and set a vibrate alarm to wake you after the appropriate length of time.
Get habits back on track ASAP
Once the first few weeks have passed by and you’re starting to adjust to the new demands in your life, it’s important to try and get a few of your good habits back on track. Get back into a solid pre-bed routine and avoid any mindless time-wasting late at night when you’re exhausted, such as binge watching a TV series.
It is also well worth focusing your attention on healthy eating and re-establishing an exercise routine. It is completely understandable that you may have taken the odd shortcut in the weeks following your child’s birth but you should be aware that the longer you take to get things back in order the harder it will become.
The body will crave sugar and fat when sleep deprived but once you get nutrition, exercise and sleep patterns on track you will feel distinctly more energetic and refreshed. Vigorous activity first thing in the morning is perhaps the best way to get your body and mind in great shape again.
Alongside these physical factors, be sure to take good care of your mental wellbeing. Take notice of all the wonderful things in your life. In particular, partners should always make time to devote to each other. During a time of intense change, working hard to grow a relationships through the adjustment will pay dividends in the long run devote some attention to your partner.
Keep life simple
Once a bit of a routine gets going again, resist any temptation to ramp things back up again and aim to just keep life simple for a while. You may need some bravery to be able say “No” or at least, “Not right now.”
After 3 months, a catch-up wave of fatigue will reappear and your immune system may also become suppressed at this stage. It would be a good idea to plan for a few days break around this time. Routines will continue to regularly change as babies develop so avoid putting yourself into an unnecessarily challenging situation where you’ve made a commitment you’re finding difficulty to fulfil. Keep your stress levels low and dial up a high-level awareness about yourselves and aim to delay before providing any answers to requests, being sensitive to how much time and energy it will cost you.
I hope you found these points useful. As a new parent myself I know that it’s not always possible to stick rigidly to these ideals. While it is important to make an effort to find a good pattern in the first months of your newborn’s life, you also shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage to meet your targets.
After all, that will only add unwanted pressure to your life. And the whole point of becoming a parent should be to enjoy family life!