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Parents’ Guide to Sleep

Being a parent of a newborn can be one of the most rewarding times of your life. Smelling milk on baby’s lips, feeling the warmth of baby nestled in your arms — but also, scooping up your hungry, impatient little one every 2-3 hours for feedings and care.

No surprise that most groggy-eyed new parents are not able to fully appreciate their bundle of joy. They are suffering from sleep deprivation. In fact, nearly two-thirds of new parents are not getting enough sleep according to a National Sleep Foundation poll.

When you’re a nursing mom of a 6-month-old, while also caring for a 2-year-old and 4-year-old like Rebecca Weiss, of Huntingdon Valley, PA, you are thankful for whatever sleep you can get.

“After baby Margot was born, I’d be up every three hours,” recalls Weiss. She’d wake up the next morning exhausted. “It was hard to concentrate or have patience for my other kids when I was so tired.”

Thankfully, there are tips and tricks to catch up on rest — even if you don’t get the full 7-9 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.

The key to getting better sleep is knowing what to expect at every stage of the child’s development. This way, you’ll know where sleep deprivation is likely to occur, learn tips for better self-care, and find ways to squeeze in more shut-eye, so you can thoroughly enjoy your daily adventures together.

Getting Better Sleep as the Parent of a Newborn

Do you remember before having children when you used to wake up refreshed and ready to start your day?

Getting a good night’s sleep is the body’s way to recharge and restore itself. New parents need that extra energy, enormous patience, and clear thinking that full rest provides to navigate life’s daily challenges and remain calm to defuse daily drama. Parents must make responsible, split-second decisions and of course, provided a nurturing, stimulating environment for their family to thrive.

But is better sleep even possible with a newborn?

Yes, if you begin to establish healthy sleep habits as early as six weeks after birth, says Dr. Marc Weissbluth, pediatrician, distinguished sleep researcher, and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child.

When your baby has healthy sleep habits, he or she will sleep longer stretches during the night than day, learn to soothe herself back to sleep, have fewer sleep struggles and ultimately, become a better sleeper for life.

According to Weissbluth, if your children sleep better, then you will too, and you’ll be more capable of nurturing and teaching your child.

Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for Newborns

Help your newborn differentiate between day and night. During baby’s wakeful daytime periods, open the blinds, actively engage them while rocking, changing, and feeding; then at night, dim the lights, use a quieter voice, and do winding-down activities.

Be consistent. Put down your baby when they’re getting tired, Weissbluth says. Soothe them to sleep with gentle swaying, soft singing, massage, or a pacifier. Put them to bed while still awake, so that they come to associate soothing with sleep.

Sleep Strategies for Parents

“Becoming a parent is a life-altering adjustment. Get extra help so you can ease into this new role. Draft family, friends, and neighbors to assist with the feeding and care of the newborn, household chores, and cooking,” advises Heather Turgeon, author of The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep-Newborn to School Age.

Help with chores means you can focus on your baby, and your health and well-being instead of piles of laundry or dirty dishes. Many new parents try to do too much too soon and get overwhelmed.

Some additional strategies Turgeon suggests are

  • sharing night-time duties. For nursing moms, pump extra during the day, so a partner or helper can handle late-night feeding on their own.
  • designating a sofa or guest room conducive to uninterrupted snoozing, and the off-duty partner can get quality sleep.

Naps Can Help Recoup Lost Sleep

Doctors are starting to realize that taking a nap may recoup some sleep debt.

To be a smart napper:

  • sleep when baby sleeps. Take a 20-minute afternoon nap to wake up refreshed, alert, and in a better mood.
  • never nap more than 30 and less than 90 minutes. The body can fall into deep sleep, and waking from a deeper sleep too soon causes grogginess and disorientation.
  • use 90-minute naps to allow your body to go through one complete sleep cycle and improve memory, learning, and thinking.

Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for Infants

Develop consistent daily routines for baby’s feeding, activity, and sleeping schedule to build trust and security.

“One of the most effective but least understood sleep training methods is the Ferber Method,” says Weissbluth. Created by sleep disorder pediatric specialist Richard Ferber, MD, it’s also called “cry-it-out.” With the Ferber Method, you gradually delay response time, reassuring the little one without picking up the infant.

The second most popular is The Sleep Lady Shuffle created by family therapist Kim West, and dubbed “no-tears.” With the Sleep Lady Shuffle, you gradually distance yourself from your infant’s crib, reassuring and soothing through words only.

The goal is the same for all methods: train your infant to sleep through the night, and if they do wake up, to go back to sleep on their own.

How to De-stress and Prepare for Bed

Do you still have trouble falling asleep after your baby sleeps through the night?

Are you worried about the next day or returning to work?

Turgeon explains that some parents may have to retrain themselves to be healthy sleepers. Parents need wind-down time, just like their baby does.

If you have a consistent bedtime routine and wake time, then your circadian rhythm, the body’s natural alarm clock, will know when to prepare for sleep. You may need to adjust your schedule and go to bed earlier, or wake your baby later.

To establish a better bedtime routine:

  • Soak in a bathtub, or wash face with warm cloth
  • Put on pajamas and read, listen to quiet music, write in a journal, or write next day’s plans
  • Pray or meditate
  • Recognize your own signs of drowsiness
  • Keep a sleep log to track your sleep schedule
  • Close your eyes and listen to a ceiling fan or white noise machine
  • Shut down all screens thirty minutes before bed — blue light can stimulate the brain and cause difficulty sleeping
  • Avoid caffeine late in day
  • Avoid night caps

Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for Toddlers

As children get older, you need to create age-appropriate bedtime routines, says Turgeon. Try to anticipate the toddler’s delay tactics — extra trip to potty, another glass of water, another hug.

Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for Preschool Kids

As children get older, adapt bedtime routines to the child’s age, says Turgeon. They typically are more verbal, curious, and cognitively aware, so let them choose two storybooks and discuss highlights from their day.

She also suggests giving toddlers a regular bedtime. Make sure that they can use the potty and re-tuck themselves in bed independently, so if they awaken, they don’t have to wake you.

Self-care and Rejuvenation

Parents are programmed to put their children first, but often neglect their own needs — not even realizing their own stress level.

So, what helps you to be attuned to your mind and body? How do you become the island of calm amidst the sea of daily chaos and turmoil?

Meditation is one answer, according to Kristin Ritter, founder/director of Nourishing Storm Studio & Café and author of Spiraling to Wellness. To begin, she recommends setting up a meditation space in the home — or going into nature to quiet your mind. Start with a short duration, then add five or more minutes per day for better clarity. Focus on your breath, be in the moment, and wash away your endless to-do list.

Ritter also practices restorative yoga that’s accessible to everyone. You don’t have to be double-jointed or even flexible. “Restorative yoga gives your mind and body rest and time to reset!”

Yoga: A mood-shifter and sleep inducer

Yoga poses done in bed can prepare tired parents for sleep. “Deep diaphragmatic breathing — with a long, slow exhale that lasts longer than the inhale — stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps to slow heart rate and regulate blood pressure, especially effective during bouts of nighttime anxiety,” explains Shelby Wayte, integrative nutrition health coach. “In other words, you’re signaling to the brain and nervous system that everything is OK, and it’s time to relax and prepare for sleep now.”

For example, Balasana (bah-LAHS-anna)- Child’s Pose [sidebar]

“Rest, relax and renew in Balasana, also known as child’s pose. This pose can be done anywhere and anytime you need a little break,” says Ritter. “It provides a nice pause, a chance to slow down and breathe. A pause, a moment to reflect and shift perspective and realize: Life is not happening to you, it is happening for you.”

Directions:

  1. Start from all fours.
  2. Inhale sink your hips back to your ankles.
  3. Exhale extend your arms resting your palms to the earth.
  4. Rest your forehead down or place a block down first and then rest your forehead on the block.

Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for School-age Kids

Implement a whole house wind-down routine one hour before bed. After dinner, dim the lights and play soft music. Have a routine bedtime on school nights.

How Do You Know if You’re Getting Enough Sleep?

The consequences of substandard sleep go beyond grumpiness. Sleep deprivation can be downright dangerous.

The short-term health consequences include

  • inability to focus and think clearly
  • impatience
  • depression
  • poor decision-making skills

Parents describe it as zombie walking, like sleepwalking through your day on autopilot. They report forgetting what they did last and struggling to make basic decisions.

Can you imagine how sleep loss impacts your parenting and the safety and well-being of your children?

If sleeplessness lasts longer than a few weeks, Turgeon suggests getting professional help — advice from a counselor or psychologist. It could be a sleep disorder or possibly postpartum depression (PPD).

Postpartum Emotions Are Natural

New moms experience a full range of emotions — from the exhilaration of childbirth to the loss of the carefree lifestyle they had prior to pregnancy and the onerous demands of motherhood.

One of the biggest adjustments that new parents make is to their newborn’s demanding 24/7 care of feeding, burping, changing, comforting, and loving the baby.

“Around 20 percent experience PPD, anxiety, or a combination,” says Heather Turgeon. PPD, which can appear within 12 months after the birth, is very treatable in therapy, support groups, and sometimes, medication.

Signs of PPD include

  • prolonged periods of irritability, lethargy, sadness, and anxiety that linger even after getting good sleep.
  • loss of appetite — especially for nursing moms who should be consuming an extra 400-500 calories a day.
  • difficulty bonding with their baby and feelings of inadequacy as a parent.
  • lack of interest in hobbies and other activities they used to enjoy (like long walks in the park or sharing books with their baby.

Turgeon encourages women to discuss these emotions with doctors, friends, families, and therapists. For help and more information visit www.postpartum.net.

Just because you have young children doesn’t mean that a good night’s sleep is impossible. If you develop healthy sleep habits for yourself and your family, then the sweet dreams you crave are as close as your soft, inviting pillow.

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