All Sleep is Not Created Equal: Why New Moms and Dads Need To Be Mindful of Their Own Postpartum Sleep Hygiene

When I write my blogs and newsletters, my goal is to offer ways to promote healthy sleep habits for baby. But parents’ sleep hygiene is also important—as a parent, you have to take good care of yourself so you can take good care of your child, and a good night’s sleep is crucial. That’s why I am honored to feature a guest blog by an expert on this topic, Dr. Daniel B. Singley, Ph.D., ABPP.—Jen

Most new mothers and fathers find themselves not sleeping, feeling irritable and tired throughout the day, and they can end up doing some pretty wild things. Does this sound like you?

If you’re a new parent, you may be surprised by how exhausted and drained you feel from waking up every three hours to feed or care for your infant. We know that research has shown that a lack of sleep has a huge impact on our postpartum mental health, but how does this experience affect new parents?

Postpartum sleep for parents is often fragmented, as it is characterized by numerous interruptions due to the infant’s sleep cycle. The baby’s sleep cycle lasts approximately 50 to 60 minutes, while adults’ and older children’s cycles last about 90 minutes. How does this cycle translate into infants’ amount of sleep per day? Infants from birth to 12 months in age sleep approximately six to 12 hours a day, with an average of three or more awakenings in the middle of the night. New parents are replicating their infants’ sleep pattern and are ending up with fragmented sleep. Research shows that fragmented sleep can lead to daytime sleepiness and stress, and it has a negative impact on mood, memory and daytime functioning

Research has also shown that poor sleep quality in the early postpartum period (one month after the kiddo is born) can predict depressive symptoms in mothers three months postpartum. Less is known about postpartum sleep in fathers. However, research indicates that fathers’ sleep postpartum is similar to that of mothers, as fathers report frequent sleep interruptions and high ratings of fatigue. Research also suggests that sleep may not only be a risk factor for mothers to experience postpartum depressive symptoms, but for new fathers as well. 

Research also discusses the importance of maximizing the periods of uninterrupted sleep to prevent the development of depressive symptoms three months postpartum. Sleep training expert Jen Varela of Sugar Night Night focuses on helping sleep-deprived families reach their family sleep goal(s) in order to empower parents to revamp their sleep habits for their baby and family. Remember, it is important for you to take care of your own health and wellness, and to try to get as much sleep as you can, to be the best parent you can be. 

Some habits that may help improve your sleep include: 

  • Avoid caffeine four to six  hours prior to bed as caffeine can interfere with your sleep cycle.
  • Limit use of electronics before bed as research has shown the light from our electronics interferes with our sleep.
  • Avoid eating foods that are heavy, spicy or difficult to digest.
  • Prepare your environment for sleep. Maintain a steady cool temperature in a dark and quiet bedroom. It can also be helpful to choose relaxing scents such as lavender oil or chamomile oil.
  • It can be helpful to practice deep breathing prior to going to bed to help you relax and reduce muscle tension.
  • Avoid watching the clock when in bed.

Beyond these tried-and-true sleep hygiene techniques, it’s also critically important that couples have an open dialogue about how to balance their competing needs for sleep even when caring for a newborn demands a lot of their time. Moms and dads come up with all sorts of ways to navigate this situation, such as having both parents get up for nighttime feedings, having one parent sleep while the other takes the feeding (which requires a bottle for dads to take their shift), alternating shifts, alternating nights and even hiring a nighttime doula. Because families and their contexts are so different, there is no one “right way” for moms and dads to frame the sleeping-and-feeding routine—what matters most is that both partners are having an open dialogue about their needs in order to try to get them met as well as possible!