Follow their do’s and don’ts so you aren’t a complete zombie.

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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

It’s the bane of every new parent’s life: The battle to get enough sleep. Multiple feedings per night, unexpected 3:00 a.m. diaper changes, and bouts of fussiness in the wee hours can turn even the most stalwart of new moms and dads into glassy-eyed, running-on-fumes versions of themselves.

When you’re slogging through the sleep desert of the first months of parenthood, you may wonder if there’s hope for getting through this difficult time.

Enter the wisdom of pediatric sleep consultants.

These experts counsel new parents on how to get through the newborn days as alert and refreshed as possible. We tapped into the brains of these experts to get their best advice on making it through the sleepless nights and groggy days of parenthood. Here are 12 of their do’s and dont’s.

It may sound like an old chestnut, but proper sleep hygiene really does make a difference for maximizing your rest after baby’s arrival.

Establishing a wind-down routine and getting to bed at the same time each night prepares the mind and body for sleep — which is especially helpful if you can get to bed just after baby does.

1. Practice good sleep hygiene

“Night sleep develops first, so typically the first portion of the night is the longest stretch of sleep,” says certified pediatric sleep consultant Tracie Kesatie, MA, of Rest Well Baby.

Kesatie recommends implementing a relaxing routine, such as taking a warm bath or reading a few pages of a book before bed, plus turning off electronics at least 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.

2. Create the best sleep environment (for you and baby)

Along with streamlining your bedtime routine, take stock of your sleep environment. Is your bedroom a relaxing place you actually want to fall asleep in? “Keep clutter, exercise bikes, unfolded laundry, and that stack of bills out of the bedroom,” says sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ. “These are distracting to a good night’s sleep.”

Additionally, don’t feel bad if you need to take a temporary break from sleeping in the same bed with your partner. “Opt for separate beds if you and your sleep partner are having bed-sharing issues,” says Cralle. “Sufficient sleep contributes to healthy and happy relationships, and sleeping in separate beds is a healthy option.”

Creating a sleep-conducive environment isn’t just for parents, either — it actually applies to babies, too. “If their environment is set up for great sleep, you will get longer stretches sooner,” says certified pediatric sleep specialist Gaby Wentworth of Rockabye Rockies.

Swaddling, white noise machines, and a dark bedroom can all help baby stay asleep for longer periods.

3. Accept help (and don’t be afraid to ask for it)

There’s no badge of honor for powering through sleeplessness on your own. Whenever possible, accept help — or go ahead and ask for assistance from family and friends.

“Babies typically sleep in short spurts over a 24-hour period, so allowing others to assist you with watching, feeding, or changing the baby is critical,” says Wentworth. Even if all you can manage is a quick afternoon nap while a friend cares for your baby, every little bit helps you catch up on nighttime losses.

4. Take turns with your partner

Sometimes the best help is in plain sight: your partner or spouse! A bit of teamwork can make a major impact. “At night, take turns with your partner getting up with the baby so that you can each get some uninterrupted sleep,” recommends Kesatie.

“If you’re a nursing mom, once the nursing relationship is established, try to go to bed at the same time as the baby and see if your partner can feed the baby a bottle of pumped breast milk at the first wake-up so you can get a solid chunk of sleep during the first portion of the night.”

If you’re rocking parenthood as a single mom, remember the advice we gave you above: accept help — even for the overnight shift! Ask a friend or family member to bunk with you to listen for baby’s wake-up while you sleep peacefully, earplugs in.

5. Sleep train, when you’re ready

Opinions vary on the subject of infant sleep training, but there can be a time and place for helping baby lengthen his sleep stretches. “My suggestion is for parents to do what they are comfortable doing,” advises Wenworth.

“Once a baby is 4 months old, you can begin doing some sleep training if it suits your family. This can look different for everyone, but the most important piece is that you have your pediatrician’s okay, and that parents choose a method that they’re comfortable with and can be consistent with for at least 2 weeks.”

6. Keep work at work

In the era of connectivity, work projects and deadlines can easily crowd their way into home life, robbing us of precious sleep. During the first months with a new baby, make an effort to leave work at work. “Limit work-related emails, texts, and phone calls,” advises Cralle.

You may even go one step further by discussing with your supervisor or HR department how your workplace could be a part of your sleep solution. “Work schedules should support sufficient sleep times,” says Cralle. “Telecommuting, staggered schedules, sanctioned workplace napping, and flex times may be viable, sleep-friendly options.”

7. Refresh yourself in other ways

When squeezing in your full 7 to 9 hours just isn’t possible, there are other ways to rejuvenate besides just sleep. Pencil in time for listening to favorite music, reading, cooking, or even working on a favorite hobby.

“You may be wondering how it’s even possible to pursue a hobby when you have a baby, but finding some time (even a few minutes) every day to do something that you really enjoy can help reduce stress,” encourages Kesatie.

We also think it’s a great idea to just sit on the sofa and watch Netflix — you do you!

8. Don’t forget diet and exercise

“With diet, there’s a bidirectional relationship — the healthier you eat, the better your sleep — and the better your sleep, the healthier your food choices,” notes Cralle.

The same goes for exercise. Prioritizing healthy eating and physical activity whenever possible will give you better energy during the day and promote better sleep at night.

9. Don’t substitute caffeine for sleep

Though it may perk you up in the short term, a venti latte is not liquid sleep. “Caffeine is not a substitute for sleep,” says Cralle. “If you drink it all day to stay awake, you are likely to have trouble falling asleep at bedtime.”

While there’s nothing wrong with a cup of joe here or there, try to keep consumption moderate, and don’t drink anything caffeinated late in the day. We see you staring at us, matcha cappuccino!

10. Don’t discount the power of a nap

Certainly, a cat nap can’t replace your full 8 hours, but when nights with a newborn have you sleep deprived, don’t disregard the effectiveness of a short daytime rest. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 20 minutes is all it takes to experience benefits like better mood and improved alertness.

11. Don’t pop sleep meds too often

For those times when you can get a quick snatch of sleep but aren’t quite feeling the urge, you may reach for medications to help you conk out faster. But be wary of reaching for meds flippantly, especially without the green light from your doctor.

“Potent prescription drugs such as eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien) have been associated with increased car accidents and more than double the number of falls and fractures in older adults,” notes Dr. David Brodner, board-certified physician in sleep medicine.

On the other hand, the right medication can be a helpful occasional aid. “Many people can benefit from a high-quality melatonin product, ideally one that lasts 7 hours, which can help regulate sleep cycles and support healthy REM sleep,” says Dr. Brodner. Talk to your doctor before trying any new medication to induce sleep.

12. Don’t ignore signs of serious sleep debt

Finally, watch out for signs that sleep deprivation is reaching a dangerous point. Sleep debt is serious business. Serious enough that it can negatively affect cognitive function and performance to the point that you could appear drunk.

And ongoing deprivation can result in some serious health effects. “The cumulative long-term effects of sleep loss have been associated with a wide range of damaging health consequences,” explains Dr. Brodner, “including obesity, diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, anxiety, and depression.”

Red flags to pay attention to include trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, mood swings, blurred vision, and alterations in appetite. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, this is the time do dial up your support network and make sleep a priority as soon as you possibly can.

Last words (before you go take a nap)

Believe it or not, getting enough sleep for yourself is one way of taking better care of your baby. Fatigue can impair your judgment, cause irritability, and even make you more accident-prone — none of which is good for you or your little one.

“Be unapologetic for prioritizing sleep,” says Cralle. Everyone in the family will benefit when you do.


Sarah Garone

Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.