Just look at the stats: 91 per cent of MANtenatal attendees (at the time of writing) cite lack of sleep as their biggest worry going into parenthood.
The primary reason I wrote Dear Dory: Journal of a Soon-to-be First-time Dad was so that I could work through all my thoughts, feelings and emotions about becoming a dad.
This included my fears.
Short of anything happening to my unborn child or my partner, lack of sleep was at the top of my list of fears going into parenthood.
Here’s an excerpt from my book Dear Dory:
When I’m tired, I experience cognitive shutdown. The routines that I have in place for my regular operating system start glitching and become unstable. The system then collapses and I find moving my little finger akin to facing a final-level boss battle on the hardest setting. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I become hopelessly pathetic.
When you’re tired, your brain simply lacks the capability to carry out complex problem-solving. You can’t think straight, you’re quick to snap at those around you and you’re generally in a lousy mood.
Enter newborn baby.
Let me tell you something about babies that you’ve heard a billion times already.
They’re all different.
Even at the newborn stage, before they’ve learnt to say the word ‘no’ and slap you round the face for outrageously suggesting they put their toys away, the seeds of their personalities have already begun to flower.
You never know what type of character you’ll be presented with, and so you never know what you’re in for in terms of sleep.
Then there are those issues that can make the difference between getting no sleep and some sleep during the early days of parenthood: breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, colic, silent reflux and a raft of other variables.
So, what can you do?
A lot, actually.
Is Your Partner Still in Hospital?
My first child came into the world by way of an emergency C-section, and my partner remained in hospital for the first three nights after labour. I couldn’t be there outside visiting hours, and I felt a pang of overwhelming guilt about being able to go home and get a full night’s sleep.
Or at least I did until one of the midwives told me that I’d be no use to my partner or my baby if I arrived the following morning exhausted because I’d been up all night worrying.
She was right.
So, as soon as visiting hours were over, I went straight home to bed. I was well-rested the next day, and eager and willing to take over parenting duties while my partner rested.
I encourage you to do the same.
Your Baby’s Environment
I remember one night during the first week, my baby slept brilliantly, only waking for feeds. The following night – different story.
The baby would not settle. It took my partner and me hours to figure out why.
The room was too hot.
The advice here is to spend some time and resource on making sure you’ve set up a pro-sleep environment for the baby, so that you encourage a mini-domino effect and improve your own odds of sleeping better as well.
Think about routines early, even if it takes a while to install and embed them. An app we found surprisingly intuitive was Huckleberry. We used the free version for the first eight months or so.
Check the room temperature (we used a Groegg).
Consider buying a white-noise companion to serenade them off to sleep. White noise is supposedly similar to what a baby hears in the womb. We swear by Ewan the Dream Sheep – but your baby might respond differently.
Give Them a Chance to Settle
Try not to run to your baby’s side at the first whimper or murmur (the first few nights don’t count, as you’ll need to adjust and find your feet).
I’m not saying leave your baby in the crib screaming (all but impossible anyway), but understand that babies are intuitive little things, and some of them will often settle themselves back off to sleep if they’re given the chance.
Sleep When the Baby Sleeps
This is probably the most common piece of advice you will receive. And if you’re anything like me, three weeks into your parenthood journey you’ll baulk at how useless that advice is. You’ll say to yourself something like: ‘How the hell is that even possible when so much needs doing? I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet, and it’s 1 p.m.’
And you’re right; a lot does need doing: the washing, the cleaning, the bottle prep, restocking the changing bag before leaving the house – and hosting the flood of visitors (more on visitors below) that pour though the door.
You don’t even have time to shower, let alone sneak a few naps.
And, of course, you’ll probably soon be back at work, when getting naps in will be even more difficult.
I never slept when the baby slept, but I realised I absolutely could have done if I had approached it differently.
So, what can you do to ensure you succeed where I failed?
Is your baby bottle-fed? If so, get a bottle-prep machine and a steriliser. Start by asking parents you know if they have one you can borrow, or buy one second-hand on Facebook Marketplace.
Then figure out your system. I would always sterilise bottles in the morning and again in the late afternoon.
If your partner is planning to breastfeed, encourage her to express (if she can) and tag in for a night shift every so often.
Remember, part of systemising everything is ensuring you and your partner practise working as a team, playing to each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Can’t stand the house being a mess? Then hire a cleaner, or learn to adjust your standards for the first six months (which really isn’t that long, all things considered) and prioritise extra naps over washing up.
Can’t be bothered to cook? Find a healthy takeaway option and test it out before labour. Or batch-cook meals and put them in the freezer, or trade meals for newborn-baby cuddles with friends and family.
Speaking of friends and family: have designated visiting days. During the first two to three weeks everyone and their dog will want to visit for a cuddle. You will be sick to death of recounting the labour story.
Why not insist on a few no-visitor days? The benefits are twofold: you increase the likelihood of being able to sleep when the baby sleeps, and you have time to adjust and bond as a family.
What are your working conditions? Can you work from home more? Speak to your employer and see if you can make it happen. Eat lunch at your desk while reading emails, and then go and take a nap for an hour.
How long are you taking off at the start? Most dads only take the two weeks’ paternity; others save up their holiday to bolt on to the end of their paternity; some may even take unpaid leave.
You’ll have to consider finances and your personal situation when deciding how long to take off, but more time off will hopefully mean a combination of the following:
More time bonding with you family and adjusting as a family
I was able to take advantage of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). SPL is something we have in the UK where dads can share the mums’ maternity leave. I ended up taking four months off from work and it was the best decision I made. However, my personal circumstances allowed for that – yours might not.
Or they might.
Everyone is different.
Systemising is about looking for any and every opportunity you have to make your life easier, freeing up some time so that you can prioritise sleep with that extra bandwidth.
Set Up a Spare Room
As I said earlier, my partner had an emergency C-section – so she could barely move after the birth, and getting out of bed at night was difficult for her. I therefore took charge of night feeds for the first ten days or so.
It was tough. The night feeds took a toll – hats off to every woman who breastfeeds.
After two weeks, my partner was feeling a little better, and she sent me to sleep in our spare room.
I’m thankful she did. I had a phenomenal night’s sleep, and I was on form the next day to clock up some serious dadding.
Here’s the thing: even if you’re not on night-feed duty or your baby is breastfed, when the baby wakes, you wake – so the quality of your sleep will always be below par when you’re in close proximity.
If you have the luxury of a spare room, don’t guilt-trip yourself for using it every once in a while. You’re not a piece-of-shit parent.
A spare room is also a valuable asset when you return to work. You can return the favour at weekends if your partner isn’t working, or at least let her have a lie-in so she can catch up on sleep.
Remember – teamwork and constant communication are your biggest assets going into parenthood.
Go to Bed Early
Occasionally, you’ll somehow get the chance to sit in front of the television in the evening for more than ten minutes. When this happens, think about going to bed instead.
It takes practice, because all you will want to do is enjoy that brief moment of downtime, chill out and maybe have a beer (which you thoroughly deserve). But I promise you, going to sleep is where your priority should lie.
Prepare for Bed Before Dinner
Regardless of what time you go to bed, get everything you need for the night ready in the afternoon, and not in the evening when you’re tired, as you’re more likely to forget something, get annoyed and end up going to bed in a bad mood.
And before you’ve even closed your eyes, the baby will wake up and want to feed.
Let me repeat: systemise everything so that you increase the chances of getting to bed as early as possible.
- Avoid it before bed – I personally don’t drink coffee or tea after 1 p.m.
- Avoid eating late. This is why a stockpile of freezer dinners and a healthy takeaway option on speed dial are worth having.
- Screen time. Avoiding screen time is easier said than done in today’s culture, but at least try and reduce any blue light coming from devices. Studies show that blue light can suppress the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that is linked to regulating your body’s circadian rhythm. Adjust the relevant setting on all your devices: TVs, laptops, phones and iPads (ask Google if you’re not sure how to do this).
- Accept Help from Others
- Technological advances and an itinerant work-life culture have in many instances supplanted our local networks of friends and family. Even though we can FaceTime our best friends living on the other side of the world, parents often complain about isolation and loneliness when looking after babies – mums who are on maternity leave often feel this most keenly.
- Seek to alleviate isolation by accepting help from one another and from those around you. Why trudge through setting cement when you don’t have to?
It Takes a Village to Raise a Child
If you have the luxury of a support network that is able and willing to help you, then use it. Take your guilt out of the equation and remind yourself that it’s healthy for your baby to bond with more people than just Mum and Dad. You’ve heard the African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, right?
Let the village help!
I’ll use the term ‘Granny’ to denote anyone you trust to be alone with your baby while you sleep.
Ask Granny to come over and sit with the baby for an hour or so while you go upstairs and sleep.
The benefits of Granny coming to you (rather than you going to Granny) are many.
All the baby equipment is at your house.
You’ll sleep better in your own bed.
Packing up everything you need for a baby is like packing to move house.
When you’re ready, and if Granny is willing, let her stay over for the night and look after the baby. You’ll still be in the house, and you and your partner can check in on your baby at any point, which will increase the likelihood of you relaxing enough to get some well-deserved and much-needed rest.
Or maybe you’d prefer Granny to take the baby out of the house for an hour. I’ll remind you again – you’re not a piece of shit for feeling that way. You owe it to your family and to yourself to do whatever you can to ensure you’re as well-rested as possible.
Find whatever works for you.
This next section illustrates a common scenario you can expect if you and your partner put too much pressure on yourselves when it comes to parenthood. You won’t realise it at the time, but lack of sleep will play a major role in exacerbating your problems.
It’s not my intention to disenchant you as a soon-to-be new parent – this scenario is something I’ve seen others having to cope with, and I’ve reflected on it a good deal in the light of my own experiences as a parent.
Here we go.
Let’s say you’re a dad who has returned to work, and your partner is staying at home to look after the baby. She doesn’t have a long list of contacts that she feels comfortable to call up and ask for support.
And in any case, even from the shortlist she does have, she still can’t ask for help – because asking for help means admitting that she’s a failure as a parent (even though she’s not).
So, she battles through the day, looking after the baby, trying to stay on top of the washing and hastily preparing a freezer dinner. She hasn’t had two minutes to herself, and every cup of tea she’s made has gone cold before she’s taken a single sip.
You return from work. You too might have had the day from hell (albeit a different kind of hell). Yet you feel unable to talk about it, because you’re a man, and men don’t talk about life being difficult. Moreover, you know your partner has been at home all day, and so you don’t say anything.
Instead, you let your partner vent. She in turn feels guilty because she hasn’t asked you how your day was. Or perhaps some resentment surfaces, owing to the fact that you’ve been able to go to work, and not had to stay at home with the baby.
Then you go to bed.
And the baby wakes up.
Your partner feels guilty if she doesn’t settle the baby immediately, and you feel guilty that it’s always her getting up. There might even be a part of you that feels guilty because you’re glad she always beats you to it.
It takes you an age to get back to sleep, and the sleep you do get is fraught with tossing and turning, and punctuated by dreams of inadequacy.
Neither of you sleeps well, and before you know it, it’s time for you to get up and get ready to go to work. Your partner has yet another day at home with the baby and is feeling the size of a marble because she’s not smashing life right now (though I promise you she is – even if she doesn’t realise it).
Can you see how this pattern develops, and how easily it can become embedded?
You once had a family portrait in your mind: you, the amazing dad who’s always got time to spare and is 100 per cent there for his kids; your fantastic partner who can juggle ten balls and spin eight plates while cooking dinner and reading a book about starting up her own business; your three kids who get As in everything and never fight or argue; and finally – to complete the image – a dog that never shits indoors, can walk itself and doesn’t chew the furniture.
That now seems more like someone’s idea of a sick joke, not the happy vision of the future that you believed life had in store for you.
Unless you do something about it.
Unless you question why you feel you have to parent in a way that’s dictated by the culture around you.
Unless you give yourself permission to ask for help, and not look into the mirror and see weakness staring back at you.
Because it’s not weakness – it’s strength.
Raising a baby is hard, hard work – every one of us who has raised one understands this.
You’re not a piece of shit for feeling that your world is collapsing around you when you’re woken at 4 a.m. Did you imagine you’d jump out of bed like Fred Flintstone and rush to scoop up your baby, with a crescent-shaped smile and enough energy to power all the appliances in your house? No.
You’re doing OK. And your partner is doing OK. Remind her of that every day, and try to remind yourself of it too.
Your job is to keep a living, breathing human alive – one that is wholly dependent on you for survival. And in addition to that, it’s up to you to raise your baby and share all the lessons that life has taught you, so that he or she can go out into the world, avoid making the mistakes you made, and walk his or her own path.
That’s a big responsibility on your shoulders.
So, work together with your partner and leverage the shit out of every possible trick, tactic and opportunity, accept help whenever you can, and go grab a nap!