Actually do “Sleep when the baby sleeps” – and other survival tips for new parents

first time parents: sleep when the baby sleeps

As the mother of two young children, Shannon Cullen is all too familiar with not getting enough sleep. Here, she shares her thoughts on how to survive the early months with a newborn – and reassures new parents that they’re not alone during that 3am feed…

One of the well-meaning but, ahem, more pointless recommendations you get before having your first baby is ‘get some sleep’. I mean, yes, that would be wonderful if you could bank sleep-credits for more than a few days. But ultimately nothing except caffeine, cake and hormones is going to get you through the first sleep-deprived months of parenthood.

I often wonder about how much to warn new parents. I remember being told about the lack of sleep myself and nodding in a way that showed I Had No Idea. And now I see that look in the faces of expectant parents as I remind them that waking to feed a newborn every few hours happens all day and night – you don’t get a nice eight-hour recovery nap in amongst all that. Instead you risk fall asleep holding a baby in your arms, and even fifteen minutes of shut-eye on the couch feels like a spa break.

The biggest ‘regret’ you’ll hear is first-time parents not sleeping when the baby slept. You know later that the dishes can wait, or it’s fine to leave someone else to host the visitors as they stare at your sleeping baby and you get some rest (after all, they didn’t really come to see you right?). I always found it a weirdly satisfying kind of sleep once I learned this lesson – like a reset button. I also found Sugar Moon salted caramel brownies satisfying, in a less weird way.

Then as your baby gets older and develops some sort of pattern (or the dreaded ‘r’ word: routine), conversations are all about the half-decent but totally broken sleep. How many times are they waking? Do you go to bed as soon as they do, just to get that extra two hours in? How long are they awake for? And on and on it goes. My kids are four years and eight months, so I suspect this conversation could continue until they are teenagers and you can’t get them out of bed before midday. (Ah, the sweet comfort of a duvet on a Sunday morning. But by then parents across the nation are hardwired to be up and ready to go at 6am. You’re a cruel puppeteer, parenthood.)

During this phase of the first year I’ve always found 3am the most fascinating (read: torturous) new time of day. As babies, my children seem to like waking up around then for food. In the heady days of my youth and staying out all night, we never seemed to get home then, but rather 2am… or 6am. But in the sleep-deprived reality of parenting, it’s a time that’s become all too familiar. I once asked an older colleague what she used to do during the night feeds. Her reply? ‘Stare at the wall.’

For this generation, those night feeds are when smart phones or Kindles come into their own, allowing some form of entertainment. The internet is alive with parents throughout the night. Personally, I found reading novels impossible during the early weeks, as they set my eyelids drooping, but some friends have cleared their to-be-read pile, which goes a small way to making up for the fact you’re not deep in REM sleep. I’m sure if someone analysed my Amazon Prime account, they’d find that 96% of my purchases happen at this time of day. All of them are much-needed, sensible items, of course. I call it multi-tasking the sh*t out of parenting. If you can’t be asleep then you might as well be buying teething rings.

One day, ideally, your children learn to sleep through the night. The problem is, it takes weeks or months for some, and years for others. When it happens, for some reason you end up feeling groggy for days with the unbroken sleep. Then, boy does it feel good. But because I currently have an eight-month-old who still wakes up twice, I can’t linger on this due to self-preservation.

The reality is, no one can ever truly prepare you for how it actually feels to have little or broken sleep, and a small human to look after at the same time. So now I keep my sleep advice simple for those expecting a baby: when you wake up on the weekend, roll over and go back to sleep. Because once you’ve had a baby you’ll only be awake because they are, and, unfortunately, they don’t have a ‘snooze’ button . . .

Shannon Cullen lives in London with her husband and family. She is the author of I’m Wrecked, This is My Journal – the alternative baby record book for frazzled parents. When she’s not changing nappies or tidying up Lego, works as a children’s book publisher. 

You can follow her on Instagram: @imwreckedmother and Twitter: @imwreckedmother