Sleep Deprivation And Infant Colic. Tips To Help You And Baby Sleep.
Congratulations! Being a new parent is such an exciting time, and you’ve spent literally months preparing for your newborn’s arrival. You’ve got a range of different diaper creams, lots of diapers and onesies, and the nursery is perfect. But what about the things that you didn’t prepare for?
What about the inevitable sleepless nights? Or the crying? Or the 20 diapers in a day? What about sleep deprivation that is only compounded by a colicky baby who never seems to stop crying? You’ve talked to your doctor, and they’ve assured you that your baby is fine…it’s “just colic”. But that doesn’t help you when you’re in the throes of soothing a fussy newborn when you’re barely sleeping yourself. It doesn’t help that no one really knows what causes colic. There are lots of theories, but nothing concrete.
Like every new parent, when your baby is crying, all you want to do is help them. And new babies, especially in those first 6 months, can cry a lot. When you have a new baby with colic, though, it can be a tough and lonely road that often leaves you frustrated and far more sleep deprived than the “typical” new parent. On top of that, all of your dreams about the “perfect” baby are completely thrown out the window.
When all your baby does is cry, you feel helpless, exhausted, and like you will never sleep again. You may even feel like there’s something wrong with your baby, or like you aren’t bonding fast enough with your baby (I promise you, you are, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now).
New parents are going to lose some sleep, in fact, I’ve seen it mentioned that new parents lose an average of 3 full months of sleep in the first year…that’s an average, which means that parents of babies with colic are likely losing more sleep than this. Most adults don’t realize that they are sleep deprived until they’re so sleep deprived that they can’t think straight. Did you know that it takes 5 to 7 days for the effects of sleep deprivation to become apparent?
Unfortunately, a lack of sleep is part of being a new parent, but that doesn’t mean that new parents need to be extremely sleep deprived, however. If you know that you’re going to be getting less sleep than normal, you can formulate a plan to make sure that you get as much sleep as possible during the first few weeks and months with your new baby.
Now, we all know that some crying is normal (your baby has no other way to communicate a need with you), but no one really knows what causes colic crying. Listening to your baby cry causes a lot of stress, which means that you likely aren’t sleeping as well as you should be, or could be with a new baby at home. Add to that the fact that colicky babies are considered “frequent risers,” and life may seem daunting. Knowing this, there are a few things that you can do to try to get more sleep, as you want yourself and your baby be as well rested as possible.
The first thing that new parents need to understand is that baby sleep is very, very different from adult sleep. As an adult, you have a set circadian rhythm that tells your body when it’s time to be awake (daylight), and when it’s time to sleep (night). I know that we don’t always listen to our body’s internal clocks, but with a brand new baby, there’s no clock to speak of.
As adults, our biological rhythms are set to sleep when it’s dark outside, but your new baby doesn’t know that, which means that often new babies sleep all day and are up all night.
Knowing this, there are a few things that you can be aware of that will help you get through the early months with your new baby:
- Newborns have small sleep windows, usually only 1-2 hours! Watch for your baby’s sleep windows and try to help them to sleep before they get overtired. In infants, sleepy signs that you can look for include eye rubbing, rooting, and yawning. If your baby begins to fuss, they’re usually past that “tired” point and into overtired territory.
- Do whatever you can to help get your baby sleeping – feed them to sleep, hold them to sleep, use motion sleep, swaddle your baby…and don’t worry about “bad” habits. Know that any so called “bad habits” can be easily undone once your newborn has gotten past colic and is ready for traditional sleep coaching.
- Create a safe and sleep friendly environment, which means that your baby’s room needs to be dark, quiet, cool, with no stimulation. If you live on a busy street or have other children in the house, consider using a white noise machine.
- Make naps a priority. No, really! Filling your baby’s daytime sleep tank can help improve sleep at night. Really. So do everything you can to help your baby have good naps during the day.
- Be realistic about bedtime. I know that you just want to cuddle your newborn, but your baby may need an earlier bedtime than you may think. Most newborns need a bedtime somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. If you notice that your baby starts to get fussy during this time, start your soothing bedtime routine and get them to bed as soon as possible.
- Babies thrive on routine, and you can start creating a soothing bedtime routine as soon as your baby is 2 to 3 weeks old. A good bedtime routine for an infant may include dimming the lights, quieting the room, bath, massage, soothing music, feeding, or swaddling. Know that your baby really only needs 3 to 4 “items” in their bedtime routine, which should take no longer than 30-minutes.
- Decrease stimulation in the late afternoon in order to reduce crying. This includes turning off the television, dimming bright lights, and making sure that the rooms where your baby is are quiet. Try to avoid a lot of visitors during this time.
- Your baby doesn’t know that nighttime is for sleeping. You can help alleviate your baby’s day/night confusion by making sure that your newborn gets lots of natural light in the morning, and throughout the day during non-sleeping times. You can also encourage day and night to feel different-feedings during the day should be bright and well lit, while nighttime should be dark and quiet. You will need to act as your child’s “external” body clock until theirs develops sometime between 3 and 4 months.
Remember, while you may fall asleep minutes after climbing in bed, babies are a different story. Falling asleep is a skill that is learned, it’s not instinctive, and many newborns have their nights and days “mixed up.” When we’re talking about babies who suffer from colic, it’s even more of a challenge.
You Need to Help Your Baby Sleep
Do what you can to help your baby sleep-whether that means you bounce on an exercise ball, rock your baby, swaddle him, or hold him until he’s able to calm himself enough to sleep-and know that this temporary help is not going to create long term bad habits.
When our babies are brand new, they don’t know night from day. Your baby has no idea that 9:00 p.m. is any different than 2:00 in the afternoon. This is because your baby’s sleep rhythms are still developing, in fact, most babies are not able to put themselves to sleep or self soothe until around 6 months old. Day/night confusion is related to a lack of melatonin production in your newborn’s early months. I know that you’re hearing about your neighbor’s baby who “slept through the night” from week 1. Believe me when I say that she was helping her baby to sleep.
According to Dr. Sears, “Trying to hurry your baby off to sleep is doomed to fail because babies go to sleep differently than adults. In the early months, in order to reach a state of deep sleep, babies need to go through a 20 to 30 minute stage of lighter sleep. If you try to put babies down and sneak away during this light sleep stage, many will wake up.” Knowing this, you may need to hold them for 20 to 30 minutes after they initially fall asleep so that they do not startle themselves awake.
You may be wondering when you can stop “helping.” I recommend that parents “help” their colicky babies sleep until they’re old enough to sleep coach (and no longer have symptoms of colic), which is usually between 18 weeks and 6 months old, depending on the baby.
Your Baby May Need a Creative Sleep Solution
Many babies who suffer from colic are unable to sleep lying completely flat. If you find that this is the case with your baby, consider using a swing or bouncer (never a car seat) that allows your baby to lie at a slight incline while being secure. Talk to your pediatrician about alternatives to help your baby sleep at a slight incline. Remember, it is NEVER safe to add pillows or blankets to your baby’s crib. I’ve had many parents tell me that swings, bouncy seats, or rock ‘n’ plays can be especially helpful for naps.
Co-sleeping may also be an option that may help soothe your baby. Please make sure that if you choose this route you are doing so safely Its good to have a safe back up plan for those desperate moments when all that works is bringing your baby into bed with you. Have a firm mattress with no blankets or pillows, and no gaps between the headboard or wall and mattress. Co-sleeping can be a wonderful way for you to be responsive to your baby’s needs during the night, but it must be practiced safely. You may also want to consider a cosleeper, such as ArmsReach, which allows your baby to literally be at “arm’s reach” while you’re sleeping at night without being in the same bed.
Remember, if your baby is uncomfortable, sleep is going to be a hard-fought battle. If you can find a position or even a swing that allows your baby to sleep comfortably, it means more sleep for you, and a more rested baby.
Accept Offers of Help
When our babies are small, especially if your baby has colic, days can be overwhelming trying to balance everything. Often, people want to help, but aren’t sure how. Make a list of things you need, even if it’s just “watch the baby” so that you can get a shower, take a quick walk, or even a nap. If you don’t have family close, consider hiring a post partum Doula or mother’s helper while you’re adjusting to life with your baby.
Create a Sleep Plan (or Split Your Sleep Shifts)
Newborn sleep can vary between 13 and 20 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. That’s a lot of variation, and it may take some planning on your part to make sure that everyone gets as much sleep as possible. Add to this the fact that your newborn baby likely will wake anywhere from 4 to 6 times a night, crying, and you’ve got to figure out a system. Now, all babies, colic or not, start to have more crying around 3 weeks and its peaks between 6-8 weeks old. Helping your baby getting more sleep can help decrease the crying, however.
Usually, all your baby needs is a feed, change, or snuggle to help them back to sleep upon waking, but every 2 to 4 hours (or sooner!) can be exhausting for an adult. Your baby needs to have their needs met by someone, and it quite honestly doesn’t matter if that someone is mom or dad to your baby.
Remember that as adults, we need at a bare minimum 5 to 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. If you and your partner (or even a postpartum doula or mother’s helper) can split sleep shifts, you have a much better chance of achieving this goal.
To do this, create a nighttime sleep schedule where one adult takes the shift for the first half of the night, and the other person takes the second half of the night, so that both people get at least 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
I recommend that new parents use this schedule once breastfeeding is established or from day one if you are formula feeding to help alleviate sleep deprivation as much as possible. New parents, especially if you have a colicky baby, are going to get less sleep than the average adult, but life is far better if you can achieve your 5 to 6 hours each night. This is essential if you are suffering from postpartum mood disorder or are even at risk for it.
Don’t Forget to Enjoy Bonding With Your Baby
I understand that tears can be incredibly overwhelming, but that does not mean that you aren’t doing a wonderful job as a parent. Take the moments between the crying and bond with your baby. If you’ve been baby wearing and cuddling, you’re already well on your way to having a strong bond with your little one. Spend time talking to your baby, narrate your day for them. Many parents find that talking or singing can help to distract baby enough that the crying may stop for short periods. But most importantly, don’t give up. Your baby thinks that the world revolves around you, and all you have to do is give it your best effort.
I think that many parents fear colic or crying because they worry that it will prohibit a strong bond. This is absolutely not the case. Your baby needs to eat frequently (even at night), which requires you to hold him close. He also needs to be held, cuddled, and rocked, all of which promote a healthy bond.
And take heart, a recent study found some compelling evidence that when babies in early infancy cry uncontrollably, parenting style (whether you practice attachment parenting, or not) has little effect on the amount of crying that a baby does, which means it really isn’t your fault, which means that anything you do to bond with your baby is actually helping.
When All Else Fails and You Aren’t Feeling Like Yourself, Please Get Help
If you feel overwhelmed, know that you are not alone. Many women suffer from some form of Postpartum Depression (PPD), but brush off the feelings and look for excuses outside of PPD or baby blues. Knowing the difference between the two is important, especially if you have symptoms of PPD.
The “baby blues” are very common, and last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. You may have the baby blues if you have mood swings, anxiety, irritability, unexplained sadness, crying, or trouble sleeping. You may be suffering from PPD if you begin to lose your appetite, have insomnia, difficulty bonding with your baby, feelings of hopelessness, lack of enjoyment in life, or overwhelming fatigue. If you think that you may have PPD, please see your doctor as soon as possible.
If you’ve talked to your doctor and your pediatrician, know that this is temporary. Once you feel more in control, you can explore helping your baby sleep, which in turn means that you get to sleep longer. It’s a win-win!
Sleep Coaching After Colic
Our next article focuses on helpful sleeping tips after the colic stage passes, and contains vital information on how to build healthy sleep habits, create a sleep log, and how to establish a consistent bedtime routine. Read more…
What Parents Are Saying
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