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7 Ways to Get a Good Night's Sleep

Name a place, any place -- a new mom has probably dozed off there. The shower, for instance. "I was washing my hair and the next thing I knew, my body jolted as my arms came down, and I realized I had fallen asleep," says Cecy Zeis of Pickerington, Ohio.

The office. The OB's exam table. Locker rooms. Parked cars. Movie theaters (my personal weakness). AnneMarie Hurston of Titusville, Florida, has actually napped while breastfeeding in her baby's crib. (Not to be outdone, other moms have napped in their babies' strollers.)

Gas stations. Subways. Bookstores. The pediatrician's. Even the toilet. "One week I was so desperate that I pretended I had a bad case of diarrhea," says Lindsay Metcalf of Grayslake, Illinois. "I'd give my husband that 'I gotta go now' look and head for the bathroom. I'd sit on the toilet, lay my head on the vanity, and snooze until he would knock 30 minutes later and ask if I was all right."

Clearly, the motto of early motherhood is carpe siesta. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), more than two-fifths of new moms rarely or never get a good night's rest in the six months after giving birth. More than four-fifths suffer symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week up to 18 months later. And, as you may have noticed, lack of sleep can really suck the fun out of life with your baby -- and be risky, too. One-fifth of new moms confess that they've driven while drowsy with their kids in the car. So how can you catch more zzz's? Try tweaking the same tips that work for sleep-challenged babies.

Set a soothing bedtime routine

"As a new mom, you think, 'The baby is asleep, now I can get something done,'" says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., a health psychologist in Durham, New Hampshire. But if you want more sleep, save stimulating activities -- cleaning, answering e-mail, watching Deal or No Deal -- for daytime. "I make a to-do list of all the things I'm tempted to do but know I shouldn't because it's time for bed," says Steffany Johnson of Quail Valley, California. "My mind is relieved by having them written down."

Start winding down 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime, Kendall-Tackett suggests. Try a light snack, a movie, or a little reading -- but not in bed, so you don't come to think of it as a place to be alert. Other things moms find relaxing: warm baths; soft music; massage (thanks to a partner, foot rollers, or soft balls you can roll around on); cuddling with pets; decaf tea or milky cocoa; stretches; and yes, even sex.

 

Learn to sleep through (some of) the night

In other words, put Dad, Grandma, or anyone who's willing, to work on late-night feedings, diaper changes, and colic-soothing. No gift I've had from my husband or mom meant more than being forbidden to touch a diaper the week after my first child was born. Even if you're nursing, someone can carry the baby to and from your arms for feedings and bring you water (you'll sleep better afterward if you're hydrated and haven't been bustling around). Better yet, you can sleep through a "shift" if that someone feeds the baby a bottle of pumped milk.

Keep your bedroom restful

Is your room like mine, home to every unwashed bodysuit, unrepaired toy, and un-put-away holiday decoration? Lying in bed surrounded by reminders of chores can make you too tense to drift off, Kendall-Tackett says. So if you can't move the stuff somewhere else, try covering it or hiding it with a screen. Then turn off all the lights and lower your thermostat: Experts believe darkness helps set your internal clock to sleepy time, while coolness mimics the way your internal temperature drops during the night.

Once you're in bed, moms recommend a white-noise machine or humming fan (to drown out the rottweiler yapping next door); an eye mask or blackout curtains; a cool "Chillow" pillow for summer; and -- for that partner snoring beside you -- options ranging from nose strips to apnea treatments to a night on the couch (separate beds can be good for a sleep-deprived relationship).

Take naptime seriously

Naps can be crucial for perking you up, experts say, but it's important to follow certain rules. Rule #1: Take planned naps in a safe place. (Forty winks in your parked car? Sure -- but not on the side of the expressway.) Rule #2 (a tried-and-truism): Nap when your baby naps, for as many months as you like. Rule #3: Once your baby is sleeping through the night -- and you are, too -- try not to let your own daytime naps last more than an hour or so. Otherwise, you may reverse your clock to sleeping during the day instead of at night. For moms who work outside the home, getting extra shut-eye may require creativity.

"I asked my boss if I could combine my lunchtime and my breaks, so that I had a half hour to pump and an hour to sleep in my car," says Heather Schott of West Hills, California.

Ferberize yourself

You know how infant-sleep guru Richard Ferber, M.D., says you can gradually teach your baby to fall asleep on her own? A gradual approach may help you get some rest, too: Turn in a few minutes earlier each night until you reach your desired bedtime.

On the other hand, you might embrace your inner night owl instead. This works for moms whose babies are happy to stay up late and then sleep in the next morning. Whichever way you go, stick to a regular sleep pattern once your baby has a pattern herself. "You'll feel the best if your schedule doesn't change by more than an hour or two, even on weekends," notes Amy Wolfson, Ph.D., author of The Woman's Book of Sleep.

Don't forget checkups

If you've got insomnia that persists no matter what, or if you're sleeping a fair amount but still feel pooped, see your doctor. You could have a health problem such as sleep apnea, anemia, hypothyroidism, or restless leg syndrome. With medical help, you may get your sleep groove back with ease. "I thought that staying up for hours at night worrying was part of being a new mom," says Sabrina Anne Ropp of Columbus, Ohio. "I never realized postpartum depression could cause severe anxiety, too. Once I talked to my doctor, he put me on the proper medications and I've been enjoying a good night's rest ever since."

Get some fresh air and exercise

A workout can help you sleep better -- if you do it at the right time. "Exercising close to bedtime may make it difficult to fall asleep, whereas exercising in the late afternoon may be sleep promoting," says Wolfson. Mornings are also a good bet; early sunlight can reset your inner clock, helping you get to sleep at night. One mom who needs no convincing about the power of exercise is Zeis, the onetime shower snoozer. For the past year, she's made a habit of running while a sitter watches her daughter. She sleeps more easily and soundly now at night -- and aims to keep working out after her next baby comes along. "Then, with luck, I'll do all my napping in bed."

Babytalk contributing editor Melissa Balmain is a writer and mother of two in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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