When I discovered I was pregnant, I did my homework—read books, took a class, asked my family and friends for advice. But no matter how prepared I thought I was, one issue still took me by surprise: sleep. Not the lack of it (it was no secret that I’d be going without for a while), but rather, I hadn’t anticipated just how hard everything related to sleep management would be—getting the baby to fall asleep, getting the baby to stay asleep, even falling asleep myself. All the books said the baby would wake up every 2-3 hours to eat and that I should sleep when he slept, but it turned out to be nowhere near that simple (for us at least!).
So, here are the 5 things that surprised me most about sleep after having a baby.
1. Babies don't always sleep when they're tired.
At the very beginning, babies sleep all the time. When we first brought our son home from the hospital, he basically only stayed awake long enough to eat. He napped constantly, and I got used to him falling asleep whenever he needed. So I was thrown for a loop one day when, around 5 weeks in, he was suddenly wide awake for an unusually long stretch. I kept waiting for him to fall asleep on his own, but he didn’t. He just got crankier and crankier, and I got more and more stressed out. Honestly, I feel silly admitting this, but in the fog of new motherhood, it just hadn’t occurred to me that as my baby was becoming more alive to the world, he needed help falling asleep. And I needed to figure out exactly how to help him. I tried rocking, swinging, swaddling, white noise...nothing worked until I whipped out the baby sling, which finally did the trick (more on that later).
2. Sleep begets sleep.
You know how a long afternoon snooze can make falling asleep at night harder? Well, apparently, the same logic doesn’t apply to babies. The more they sleep, the better they sleep. And if they remain awake for too long, they enter the dreaded “overtired” zone, a term I had never even heard of pre-baby and which I now obsess over on a daily basis. I’ve learned how to look for the signs of sleepiness (eye rubbing, yawns). I’ve learned that there’s a perfect, fleeting window in which to put the baby down to sleep, and if you miss it, you’re in for a struggle. On the days when my son naps well during the day, he falls asleep quickly and happily at night, and stays asleep for longer. So now, I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say my days revolve around trying to prevent my baby from getting overtired (and I’ve lost count of how many conversations my husband and I have had on this topic).
3. They won't sleep just anywhere.
In the weeks before the baby arrived, we set up an adorable little Moses basket, and I imagined how sweet and angelic he would look sleeping in it. In the end, I think he only slept in the Moses basket maybe a handful of times? At night, he mostly slept in a bedside crib (and sometimes in bed with me). But for several weeks, he would only nap while I wore him in the sling. Which was great in the sense that I could get things done around the house, and I treasured the closeness, but not so great in that I couldn’t “sleep when he sleeps,” the way all the books suggested. And since I was barely sleeping at night with all the feeds, I was basically in a constant state of sleep deprivation, which leads me to…
4. Sleeping is hard for new moms, too.
I’ve always loved sleep and never had any trouble napping. But all of a sudden, in those first couple of months, I found that no matter how much I wanted to sleep, I couldn’t get myself there. I felt like my body was operating on some strange adrenaline and even in the rare moments when I did have a few precious hours to myself, I couldn’t take advantage of them. I would lie there tossing and turning, while my husband and baby slept soundly. I’ve since learned that postpartum insomnia is a real thing, and that simple steps like limiting caffeine intake and avoiding the temptation of your phone while night nursing can help reduce its impact.
5. "Sleeping like a baby" is a lie.
I’ll admit, now that I’ve made it over the hump of the newborn days (my son is now miraculously sleeping through the night), he does look incredibly sweet when asleep. But in those chaotic early days, I’d hardly classify his sleep as peaceful. First, I never realized how noisy and active a sleeping baby could be. One moment, he’d be still, and the next, he’d be jerking or grunting. Now I know this is completely normal, but at the time, any little noise would have me flying out of bed in a panic to make sure he was okay.
The biggest thing I’ve learned in the 10 months since my son arrived is that there’s no cookie-cutter approach when it comes to baby sleep. What goes one week (or even day) doesn’t necessarily go for the next. I remember many weeks where my son would sleep for a 5 hour stretch one night and I’d think all our problems were solved, and then the next few nights, he’d wake up every half an hour. All night. All babies are different, and what works for one might not work for another. And ultimately, no matter how many books or articles you read (including this one), you can never be fully prepared for parenthood. But along with the hard surprises, there are also many, many amazing ones...and those, for me at least, have made it all worth it.