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Sleep struggles

At my baby shower ten years ago, my mom’s friend handed me a bottle of aromatherapy bath oil and chuckled as she told me I’d need that once ‘the pyjama drill’ began.

Along with that bath oil, came my mother’s advice. “Sleep when the baby sleeps my darling. If your baby has a two hour sleep in the morning and another two hour sleep in the afternoon, sleep with him. You’ll wish you did, when he’s wide awake at 2am.”

It was only once my son, with a very healthy set of lungs was born, that I realised it wasn’t the bath oil that I needed, but the peace and quiet that came with soaking in a hot, oily, aromatic bath.

I also later realised that I should have listened to my mother! In the first few weeks, your baby is going to wake up every two to four hours at night, for a feed. There’s nothing much that you can do about that. You just have to learn how to manage your exhaustion.

How to create a sleep-friendly environment

  • Don’t make everyone tip-toe around the house while you try to make your baby fall asleep. You’ll create a situation where your baby will only be able to fall asleep in quiet conditions. This could make outings a nightmare. It could also make your home-life difficult, especially if you have older children, who’ll find it extremely difficult to keep quiet all the time, so that baby can sleep. Instead, move your baby to a quieter area.
  • Play some classical music, softly in his room. He’ll love this, especially if you played music often while you were pregnant.
  • Make sure the temperature just right. If it’s a warm day, swaddle him lightly in a thin receiving blanket. If it’s very cold, wrap him snugly and turn on the heater. Just be careful that you don’t overheat his room.
  • From birth, swaddle your baby when he goes to sleep. Not only will he feel more secure, but he also won’t startle himself awake. Remember to always place your baby on his side, when he’s swaddled.
  • Give him a pacifier to suck on. The rhythm of sucking, will lull him to sleep.
  • Remove all mobiles and brightly coloured toys from his bed.

What should you do?

  • If you can’t put him down in his crib, hold him in your arms, and gently pat his bum or leg. He’ll find the touch and rhythm soothing.
  • Create a day-time and night-time routine. In between naps, during the day, keep his light on, talk to him, make eye-contact and play with him. Don’t turn the radio off just to please your baby, instead just turn it down slightly. At night, keep the light off, don’t make unnecessary eye-contact and don’t speak unnecessarily. Feed him, burp him, change him, put him down and leave his room.
  • Create a bed-time routine. Feed, bath, cuddle, then bed. As he gets older, he’ll look forward to the routine.
  • Try not to rock/pat him to sleep often. Rather put him in his bed when he’s sleepy, so that he can learn to fall asleep on his own.
  • If your baby wakes up in the middle of the night
  • In the first six months, respond to him quickly. The more he cries, the longer it will take to soothe him.
  • Make sure that
    • your baby isn’t hungry
    • his nappy is clean
    • his tummy isn’t sore
    • he’s warm/cool enough
  • If you’ve sorted out all of the above and he’s still crying, he probably needs a little love. Give him a cuddle, pat his bum and once he’s about to fall asleep, put him back down in his crib. Don’t allow him to fall asleep in your arms, as this could become a habit.
  • If your baby is older, you’ve made sure there are no problems and he’s still struggling to go to sleep, go into his room, touch him gently and tell him it’s okay, then walk out of the room. You may have to do this several times, sometimes for up to an hour. Don’t give up though as he’ll soon learn that if he cries, mummy will come running. This may create a habit that will be hard to break.
  • Some recommend that you leave your baby to cry. It may be extremely hard to do at first, but some experts, say this is the only way that you baby will learn how to fall asleep on his own. You should only try this when your baby is older than six months. Also, make sure that you listen to the type of cry. If it changes, check on him, to make sure that he’s not in pain or in danger.
  • If the situation becomes desperate and you really don’t want to leave him to cry, sleep in his room. Once he starts crying, you can then quickly pat him back to sleep. Alternatively, place his crib next to your bed, so that you can reach out and reassure him when he cries in the middle of the night.
  • If your baby is older and he’s just not going to go back to sleep, place some of his favourite toys in his cot and leave him to amuse himself.

Managing your exhaustion

  • Listen to your mother’s advice and sleep when your baby sleeps. If sleeping during the day is difficult for you, lie on your bed with a good book or turn on the tv and just relax. The washing, cooking and cleaning in the first few weeks can wait.
  • Eat healthy, nutritious meals or take a good supplement that your healthcare provider approves of. You’ll need all the energy that you can get.
  • Accept help. If your mom, friend or husband offers to look after the baby while you rest, hand him over! There’s no need to be supermom; he will survive without you for an hour or two, while you nap.
  • If you’re not breastfeeding, take the pyjama duty in shifts. Agree with your husband, that he’ll do shifts until midnight and you’ll take over after that.
  • If you are really struggling and your sleep depravation is having a negative impact on your life and that of your family, hire a night nurse. She will be able to soothe your baby to sleep and call you, when he’s hungry.

The reality is that you’re not going to get much sleep in the first few months after your baby is born. All you can do is accept that and make alternative plans to help you through this period.

There is, after all, hope. After the first year or two, most babies will be sleeping through, waking only once every now and then for a bottle or nappy change.

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