“Sleep when the baby sleeps,” isn’t the only strategy when it comes to getting rest in the early days of parenthood. Here are our sleep tips for new parents.

Remember the last time you pulled an all-nighter? The next day you felt a little foggy around the edges, and maybe found yourself more clumsy or forgetful than usual. That’s because even a few hours of missed sleep can have an immediate effect on our physical and mental health.  

For new parents, lack of sleep is considered par for the course. But weeks or months of sleep deprivation – for adults, this means less than seven or eight hours – can weaken your immune system, make you more accident prone, and negatively impact your mood, from increased irritability to postpartum anxiety and depression.  

“It’s easy to put sleep on the backburner because it’s a given that as a new parent you’ll be exhausted, but getting as much rest as possible in the early days is crucial for your mental health,” says Seattle-based doula Katherine Smith. “New parents tend to think more about the physical side of things and don’t realize how mentally taxing it is to care for a newborn. Getting up in the middle of the night can be hard enough, but the real challenge is thinking clearly and rationally while caretaking on low sleep.” 

We talked with Smith about the connection between mental health and sleep, setting up support systems, and achievable sleep goals with a newborn at home. Here’s what we learned.

Katherine Smith is a Seattle-based birth doula with more than a decade of experience providing emotional and physical support for birthing parents and their partners throughout pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery.

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Read more: Our Favorite Non-Toxic Nursery Essentials


How do you help expecting parents mentally prepare for upcoming changes in sleep?

It’s important for new parents, particularly the birthing parent, to know that the rush of hormones and adrenaline that follows giving birth can often mask that you’re running on extremely low sleep. But eventually you’ll get hit with a huge wave of fatigue and still have a baby to take care of, so I recommend taking the opportunity to sleep whenever you can. The advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” is sometimes easier said than done, but if a trusted family member or friend offers to watch the baby so you can take a nap, take them up on it! 

How long should you nap? Sleeping for 15-20 minutes can give you a quick boost without leaving you feeling groggy while 90 minutes is more restorative, allowing you to move through a full sleep cycle. 

I encourage those with heightened stress about sleep, especially birthing parents, to have a larger conversation with their support system. Is your partner willing to take on a majority of the nighttime responsibilities? (This might involve a larger conversation around incorporating bottle feeding.) Is there a loved one who might be able to help in the evenings, or is it worth investing in a night doula so you can both be rested? 

I try to stress that taking steps to protect your mental health in this fragile time is extremely important, not only for your own wellbeing but also that of your newborn and your relationship with your partner. Give yourselves grace and remember that you’re tackling a huge learning curve on very little sleep.


What do achievable sleep goals look like for the first few months?

It comes down to both your baby’s individual needs and the breast/chestfeeding parent’s milk supply – both factors can drastically change the amount of sleep you can reasonably expect to get. Things will look different if your baby is significantly premature or has additional needs, but for a baby who is eating appropriately and gaining weight (and if the breast/chestfeeding parent’s milk supply is adequate) you can expect to be feeding the baby every 2-3 hours for about 30 minutes both day and night. 

If both parents are up for every feeding this should allow for an hour of sleep here and there, but if the baby is gaining weight and the latch is well established, I encourage parents to explore taking sleep turns to ideally get longer stretches of rest. 

I also encourage parents to talk about social boundaries before the baby comes home. Family and friends often want to see the baby right away (and understandably, you might want to share the newest member of your household as well), but as new parents you shouldn’t feel the need to host. Let people know ahead of time that you’re keeping visits short to prioritize rest. Just like during labor, even if you can’t fully sleep, the goal is to preserve your energy as much as possible.

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Read more: An Ode to Great Sleep

If your baby is breast/chestfeeding, how can the non-birthing partner provide support around sleep?

It depends on how strongly the birthing person feels about exclusively breast/chestfeeding. If they’re comfortable with their partner giving the baby a bottle once or twice during the night then there are several ways to maximize sleep, like taking night feedings in turns. In these cases, I like to suggest the four-hour stretch routine (a four-to six-hour block of uninterrupted rest, known as “anchor” sleep, can help stabilize our body’s internal rhythms) where the birthing person feeds baby, pumps all remaining milk, then goes to sleep for four hours while their partner has a bottle of pumped milk for when baby needs it. 

If parents are hoping to avoid bottles entirely, the partner can bring baby in and help supervise side-lying breastfeeding while the birthing person continues to sleep. The partner can also take on the majority of the household duties, including making sure the breast/chestfeeding person is well-fed

I strongly recommend parents having honest conversations about task division (specifically to support the birthing parent’s sleep) before the baby arrives, because nothing is as important for your baby than a mentally healthy parent. When my husband went back to work, I felt like he should be getting as much sleep as possible. I wish I’d had someone validate for me that the person at home with the baby is doing the same, if not more, work and needs adequate rest, too.


What do you wish someone had told you about sleep in the early days of having your baby home?

I wish someone had told me I could skip pumping at night after nursing and it wouldn’t negatively impact my supply. By the time you’re done feeding, pumping, and cleaning pumping parts, the baby is up and ready to eat again! Also, it’s okay to ask your partner to keep you company while you’re nursing at night. I remember feeling like there was nothing for my husband to do so at least one of us should be sleeping, but if staying up together feels less isolating in those early days, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need from your partner. 

Tip: A peer group of parents with similar due dates can help celebrate sleep wins and commiserate during harder moments (hello, four-month sleep regression). 

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Read more: Why I’m Not Sleep Training My Baby

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