for release Friday June 11, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Coping With New Baby Exhaustion
I have two nieces/nieces-in-law with new babies this summer. Unfortunately for me (I’d love to get my hands on those babies!) they both live hundreds of miles away. But news of a new baby always takes me back to the sleepless but awe-filled days of “a new baby in the house.”
One mother wrote to another about new baby craziness, on a website: “It is totally normal to experience insomnia and sleep deprivation as a new mother. Unfortunately almost no one tells the truth about the realities of pregnancy and parenthood. Instead we are fed a bunch of Hollywood [hoopla] with beautiful, well dressed moms, appearing well slept and euphoric with their adorable babies running thru fields and flowers. I challenge any human being to go through the radical physical and emotional stresses of pregnancy and parenthood without going ‘nuts’ for awhile. Maggie you are very normal, and justifiably burnt out. My kids are 5 and 2 now, so I am entering a phase where I get sleep most nights. Your time will come too.”
Exhaustion is a struggle for new parents, both Mom and Dad. But for women, coping with hormones going crazy in the postpartum stage means small frustrations and obstacles can add up to big blow ups, crying jags, quarrels (or silent treatment), and overall upheaval. As we have seen in recent years, postpartum depression can be a very dangerous time.
Caring Solutions, which offers a hired in-home helper program for new parents, offers these ideas for coping with sleep deprivation. “Scientists tell us that a lack of sleep for 24 hours or more can make us short-tempered and irrational. It can decrease our decision-making capabilities and become one of the most challenging components in the parenting process,” says Sandra Sergeant, an R.N. who directs the Infant Care program.
In the old days, your mother or your husband’s mother came and stayed with you for a week or two to help with the new baby, meals, housework. Now with many families living far apart, and with grandparents who have their own busy careers, sometimes family help can’t be arranged. But some kind of extra help is crucial for everyone to cope—whether it is a husband who takes off work for a week, a grandparent, a friend, or hired care.
The first rule in coping with sleep deprivation because of a newborn in the house is, “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” I tried to follow this rule, but it is difficult. It is so tempting to use any spare energy and downtime that the baby gives you to straighten the house, throw a load of clothes in the laundry, put dishes in the dishwasher, or to spend time with the other children. But make yourself take at least a 20-minute nap when the baby goes down, and you’ll be much more refreshed for other activities. When a newborn sleeps during the day, you never know if they are going to sleep for a half hour or five hours, so take your nap first and you still may have more time than you thought for catching up on other tasks.
The second rule is to ask for, or readily accept help. If folks from your church offer meals for a week, accept them, because even though you or your husband could probably manage to throw a frozen dinner in the microwave, homecooked meals brought in by loving friends or family can be a great morale booster, too (and maybe more healthy). When our third child was born, my officemates subscribed to a diaper service for us, since we wanted to use cloth diapers especially in the beginning. This was one of my favorite gifts—it felt so luxurious to be able to send out the laundry to be washed, folded, and returned all fresh and sanitized.
The third rule is to arrange for outside help ahead of time. Maybe you think you don’t want your mother or mother-in-law to come and help you. You refuse, then after the birth you wish you had accepted help but it is too late for them to rearrange their schedule. Some insurance companies actually help pay for home health care when infants are born. So check into things early. My mother was able to come and help when our first two were born, but when our third was born she couldn’t because of my dad’s own health needs. I accepted a lot more help from church folks that time around.
Finally, if you are exhausted and have a new baby, and feel dangerously close to taking it out on the baby, do whatever you need to do to get some respite, even if it is only for one afternoon—perhaps a friend coming over or to care for your kids so you can catch a long nap. The experts remind us that getting your own sleep is critical for the bonding process you have with your baby: it helps set the stage for a renewed and loving relationship with your infant.
For my free book, Working, Mothering and Other “Minor” Dilemmas, write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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