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Surviving the Newborn Night Shift
The three things that are helping me retain my sanity (just about)
I’m writing the beginning of this issue sat on the sofa, in the wake of yet another night with a newborn. She’s currently lying on top of me, having been asleep for about an hour and a half. Her beatific expression is hard to look away from—if I could bottle and sell the peace and contentment in her face, I’d be a rich man.
Yet there’s a part of myself staring at her here as she catches flies, that can’t quite get my head around the fact that I won’t sleep that contentedly for another two years—minimum.
Especially when our kids are newborns, their sleep varies wildly—some will have as little as eight hours in a day, whereas others will go for up to 18 hours. Obviously there’s no way of knowing or training any kind of sleep pattern for a good few months. Unfortunately they don’t come with the understanding of night/day yet—that’s DLC you get a few months in, like a new video game where the developer takes ages to patch that one really annoying game-breaking bug.
Of course, there’s always the exception to these figures. There’s always that one person in the office or at the local baby group that loves nothing better than talking about how their baby slept through from four weeks old. If you happen to be one of these people with a miracle sleeper, then good for you! From now on, keep it to yourself. Everyone—including you—will be better off for it.
But I’m glad to report that our baby is following the typical newborn sleep trajectory: sleep as long as they want during the day, but only a maximum of an hour at a time during the night.
There’s no two ways about it—going from seven hours of unbroken sleep per night to a best-case scenario of three hours in fits and starts is really jarring. I don’t remember much of the first two weeks with our first child because I spent so much of it in a haze. One thing I do remember was when it went 7pm every night, I’d have to mentally psych myself up for the evening shift to come.
This wasn’t so much because I knew I’d be getting no sleep—I was well and truly aware of that already. The thing that teased me so was the thought that maybe—just maybe—this would be the night I’d get a five-hour stretch of sleep, completely uninterrupted.
I’d have the sleeping baby on my chest for just long enough for her latest feed to go down. I’d decide—now is the moment. I’d shift myself ever so slowly out of bed, holding her as still as I could so not to trigger the startle reflex. I’d tread lightly over to the crib and contort myself downwards, tilting her back whilst keeping her close to my chest. Then, when it seemed like she was still asleep, I’d attempt the delicate lowering process of baby into the crib.
I’d say about 80% of the time I did all this, as soon as I’d let go of her and walk back around to my side of the bed, my mind full of dreams of feeling well-rested once more, she’d wake up within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
The mental torment was too much to bear, but that’s the thing about all these parenting challenges—there’s no pause button. No tapping out, no throwing in the towel. The only option available to us is to keep our legs kicking, and keep on going.
I can’t remember at what point some semblance of routine started, but sooner or later the evenings became a bit more ours again. I could rely on her sleeping for a few hours at a time in the night. Now that I’m back at the starting line once again, waking every hour or so in the nights once more, the knowledge that there’s an end to the endless night shift—something that doesn’t seem possible when you’re in it the first time—is what is getting me through.
That, and a few other things.
Firstly, my AirPods. I got them as a birthday present when my firstborn was about three months old—around the time the nights started to become that bit more. Before that, I’d been going out of my mind with boredom rocking my daughter to sleep, walking around with her in my arms for seemingly hours on end. I had tried to use wired headphones to break up the monotony with a podcast or audiobook, but dealing with wires tangling around the baby whilst holding my phone at the same time made it not worth the effort. After going wireless, none of that was a problem—with something to distract my mind, I could get myself through those long broken nights.
Even with the wireless entertainment, rocking her to sleep every night whilst on my feet was wrecking my knees. We had a yoga ball in our house for my wife during pregnancy and labour, but it never occurred to me to use it myself until just recently with our second child. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found it so much more manageable to be bouncing on the ball to get baby to sleep than walking and rocking.
The thing above anything else that has made the night shift more survivable is going in with a plan between the two of us for who sleeps when, and who’s feeding and changing the baby.
The first time around, we kind of just both woke up whenever the baby did—I’d change her, then my wife would breastfeed her. We’d get the iPad out and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race UK for a bit. Then baby would fall asleep, I’d put her back in her cot, and she’d wake up half an hour later. Repeat ad infinitum.
That meant there was never any real promise of any defined rest period for either of us. Now though, we’ve scheduled in rest periods for each of us. My wife will feed until about 10ish whilst we catch up with some programmes on the iPad in bed, and she’ll crash out the next time baby does. Then it’s my turn—from then until about 2am, I’ll do the changes and feed with some expressed milk in a bottle. I’ll let her sleep on me for a bit whilst I write with one hand on my phone (footnote about spelling mistakes). Then once 2am hits, my wife is back on the feeds. I’ll still do the nappies, but I’ll sleep whilst she feeds.
Obviously everyone chooses their own ways of feeding their babies (whatever you choose or don’t choose—fed is best), and has their own set of circumstances, but if you’re going through the same endless nights and are wishing for a few hours of uninterrupted rest, then you might benefit from clearly defining with your partner who sleeps when.
Even with all of this, the night shift with a newborn is really fucking rough—parents reading this will attest to this, and it’s worth acknowledging the fact for parents-to-be, or those who are knee-deep in it and are wondering just how the hell anyone manages it.
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The answer to that is we get through by doing whatever we can. It seems like this period of parenthood go on forever—after all, you’re now experiencing more hours in the day than you ever did before. But if you’re struggling, I hope you take comfort from knowing that when you’re awake at 3:30am, blearily trying to get those poppers done back up without putting them in the wrong place (seriously, fuck whoever decided poppers on baby’s clothes were a good idea), there’s another parent somewhere near you doing the exact same thing—probably even in the same street. You’re not alone in experiencing the crushing tiredness, and one day you will sleep through the night again.
As for me, I’ve had a tendency in the first few days of having a newborn again to thinking ahead to when my first had their breakthrough with sleeping a bit longer than half an hour at a time. But feeling the realisation that another two years at the very least awaits me before we’re back to where we were, as well as the guilt of wishing time away, I’ve come to a better place. I’m trying to turn the volume up on the present moment. Im just getting through each day as it comes. Because that’s all I can really do.
Especially when my three-year-old has impetigo and is waking up every two hours with a temperature and scratching their rashes. Speaking of which…
This week’s been a bit of a shit-show. Trying to keep a highly infectious three-year-old away from her newborn sister, just at the point when you’d want them to be bonding, has been mentally trying for us. Then we finally get her some antibiotics to treat it—and she hates it. Like, vomiting-up-every-dose hates it. She’s on something else now, but we’re still reeling from a week without childcare. I’m just desperate for a stretch of time where our eldest can enjoy her baby sister without the anxiety that dominated the first week, or the illness that dominated this one.
How do you sleep at night?
That sounded way more sinister and accusatory than it was meant to! All I’m wondering is how you survived your newborn night shifts—or surviving, if you’re still going through it. What’s the one thing that got you through those impossibly long nights?