How Dads Can Help the Whole Family Get Better Sleep (Yes—Even When You’re Breastfeeding)•
I see different variations of the same question in mom groups all the time: “I’m a new mom. I’m exhausted. How can I get more sleep?”
As a new mom myself a couple of years ago, I know this dilemma all too well. So I always do my best to give good advice to these brand new mothers.
But I sometimes hit a wall with when I ask this question:
“Do you have a partner? How do they support you and baby at night?”
And all too often, the response goes something like this:
“I do have a partner, but he works during the day, so he can’t do night wakeups.”
Or, “Yes, I do have a partner, but I’m breastfeeding. So I handle night wakeups on my own.”
To which my response is: those are not valid reasons to not be getting help from your partner with night wake-ups.
Look, parental leave in the US is abysmal. We all know this. Many fathers don’t get more than a few days, if that, to spend with their families after their child is born.
This needs to be fixed, but until then, unless the father of your child works a job during which sleep deprivation could be dangerous, this doesn’t mean he should be skipping night wakeups altogether.
Consider this: you have a job, too. An extremely important one. Your job is keeping your fragile newborn baby alive. Severe sleep deprivation can hinder your ability to do that. You may be so exhausted by night wake-ups and/or cluster feeding, you could end up in dangerous situations, such as you falling asleep holding your child in a chair, or falling asleep together on the couch.
You also shouldn’t be driving while severely sleep deprived, as it’s the equivalent of driving after having a few drinks. On top of this, studies have shown that moms who get less sleep are more likely to have postpartum depression, which can affect your ability to care for your child well.
But What About My Partner’s Job?
If your partner is a surgeon, a paramedic, a pilot, a truck driver, or anything that requires a full night’s sleep and quick thinking on the job—we definitely don’t recommend he skimp on sleep. Lives could be at risk. In these cases, we recommend having a relative come stay with you, or hiring a baby nurse, to help you get longer stretches of sleep at night.
BUT if your partner works an ordinary desk job—as many of the women I’ve spoken to have partners who do—there is no reason the father of your child shouldn’t be helping you with night wake-ups.
This is especially important if, say, you’re recovering from a C-section, which statistically about a third of birthing parents in the US are. Or you may have sustained another injury during childbirth that makes mobility difficult in those very early days.
And if you’re both back to work before baby is sleeping through the night? You should definitely be sharing the nighttime duties.
But What If I’m Breastfeeding?
There’s a lot a non-breastfeeding partner can do to help during night wake-ups, making them easier on both the breastfeeding parent and the baby.
Helping with Breastfeeding Sessions
For starters, you’re likely changing your newborn's diaper during those nighttime feeds. When your baby first wakes up, have your partner handle the changing, while you prepare to breastfeed by getting in the right position and getting the props you might need, such a breastfeeding pillow, your water bottle, or hands-free pump like the Hakaa to catch any extra milk. This will make the process smoother on everyone.
When you’re done breastfeeding, your partner can help again by swaddling your baby (if baby likes being swaddled), and putting him back down in his sleep space while you clean up your breastfeeding props and store any milk, if needed.
Doing it all as a tag team will mean a shorter wakeup period overall. Which means more sleep for everyone.
Another way fathers can help? By taking shifts. Yes, even when you’re breastfeeding.
If your baby is waking up in less than 4-hour intervals—which in the early days, they usually are—it can be very helpful for parents to do feedings in shifts, letting the other parent sleep through one shift to get more uninterrupted sleep.
If possible, parents should be aiming to get at least one 4-hour stretch of sleep per night in order to not suffer the effects of severe sleep deprivation, including driving while impaired. You can usually achieve this by sleeping through one night wakeup.
If you’re the breastfeeding parent, learn how to use your breast pump early on, so your partner can feed baby your expressed milk. You could also consider combination feeding, which is where you feed your baby breastmilk but also supplement with formula.
While your partner does one night shift, try sleeping in a different room from your baby so you’re able to sleep through. For the next shift, switch, so your partner is also getting that longer stretch of sleep.
Bonus: a well-rested breastfeeding parent can also often mean an easier breastfeeding journey. Dr. Dr Daniel Golshevsky, an Australian pediatrician, says that with paternal involvement, “[Babies] are going to have a more rested mother, which means you are going to have more success when it comes to breastfeeding and a generally happier environment.
The Key to Getting Everyone Good Sleep
Of course, there are things you should already be doing to help maximize everyone’s sleep in those early days.
The Right Lighting
Newborns don’t yet have an entrained circadian rhythm, so it’s up to you to help them learn it. The most effective way to do this is with light.
At night, keep your baby’s environment in night mode. That means you keep it dark, with blackout curtains. When you need to turn on the light in the middle of the night for nighttime feeds and diaper changes, turn on only red light, like the Kulala Baby Sleep Lamp. Red light is the only light that doesn’t disrupt natural melatonin, keeping us sleepier, and enabling us to get back to sleep more easily when woken up.
And conversely, when you want your baby to be awake and know it’s day, ensure their environment is in day mode, with plenty of blue light, which can be found in daylight and most artificial lights.
The Right Schedule
While we don’t recommend imposing a strict schedule on a newborn, that doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t try and create a loose schedule around feeding times, naps, and bedtime. This will help your baby come to anticipate how his day is going to go, and keep him calmer throughout, because there is consistency to it.
In general, healthy full-term newborns should be eating about every two hours during the day, and about every four hours during the night. (If your baby is premature or has other health problems, talk to your pediatrician before attempting any kind of feeding schedule.)
What you want to try and avoid is too much cluster-feeding, which is where you’re constantly offering the breast or bottle to the baby, they snack a bit, then fall asleep, then wake again half an hour later wanting more, because they only snacked.
Establishing longer, more regular feeding times will ensure your baby gets adequate nutrition in larger doses, leaving you and baby (and partner) more time between feedings to sleep.
Once your baby is older, it’s easier to create a more formal schedule—and thereby, get yourself and your partner long stretches of sleep. The Kulala app can help with that, creating a tailored feeding, naptime, and bedtime schedule for your child.
Getting Naps in Order
Naps are incredibly important in the early days. Babies need a certain amount of sleep per 24-hour cycle—and it doesn’t much matter to them when they get it.
That’s why you have so many parents lamenting about their babies “mixing up their days and nights”—when babies sleep all day, then don’t want to sleep at night.
But the trick is—the parent can control this.
Daytime sleep controls nighttime sleep. By ensuring your baby isn’t sleeping too much during the day, you can help them sleep more at night.
How do you do this?
The Kulala app can help you with a nap schedule (which again, will remain loose in the beginning, solidifying more as your baby gets older.) Stick to it as much as possible—even when it means waking your sleeping baby. Counterintuitive, I know! But if your baby sleeps too much during the day, they will sleep less at night.
Another way to keep daytimes and nighttimes straight is with light, using night mode and day mode. As mentioned before, blue light suppresses melatonin production, keeping babies more wakeful.
Keeping baby’s room dark and using only red light at night, and putting them down for naps in rooms that leak in some blue light is a good way for them to differentiate between night and day.
Start a Bedtime Routine
Routines are helpful because they help your baby learn to anticipate what’s going to happen next.
A great example of a bedtime routine is to feed baby a little before bedtime—ensuring baby stays awake while feeding, so they don’t come to rely on being fed to sleep—then playing a little, then dimming the lights, changing them into their bedtime clothes, reading a story, then putting them to bed.
Try Gentle Sleep Training
When it’s appropriate—most babies are ready to learn how to sleep through the night when they’ve gained 11 pounds, and have done a 5-hour stretch of sleep on their own at least once, a milestone most babies reach around 3 months of age—enlist your partner’s help in trying out gentle sleep training.
Be sure to check with your pediatrician before beginning any sleep training routine to be sure it’s right for your baby. Once you get the go-ahead, here’s what you do:
- Go through your nighttime routine to let baby know it’s time for bed.
- After the routine, put your baby into their bed and leave the room.
- Set yourself a no-feed period at least one hour less than baby’s longest ever sleep stretch.
- If baby cries during the no-feed period, wait 90 seconds before entering their room.
- During that 90 seconds, distract yourself. Say something like “Everything is okay, my baby is fine. I'm waiting 90 seconds before going in.”
- If baby stops crying, great! They're learning to self-soothe.
- If not, that’s normal! It usually takes a few rounds.
- Enter baby’s room after 90 seconds and placate them (shushing and patting them gently). Leave after one or two minutes.
- If baby is still crying, or cries again during the no-feed period, wait another 90 seconds and repeat.
- This may take a few nights. But eventually, your baby will get used to soothing himself back to sleep.
Here’s a secret: the not breastfeeding parent can often have more success with gentle sleep training, because baby might see her mother and expect to be nursed back to sleep. When the non-breastfeeding parent comes in, that’s not an option.
Anecdotally, my partner and I personally saw much more success with gentle sleep training when he was the one going in to do the soothing. Bonus: he’s taller than me, so could reach down into baby’s crib more easily for those patting and soothing sessions.
The Bonus Part
Another tip: getting dads more involved with baby’s entire routine postpartum can help promote father-child bonding.
Dr. Golshevsky says, “[Dads] have no idea how much you will benefit from being more involved in the newborn period. Studies have shown a demonstrable physiological response in the amygdala [emotional center of the brain] of dads who are heavily involved in the newborn period brain that makes them more emotive and a deeper thinker.”
So there you have it: more involved fathers (or partners) in the newborn period can make for a happier, healthier, and more rested stage of parenting for everyone!