How New Moms Can Get More Sleep

An expert explains why sleep during the postpartum period is so critical and how parents with a newborn can protect their sleep.

Mother and infant sleeping: postpartum sleep
Mother and infant sleeping: postpartum sleep

For many new parents, coming home with a newborn is filled with joy and excitement — as well as sleepless nights. But while it’s hard to manage a baby’s erratic sleep schedule, it’s important for parents to try to protect their own sleep and prioritize their health. Lack of sleep can lead to exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety, and for new mothers, the risk for postpartum depression sharply increases, says Dr. Lauren Osborne, a reproductive psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

“There are lots of challenges to sleeping when you have a new baby,” says Dr. Osborne, who is also vice chair of clinical research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “But there are options. And if you have a partner, there are ways to work together.”

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Osborne about why sleep is so important during the postpartum period and what parents can do to get more shut-eye during the early weeks and months of a newborn’s life.

Birthing parents should focus on self-care over self-sacrifice.

The airplane instructions to “put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others” applies to birthing parents as well. “Unfortunately, our culture makes the assumption that the mother is the one to get up throughout the night to care for the baby,” Dr. Osborne says. The result is that their sleep is disrupted the most in the postpartum period.

While many birthing parents feel like it’s their responsibility to sacrifice their sleep, it’s important to keep in mind that, “if you are not well, the baby is not going to be well,” says Dr. Osborne. “Birthing parents should think of self-care sleep as something that they do for the baby in addition to themselves.”

Dr. Lauren Osborne

Dr. Lauren Osborne

Remember that postpartum sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.

There is a direct connection between lack of sleep and postpartum depression, which affects about 1 in 8 women. “The two feed on each other,” says Dr. Osborne. While lack of sleep increases the risk of getting postpartum depression, Dr. Osborne says, “if you’re depressed or anxious, you may have more trouble going to sleep, which further affects emotional health. It’s a bidirectional relationship.”

Make a sleep plan.

Dr. Osborne encourages parents to have a plan before the baby is born that addresses postpartum sleep. She says that sharing nighttime duties is a good strategy. One plan she has seen work well is a tag-team approach, where one parent is “team leader” from 6 p.m. to midnight, while the other parent or a family member is in charge from midnight to 6 a.m. (More on the tag-team approach with feeding below.) Alternating shifts means that each parent is able to get adequate rest. Even if things don’t go exactly according to plan when the baby is home, having the discussion can help set expectations and open up the dialogue.

“Plans will look different for everyone, but it’s important to at least have a dialogue before the baby arrives,” she adds.

Prioritize chunks of uninterrupted sleep.

When it’s not realistic to expect a full night’s sleep, try for three to four hours of uninterrupted sleep, says Dr. Osborne. That’s because the body cycles through several rounds of REM sleep (the dream phase) and non-REM sleep (the deeper and more restorative phase) throughout the night as a way of restoring and healing itself. But if you’re awakened every hour, then you’re never going into those deeper phases of sleep that are restorative for the body. “Try to get consolidated chunks of sleep whenever you can,” advises Dr. Osborne. “Even though it may be a shorter amount of sleep altogether, your body is able to slip into those deeper phases of sleep that are so important.”

While it’s easier said than done, try to sleep when the baby sleeps. Infants do not sleep for very long chunks of time, so take any opportunity to get much-needed rest. “Let the dishes be dirty for a while. Protect yourself. Protect your sleep.”

“Birthing parents should think of self-care sleep as something that they do for the baby in addition to themselves.”

— Dr. Lauren Osborne

Be flexible with feedings.

Some infants need to eat as often as every hour and a half, and feedings typically take 20 to 45 minutes. So for the first several months, it is around-the-clock care. To get more postpartum sleep, breastfeeding parents can pump during the day and ask a partner or family member to bottle-feed at night.

“I’m a big supporter of exclusive breastfeeding, but it doesn’t have to be that breast milk is always coming from the breast directly,” explains Dr. Osborne. “It can be in a pumped bottle. That’s hard in the very early first weeks when you don’t want to confuse the baby with a bottle nipple, but after about a month, it’s worth trying in order to get more rest and provide a way for your partner to participate in the feedings.” If pumping isn’t possible, it’s OK for parents who want their baby to have breastmilk to give one bottle of formula during the night to protect the mother’s sleep, Dr. Osborne says.

If a bottle is not possible, a partner or family member can still reduce the burden on the nursing parent by bringing the baby to the nursing parent in bed and then handling the tasks of burping, changing, and getting the baby back down—preferably in a room that’s out of earshot of the nursing parent. “That way, you can split the nighttime care, and you can try to get right back to sleep after nursing,” Dr. Osborne.

Ask for support.

Childcare should not be a one-person thing. “We have to employ partners or other family members to help with baby care overnight in order to protect sleep for women,” says Dr. Osborne. Reaching out for help is especially key for single parents. Call in the cavalry and ask for help from family and friends. Can a sibling come over on Wednesday nights? How about a friend who can come for a few hours in the afternoon while you take a nap?

“There are ways to build a village with your community and work together to preserve that longest chunk of uninterrupted sleep. Other people — partners, family, friends — can jump in to help protect moms’ sleep.”

Additional Resources

Lauren M. Osborne, M.D., serves as the vice chair of clinical research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine and is a reproductive psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Osborne is an expert on the diagnosis and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders during pregnancy, the postpartum, the premenstrual periods, and perimenopause. She runs the Psychoneuroimmunology in Pregnancy and Postpartum Lab at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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