Shortly after my daughter was born I decided to track my sleep. In the past 12 months I recorded 288 nights and learned as much about myself, my sleeping habits and what it takes to get through the night when you have a newborn in the house.
Congratulations. You’re a new parent. Your baby is just a week old. It’s 2am, adrenaline worn off a long time ago and you’re running on fumes. You’ve been up 4 times already; nursing, burping, changing a diaper and waiting for your newborn to go down again. Your spouse is suffering too. (I know I did, as I was up almost every time with my wife.) And the only question on both of your minds is ‘ Will I ever get good night’s sleep again?’ There are good news and bad news.
Bad news first: Not any time soon.
Good news: It will get better, but you have to work at it.
Months prior to my daughter’s birth I was getting plenty of warnings about how much sleep I’d lose. Even my wife tried to prep me but waking me up for absolutely no reason when she was pregnant. Which didn’t work by the way. So, I decided to look into various techniques I could deploy to get the sleep I needed once the baby came.
One strategy that stood out for me was waking up when you’re in your lightest sleep phase. So, I got an iPhone alarm app Sleep Cycle that allowed me to set my ‘waking window’ and have an alarm activate when I entered a light sleep phase. Instead of being jolted out of my deep sleep and being pissed off for the rest of the day, my new app would gradually wake me between a specified time range. It felt more natural and refreshing. Sometimes I’d even get less sleep than my wife, but I felt more energetic and was in better mood throughout the day.
As effective as the strategy was, but it only worked if I was able to fall asleep 2 hour or so prior to my alarm being activated. Using the same app I also decided to track my sleep and look for ways to optimize my sleep further.
Enter the Sleep Cycle
When you have a newborn in the house, you can forget about any normal routine or getting any sleep in the first 7-10 days. Around two weeks, things start to normalize and you get into the groove. That’s when I started to set my alarm to wake me during my lightest phase and track my sleep.
In the past year, from November 14, 2012 to November 13, 2013 I managed to track my sleep for 288 nights. Some nights were not tracked because either the phone was not charged, I forgot to set the alarm, or sometimes I’d shut all electronics off.
Fortunately, in the past 12 months I’ve spent a decent amount of time in bed averaging 7 hours and 19 minutes. That number could have been even higher if it wasn’t for many sleepless nights. But as you can see below, on my worst night I was awake for nearly an hour, before crashing again, which didn’t last long anyway.
The app doesn’t provide actual sleep time, only the time spent in bed. However, it does it include your ‘awake’ periods in the calculation of your sleep quality. As you can see I suffered. Not only was the amount of time spent in bed was short but my normal sleep patterns are non-existent, hence the 29% quality rating.
Compare my worst night to my best night. During my best night I achieved 100% by spending nearly 10 hours in bed and going into very deep sleep 3 times. For the first 9 and some hours the sleep was uninterrupted until the morning when my internal clock started going off.
I assure you, I had way more ‘worst nights’ than ‘best nights.’
No surprise here, but looks like my worst nights happened during the work week. On weekends my sleep quality improved significantly.
Obviously weekends give you more opportunities to sleep in. Take advantage of it every time you can. Otherwise you’ll resemble the cast of The Walking Dead.
The first few weeks and sometimes months, it will suck. There’s no other way of putting it. It will be horrible. You’ll feel ecstatic, scared, frustrated, happy, annoyed then frustrated some more. In that order.
It Gets Better
60% sleep quality was terrible, might as well be the 29% you saw earlier. But as your baby grows and you establish a routine your sleep quality will rise accordingly. Sometimes you will hit a plateau, like I did in January. Just when things we’re getting better my sleep quality dropped in a very short period of time. My daughter approaching 5 months by now, wasn’t sleeping through the night. When she’s not sleeping, no one else is. So we called for help. My wife was referred to the sleep doula who provided sleep strategies and advice on teaching your baby to sleep through the night. It worked instantly. In two short nights we were back on track. Our baby was sleeping, so was the rest of the house. As evident in the chart there was a huge improvement in my sleep quality as well.
Then in June and September our daughter went through teething phases. We all suffered, temporarily.
As you can see in the overall trend, it gets better.
How I Optimized My Sleep
About half way through the year I started to experiment with some of the most common activities and events that occur regularly in my daily life.
Using the sleep notes feature I was able to track how certain things affected my quality of sleep. I used to drink chamomile tea, but according to my data it has no affect on my sleep. Perhaps it helped me get to sleep, but it didn’t yield any benefits beyond that. Eating late also had no effect, and neither did a stressful day. But showering before bed registered to have a negative effect on my sleep.
Looking further down the chart it isn’t surprising to see that working out contributed to better sleep. But what is a surprise is the positive effect achieved from using electronics (iPhones, Tablets, Laptops, Video Games, etc.) or watching TV before going to bed. I’m sure you’ve heard doctors, sleep experts, and media advise to avoid electronics or watching TV before going to bed to ensure a good night’s rest. I’m glad I avoided that advice. The use of electronics before bed or watching TV actually helped me get a good night’s rest. I am not suggesting you’ll experience the same effect, but using sleep notes will help you figure what works or doesn’t for you.
Tips for New Parents
I’m not a doctor, a sleep expert, or guy in a white lab coat but I did learn a great deal in the past year:
- establish a routine very early on, it will be easier to sleep train ans stay sane
- stick to your routine – don’t break it – it’s not about you anymore
- get sleep when you can, baby naps, you nap
- try to go to bed early
- do some prep work in advance, making baby bottles in the middle of the night is costly – prep them ahead of time
- track your sleep and use sleep notes, experiment and figure out what helps you sleep better
- avoid having the baby sleep with you, she will get used it and it will be hard to break that habit
- when you put the baby down, she needs to stay down – it’s sleep time, not play time – babies will learn to put themselves to sleep if you let them
- try to make time for yourself – but do some planning, it will become easier once you have some kind of routine established
- finally, if you’re pregnant, please don’t wake your husbands just to “get them used to waking up at night” – I guarantee it doesn’t work
Do you have any tips for new parents on how to get the much needed sleep? Let me know in the comments.