Born TODAY

The sleep obsession: What new parents do to get more zzz's for baby...and themselves

Sep. 25, 2013 at 2:57 AM ET

Is the baby sleeping enough? How do you get the baby to sleep longer? Is it OK to let the baby sleep in your bed? Should you rock the baby to sleep?

While new parents may go on about the countless joys of parenting, these are the questions that really consume them in the first year of their child’s life. And sleep obsession is only compounded by the fact that parents are getting more exhausted themselves with each passing day, week and month.

The problem is, when it comes to sleep, conflicting advice abounds — from your mother (‘Never rouse a sleeping baby’), or your girlfriend (‘Let the baby cry it out’), or the pediatrician or parenting book (‘Pat your child’s back’/ ‘Don’t pat your child’s back). Fortunately, that also means there are numerous paths to getting your baby to sleep through the night — or at least for a solid stretch of time. Whether it’s using a sleep coach or trying a new bedtime ritual, parents do eventually find what works and start to feel “normal” again.

While every baby is different, a recent survey found that new parents in the UK lose the equivalent of 44 days of sleep in a child’s first year, the Daily Mail reports. And of 13,000 moms and dads in TODAY.com’s Born TODAY poll, 65 percent of women and 37 percent of men said they'd rather get more sleep than more sex.

West Virginia University Professor of psychology and pediatrics, Hawley Montgomery Downs, studies the effect of sleep disruption on first-time mothers, and says research has shown that as sleep debt racks up, postpartum women can become as cognitively impaired as an intoxicated person. In 2008, researchers at Drexel University found symptoms can worsen in post-partum depression patients when their quality of sleep declines.

Sleepless nights can be tough on a marriage too. Aimee Anthony, a physical therapist in New Orleans, La., explains how her son, William, now 16 months, was up three or four times a night until this past July—and how it “put a strain on everything.”

“It rules your whole life,” Anthony said. “I never had any time with my husband. We never watched a movie or anything because I always had to go to bed almost when my husband got home to prepare for a night of waking up.”

As luck would have it, at 14 months, Anthony sat next to a fellow plane passenger who described how her toddler snoozes a full 12 hours every night. The woman credited a California-based sleep consultant, Vivian Sonnenberg, who trains more than 300 babies a year and charges parents about $600 per package. According to Anthony, after several phone calls with Sonnenberg and tweaking a “few things” like his nap schedule, within three days, William was also sleeping 12 hours.  

After five months of sleep deprivation, Brooklyn mom Katherine Fichthorn also decided to call the professionals, and for around $250 an hour, hired The Dream Team, a group of New York based baby sleep consultants that provide overnight “stay with me” packages and phone services for bone-tired parents.

Most of all, Fichthorn recalls how the coach gave her the confidence to put her baby in his crib and “say goodnight and leave” without a long sequence of bed-time rituals.

According to Emily Robinson, owner of Sound-A-Sleep Consulting in Medford, N.J., the biggest mistake new mothers make is rocking or nursing a baby to sleep. Most babies, she warns, don’t just “grow out of it.” Chances are, you’ll end up rocking or nursing several times a night, for months, maybe, years on end, Robinson says.

Which is where most of the new parent-sleep controversy lies: How do you break “bad habits?” Should you let an infant cry for a period of time to teach him to fall asleep without intervention?

It can certainly be hard to hear a baby cry without rushing towards her. Though, a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that responding to an infant’s cries at increasing time intervals to allow a child to “self-settle,” had no long-term negative effect on a child’s mental health or his relationship with his parents.

With all the clashing advice out there, this fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics released it's official book  “Sleep: What Every Parent Needs To Know,” for kids of all ages. 

The golden “sleep training” rule for new parents? According to the book’s editor, pediatrician and child sleep expert, Dr. Rachel Moon, always put a baby down when they’re a “little awake.” An infant’s last memory before sleep, Dr. Moon explains, should be of feeling drowsy, alone, in their sleep environment, safe without you.

Jacoba Urist is a business, health and lifestyle reporter in NYC. 



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