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Having a newborn made me a better sleeper — yes, really

How I learned to “sleep like a baby” after teaching my daughter good sleep habits.

I’ve had sleep struggles for most of my adult life. Nothing clinical — it would just typically take me a long time to fall asleep and I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep. I just assumed that some people were good sleepers and some were not. I was not. 

During pregnancy, I had even more difficulty sleeping than before and I was concerned that with a new baby at home, I would turn into a sleep-deprived mama zombie. So, I decided to learn everything I could about baby sleep to help my daughter sleep through the night as soon as possible. I took a video course about newborn sleep, read dozens of books and devoured countless (often contradictory) blog posts. That research (plus a hefty helping of luck) paid off — my baby quickly became a great sleeper.

Michelle & Olivia, Wailea Beach
Me with my baby, both of us gloriously well rested. Courtesy PhotoHawaii

But then, as I lay awake and frustrated at 3 a.m. while my 2-month-old baby was soundly sleeping through the night, I realized that just like I dedicated myself to helping her become a great sleeper, I might also be able to help myself sleep better. While not every baby sleep technique applies to adults (I am still hoping someone creates an adult-sized Snoo to rock me to sleep!), much of what worked to help my baby become a great sleeper was also relevant to me. I started wearing my smartwatch to bed every night to track my sleep, and as I added in healthy sleep habits, I was able to concretely see how my time to fall asleep, number of nighttime wakings, sleep cycle, and overall quality of sleep were positively affected. 

If you had told me when I was pregnant that I was going to be sleeping better as a new mom than I ever had before, I don’t think I would have believed you. Even though my sleep now isn’t perfect, it’s the best I’ve slept in my adult life. Here are the top strategies I borrowed from my baby that have helped improve my sleep:

Starting in the sunshine

First thing in the morning, I take my baby outside for 10 minutes of direct sunlight, which resets our circadian rhythm, or internal clock. When babies are born, they have no circadian rhythm, and it takes a couple of months for them to develop one. Exposure to lots of light during the day and darkness at night helps. By taking her outside each morning, I also reaped the benefits. It was also a peaceful start to our day, soaking in the beauty of the nature preserve behind our house, and has become a cherished morning ritual. 

Understanding sleep pressure

At the end of a long day, I would often zone out on the couch in the evenings. Afterward, even though I was exhausted, I still found myself laying in bed unable to fall asleep. As my daughter got a little older, I learned about the importance of building sleep pressure — the drive toward sleep that accumulates during wake times — to help babies fall asleep. A quick catnap in the car would zap her sleep pressure, making it near impossible to put her down for a proper nap at home. I realized my couch potato time was doing the same thing — zapping my sleep pressure and making it hard for me to fall asleep at bedtime. Once I eliminated those evening veg-out sessions, pushing through my evening activities, I found it much easier to fall asleep at night. 

Creating a bedtime routine

Many nights as I was putting my baby to sleep, I found myself envious of her relaxing routine. A warm bath, baby oil massage and cozy jammies are followed by storytime in the rocking chair. One night I thought, “I think I’d sleep like a baby too if someone put me to bed like that!” Just like a consistent bedtime routine helped my baby recognize it was time for sleep, creating my own adult nighttime ritual also helps me fall asleep more easily. Spending 5-10 minutes applying lotion, putting on pajamas and meditating helps cue my body and brain that it’s time for sleep. 

Setting the room up for success

I had tried using a white noise machine a few times in the past, but it had never really helped me sleep. After seeing how much white noise helped my baby sleep more restfully, though, I tried it again. In addition, just like we aim for complete darkness when putting babies to sleep, I’ve learned that blackout curtains help me fall asleep and stay asleep. I’ve also eliminated all the electronics from my room except the baby monitor, which I set to sleep mode.

Maintaining a consistent schedule

Since I work for myself, I have a flexible work schedule. That used to mean that I could work late into the night if I was feeling productive and sleep in if I didn’t have any morning meetings. Now that I have a baby, I wake up when she wakes up, meaning that I need to be diligent about my bedtime. I thought it would be a fruitless effort since it often took me so long to fall asleep. But as I began sticking to a consistent 10 p.m. bedtime (in addition to the other sleep habits I started), I found that it became easier and easier to fall asleep soon after heading to bed. A consistent bedtime felt like an impractical choice before I had a baby, but now that she is my 7-day-a-week morning alarm clock, it has been much easier to stick to a schedule — and reap the benefits.