No matter how wild your younger years were, NOTHING will prepare you for how bone-shakingly difficult life becomes when you bring a newly birthed human that’s yet to discover its circadian clock into your sleeping quarters.
I remember it like it was yesterday… the hellishly insistent “BWAMP BWAMP BWAMP” of the alarm clock, mere minutes after the even more hellish “WAAAH WAAAH WAAAH” of my newborn son had ceased, after what seemed like an eternity in the depths of the night.
It was week four since our household went from ‘two adults and two cats who knew better than to wake us up’, to ‘two adults, a screaming baby and two cats who now lived in the backyard and only turned up at mealtime–if at all’.
My wife was exhausted… and I was also pretty tired. Not the ‘it’s the end of a long day and I feel like I could do with some sleep’ kind of tired. I’m talking ‘I haven’t had more than three hours of uninterrupted sleep in a month, and I’m fairly certain my shoes are talking to me’ kind of tired.
I’m so tired I can see through time
Sleep deprivation is a ruthless beast that robs you of the ability to do the most basic things – things like not getting into trouble at work, not fighting with your partner, not shouting at your neighbours and not resenting the arrival of your newborn.
You probably already know that going without sleep slows your thinking, makes you forgetful and makes you cranky.
You probably also know that not getting enough sleep can cause nausea and muscle cramps, can make you forgetful, and that, in extreme cases, can even lead to hallucinations (your shoes talking to you–stuff like that).
But did you know that sleep deprivation is also one of the lead causes of post natal depression in new dads? Yes, that’s right, we guys get PND too. About 1 in 10 of us in fact. (You can read all about it here).
None of this is good news if you’ve got a baby that’s keeping the entire household up all night, and you’ve got to go to work in a few hours.
Of course, mums arguably have it even worse as they’re the ones waking up to breastfeed at all hours, while dads can – and will – rely on the old “I have an important work thing in the morning–please don’t wake me” excuse.
She can sleep when the baby sleeps, right?
Unfortunately, thanks to frankly poor design on nature’s part, new mums need more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep now and then too – for their health as well as the baby’s.
Unless, that is, you want a cranky, forgetful, cognitively impaired woman who kind of resembles your wife but thinks her slippers are talking to her, looking after your newborn alone all day while you’re at work doing everything you can just to keep your eyelids apart.
Unfortunately I have no simple solution. But I can offer you some ways to help soften the blow. They rely on teamwork, self-sacrifice, and the very, very occasional dip into ‘super dad’ territory.
Old habits die hard
Before my kids arrived, I liked to have a few drinks after work most days… I’m a journalist, and that’s just what we do.
Then I’d get home, eat a late dinner, watch some TV and have a glass or two of wine. After that, I’d fire up the PlayStation – or open up the laptop for a few hands of online poker… and before I knew it, it was 1:00 am.
Which meant “one more whisky”, and “a few more hands of poker” or “I’ll just finish this level”.
You don’t need to be a genius to spot what needs to change in that equation…
With a new baby in the house, old habits need to be ditched and new routines established. It’s not about you anymore. There’s someone tiny and helpless relying on you now – and it isn’t just mum’s responsibility.
Here are some pointers that might help. If you’ve got any others, be sure and pop them in the comments section below.
1. Change your bed-time
Can you go to bed an hour or two earlier than you used to? A few extra hours can help compensate for time lost throughout the night.
A good tip is to try to get to bed as soon as possible after the last feed. This gives you and your partner the maximum window before the first WAAAAH alarm goes off.
2. Drop the grog
Having a quiet ale in the evening is not a sin, but having several quiet ales in the evening “just to get to sleep” is not a good thing. Drinking to get to sleep is a bad, bad habit to get into, for a number of reasons relating to your own personal health.
But when you factor in a baby who won’t stop bellowing, when you’re drunk and dying for sleep – you have a genuine recipe for dad rage and life ruining disaster.
3. Share the night feeds
Sharing the night time feeding duties, even if it’s only a few nights a week, will make the world of difference to your partner, to your bond with your baby, and to the overall dynamic in the household.
And don’t think if mum is breastfeeding that you’re off the hook. Invest in a decent breast pump so she can express milk and you can get in on the action.
From my own experience, it takes about 10-12 minutes from being woken up by a hungry baby, to warming the frozen milk in a saucepan of water on the stove and putting the teat on the top, before he’s drinking like Bob Hawke at the cricket.
4. Find a safe haven
Having a quiet space for at least one of you to get a good night’s rest from time to time is important. Be it a spare bedroom, or even the living room.
Sleeping on the couch may not be very comfy – but it’s a damn sight better for you, or her, than getting no sleep at all.
And if your home is genuinely too small for that to work, then even one night off a week sleeping over with family or a friend will have a huge impact.
Side note: Talk this one through with your partner well in advance and make sure she is comfortable with it. Simply up and leaving her to cope on her own in the middle of a difficult night will not bode well.
5. Don’t keep tabs
Sleep is a common source of arguments between new parents – with each parent usually overestimating how much sleep the other is getting.
Adjusting to your new dad life is hard enough without engaging in constant battles with your missus over which of you has it worse.
The fact of the matter is, you will never both get exactly the same amount of sleep, or achieve a precise 50/50 split of the parenting workload.
The key however, is talking about these things up front (not at 2 am in the morning when the baby is screaming), working out what’s fair, making plans and sticking to them as best you can.
That said, be willing to bend on these when you can see your partner is struggling and step up –even if it’s not ‘your night’.
6. In case of spousal insanity – break glass!
It’s been more than a week, neither mum nor dad have had enough sleep and it’s all turning to shit.
You’re at the end of your rope, she’s about ready to drop junior off at the orphanage, and the rustling leaves outside your window have you on the brink of screaming at the neighbours to do some bloody gardening!
Now is the time to call for back-up.
If there are grandparents, aunties and uncles, or other trusted family members available, reach out and ask them to take the baby for a night… and if their house is not ideal for a baby, invite them over, drop $120 on a local hotel room – and stay there until you are both no longer insane.
No family? No worries. Call a friend to come over and help. Or book a qualified babysitter from a certified agency for the night – or even just for an afternoon – so you can both take a break.
7. Talk to your boss
Finally, for dads (as it’s usually us who are going back to work when bub’s about two weeks old), it pays to be up-front with your boss.
If you’re struggling with sleep deprivation, they’ll know it–and it’s better to say something to them, before they need to say something to you.
They may even allow you to use up some sick leave.
If not, … “I had a dodgy curry last night and I’m firing out both ends” is usually a good enough excuse to earn a day off no questions asked, and give you and your partner time to share the parenting load for a day, to get some well-earned sleep.