What I've Learned About Sleep Since Becoming a Dad
When I became a dad for the first time last year, I was expecting the hardest part to be sleep. All of our parenting friends warned me and my wife, Cat, that we wouldn’t sleep at all for the first few months—that we’d be tired, miserable, and desperate for rest.
But then our son, Fitz, turned out to be a champion sleeper. He started sleeping through the night at two months. So after a brief time of chaos, baby was sleeping fine and all was great…right?
Looking back at our first year as new parents, I’d say it’s true that sleep has been one of our biggest challenges. But not for the reasons we thought. Instead of the interrupted sleep that everyone warned us about, the problem for us has been finding time to sleep at all—something we never anticipated before having children.
As working parents (Cat works from 8:30 to 3:30 daily, while I work 8:30 to 5:30 most days), staying on top of household needs is now an enormous challenge. Between laundry, dishes, house cleaning, making sure everyone is fed, and keeping up with friends and family commitments—while also spending quality time with Fitz while he’s awake and we’re all at home—nighttime is often the only available time to get things done.
Here’s our routine. On a typical weekday morning, we split duties: I get ready and watch Fitz from 6:30 to 7:45, then I leave for work and Cat watches Fitz until the nanny arrives at 8:30. When I get home at 5:30, we have around 90 minutes of family time together before Fitz has to get ready for bed. At that point, Cat and I are already exhausted, but we still need to clean the kitchen from dinner, take care of any laundry, deal with spillover work or personal tasks, and honor any other commitments we’ve scheduled. By the time we even think about going to bed, we are already hours behind where we’d need to be to get the recommended amount of sleep.
We’re hardly unique in this. According to a study reported in the Independent, new parents get 59% less than the recommended eight hours a night, losing the equivalent of 50 full nights of sleep in the first year. We feel this even with a son who’s a good sleeper. After all, if Fitz didn’t sleep well, we’d be sleep deprived and not getting anything done, and with Fitz sleeping great, we’re still sleep deprived because we are getting things done.
There's also this, from a study cited in our story on sleep tips for new parents: "Four to six years after the birth of their first child, fathers’ sleep satisfaction and duration were still lower than their pre-pregnancy values." In other words, I can look forward to as many as six years of feeling this way. That’s exactly what our parenting friends have told us when we’ve turned to them for help: that being exhausted is a frequent occurrence no matter how well your children are sleeping, and no matter how much you’re getting done. “That’s just what parenting is” is the most common feedback we receive.
We have found ways to make things better, though. We’ve learned through this experience that we can’t keep living the way we did back when we were DINKs (dual-income, no kids), without a regular nighttime routine or sleep schedule. After all, if it works so well for Fitz, why not us too?
Here are our best tips for maintaining sleep—and sanity—as new parents:
Create routines. Before having kids, we hadn’t needed to live by a specific schedule or routine. Of course, nothing is routine in the first few months after having a baby. But once your child is sleeping through the night, a routine can be one of the most helpful ways to get to bed at a consistent time every night.
To create that routine, we talked to a lot of parents and friends who’d been through this before and asked for advice. Most of them said something like this: “In order to have rest in your life, you need to work to create that rest.” We settled on a routine that made sure we got everything done in a way that kept us working together as a family most of the time, got us all in bed when we needed to be, and gave us a whole day of the week (Sunday) free without any obligations in order to allow us to recharge. Instead of facing down a never-ending list of things that need to be done in the house, we prioritize what needs to be accomplished daily and weekly and set aside specific times to get tasks done in order to not spend our precious and limited energy thinking about to-dos.
Strategize with your partner. Depending on your responsibilities during the day, you and your partner may decide to prioritize one person’s sleep over the other. For example, if your partner works long hours during the day, while you have an opportunity to nap or rest, it may make sense to prioritize your partner’s rest on nights before they work. If you both work long hours, alternating nights of good sleep can help evenly distribute the impact of getting interrupted sleep.
We’ve found it to be helpful to align on our schedules for the week on the weekend before when we have a chance to plan ahead and can enter the week knowing what to expect.
Take care of yourself. As a new parent, you suddenly have incredible demands on your time because you’re doing the most important job you’ll ever have (raising a human) on top of whatever jobs you have already. Even in the “survival stage” for the first couple of months, finding time to take care of yourself in order to relax is critical to maintaining your wellbeing.
Supporting each other as partners is a key way to do this. Make sure your partner is getting the time they need to stay sane and centered and ask for that time for yourself. If you have any family nearby who you’re comfortable watching your child, even better: they can help create much-needed rest time for you. (Here are five more ways to be a better sleep partner.)