Sleep in the first days and weeks

By Liz Wilkes, My Midwives

The first days after birth are very tiring. Sometimes you have had a long labour. Sometimes you have had surgery. You may be sore, have some stitches in your stomach or your perineum and may just want to sleep. It is important to work out how best to manage this period and to know that generally it takes a few weeks, maybe months and maybe longer to feel rested again. 

The first days are characterised by baby feeding fairly frequently. Women are producing colostrum during this period which is a very concentrated sticky clear yellow substance which contains thousands of important substances for baby’s immune system, gut, and nutritional status. There is usually initially not large amounts produced – baby has a small stomach of around the size of a baby marble – and therefore it does not need a lot of colostrum, but the stomach empties regularly and therefore baby will feed every few hours.

Some baby’s have night and day confused and will sleep better during the day in this period. As the baby feeds, the breast milk contains substances that assist the circadian rhythm to develop allowing a better pattern to develop. The baby will generally feed more frequently over days 2 and 3 as the more mature breast milk starts to be produced.  Again this can very much disrupt the mothers sleep in the early days.

It is important to emphasise a few strategies. Have things prepared both in hospital and at home so that you can sleep pretty well whenever the baby is sleeping. Aim to have another helper present who can comfort baby whilst you sleep where that is possible – grandmothers and partners are often the most obvious choices but it can be anyone prepared to help.

Realise that it is normal and that it will improve. If you are having a hard time in hospital, set up some additional postnatal care from a midwife for your discharge. Medicare rebates midwifery care in all states so seek out a home visiting midwife who can help out for the first week or so at home. 

Get help with your feeding cycle. When your breastmilk ‘comes in’ and settles down you will start to get a little more sleep and the periods between feeds will hopefully lengthen a little. The pattern of feeding is important to having a settled baby and getting some sleep, so it is important to make sure your feeding is going as well as it can.

Once you are at home you will potentially rest a little easier in your own environment. Most women find that after two weeks they are potentially at the tiredest period and that by six weeks things have improved. However, this is not the case for everyone. At times, sleep difficulties for mothers can signify that they are struggling in other areas of their health, particularly around their emotional or mental health. It is important to note and assist with this.

It is also important not to over emphasise any of the changes. They are changes – sleep changes, life changes and most of it is quite normal. Not counting your sleep and just ‘going with the flow’ are two important strategies to assist in the early weeks.

Again, minimise all other activities for two to six weeks - make baby, feeding, resting and recovering your jobs for this precious time. You will generally have at least 2 or 3 days a week where sleep is low and things feel different and sometimes harder to cope with. Have a plan for when this hits. Get someone to take bub for a walk for an hour or so in the afternoon. Ask your partner to come home early. Have a very early night – 7pm is not too early. Have a couple of days in bed with baby only getting out to feed or eat. All these little basic ideas can assist the adjustment to reduced sleep and a new baby in the first months after birth. 

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Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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