The real reason why ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ doesn’t work for mums

mum and baby

My son’s school teacher recently went on maternity leave. On her last day at school, the class parents gathered around her to present the goodbye gift and wish her well.

And to offer advice.

‘Sleep when the baby sleeps,’ they smiled knowingly at each other, nodding sagely. If you’re pregnant or have just had a baby yourself, you’ve probably been told this as well. I know people said it to me when I was first pregnant. ‘Sleep when the baby sleeps! It’s your only chance to rest!’

Hmm.

Not once did I sleep when the baby slept. And I felt like telling my son’s pregnant teacher that she probably wouldn’t either, and that was totally okay.

It’s not realistic

It’s not that the advice is bad advice, the idea behind it is excellent, and needed – you’re going to be tired with a new baby, rest up whenever the opportunity presents itself. Of course!

But, it’s not realistic.

I realised pretty quickly that babies take up All Of Your Time. Every second they’re awake, you’re on stand-by for meeting some sort of need. With new babies depending on you for food, sleep and cuddles around the clock, it can be impossible to make it to the shower some days, let alone butter a piece of toast or brush your hair. Don’t get me wrong – I loved being a mum and was happy to give my baby all the time I had when he was awake, loved fulfilling those needs and making the world nice for him.

When he was asleep though?

That was my time. And no matter how tired I was, being granted a small window all to myself always gave me a little burst of energy to do something other than sleep. Something that was just for me. 


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There’s always something that needs doing

I mean, first of all, there was always a bunch of things that needed to get done. How could I sleep when the baby slept if the sink was full of dishes? Or when there was a pile of laundry that desperately needed doing? There was always something that needed to be done, that niggled in my mind constantly while I couldn’t get to it. Sure, some things I could let go of, they didn’t matter that much. Hoovering for example. But other things just needed to be done, so I could feel sane. I needed them sorted.

And it wasn’t just the household stuff I wanted to get to when the baby slept. Like I said, having a baby took up all my free time, so that looking after my own needs got totally pushed aside. This is normal for mums, but we’re people too, behind the motherhood role. I was a person with my own identity, and putting myself at the bottom of the priority list meant my wellbeing was being neglected.

It was the only time to make myself count

The only way to make myself count in those bleary-eyed days was to use whatever time I had to take care of myself. Sometimes that meant stealing a long shower, or watching TV without a little person attached to me. Sprawling on the couch reading my favourite book. Catching up on annoying admin tasks that couldn’t be done with a baby in my arms. Sometimes I even used the time to scroll through the gazillions of photos I had on my phone and post my favourite ones on social media with funny or meaningful captions. If I got lost in the newsfeed along the way… so what? I didn’t mind. Connecting with the outside world helped me feel less isolated and fragmented as a person.

A better piece of advice

These are all the things I preferred to do rather than sleep when the baby slept, and it’s not because I was a mummy ninja and simply didn’t need the sleep. My god, I was tired. But my need for sleep wasn’t as important as using the time just for me, where I could just be with myself and make sure I was okay. At the time, I was too immersed in early motherhood and sleep deprivation to understand why I avoided sleeping when my baby napped throughout the day or went to bed in the evening. It’s only with hindsight that I can see why I chose to spend my precious me-time the way I did.

Nowadays, I hold back from telling mums-to-be they should sleep when the baby sleeps. I figure they’ll work out for themselves what they need to do to keep functioning. In fact, that should be the new advice that we dole out to pregnant ladies: Do what you need to do when your baby sleeps. Just make sure you keep functioning.

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