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One Thing You Need to Know to Make Those Newborn Days a Little Better

Photograph by Twenty20

With my third baby on the way, I have found myself thinking a lot about the newborn days. I must admit, part of me feels some nervousness and anxiety when I think about the sleepless nights ahead, navigating postpartum hormones and learning to breastfeed a new babe who has his or her unique preferences.

With my first daughter, I remember feeling so exasperated during those first several months of her life. I was frustrated with myself and my daughter because we never slept. I wanted to move on with our life, to have the capacity to keep my house clean and to function like a normal human being in the workplace, but it wasn't happening.

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I am sure I spent hours scrolling through parenting Facebook groups and message boards, looking for the answer to our sleep problems, or posting desperate pleas, wishing anyone would tell me what I was doing wrong and what was wrong with my child.

It turns out, I wasn't doing anything wrong, and there was nothing wrong with my child. I was creating an imaginary problem where none existed. Most babies simply don't sleep.

This truth of parenting is hard to believe, especially when books boast of the method that will "give you the gift of nighttime sleep," and then instruct moms to engage in practices pediatricians have warned against time and time again. It's tough even when scrolling through social media and seeing Instragram and Facebook posts from sanctimonious mom friends brag of the "good" newborn sleeping through the night at four weeks.

Accept the exhaustion, accept the laundry piles and the three-day-old dirty sweatpants. But also ask for the help you need.

But the truth about newborn sleep? Babies wake for a reason, and it seems to be among the most basic parts of their design that allows for their survival. Frequent wakings have been associated with a lowered risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, as these babies are less likely to have episodes of apnea. Additionally, nursing at night may be associated with a healthy milk supply from Mom and better weight gain in infants, as it seems that the hormones responsible for lactation are highest at night.

One night, about three months after my second daughter was born, I was sitting in the living room at 3 a.m. with "House M.D." on in the background, nursing for the second or third time that night, when I realized I felt at peace. I wasn't frustrated to be awake, I was just OK even though my house was a mess and I had circles under my eyes and breast milk on my clothes.

In fact, I hadn't felt frustrated this time around. I mean, I was exhausted. I know I had rolled over and nudged my husband awake and said, "I can't, it's your turn this time" a hundred times during those first few months. But it wasn't the same as the first time; I wasn't spinning my wheels looking for the magic answer to our made-up sleep problem.

That night I realized what had made the biggest difference. I had experienced a huge paradigm shift between my first child and my second: I stopped believing my daughter should sleep, and I stopped believing something was wrong when she didn't sleep. This time, I had gone into the hazy newborn days with totally realistic expectations. I expected to be tired. I expected to be walking the floors and bouncing a baby, every single night. I expected to be powerless to change that.

If I could communicate a single piece of advice to new moms everywhere, it would be that entering into motherhood with realistic expectations about sleep is essential to enjoying your time as a new mom. I see it all of time, I see new moms posting online out of desperation, wanting to know the secret to making their baby sleep.

Here's the thing: There is no secret. Your baby will sleep, or your baby won't. Most pediatricians will tell you the same, and it is only proponents of dangerous sleep training practices that will claim any differently.

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Let me be clear, I know that maternal exhaustion is a real thing and it can be really dangerous. Unfortunately, our culture is blaming the baby or the mom, instead of acknowledging that our society isn't set up to give moms the rest they need to survive. So we find ourself trying to fix an unfixable problem, when what we really need is our mom or a friend at our side, shooing us away to our beds while they bounce a fussy babe, or more time off work to heal and rest from the hardest work of our life.

So, exhausted mama of a brand new babe, please know there is nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with your baby. Accept the exhaustion, accept the laundry piles and the three-day-old dirty sweatpants. But also ask for the help you need, take the extra two weeks of leave if there is any way you can swing it, ignore the guilt and hand your baby over the second your husband walks in the door. And one day—a month or six months or maybe even two years from now—without explanation, your baby will sleep and you will forget just how exhausted you felt.

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