You just fed your newborn baby. She’s sleeping soundly in her nice milk coma. You put her down gently in her bassinet and crawl back into bed. It’s 1:00am. You pass out instantly.
Suddenly, your baby is wailing.
You look at the clock, it’s 1:05am. You look down, she’s gotten her arms out of her swaddle. You check her diaper. Dry. You re-swaddle her. She’s still screaming. You offer another boob. The screaming intensifies. You start pacing the room, patting her back, trying to burp her.
It’s 1:35am. Maybe it’s gas? You unswaddle her, do some bicycle kicks with her legs. Nothing happens. You re-swaddle. She’s screaming at the top of her lungs now. You can feel the sweat on the back of her neck. You start bouncing her on a yoga ball. It’s 1:55am. You look at your bed, longingly. You just want to sleep. You just want HER to sleep. But the howling continues.
Welcome to “The Suck”
I’m just going to say it. The first few months with a newborn suck. They SUCK. You’re operating on little to no sleep. You haven’t showered in three days. You’re shoving crackers in your face between feeds so you don’t pass out from low blood sugar. You’re covered in a sweet-sour mixture of leaking breastmilk and spit-up. Your nipples feel as though someone jammed knives inside of them.
You’re balancing precariously between a mental breakdown and insanity.
Sure, their heads smell intoxicating. The baby cuddles are to die for. And when they start cooing and smiling at you, you feel like the luckiest person on earth.
But mostly, it sucks.
With my first baby, I scoured countless baby books, blogs and message boards, and attended both the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center’s Little Nippers Class and Forty Carrot’s Welcome to our World class trying to figure out ways to survive what, for me, was the most impossible time in my life.
In those dark days of desperation, these 7 bits of wisdom helped me come out the other side of “The Suck” with my sanity intact. I hope they do the same for you.
1. The “Witching Hour” is really HOURS
The witching hour begins in week 2 or 3. It’s that period of time at night where your newborn cries for no apparent reason. You’ve fed them, changed their diaper, swaddled them and you’re bouncing, rocking, swinging, walking, shushing, but nothing makes them happy. NOTHING.
This is NOT your fault. You’re not doing anything wrong. It’s completely, developmentally normal. The unfortunate part is that it happens at night, when you and your partner are already tired from either working or taking care of the baby all day.
And, the name is a misnomer. Because the witching hour lasts HOURS. Plural.
With my son, it went from 6:00 – 10:00pm. With my daughter, it went from 7:00pm – 12:00am. If you know it’s coming and can brace yourself for it, it’s a heck of a lot easier to deal with.
The second time around, my husband and I just watched a movie with the subtitles on (because screaming) and alternated feeding and soothing her until she passed out for the night.
The good news is this fussy period peaks at 6-8 weeks, then starts to taper off. Our 2-month-old is now down for the night between 9:30 and 10:30pm, with minimal fussing beforehand.
2. Invest in a Quality Sleep Sack
After the first week, your newborn will become a little Houdini. They’ll escape from their swaddle blanket in 5 minutes flat. Then they celebrate their escape by (you guessed it!) crying. Which means you have to reswaddle. Then they’ll escape. Then they’ll cry.
Now just repeat that 100 times in one night and try to see or think straight the next morning. It’s impossible. At this point, you want to make sure you have a quality sleep sack (or three, because spit up) in your arsenal.
I prefer the Woombie sleep sack. Its dual zipper allows you to unzip from the bottom for nighttime diaper changes, without having to take your baby completely out of the sack.
I also prefer the zippered sacks over the ones with velcro because un-doing velcro makes an ear-splitting sound that scares the heck out of babies. Cue hysterical crying.
Also, the Woombie doesn’t pin their arms down across their body, restricting their range of motion. It mimics their natural state in the womb, where they can move their arms into whatever position is comfortable. And because they can touch their hands together, they can even self-soothe during the night.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because your baby can escape the swaddle, or cries during the act of swaddling, means they hate to be swaddled.
Your newborn just came from the womb, a tiny, cramped space. Swaddling recreates this feeling, which comforts them.
Plus, all babies have the Moro reflex, which makes them feel like they’re spontaneously falling when they’re on their backs. If their arms aren’t confined, the Moro reflex causes them to jerk their arms and startle themselves awake, crying. For optimum sleep, most babies need to be swaddled until they’re 4-5 months of age and can roll over on their own.
3. Do Lots and Lots of Tummy Time
Starting in week 2, when your newborn is awake more, put them on their belly for tummy time. Yes, they will cry. This position is brand new for them. They’ve spent all of their waking life on their back, to this point. Now you’re asking them to do something different. They’ll cry. That’s okay.
Try putting them on their tummy right as they’re coming out of a sleep cycle, or after a feed. Let them bob their heads around, mouth their hands, and start to push up. They will cry and fuss. Think of tummy time as their exercise, their workout. Do you like going to the gym? I don’t. But I know it’s good for me.
Tummy time is your baby’s gym.
They may not like going, but it’s good for them. Not only will it give them some exercise and help wear them out (making nap times easier for you), it helps prevent plagiocephaly or flat head syndrome.
How do you know when they’ve had enough tummy time? Pick them up once the crying escalates, or they face plant into the floor and stop moving.
Start in small increments of 2 to 3 minutes per session, and work up as your baby is able to tolerate more. By 5-6 weeks, babies should be doing a total of 1 hour of tummy time each day.
4. Transition Time is Important
Babies thrive on routine. Even newborns. They can’t do anything for themselves. They can’t speak our language. But they can learn to recognize and expect routine. And they find comfort in it.
If you sometimes drive them around, sometimes walk them in the stroller, sometimes bounce them on a yoga ball, sometimes put them in their swing, sometimes walk up and down the floors of your house trying to get them to sleep, your baby will have a hard time understanding what you expect from them in all these different circumstances.
The earlier you can establish a bedtime routine, the better.
I’m not talking about bath and songs and stories just yet. I’m talking about a consistent pattern of behavior that you repeat so your baby knows you expect them to go to sleep.
The transition routine for my babies has always been: diaper change in low-light (I keep blackout curtains closed day and night in the baby’s room), swaddle, rock, pat and shush until they fall asleep, then transfer to the crib.
5. You’ve Got 3 Yawns Until They Go Nuclear
Newborn babies can’t handle very much awake time. My 2-month-old is only awake for 1 – 1.5 hours before she needs to be put down for a nap.
And you measure that time from when they wake up from their previous sleep, not when they finish their feed. Even if it seems they’re asleep during their feed. I made that mistake with my first child.
How do you know when a newborn is tired? They yawn and start fussing. You’ve got 3 yawns until they go nuclear. And by nuclear, I mean a tomato-faced, banshee-screaming, limb-flailing, hot-mess.
At this point, putting them down for a nap becomes extremely difficult because they’re overstimulated. If you can catch them after the second yawn, change their diaper, swaddle them and transition them into nap time, you’ll be golden.
6. Don’t Let the Thousand-Yard Stare Fool You
With my first baby, I’d notice he was getting tired, so I’d transition him into nap time. But as I was rocking him, I’d look down and notice his eyes wide open.
So, I’d think to myself, “Hmm. Maybe I was wrong.” I’d get him out of the swaddle, out of his nice, dark room and I’d play with him again. Shove a rattle in front of his face. Do peek-a-boo.
He’d go nuclear. I couldn’t understand why. He seemed wide awake just a few minutes ago.
I’d been played.
He was doing what’s known as the “thousand-yard stare.” You know when you get so tired you’re just staring into space, not blinking, not thinking of anything, just blanking out?
Yeah, well, babies do that too. Right before they fall asleep. Don’t let it fool you. Keep rocking and shushing. The thousand-yard stare only lasts a few minutes. Soon their eyelids will get heavy and close.
7. Keeping Them Up Later Does NOT Make Them Sleep Longer
I know. It’s counterintuitive. If we stay up late, we want to sleep in the next day. The same is NOT true for babies. Repeat after me:
SLEEP BEGETS SLEEP.
The better their naps are, the better they’ll sleep at night and the better YOU’LL sleep at night.
Don’t worry if your newborn is sleeping a lot. They’re supposed to sleep a lot. From 2 weeks to 2 months of age, babies sleep 15 – 17 hours a day. 8-10 hours at night and 6-7 hours during the day, spread over three or four naps.
So, if your baby sleeps from 9:00pm – 5:00am, don’t think changing her bedtime to 11:00pm will make her sleep until 7:00am. She’ll likely wake up at 5:05am. In fact, putting a baby to sleep EARLIER often makes them sleep longer.
Like I said, counterintuitive.
Just remember, you’re stronger than you think. And you’ll get through it.
Like all stages with children, the newborn stage is just that. A stage. Although it may seem endless while you’re in the thick of it, it does end.
And as you’re scrubbing the poop streak out of your 2-year-old’s underwear, you’ll start thinking, “I really want to smell a baby’s head again.” And before you know it, you’re pregnant with your second.
You’ll forget all about the hard parts. I blame the sleep deprivation.