I can't tell you how many times I heard "sleep when the baby sleeps" after giving birth to my son. This koan of wisdom came from everyone: my friends, my mom, my husband. Yes, you should definitely sleep when you get the chance, because taking care of a new baby can be exhausting, and you never know when your kid will want to party at 2 in the morning. But should I really sleep every single time the baby sleeps? Who am I, Mariah Carey?
When you're telling a new mom to sleep when the baby sleeps, you're implying that she should do nothing else but take care of her child. You're saying, "Sleep now, because you must be there for every waking moment of your baby. Your life is now merely the mattress your precious child lays upon."
I have to admit, it does sound like a magnificent dream. I'd love to lie down next to my little one as he dozes off and then pass out myself. Newborn babies can sleep about 17 hours a day... I could rejuvenate every cell in my body with 17 hours' sleep! But babies tend to sleep in very small intervals — not quite as enjoyable if you aren't into 20-minute catnaps. Even if your baby can string together a two-hour stretch, taking a midday siesta likely isn't realistic if you have older kids that need things during the day.
After giving birth to my son Kai in January, I was lucky enough to have my aunt visit from Chicago. She stayed with my three older daughters, 10-year-old Anneka and 7-year-old twins, Mia and Laila, while I was in hospital. Once I got home, I had a lot of helpers. My aunt looked after the kids, making sure they did what they needed to do and were fed and went to bed on time. My husband naturally helped out with the baby, conscious of the healing a c-section requires. Moving around was painful at first, so he helped me with breastfeeding, and getting the baby in and out of his crib. But even with all of that support, I still had trouble finding my way to sleep.
One reason I had trouble sleeping was anxiety. No matter how many children you've had, there are so many worries: "Is my baby breathing?" "Is he getting enough to eat?" "Should I change his diaper?" "Is he sleeping enough?" "Is he sleeping too much?" I mean why get sleep yourself when you can spend that time prodding your dozing baby or watching the stripes on his onesie puff in and out on the baby monitor?
I also found it quite condescending when people would tell me this with my fourth child. Yes, I know, I have a newborn, I should sleep. I really didn't need people to tell me that. It's a perfect nothing gift, the gift of "you should really be sleeping." It sounds caring, but you know what I need more than your generosity of mind? Someone to do the dishes and drop off some food, and maybe, I don't know, hold the baby. What you're really saying when you tell me to "sleep when the baby sleeps" is, "phewf, good luck with that whole mom thing."
When you tell a new mom to sleep when the baby sleeps, what you're really saying to her is don't shower, don't eat, don't read, watch TV, or anything else. You're saying, "Uh oh! Baby is asleep! Back into the hibernation chamber for you, nurturing machine. We'll call you when you'e next needed!"
Yes, time is definitely precious when you have a baby. Yes, I'd like to get more sleep, and yes, it's great that others want to help by sharing their little nuggets of wisdom hot off "Captain Obvious Printing Press, LLC." I mean thank you for seeing me. But know that no one actually does this.