Few of us are our best selves when we are exhausted. When that exhaustion is chronic, has lasted months, and is also saturated with being needed more than we’ve ever been needed before it can lead abruptly to an edge, over which we are in great danger of toppling.
The consequences of being so tired are varied, both dire and merely pesky: we eat less healthfully, our concentration lacks, we don’t take care of ourselves well, we are forgetful, and our driving ability becomes compromised. If left to fester, down the road the consequences to our health and well-being become even more grave.
One consequence of the exhaustion in the year or years following the birth of a child is one that few people are willing to confess to: the wear and tear it can have on a marriage. I was once told by a psychologist that by nature we tend to treat those with whom we are closest the worst, because it’s with those people that we feel the safest to do so. While this might be true, it doesn’t make it right that we are so quick to lash out at someone we claim to love with our whole heart.
Sleep issues are not just a “baby problem”, they are a family problem. Even one person’s lack of sleep in a household can affect the entire family in a detrimental way. It’s all connected; the ability of a family to thrive in health and happiness is dependent on the most simple of needs: food, water, shelter, sleep. Love. Kindness.
I’ve talked to many couples who, after discussing their child’s poor sleep habits, will let slip in small ways how they’ve disconnected since the birth of their baby: they take shifts all night long, they are too tired after putting their baby to bed to do anything other than collapse until the first night waking, they are short with each other, they’ve become resentful, one disagrees with the other’s philosophies around teaching sleep habits or parenting in general.
“We wake up at 3:30 a.m. when the baby wakes up and immediately start fighting, because he thinks he knows the best way to get him back to sleep and I know it’s not going to work,” one mom said to me during a consultation. In a later meeting, her husband expressed his sadness over their current state: “We were so happy when we finally got pregnant. Now, we’re pretty mean to each other and I think our son can sense it.”
Additionally, an under-rested child is not an easy one to care for, often cranky or inconsolable for most of his waking hours, often lacking in appetite and playfulness, placing more stress on parents who are desperate to make their child happy and healthy. A gap widens where once there was a united front against all of the terrible things in the world. And yet this tiny being who brings so much joy is also the source of a rapidly changing marital landscape.
After baby is born, an extraordinary thing often begins to occur—a forced division of labor between partners is unavoidable in most cases. Mom is the only one who can do so many things in the beginning. She is also the one who is teeming with conflicting hormones, aching from head to toe, a source of food and comfort, and in a state of near constant panic for all that can possibly harm her new and fragile baby in this dangerous world. Dad can feel left out, helpless, frustrated, and without a clue as to how to participate. A very small crack easily forms—it’s made of a tiny bit of resentment, a little dose of unrelateability, and a huge stack of exhaustion.
When a baby is born, while it certainly needs an enormous amount of time, energy, and nurturing, it’s also incredibly important to remember to nurture your most foundational relationship: that between you and your partner. Without adequate rest, it’s impossible, simply because the order of priorities for a new mom is: (1) Survive (2) Keep baby alive…..(199) Have meaningful time with my spouse. But it’s worth putting some time and effort into getting everyone in your household more rest; your marriage is worthy of it, too:
How teaching your baby to sleep can save your marriage:
- More time for yourself: I am a strong believer in the adage that you are no good for anyone else if you are not practicing self-care. To make yourself a better spouse and better parent, take time to nourish you. Read more here!
- Time together. Once your baby has a predictable and easy bedtime and sleeps the majority of the night or through the night, you will, too. You will find that you are able to stay awake after you put her down for a couple of hours of uninterrupted time with your spouse. You’ll begin to treasure this time and look forward to it, whether you spend it just enjoying to the quiet together or rekindling some much needed intimacy.
- Date night! The return of date night is a beautiful thing! Once you have taught your child healthy, predictable sleep habits you will be able to leave your child with a sitter or with grandma, knowing that they will be able to put your baby down for bed just as easily as you do. I remember being so shocked when we returned from a dinner and movie to find our sitter doing homework at the kitchen table. The report that our daughter went down at 7pm as scheduled without even a whimper solidified for me the importance of her new habits.
- Happier baby = happier parents. When your child is rested and follows a more predictable routine, she will be leagues happier and easier to soothe when she’s unhappy. She’ll eat better, plow through developmental milestones, and more easily smile and laugh. She’ll also go to sleep easier and faster and stay asleep longer if she is well rested. This happier, easier baby will spread her joy right through her parents who won’t be bickering about who’s turn it is to put her in the stroller for a walk-nap. No longer are you both triaging every crisis or tantrum that comes along, but you are instead able to participate in her learning and growing in a more predictable, calm way.
- Flexibility: When exhausted parents are coping with an exhausted baby, it seems that every spare ounce of energy goes into either trying to get the baby to sleep or trying to calm an upset, crying baby. Since there is no telling when baby will wake up or have a melt down, parents are constantly on their toes, at the ready for everything to fall apart. Everything else falls by the wayside and becomes a lower priority. This is not a sustainable way to live. Once your baby is sleeping well and has a predictable routine, your flexibility opens like a window into fresh spring air. You’ll be able to plan outings, knowing when your child will need to rest. You’ll be able to have time after baby’s bedtime for your spouse, older kids, or to treat yourself to a bath with a good book. You’re entire world will not be comprised of struggle and frustration.
All of that said, it’s worth mentioning that the first four to six months of your baby’s life will be a little bit of a roller coaster, since she won’t be developed enough for you to guide her towards solid sleep habits until then. Colic, night feedings, day and night confusion, and just generally getting used to each other take an enormous amount of time and energy. Still, knowing that you can take steps to lay a healthy foundation and not spend years in an exhausted fugue state is a comfort. You might still bicker with your spouse in moments of exasperation, and that’s natural, but try to remember that you are on the same team, that you should be pulling towards the same goal, that this little person was born out of love, and that there are things you can do to make it better.
And if the going gets really tough, take a breath, take a step back, remember the joy and love you felt with your partner when you found out that a new little person would be joining your family, sleep on it, and contact me any time.