What's the hardest thing about having newborn multiples? Ask any parents and you'll likely hear a common lament: lack of sleep. With babies that need to eat every two to three hours around the clock, parents' normal nighttime sleep routine is out the window. Rather than retiring at 10:00 P.M. and rising refreshed at 7:00 A.M., they find themselves dozing for an hour in between feedings at 3:00 A.M., and catching a catnap at 3:00 P.M.
How Babies Sleep
Newborns need a lot of sleep. Unfortunately, the sleep patterns of young infants aren't concentrated during the nighttime hours, like adults'. Throughout a twenty-four-hour cycle, babies sleep, wake up to eat, and return to sleep several times. As they grow older, they'll start to extend the amount of time between feedings and thus stay asleep for longer periods of time. But in the meantime, parents have to adjust to a schedule of sleeping in short intervals.
Most full-term, normal-birth-weight newborns require between sixteen and eighteen hours of sleep a day. During the first few weeks, that time is spread throughout the day and night, in two- to three-hour bursts. Singleton parents can focus their attention on the baby when he awakes, then return to sleep when he does. The challenge for parents of multiples is that their babies' sleep patterns may not coincide, greatly reducing the amount of available rest periods in between feedings. In addition, multiples tend to be smaller; they often need to eat more frequently, and it may take more time for them to develop the ability to stay asleep for longer intervals.
Babies' sleep needs vary greatly. Some are able to stay asleep for five or six hours at a stretch as young as six weeks old. Others may take six months before they can sleep this long. There is no way to anticipate when that particular milestone will occur for each of your multiples; just rest assured that it will happen eventually.
Coping with the Lack of Sleep
So you've accepted the fact that having newborn multiples is going to be physically exhausting at times. There are some strategies that will help you survive the trying time until you can catch up on sleep.
From the very beginning, establish healthy sleep habits for your babies. The cozy, dark environment of the womb didn't distinguish between night and day, so newborns need some time to adjust to the new schedule. Many are born with their days and nights mixed up, being most alert in the middle of the night and sleeping soundly throughout the day. To encourage them to learn the difference, you can stimulate their senses when they are awake during the day and keep things still and quiet at night. For example, use bright lights, background music, and a cheerful voice during daytime feedings, but keep the lights dim and your voice low at night.
Remember that infancy is temporary and fleeting. Your babies will grow older and stronger and they will sleep through the night. Rest assured that the day will eventually arrive, and take comfort in realizing that every new dawn brings you one day closer to that milestone.
Swaddling, the practice of wrapping babies “burrito-style” in soft blankets, is comforting to many babies and may help them to feel snug and secure while sleeping. It's most commonly used with newborns who are still accustomed to the close confines of their mother's womb. Research has shown that swaddled babies sleep more deeply and fall back asleep more readily when awakened. It's also been proven to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) because it keeps babies in the safest position, sleeping on their backs. Babies usually outgrow the comforting effects of swaddling after a month or two.
Don't allow young infants to sleep through their feedings during the first week or so, especially if they were born early. They need consistent nutrition in order to grow and develop. It may seem like a blessing, but sleeping for more than five hours at a stretch during the first few weeks may actually be a sign of a weakened state or even dehydration.
Some families find it helpful to take a tag-team approach in order to provide each parent with an opportunity for uninterrupted sleep. Mom might take the 9:00 P.M. to 2:00 A.M. shift, then dad takes over until the morning. If you have access to helpers, whether hired or willing volunteers, make the most of their assistance while you catch up on rest.
Finally, making resting a priority. Napping can be restorative when you can't get a full night's sleep. Sleep when the babies sleep; don't try to use that time to catch up on other things. Housework can wait!