Best thing you can give a new mum (and it's not advice)

Lack of sleep is one of the biggest problems for new mothers.
Lack of sleep is one of the biggest problems for new mothers. Photo: Stocksy

I’ve been wearing a FitBit watch since the start of the year and love how it tracks my daily steps, my exercise sessions, my heart rate and sleep.

The watch is bulky and not my usual style, but I wear it nearly every day, because I find it so useful.

My favourite – the sleeper hit if you will - is the sleep analysis tool. After a good night’s sleep, I can not only feel the benefits, but I can see the unbroken waves of deep and pale blue showing my cycles of REM, light sleep and deep sleep. If I’m fatigued, there’s a good chance the data will show me why.

Some companies are providing the Snoo bed to support new parents on staff.
Some companies are providing the Snoo bed to support new parents on staff. Photo: Supplied

But I’m glad I didn’t have the watch seven years ago when my twins were babies. It would have been stressful to see visual representation of my lack of sleep, with nothing I could really do about it.

My babies were small, needed breastfeeding every three hours, and there were two of them. I remember the first year as one continuous stretch of time. It was not so much 365 days or 52 weeks as 1001 short cycles of the babies sleeping, feeding, playing and sleeping again.

I was kept sane because my partner and I were in it together and we had the proverbial village of friends and relatives come together to help us. We had visitors nearly every day who did everything from stocking my freezer full of homecooked meals to minding the babies while I took a bath.

I was also given a great many hand-me-downs of baby clothes, toys and books. Among them was a book by Dr Harvey Karp called The Happiest Baby on the Block and while there must have been a dozen other parenting books lying around our house, this happened to be one that my husband and I both read and tried to implement. We learnt how to put the babies to sleep by swaddling, shushing and rocking.

Later, we had a day stay at family care centre Karitane to figure out how to synchronise the twins’ daytime napping routines, so they were awake or asleep together rather than on constant rotation.

There was a period between babyhood and toddlerhood when sleep was sorted and life was sweet. Then the twins learned how to climb out of their cots and it all went down the gurgler. Our children don’t get up in the night but bedtime was a protracted battle for a long time.

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Dr Karp was in Australia last week showing off his latest invention, the Snoo, which sounds like a Dr Seuss character but is actually a fancy baby bed. The Snoo stops the baby rolling into an unsafe position, while simultaneously responding to the baby’s movements with white noise and rocking motion.

At $1600 new or even $700 secondhand it would have been well out of my price range, but I’m told a number of companies, including some of the world’s biggest tech firms, are buying or renting them for new parents.

Why? It’s partly a way to be supportive to employees on parental leave and that might help boost staff retention. More to the point, it could hugely boost productivity if your employee is the second parent returning to the office a few weeks after the birth.

In June the University of Sydney Business School and Energy published a report titled Why are we so tired? Australia’s human energy crisis. A survey of 1200 Australians suggests most people have at least seven hours of sleep only six days out of 10, and wake up feeling refreshed only four days out of 10. Women feel like they have enough energy for themselves and the things that are important to them only four days out of 10, while for men it’s only five days out of 10.

Earlier research has found that the mental performance of people who’ve been awake for more than 18 hours is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05. After 19 hours, performance drops to levels equivalent to a blood alcohol reading of 0.1.

Meanwhile, Deloitte Access Economics has crunched the numbers for the Sleep Health Foundation and found that sleep disorders cost the Australian economy $66.3 billion in the 2017 financial year. (Though being a new parent doesn’t count as a “sleep disorder”).

Most important is the human cost. We know that sleep deprivation and broken sleep make it more likely that new parents suffer depression or experience relationship stress.

Beyond expensive baby beds, how else can we support new parents? Dr Karp says it’s about community, and too many parents are trying to care for babies and children in isolation.

“Today if you have a nanny you’re quite well off and if you have two you’re totally posh, but up until 100 years ago everyone had five nannies: you had your grandma, your aunt, your older sister, your neighbour, your own older children and that whole network,” Dr Karp says.

“Families today are bereft of that support and often don’t have a lot of experience taking care of babies and a lot of the time don’t even feel like they deserve that support – there’s this whole attitude that a real mother doesn’t complain and does it on her own and of course you’re going to be up all night long and if you don’t want to do that why did you have a baby so you should just suck it up. It’s actually very unreasonable because mothers never did it on their own.”

Dr Karp says it’s the time for new parents to reach out for help but also for friends and family to actively find ways to be useful, whether making a casserole or doing the dishes.

We conceived our twins in California and originally planned to stay abroad. I’m so glad we returned home to accept that support.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about work, life and money. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons

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