Sharing Nighttime Parent Responsibilities

Gone are the days when just the mom is fully in charge of nighttime feedings and taking all the sleep exhaustion for the team. For modern parents, it’s often a given that parenting duties will be split evenly. 50/50 is the goal, but if one parent is breastfeeding, it can be difficult to divide the labor of nighttime parenting equally.

Here are some strategies to help you share nighttime parenting responsibilities, keeping in mind that the solution that will work best for your family will be as unique and individual as you are! 

Baby sleeping soundly, a benefit of shared nighttime routines

Normal infant sleep habits

Have you heard that young babies spend most of their time asleep? 18 hours or more of your baby’s daily life might be spent in a sleep state. If babies sleep so much, why are new parents so notoriously sleep deprived? The dissonance comes from the way that new babies sleep.

Adults cycle through four sleep stages that last about an hour and a half each, and we are able to link our sleep cycles together, resulting in an average of seven to nine hours of total sleep with minimum waking (although even adults rarely “sleep through the night,” rousing to use the bathroom, change positions, adjust the covers, and so on).

Babies, on the other hand, have much shorter sleep cycles, and they don’t differentiate between daytime and nighttime. Until babies are somewhere around three to four months old they lack circadian rhythms, and they aren’t very good at linking their sleep cycles together (what is called “sleep consolidation”), so they tend to wake frequently around the clock. They sleep a lot, but the sleep is frequently broken.

When they are very small, their tummies are tiny and they need frequent feedings, with most babies wanting to nurse every 2-4 hours, day and night. Babies past the 3-4 month mark who begin the process of sleep consolidation still usually wake at least a few times to eat during the night. And as babies work on regulating their unique sleep rhythm, some may take two steps forward and one step back (what is referred to as “sleep regression”). Frequent night waking will be a normal part of parenting for almost all families for at least the first year of baby’s life. 

 

Mom and Dad planning for nighttime responsibilities

Plan a head, but stay flexible

Figuring out how to handle night waking as a dynamic duo can help the breastfeeding parent feel more rested, avoid any feelings of resentment, and help the non-breastfeeding parent feel more actively involved in the baby’s care.

It’s great to talk about how you plan on tackling nighttime parenting together before your baby is born, but remember to stay flexible! What you decide on during pregnancy might not work out as well as you imagined it would once your baby is actually here, and a strategy that worked great for the first three months might not make sense for the next three months.

Below are several different ideas for sharing the labor of nightting parenting. Discuss these strategies with your partner and highlight ones that you think will work best for you, and ones that you’d like to remember to try as a backup.

These strategies are specifically aimed at breastfeeding/chestfeeding families, since feeding directly from the breast can make splitting up the baby care workload especially tricky, and since extra consideration must be taken to protecting the breastfeeding parents’ milk supply. 

dad bottle feeds during shared nighttime responsibility

Partner bottle feeding

When I teach breastfeeding classes and the topic of nighttime parenting comes up, couples often tell me that their primary plan is to have the non-breastfeeding parent give the baby a bottle of pumped milk at least once during the night to allow the breastfeeding parent to sleep for a longer stretch. This is a great way to encourage bonding between the non-breastfeeding parent and the baby.

Once breastfeeding has been well established, usually around the 4 week mark, bottles can be safely introduced to a breastfed baby. You may choose to collect milk during the day with a manual pump, like a Haakaa, or use an electric breast pump after a feeding, saving the extra milk for a nighttime bottle or two.

Because milk-producing breasts expect to be drained as frequently as the baby wakes (every 2-4 hours), it may be best for you to try pumping just before you go to bed to stave off engorgement for as long as possible during the night.

Implementing a system for alternating nighttime baby care

Take shifts

Although we’d all love to get a full eight hours of sleep during the night, don’t underestimate how helpful it can be to get four to five hours of uninterrupted sleep. It can be helpful to divide the night into two four hour shifts to facilitate. For example: the first shift can be 9pm-1am, the second shift can be 1am-5am.

Parents can take turns being “on-call” for the baby during their four hour shift, being the one to wake with the baby, take care of the feeding (with the partner offering a bottle on their shift), and see to any other of the baby’s needs.

You can determine who takes what shift by considering your daytime schedules and your personal strengths. If one of you is more of a morning person, you might have an easier time with the second shift, while the night owls might prefer the first shift. You also might want to switch shifts according to how tired you feel day by day.

Some families find that they can get the most out of their four hours of uninterrupted sleep if they sleep in a separate room from the baby and the “on-call” parent, so if you have the space consider designating one of your bedrooms for the sleeping parent.

 Sharing nighttime responsibilities for a well-rested you

What if we don’t want to do bottles?

These ideas look great on paper, but some may end up feeling like the process of bottle feeding is more trouble than it is worth. Pumping can be very cumbersome, and so can preparing and warming bottles in the middle of the night. Engorgement that may come from skipping feedings can be uncomfortable, and require additional middle of the night pumping sessions if the baby is sleeping or full from the bottle and not interested in feeding.

For some parents, the ease and simplicity of feeding directly at the breast is preferable, even if that means more frequent waking for the breastfeeding parent. So next up we have additional strategies for those not interested in bottle feeding.

 Creating a nighttime diaper change schedule

Everything but

For those who find pumping a chore, partners can still be involved in nighttime parenting by helping out with literally everything else related to baby care during the night. Here are some non-feeding related tasks for partners:

  • Getting up to turn on a light if needed 
    If the room requires a bit more light, partners can graciously step in to turn it on, ensuring a well-lit and comfortable environment for both the baby and the breastfeeding parent.
  • Bringing the baby to the breastfeeding parent 
    Partners can be the unsung heroes by ferrying the baby to the breastfeeding parent, ensuring a seamless and swift transfer without disturbing the delicate balance of a peacefully sleeping infant.
  • Bringing the nursing parent water, snacks, or supplies as needed 
    A thoughtful partner can cater to the nutritional needs of the nursing parent by delivering water, snacks, or any necessary supplies, allowing them to focus solely on the precious bonding moment with the baby.
  • Burping the baby
    Taking charge of the post-feeding rituals, partners can expertly handle the task of burping the baby, providing sweet relief for both parent and child and setting the stage for a restful night.
  • Changing diapers
    Partners can tackle the less glamorous but utterly essential duty of changing diapers, contributing to the overall cleanliness and comfort of the baby while sparing the nursing parent from this less-than-pleasant task.
  • Swaddling the baby
    Mastering the art of swaddling, partners can cocoon the baby in a snug and secure wrap, creating a cozy and calming environment that promotes a serene sleep for the little one.
  • Soothing the baby before latching (upset babies struggle to latch well)
    Recognizing the significance of a calm state for successful feeding, partners can lend a helping hand in soothing the baby before latching, ensuring a more seamless and stress-free breastfeeding experience.
  • Soothing the baby back to sleep if they rouse but don’t show hunger cues
    In the event that the baby stirs without displaying hunger cues, partners can take on the role of the sleep whisperer, gently soothing the little one back into peaceful slumber and allowing the entire household to rest undisturbed.
  • Returning the baby to their sleep surface after feeding
    Post-feeding, partners can delicately return the baby to their designated sleep surface, completing the nighttime parenting journey with a touch of finesse and ensuring a tranquil continuation of rest for everyone involved.

dad taking care of the baby at nighttime

Do a dream feed?

Rousing your baby to eat before they fully wake up and display hunger cues is referred to as a “dream feed.” If you offer your baby a dream feed between the hours of 10pm to midnight (around the time you want to head to bed yourself), you may be able to get a longer stretch of uninterrupted sleep up front.

The breastfeeding parent can get ready for bed, and get comfortable in the bed, then have the partner bring the baby to them to nurse either in the side-lying position or sitting up well supported by pillows. When the baby is done nursing, the partner can take the baby, change the diaper if needed, swaddle if needed, and return the baby to their sleeping surface.

 

first morning shift for a nighttime responsibility

First morning shift

Getting a few hours of extra sleep without your baby in the room in the morning can go a long way toward helping you feel more rested. Newborns are notoriously noisy sleepers, and new parents often sleep lightly around them, since they are so attuned to every little movement and sound.

For the first morning shift, one parent can get up in the morning and take charge of the baby, leaving the other partner to sleep in for a few hours. This could take a lot of different forms:

  • If only one parent works outside of the home, they can take the first morning shift, perhaps wearing the baby in a carrier while they get ready for work and make breakfast for the whole family.
  • Taking turns sleeping in on the weekends, with one parent taking the baby out for a walk for an hour or so, leaving the other parent to sleep in a silent house.
  • The partner wakes up first with the baby and leaves the breastfeeding parent to sleep in as long as possible or as long as needed for adequate rest, bringing the baby back to bed to nurse if they show hunger cues, then taking charge of the baby again after the feeding.

 

Top Takeaways:

1) 18 hours or more of your baby’s daily life is spent in a sleep state. If babies sleep so much, why are new parents so notoriously sleep deprived?
  • The dissonance comes from the way that new babies sleep.
  • Babies have much shorter sleep cycles than adults, and they aren’t very good at linking their sleep cycles together (what is called “sleep consolidation”)
  • They wake frequently around the clock. They sleep a lot, but the sleep is frequently broken.
2) If one parent is breastfeeding, it can be difficult to know how to divide the labor of nighttime parenting. Here are a few strategies to try:
  • Partner bottle feeding - Have the non-breastfeeding parent give the baby a bottle of pumped milk at least once during the night to allow the breastfeeding parent to sleep for a longer stretch.
  • Take shifts - Parents can take turns being “on-call” for the baby during their four hour shift, being the one to wake with the baby, take care of the feeding (with the partner offering a bottle on their shift), and see to any other of the baby’s needs
  • Everything but - For those who find pumping a chore, partners can still be involved in nighttime parenting by helping out with literally everything else related to baby care during the night: diapering, burping, soothing, brining the baby to the breastfeeding parent, keeping the breastfeeding parent company
3) Plan a head, but stay flexible!

Figuring out how to handle night waking as a dynamic duo can help the breastfeeding parent feel more rested, avoid any feelings of resentment, and help the non-breastfeeding parent feel more actively involved in the baby’s care.

It’s great to talk about how you plan on tackling nighttime parenting together before your baby is born, but remember to stay flexible! What you decide on during pregnancy might not work out as well as you imagined it would once your baby is actually here, and a strategy that worked great for the first three months might not make sense for the next three months.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sherilee Peters

Sherilee Peters, owner and creator of Baby Nest Birth Boutique. For over 18 years she has been passionate about bringing comfort and healing to moms with natural remedies (a wanna be witch doctor). She is a mother of two, a Birth & Postpartum Doula, a Bradley Method Birth educator and certified placenta specialist in the Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR areas.