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I was told not to fall asleep after my baby was born but it was physically impossible. A baby sleep expert agrees.

Alexandra Frost and her newborn
Courtesy of Alexandra Frost

  • After labor that lasted hours, I was told by a nurse not to fall asleep with my baby. 
  • Dr. Harvey Karp says that baby-friendly hospitals can be unfriendly to new parents. 
  • He recommends sending babies to the nursery so the birthing parent can get some rest. 

After pressing on my contracting, overexerted uterus in the hours after giving birth, the labor and delivery nurse dimmed the lights, then cheerfully reminded me, "Now don't fall asleep with the baby!" as my eyes started to close while nursing.

After at least 28 hours of labor and no epidural because of a preexisting spine condition, my body was shutting down. The nurse's reminder, which was protocol, seemed ridiculous, counterintuitive, and nearly physically impossible. 

I didn't discover that hospitals had nurseries until after my first baby was born seven years ago. I gave birth three more times, and none of my children saw the inside of one. 

Using a hospital nursery has become even more difficult because of the shortage of healthcare staffers during the pandemic. Hospitals have also tried to limit interactions between staff members and patients to try to contain the spread of COVID-19, said Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician and the author of "Happiest Baby on the Block," but the trend of expecting the mom to start round-the-clock care without any recovery rest began well before the pandemic.

Baby-friendly hospitals are not friendly to the birthing parent

In 1991, when the World Health Organization implemented the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, more mothers were encouraged to care for their babies in their rooms to encourage breastfeeding and bonding.

Karp said that after the arduous journey of giving birth, an exhausted parent will often end up falling asleep while holding their baby.

Cuddling with your baby after giving birth may seem natural, but Karp said it has also led to tragedy. "Babies falling out of beds, getting skull fractures, getting shoulder fractures, and there have been a couple of cases where women have rolled onto the babies in the middle of the night and babies have been killed that way," he said. "There's this whole issue — is 'baby friendly' 'mommy friendly?'"

Now, nurses usually go in every hour to make sure moms aren't falling asleep in an effort to prevent newborn falls, he said. Research has found that about 1,600 newborn falls occur each year.

For me, this was straight torture, and three hours of uninterrupted sleep at any point during my hospital stays would have created an entirely different first few days of parenting with each of my four babies.

Parents can demand to get some rest after giving birth

Karp said that birthing parents don't have to accept this system, especially at the expense of their mental and physical well-being and their baby's. 

"Demand the nurse take the baby, and they will reluctantly do that in most places," Karp said, even if they are rocking them at the nursing station or in the NICU for a bit.

Be insistent if you want additional items that your nurse isn't providing, such as pacifiers or formula — it's your right to have those items. You are also allowed to swaddle your baby, and you can bring your preferred blanket or sleep sack from home if you don't think the hospital supports that.

Ask family, friends, and partners to help care for the baby in your hospital room, setting up shifts ahead of time if possible so you can rest. You can also hire postpartum doulas to help in the hospital and at home. Some doulas focus on the "fourth trimester" rather than the birth itself. Major Care's My Fourth is one tool that connects parents to postpartum care and support. 

In the end, I didn't really get a chunk of rest until I made it home, showered, and flopped into my own bed, my baby blues looking a little less daunting after a bit of rest. While parents and babies should be together, the birthing parent also deserves much better, and they will better be able to care for their babies with some sleep and some basic support.

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