Sleep Awareness Week & Preemie Sleep Challenges

March 2, 2017

The National Sleep Foundation is celebrating its annual Sleep Awareness Week March 6th through March 13th, to raise awareness for the health benefits of sleep and its importance to safety and productivity. If there’s one thing new parents (and parents of preemies) have in common it is lack of sleep. A 2014 study showed that new moms were still sleep deprived after eighteen weeks of giving birth. There are hoards of articles with sleep tips for parents and recommendations for how many hours of sleep babies and toddlers need, but what if they don’t help?

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Having a preemie in the NICU is challenging. If you’re lucky, you’re able to sleep in a recliner or couch near your baby’s isolette, or stay in a parent room. And while it’s comforting to sleep near your baby, hospital sleep is far from restful. I know this because my former 27-weeker, Theo, spent 200 days in the hospital, and I spent most of that time sleeping by his side.

Sleep challenges aren’t left at the hospital, either. Preemie babies have different sleep patterns than full-term infants, and often they have special needs that prohibit them from sleeping through the night, which in turn means the parents don’t sleep through the night either.

Theo came home on a feeding tube and I had to reprogram the machine every four hours with fresh breast milk in addition to pumping. Theo is now two years old, and he still has not slept through the night. He has sleep anxiety which makes bedtime difficult. Because he is underweight and diagnosed as failure to thrive, sleep training was out, as excessive crying leads him to vomit and he needs to keep that nutrition to grow. Our bedtime battles often last hours. Iron deficiency often leads to sleep issues, but even once we corrected his deficiency, there was no change. Our pediatrician prescribed a low dose of melatonin, but that didn’t work either. To add insult to injury, the less he sleeps, the more frequently he has night terrors.

Finally we saw a sleep specialist.

Because Theo spent so much time in the NICU and hospital as we waited for his lungs to grow, he adapted to a sleep schedule that followed his scheduled medicine and vital checks. His current preferred bedtime of 9:30 or 10 p.m. is reflective of when he would fall asleep in the hospital after he received his nightly medicine and care. Our sleep specialist’s solution was to give Theo a later bedtime with the goal of gradually moving it earlier. We also scheduled a sleep study for late spring to make sure there aren’t any other sleep issues. So far the later bedtime has helped him sleep, but it still leaves me exhausted.

The best advice I got while pregnant was to sleep when my baby sleeps. I’m still following that advice years later. On the rare occasion Theo naps (and we’re home), I nap, too. I know that good sleep makes me a better parent.

You can take part in the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Awareness Week Challenge and make the pledge for seven days of better sleep using their tips each night. You can also share your sleep strategies in the comments below.