Safe Sleep for Babies, Any Sleep for New Parents

By Melissa Clepper-Faith, Prevent Child Abuse NC Policy Director
October 26, 2023

It’s a near-universal experience; instead of the cherubic Gerber baby, peacefully sleeping in her crib while parents get their well-deserved rest, you have a wrinkly, red-faced newborn who screams, cries and fusses every night for weeks.  

Dr. Sarah Verbiest, the Director of the Center for Maternal and Infant Health (CMIH) in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill describes the first three months of life as the “fourth trimester,” and indeed, many of the techniques that help babies calm down (swaddling, rocking, shushing) imitate the warm confines of the womb.  

The incessant, high-pitched cries of an unhappy baby get under almost everyone’s skin, and there is evidence that new parents’ brains actually change to respond especially well to these cries. This is good for meeting baby’s needs, but very hard at times for parents and caregivers. 

With my own fussy baby, I remember sitting on the floor, with her cradled in my lap, tears running down my face as I realized that this sleeping newborn would wake up soon and fuss. And fuss, for hours. I was so sleep deprived. Even knowing, as a pediatrician, that my baby was healthy and that this fussy period would soon pass did not help much.  

If you’re a new parent, you’ve already heard the advice: baby should sleep on her back on a firm crib or bassinet mattress; you know that it can be dangerous to sleep with baby in a recliner, or on a sofa, or even in your bed. And these are good and important pieces of advice. But it’s easier to give this advice, however relevant or well-intentioned, than to be that sleep-deprived parent, feeling overwhelmed with a baby who cries and cries for hours. 

Remember, if you are in that spot now, that it’s okay to put that baby down on his back in that safe crib or bassinet and go have a shower or bath, eat a sandwich, call a friend; it’s okay to ask for help. 

The truth is, we are not meant to parent by ourselves in isolation, but rather, in community. Isolation from others is soul-draining — dangerous, even. We are meant to live in communities of interconnection, where everyone eventually both gives help and receives help from others.  

Community members aunties, neighbors, grandparents, friends — can you reach out today to a new parent or caregiver in your circle? Can you offer to bring a casserole, walk with that crying baby, grab some groceries, or just listen? 

And here’s the bigger picture: how can we work together to create more supportive communities? Faith-based organizations, networks of friends, neighborhood centers and family-strengthening programs are working on it.  

Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina guided the co-creation of a statewide network of family resource centers, community led and staffed centers across NC that act as hubs to bring together resources and support for families in their community.  

As you lay your head down to sleep tonight, be thinking about what you would like your supportive, interconnected community to look like and how you can move it closer to becoming so. 

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