Children are one of the most amazing paradoxes the universe has ever come up with. A child can make you want to cry from joy in one minute and fear in the next. They can deprive you of so much sleep that you begin to think they’re doing it on purpose and then, with a flutter of the eyes, make you feel like you can fly. Every new thing they do is simultaneously awesome and terrifying, like the first time they climb your bookcase—followed by the quick realization that they just climbed up a bookcase.
For all the joy that newborns can bring, there’s no question that they can have a deleterious effect on parents’ productivity and health due to the unpredictability of their schedules, the resultant lack of sleep, and the fear of new responsibilities involved in keeping a bowling-ball-sized human alive. I should know—I’m the proud father of three boys. Benjamin is 19 months old, and Sebastien and Lucas are 9 weeks old (yes, they’re twins, and yes, my wife is a superhero). Having three kids under the age of 1 and half has taught me a few things about maintaining sanity and productivity in the face of one of life’s greatest challenges, and it’s put my role as a productivity and wellness expert to the test like nothing else has.
Here I’m going to share four of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered and some of the strategies I’ve learned to help overcome them.
Staying Productive as a New Parent
Most newborns need to eat at least every three hours around the clock. The problem is that by the time you’re done feeding and burping them, as many as two hours have gone by and the three-hour mark is just a short 60 minutes away. Anything a person can do to optimize their sleep under these circumstances will go a long way.
There are tons of methods out there for getting better sleep, including sleep timing, supplements such as melatonin, and sleep cycle tracking—the trouble is, none of these take into account the fickleness of a baby’s sleep/wake schedule. But I’ve found that one strategy works for me no matter how erratic the babies’ sleep cycle is: limiting exposure to blue light.
Blue lights are all around us in the form of televisions, iPads, smart phones, and most non-incandescent lighting, and they reduce our bodies’ ability to produce melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) by around 30 percent. Dubious bargain: trading sleep for Leno and Letterman. Basner M, Dinges DF. Sleep, 2009, Jul.;32(6):0161-8105. Avoiding blue lights allows me to fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep. While it’s obviously impossible to keep all appliances turned off at all times, there’s a simple solution: Purchase a pair of blue-light-blocking sunglasses. I wear the glasses for an hour before going to sleep and put them on again before turning on any lights each time I wake up to feed or assist my wife in feeding the baby. The result is that I get deeper sleep in less time and getting up in the middle of the night doesn’t fully wake up my body, allowing me to fall back to sleep more easily.
I honestly can’t remember the last meal during which I sat down to eat. It seems I always have a baby in one arm or my wife and I have only 15 minutes to eat, clean up the house, walk the dogs, and answer emails. But challenging as it may be, maintaining healthy nutrition is the key to fueling any activity—including caretaking.
Challenging as it may be, maintaining healthy nutrition is the key to fueling any activity—including caretaking.
I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to eat healthy and efficiently is to include as much good fat in my diet as possible. Foods like avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, grass-fed beef, pastured egg yolks, and even heritage-farmed bacon satisfy my body and mind. By consuming healthy fats, I feel better, think more clearly, and have lasting energy—even if I’m not able to eat again for several hours because somebody doesn’t want to stop crying . Metabolism of polyunsaturated fatty acids and ketogenesis: an emerging connection. Cunnane SC. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids, 2004, Sep.;70(3):0952-3278.
Pretty much everything about having a newborn is a source of stress, which can sap parents of their energy and mental health. As a parent, it’s natural to feel fear around everything that happens to your child and everything they do. Are they pooping too often or not often enough? Do they have reflux or is it just gas? Did you put the diaper on too tight? Are they hot or cold? It never, ever ends. We all need some way to cope, but who has time for yoga, meditation, or an hour with a therapist?
I’ve found that Heart Rate Variability Training (HRV) is a great way to induce relaxation responses in the body in a minimal amount of time. As we go throughout our days, our hearts change rhythm constantly. This is a good thing—our bodies need to be adaptable to whatever the day throws at us (climbing stairs, running from an oncoming car, yoga class, etc.). But people who have endured years of unprocessed stress tend to display lower heart rate variability. That’s where HRV comes in: The practice helps retrain a body to maintain its resilience during stressful situations.
I use an easy tool in order to practice HRV: Azumio Stress Doctor is a cheap iPhone app that uses the phone’s built-in camera to measure the person’s heart rate and prompts users to match their breathing with the rhythm of that beat. The goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling the user’s body to relax. With this simple practice, I feel as if I get the benefits of about an hour of meditation in just five minutes, which dramatically improves my ability to handle stress.
When you’re taking care of children, it’s possible to reach a point of tiredness that you didn’t think existed. Your mind feels like mush, and you lack the motivation to do anything other than sleep and spend time with your children. This is a situation that calls for some serious delegating. I’ve found that a virtual assistant is my new best friend and personal savior. I use Fancy Hands, which costs as little as $25/month. Using this program, I can delegate work tasks that I couldn’t get to during a given day and even personal tasks such as finding and ordering the best car seat. Simply sending the email to assign the task gives me a sense of relief.
Another great option for maintaining productivity is working in short spurts. My favorite technique is the Pomodoro Technique, which involves getting 25 minutes of work done at a time and then taking a five-minute break. Each time I complete a 25-minute period, I mark an X down somewhere (a piece of paper or a computer document work well). At the end of the day, I use the number of X’s as a barometer for what I’ve accomplished and what I want to do the next day. Getting work done in small chunks helps me stay on track, while each successful period of work motivates me to complete even more.
Finally, I’ve found that it helps to embrace the exhaustion. In fact, being tired might even have its upsides: Numerous studies have shown that tiredness may help us be more creative because we feel less inhibited. Half of the posts on my blog, LessDoing.com, were written at 3:00 in the morning with a baby on my chest. In my opinion, that’s the best of both worlds.
Important note: These are the strategies that have worked for me; not everyone will have the same results. It’s always a good idea to consult a professional if you’re struggling with physical or mental health issues as a result of the stress of caring for newborns.
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