Kerryn Boogaard Kerryn Boogaard
Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
Zoe Bingley-Pullin Zoe Bingley-Pullin

Shift work, baby and sleep:

Shift work offers flexibility but it can be tough to get used to - especially for, and with, a newborn.
By Carolines' Angels
Date: April 08 2013
Editor Rating:

Shift work certainly has some perks, but anyone who has done shift work would agree it is hard. I did it for 25 years.

Staying awake when your body tells you it should normally be asleep; eating when you are not hungry; and watching everyone else go off to a party on the weekend - when you are off to work. This creates added stress to earning a living.

Having a newborn in your home is challenging enough, but when one of you is continuing to do shift work with a newborn, it adds an even bigger dimension to this challenge.

Baby's needs

The trick is to start your new baby on a reasonable and age appropriate routine to set them into a pattern each day, so they feed and sleep around the same time each day. This enhances their feeding and sleeping from an early age. For example:

*  Try waking your baby everyday at 7am if they are not already awake and offer them a milk feed

*  Burp them, change their nappy and have a little playtime with them.

*  At around an hour of being awake, help settle them to sleep.

*  Allow them to sleep for 1.5-2 hours, as this will mean that they are waking close to three hours since their last milk feed.

*  Repeat this each day, so that you will start to see your baby’s routine start to occur.

A great way to follow this progress is with a Caroline’s Angels DiaryBy logging your baby’s feed and sleep behaviour into a diary, it gives an objective view of how your baby’s day and night is going.


The other advantage of doing this is it allows for more than one carer of a baby to follow the progress of your baby and understand what your baby does when they are not there. 

As your baby grows older and you may need to return to paid work, it will allow your partner to help understand your baby’s requirements for a smooth transition to caring for your baby while you return to work.

Many homes with shift workers can have an erratic routine for the baby in the home. If one parent is not getting home until late tonight, the baby is being kept up or the baby will be asleep and the working partner returns home to pick up the baby and play with them as they have not seen them all day. This disrupts the pattern of the baby and makes sleeping harder for them, as some nights they are going to bed early and other nights they are going to bed late.  Their body does not get a chance to establish a strong sense of feeling tired and ready to accept sleep.

Make a plan

If this applies to you, sit with your partner and make a plan.

*  Decide on the wake and sleep time for your baby.

*  If the shift-working partner is not home at baby’s sleep time, allow the baby to keep sleeping.

*  The shift-working partner may choose to go and sit in the baby’s sleep space and watch them, gently stroke them and just be close.

*  It might be possible for the shift-working partner to feed the baby with a bottle of expressed milk to allow them access to caring for the baby during the night.

*  Work out how you can operate as a team to give both parents access to the baby while helping each other.

As your baby starts to have regular nap times in the day, this will help your shift-working partner. They may return home from work at 7am after a night shift. If they are aware that the baby will roughly need a nap around 8am, they might be happy to stay awake and help with the baby while you perhaps have a shower or breakfast.

Shift worker's needs

Depending upon the type of shift work that your partner does, it may well mean that your partner needs to operate at work safely with maximum sleep to enable this.

Quite often on night shifts, it is hard enough to stay awake to work: perhaps it is your first night on at work, or your fourth and you have only managed a few hours quality sleep during the day.

You may be expected to operate heavy machinery or provide life saving work such as nurses, midwives, paramedics and make life-saving decisions, such as doctors.  

While you are having a meeting with your partner, as the shift worker, point out how necessary it is for you to sleep and how well you are coping at work.

*  For some people they adapt to shift work and less sleep much easier than others.

*  If you feel that you need a block of reasonable sleep to enable you to safely work, negotiate this with your partner.

*  It may well be that you need to sleep some of the day or night in another room, and you cannot care for a young baby at this time.

*  In return you may offer your partner an afternoon sleep when you do return from work, or on your days off, be able to offer more support.

*  As the partner of a shift worker, establish a support network, especially if they are at work in the evening or overnight. This is quite often the toughest part of the 24-hour day. A friend or relative that can support you through this time is invaluable.

*  Have plenty of fresh food on hand, so the temptation to rely on takeaway food is lessened. By both of you eating well with simple fresh food, stress will be easier to cope with. 

*  Be realistic with your social expectations. Just keep things as simple as possible allowing for rest when your baby is settled.

*  Communication is the key point. Be open and speak regularly together with how you are both going.  Re-assess your plans to optimise the best outcome for all members of the family.

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