I have little useful newborn advice beyond this: split shifts could save your life

Baby reaches for a birthday cake while lying on a quilt
Freddie, the cake wanter. 

Freddie turned three months old this week. We had cake. So far, we've had cake for each of his monthly birthdays. We've had a lot of cake. Don't judge our decision to have this much cake. But anyway, the three-month milestone means we've officially survived the so-called "Fourth Trimester."

As I understand it, the whole idea behind the fourth trimester is that human babies are nature's weirdos. Other animal babies emerge from the womb with some basic semblance of how to be what they're supposed to be. For example, a baby giraffe, like the one just born at the Toronto Zoo, basically knows how to be a giraffe from the word go. Just look at this little guy.

That baby giraffe is way smaller than a full-size giraffe, sure, but seems to have the giraffe basics down: walking, eating, rubbing against things with a very long neck, etc.

Human babies, though, emerge with only the faintest idea of how to be a human. I'll always remember the look Freddie gave us when he was born. It was just a bewildered, wide-eyed expression. He looked like he had no idea how to even begin to comprehend what had just happened to him. He was not at all prepared to be born — to exist in this world.

The next few days confirmed it. Freddie didn't know shit. He had to learn basic biological functions, like pooping, sleeping, even – seriously — breathing. Did you know babies don't quite understand how to breathe at first? They'll just stop breathing for stretches of ten seconds or so. Then they'll realize, oh wait, breathing is important. So new parents get to watch as their children stop breathing, then suddenly look like they're hyperventilating. (It's technically called periodic breathing.) And they'll do this repeatedly. It's fantastic and not at all completely terrifying.

People peddling the fourth-trimester theory suggest that full-term babies are actually born about three months premature. And so those first three months fresh from the womb are a time when babies are still obtaining the basic necessities of survival. For parents, the advice goes, it's basically all about getting through it. Forget about relating to your kid on a person-to-person level — your kid isn't even a fully-baked human yet. Your baby is functioning at the level of a Tamagotchi — one that can occasionally just glitch out and reboot itself.

We were told to expect lots of crying, terribly inconsistent sleep patterns, and maybe something called "Colic" where the baby just screams like a banshee endlessly.

We didn't get much of that, really. We've got a unicorn baby. But there were certainly days, especially early on, when the sleep came in random bursts, making for lots of nighttime feeds and diaper changes.  

And while I am loath to give out parenting advice given my very narrow range of experience, those first few weeks were challenging enough that I feel qualified to give out one tiny piece of wisdom about a strategy that worked for us to make those days (and nights) bearable.

Here it is: do split shifts.

Seriously: Do. Split. Shifts.

This may sound obvious — it did to us — but I've been surprised by how many people we've told about this strategy that had never even considered it.

It works just like shifts at a factory job. Before the baby is born, both partners pick either the early shift or the late shift for the overnight period. Each parent then becomes the primary caregiver for that period.

To sum it up, you operate like the sheepdogs from the old Looney Tunes cartoons.

Two cartoon sheepdogs clocking out and in for the day

Erin and I divvied things up based on our natural sleep schedules. I've always gone to bed late, so I took the first shift, from about 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. Erin's always been more of a morning person, so she was responsible for about 3 a.m. to 10 a.m.

This made sure both of us had a seven-hour window in which to sleep, uninterrupted.

I assumed all couples did some version of this, but I have since learned that many do not. Instead, other couples choose chaos. Maybe they both get up every time the baby wakes up. Or maybe it just falls on whoever happens to hear the baby cry first. Which would never work for us, because I sleep so deeply I would never hear the baby cry first. Erin would rightfully resent the hell out of me.

Admittedly, there are a few major factors that worked in our favour for the split shift strategy. Not all of them will be available for all parents.

  • First, there are two of us. Not always a given, of course. I suppose the split shift strategy could be challenged too if both parents have very similar circadian rhythms. If neither of you is really capable of staying up past midnight, you could have a bad time with this. My advice is to go back in time and factor this into your dating decisions. Morning people should not date morning people. Night owls shouldn't date night owls. These rules are harsh but fair. Trust me.
  • Your method of feeding matters. We're formula feeding — more on that later, in a post that will probably get me some angry glares — which makes split shifts a cinch. If you're combo feeding, with a mix of formula and breastmilk, it also should be doable. Breastfeeding parents who can pump could also make split shifts work. If you're exclusively breastfeeding, it gets trickier, but I've heard of some parents who still found the split shift approach beneficial even if it meant the non-breastfeeding parent had to cart the kid into the bedroom every few hours for a feeding. Again, it seems better than the chaotic alternative where both partners just try to sleep on the same schedule.
  • It's vital that both parents have a work schedule that can accommodate this. If one parent is working nine-to-five out of the house soon after the birth, it's hard to imagine split shifts working all that well. I took six weeks away from almost all work so I could handle a schedule where I  stayed up to 3 a.m. (or later) every night and slept in to (at least) 10 a.m. I've since been very slowly easing back into more work-related things, but I'm nowhere near full time. If you have the means, I highly recommend it. But I know this very often isn't doable in a country where the public policy approach to parental leave is to point at new parents and laugh at them. (Looking at you, USA.) And even in Canada, parental leave requires a level of financial privilege not everyone can have. It should be better.

So there are some pretty important caveats, admittedly. Some of them will mean the split shift strategy just isn't possible for some families. But for you, it might be. And, if it is, you should strongly consider it.

I mostly credit Freddie for the fact that we had a relatively easy go of things in the first few weeks. He's a great kid. Very chill. But the split shift strategy was the other major factor. All three of us got some sleep.

And there were unexpected benefits too. There were moments on my late-night shifts that I'll never forget. Spending those early morning hours after midnight with Freddie in my arms, watching classic sitcoms and old movies with the volume low. Telling him nonsense stories. Reading Goodnight Moon to his bewildered face. Looking out the window into the dark, as the January snow fell, feeling like it was just the two of us awake, my son and I. Good moments. Quiet moments. Midnight moments. Moments made better by knowing that I'd soon get my turn to sleep, when my shift was over.