Feeling Alone? What to Do When Your Partner Won’t Parent During Night Waking

The first time I chatted with Caroline, she shared with me just how hard a time she was having with her baby’s night waking. Like many newborns, her son was waking every two hours each night and, after feeding, changing, settling him, and trying to fall back asleep herself, she was getting less than an hour of uninterrupted sleep before he woke again. Caroline had read up on babies before she gave birth and understood that this was normal and healthy for a newborn, what surprised her, and was making everything seem so much harder, was that her partner was not helping her at night at all. During the daytime hours Caroline’s partner felt like an equal partner in parenting; he bathed and rocked and soothed their baby with ease but, once night fell he went to sleep and was seemingly immune to the cries that roused Caroline through the night.

Caroline’s experience isn’t unique. One of the issues that new moms talk about frequently is a feeling of inequity with nighttime infant care. These feelings and experience can cause all kinds of additional problems. Along with utter exhaustion, a partner who doesn’t pull their weight at night can lead to health issues for mom, relationship frustrations, anxiety about going back to work, or trouble at work. If you’re feeling exhausted about your partner not helping during night waking, check out the ideas below to help you get the help – and rest – that you need!

night waking
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Have a calm, honest talk

While it may seem obvious that your partner should be giving your baby the same level of care you do at night, sometimes partners who haven’t had a lot of exposure to newborns or who don’t have a role model that impressed the importance of being an equal partner don’t know what they should be doing overnight. Sometimes partners who don’t have any leave from work are working under the false assumption that, since they have to get up early, their sleep is more important than that of the mother. Instead of letting resentment build and patterns form, have a conversation with your partner about what they should be doing as soon as you realize there’s an issue.

Be clear about what your partner should do

Sometimes partners don’t help at night because they don’t know how. While it can be frustrating to have to give instructions to someone who should know what they’re doing, it’s worth doing if it gets you what you need. If you’re breastfeeding or pumping, your partner might not understand that they can help at night. So, whether it’s giving the baby a bottle or changing, swaddling, and rocking them after you nurse, tell your partner exactly what they need to do to care for your baby during the nighttime hours.

Set an alarm

While many partners claim nighttime deafness, there is some truth to the fact that they may be heavier sleepers than a mom who’s already tossing and turning. Instead of letting the baby’s cries wake you, note the times your baby usually wakes up and have your partner set an alarm so they’ll wake up for those times, too.


Pull shifts

Instead of switching back and forth or trying to negotiate whose “turn” it is to get up, consider taking shifts so that you can both get an uninterrupted block of sleep. For example, if you tend to go to bed at 10:00 p.m., designate 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. as Partner A’s shift and 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. as Partner B’s shift. Even if you’re breastfeeding, your partner can handle everything related to a night waking except for the actual minutes a baby is at the breast.

Get outside help

If you’ve tried having an open conversation, being explicit about what your partner should do, devising wake-up strategies that will work for your partner, and pulling shifts and your partner still isn’t doing their part at night, it might be time to engage outside help. Outside help might look like your mother or sister coming to help or it might look like a marriage or relationship therapist. Whatever you do, don’t give up on fighting for what you – and your baby – need from your partner at night.

How parents split duties in the early months of a baby’s life can set the tone for how they share (or don’t share) duties for all the years to come. If you’re not able to get what you need from your partner it might be worth reevaluating if they should remain your partner.

As for Caroline, who struggled with her partner not helping at night during the first few weeks of her son’s life, she was able to get the help she needed after splitting the night into shifts and spending her off shift sleeping in the guest room. After a few nights of fully participating in the nighttime care, her partner pulled her aside and apologized for not jumping in sooner. And after doing a few night shifts on his own, he’d begun to realize just how hard she’d been working for weeks.

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Feeling Alone? What to Do When Your Partner Won’t Parent During Night Waking

Julia Pelly has a master's degree in public health and works full time in the field of positive youth development. Julia loves hiking after work, swimming during the summer and taking long, cuddly afternoon naps with her two sons on the weekends. Julia lives in North Carolina, with her husband and two young boys. You can find more of her work at JuliaPelly.com ... More

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