Every family does this differently and like everything else about parenting, each family needs to figure out what works best for them. But I’m going to make the case here for dads doing half of the nighttime feedings.
The most common argument I hear against this is that dads have to go to work, so they need to be awake and rested.
This implies moms don’t work. Which is false. Ask any mom of a newborn. They may not work outside the home, which means they don’t get paid for the work they do, but they work. They do exhausting, critical work, being solely responsible for the life of a tiny creature that would literally die if mom didn’t watch it, keep it safe, change its diaper, and feed it. Unless your husband is a doctor, or firefighter, or maybe an air traffic controller, they probably don’t have the same responsibility to keep another human being alive all day long. For most men, no one’s going to die if dad is tired at work. If mom falls asleep driving to the grocery store because she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months, that’s a problem. New studies like this one are drawing a solid link between sleep deprivation and an increase in accidents. Of course we don’t want dads falling asleep on their drive to work either, but sharing the nighttime feedings in a smart way can help everyone get more solid sleep.
Some people argue that moms can nap during the day and dads can’t. That may be true (though it wasn’t for me), but it’s still not enough. Napping and short bursts of sleep are not enough to combat the sleep deprivation caused by getting up with the baby multiple times a night for months on end.
And of course, if mom is already back at work, the argument for dads getting up half the time just gets stronger. Maybe you think dad’s job is more important than mom’s even when mom works outside the home, or you think his work is more important because he makes more money. Or maybe you simply think feeding babies is woman’s work (breastfeeding or not). If that’s the case, I ask that you take a second to think about why we tend to value men’s work more than women’s, and ask yourself if it’s possible women are slotted into less “important” work because so many of them take a step back when it’s time to raise children. I’m convinced there is a chicken and egg problem here that can be addressed by men stepping up to do things like half the nighttime feedings, and giving their wives a leg up on being able to do “important” work too.
To combat sleep deprivation, my husband and I found that 4 hours was the magic number. We needed at least one 4-hour stretch of uninterrupted sleep in order to not be a total zombie, so we arranged our schedules with that goal in mind for each of us.
When our kids were first born, they woke up many times during the night, so we took shifts. My husband is a night owl so he took the first shift, and often just waited to go to bed until after that first feeding was done so that his sleep wasn’t interrupted. I would go to bed early (9pm if possible) knowing I wasn’t on duty until around 2 am. When the nighttime feedings decreased I got to sleep longer and longer, and eventually the feedings went down to one a night. At that point we took turns – so every other night one of us got a full night’s sleep. Glorious.
We ran our schedule this way while I was on maternity leave and my husband was at work, and continued to do this when I returned to work and he took paternity leave. I got to experience what it felt like to be up in the middle of the night with a hungry baby and still have to get up and “go to work” the next day. Whether my job was taking care of my baby all day, or going to meetings at Microsoft, my ability to get up during the night to feed the baby didn’t change just because my daytime job did.
There were many benefits to this arrangement beyond both of us getting some solid stretches of sleep. My husband still talks fondly of the bonding he did with our sons during those late night feedings. I know I have incredibly fond memories of my feeding time with both kids, and I’m glad he has those too. He liked to watch scary movies in nightly installments in the dark in the middle of the night and freak himself out. And just like with paternity leave, it allowed him to feel competent in his ability to feed our sons, change them, and rock them back to sleep all on his own.
Another reason some families have mom do all the nighttime feedings is because she’s breastfeeding. This doesn’t have to be a barrier. We started our sons on bottles as soon as breastfeeding was well established, about a week after each of our kids were born. This gave us lots of time to sort out a pumping routine and learn how to store/use frozen breast milk before I went back to work. Matt remembers feeling great relief when we got this all sorted out because it meant that he had the power to care for our sons on his own without being dependent on me, including during those nighttime feedings so I could get some rest too. And it gave me freedom to be away for more than a couple of hours at a time during the day as well. It was liberating for both of us, and something that all breastfeeding families should think about even if mom isn’t returning to work.
Because of this pumping/bottle feeding routine, by the time our sons went to daycare when they were around 6 months old they were well established bottle users so there was no added difficulty during the daycare transition. By then I was also an experienced pumper so there wasn’t a learning curve for me when I returned to work, either. Taking the step early on to allow people other than me to care for our infants opened up more ways for me to get help and support along the way and through my transition back to work.
I think some moms also take on all the nighttime feedings because they don’t want to give up a portion of motherhood that they feel is their responsibility, or even their right. I understand this, I truly do. Whether it’s nature or nurture, I did feel like there was an expectation from others and from within me for me to do these feeding because it’s the mom’s job, and I was letting my husband take away something that was rightly mine, or worse, I was shirking a duty. I got over it. Parenting is big, and hard, and exhausting, and I didn’t have to prove I was superwoman. Getting help – getting sleep(!) – made me a better mom. And my husband getting that time to take care of his sons in such a basic way made him a better dad.
I also believe that men taking on jobs that are traditionally considered “women’s work” is the only way women will eventually gain true equality. If women are going to move into the “male arena” in the business world, it’s a mistake to assume they can do that on equal footing and still also do all of the traditionally “female” jobs at home at the same time. If you believe women should stay home and take care of family and men should work outside the home, this blog may not be for you. But if you think the world will be a better place if both men and women hold jobs equally outside the home, then it’s only fair that men take on some “women’s work” while women take on some “men’s work”. Many studies right now show that although many more women hold jobs outside the home than 40 years ago, or are even the primary breadwinner now, women still do the majority of the housework and childcare (Japan, Britain, Canada, USA). This is not a path to success for women. Women can’t have it all because right now that seems to mean women have to do it all. If you believe women can do “men’s work” then you’re doing a huge disservice to men to think that they can’t do traditionally female jobs. Men need to Lean In at home to give the women they love the chance to find equal footing in our larger society.