Newborns and Nighttime Division of Labor

My husband studies the economics of happiness, among a variety of other economic fields. I never forgot one thing he shared with me years ago — that the first year a couple has a baby is often the least happy year of a couple’s marriage. Sad, but I can see how that can be the case. Because babies require so much care, couples are often exhausted, and they often feel like the other partner isn’t doing his or her fair share. But what is a “fair share” when one partner is employed full time and the other isn’t? What is a “fair share” in the evenings and at night when both partners are home?

Seven weeks ago I gave birth to my third baby, and my husband and I have had to once again navigate baby care. Since I’m not employed right now, I do the majority of  child care during the day while my husband is at work. During evenings and nights however, we often split child care duties. With our other children, our typical routine with the newborn was to go in shifts. For example, he was responsible for the baby from 11pm to 3am, and I was responsible  for the baby from 3am to 7am. While we were on shift, we slept downstairs on the couch with the baby in a bassinet so that the crying baby wouldn’t disturb the other person. My newest baby is so angelic, however, that he already sleeps for 6 or 7 hours at night, so we haven’t had to do the shift method very often.

My husband and I felt like the shift method was a pretty fair way to approach nighttime baby care. But I know other couples do it differently for a variety of reasons. If you have had children, how did you navigate nighttime baby care? Did you think it was fair to both partners? If you have not had children, what do you think would be the best way to approach this?



Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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39 Responses

  1. amelia says:

    yay for your angelic little one! Can’t wait to meet him!

  2. Alisa says:

    I am the one who works full time, but I have made it possible for me to telecommute some days. Our son has some special healthcare needs, so I also go to a couple of therapy appointments a week for him. I also have full responsibility for the child care once I get home. My husband is in the bishopbric and is in graduate school (at night), so I am either always working or on child care duty. It is exhausting sometimes. I think he sees that as fair, since I’m gone during the day, that I be on childcare duty every night.

    For the 1.5 years I was breastfeeding, I was also the one who got up during the night, but the baby to bed, and got up with the baby in the morning before going to work with my trusty Medela Pump in Style. After my son weaned himself, I told DH it was his turn to get up at night and start some mornings. DH just began working 2-3 days a week, plus has early Sunday bishopbric meetings, but it means that 3-4 days a week, he’ll get our son breakfast so I’m not having to fit that in on my way out the door.

  3. April says:

    When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I planned out a fair way to divide this chore given that we are strong proponents of both breastfeeding and gender equity. Our plan was great in theory: he would get the crying baby and diaper her and then bring her to me to feed her. In practice, it hardly ever worked. The baby’s cries would wake me but not him. Moreover, when he did get up, the sleep deprivation seemed to affect him more than me. We gave up and this became my chore. He has other chores that he does better than I do that we have assigned to him, too, so I think things are still mostly equitable.

    • Diane says:

      I think women are more tuned into listening for our babies more than men are.
      There are studies which prove this as well. Mothers on a Labor and Delivery floor often herd their own babies cry above anyone else’ cry.

      One time when I was working as a nanny I had a Saturday off. I was shopping in a store. I had no idea my employers were in the store as well and I herd a cry that sounded familiar. My employers wife later told me that her husband was amazed that I picked my babies cry out(there were other babies in the store).

    • MissRissa says:

      My husband is perfectly willing to get up with the baby at night but I usually hear her first and then have to poke and prod him awake 🙂

  4. ZD Eve says:

    My husband and I never really discussed it, but we naturally fell into a shift pattern, since I’m a night owl, and he’s a morning person. I’d get up with the baby before 3, when I was sleeping more lightly and he was sleeping more deeply. After 3 or 4, I would be sleeping more deeply, and he would be sleeping more lightly, so he’d hear the baby and get up and tend to her while I was still groggily registering the cry. Even though our kids are a little older now, we still tend to do the same thing if they wake up and cry or come wandering in. It’s one way in which our different circadian rhythms have turned out to complement each other nicely.

  5. Diane says:

    “My newest baby is so angelic, however, that he already sleeps for 6 or 7 hours at night, so we haven’t had to do the shift method very often.”

    Congrats on the new baby, but I hope you didn’t jinx yourself by saying how well your baby sleeps,lol

    • ZD Eve says:

      My first slept through the night at about four months. My second didn’t until he was about a year old. I was so eager for him to finally sleep through the night (and quit getting up at 5:30 a.m.), and of course when he did at long last, then my first started into nightmares and night wandering and nighttime individual kitchen adventures. I keep trying to tell myself that someday they’ll be teenagers and impossible to get out of bed.

  6. Mossbloom says:

    We breastfed our babies for the first few weeks so my husband would get up with the baby, change her diaper, and reswaddle her and then I would feed her and put her back to bed. After we switched to bottles, we would take turns; I ended up getting up a little more than him, but not much. With one baby, we were both students, with one we were both working, but he worked 60 hours to my 40, and with the last, I was a SAHM and he was working full-time, but was gone a lot for training (military). So even when I was able to take naps, he would still get up. We never really talked about it, he would just take his turn.

    A couple of months ago, my BIL sent an email to his SILs asking how for tips for helping his wife deal with her lack of sleep (they had a 2yo and a newborn) because he was going to school and would therefore be unable to get up at night. My perspective was that both parents just don’t get much sleep for the first 3 or 4 months and you just have to power through the exhaustion. I asked my husband, and he said that for him, those middle-of-the-night feedings were when he would bond the most with his babies, where there were no distractions and he could just focus and be the most important parent. He said those times were absolutely precious and were completely worth missing a couple of hours. I honestly had no idea he felt like that. For me, it was just groggy and automatic. It was so sweet and it made me appreciate him even more.

  7. Beatrice says:

    Right after my son was born, I was home with him and my husband was working. I got up with him four nights a week and my husband got up with him 3 nights a week (I think his shift was MWF). When my husband got up with him he gave him formula. My son did really well on the mostly breastmilk, some formula diet. I am really glad that we decided to suppliment with formula because it worked out really well with our schedule.

  8. Deborah says:

    I have always taken the middle of the night wake-ups. It’s simply pragmatics, given that she is exclusively breastfed and has never accepted a bottle (heck, I can’t even get her to taste a pacifier — just not interested). The first six months, she slept in our room, and she often just ended up in bed with us for the last few hours of the night.

    And in truth, I kind of love the middle of the night feeding these days and am pretty lucky that, barring illness and teething, she’s a great sleeper. But when she wakes up at 5:30, as she does most mornings, he plays with her while I snooze for an extra 45 minutes on the couch. That extra sleep takes the edge off for me.

  9. M Miles says:

    What Deborah said. However sometimes my husband would bring me the baby in the middle of the night.

  10. Erin says:

    With our first my husband would get up, change the diaper and then I’d get up to breastfeed. Our first would usually dirty a diaper while eating so sometimes I’d change him again or sometimes my husband would get back up and take care of it. But our first slept through the night at 7 weeks, so it quickly became a non-issue. Then we just traded off who got him to sleep, until he started putting himself to sleep at about 4 months (I know, we had it so easy where sleep was concerned).

    We just had our second. This time around I get up and change and feed the baby. Then I wake up my husband who swaddles him (he does a much better job at this than me) and stays up with him until he goes back to sleep. Sometimes this takes a few minutes, other times an hour, so things feel pretty equal to me. We’re doing better at division of labor at other times this time around as well, probably because we’re both very aware that I had PPD last time and my husband is trying to make sure I’m not overwhelmed.

  11. Kirsten says:

    From what I have observed, this generation of fathers is more involved with the nurturing and care of young children. When my daughter was an infant (sigh, 16 years ago) she was very colicky. Each evening, for the first three months of her life, I would walk, dance, whisper, sing to her non-stop for a few hours and then pass her off to my husband. He would continue the process until she finally cried herself out around midnight. When she needed feeding in the night, he would bring her to me. Over the years, it has truly been a joint effort in all things dealing with our kids. My father in law is always amazed at how involved my hubby is with the kids and their activities. I am not. This is how fatherhood should be.

  12. Rixa says:

    I’ve never had amazing sleepers like your baby (at least not at that age!) and I’ve always nursed my kids…so there isn’t much for my husband to do in the night shift. As much as I’d like to be able to sleep, even if he “took over” (doing I’m not sure what), I’d be wide awake anyway. So for us, it makes no sense to have my husband do anything at night. He can’t nurse the baby, and he sleeps through the baby’s cries much more than I ever do.

    I wonder when parents say they split parenting duties 50/50, if they really do so. Without switching to formula–which I am adamantly opposed to for my own children–I simply don’t see how nights can be “equal.” I’m okay with that, because I love nursing my children.

    • TopHat says:

      Rixa- I feel with nursing I get the better end of the deal. I do nursing and he does everything else: changing peed on sheets, getting towels for sick kids, dealing with nightmares, etc. I just lay there and nurse! No getting up for me at all. I’m pretty sure I sleep better than he does on the rough nights.

    • Caroline says:

      “As much as I’d like to be able to sleep, even if he “took over” (doing I’m not sure what), I’d be wide awake anyway.”

      I envision the man giving the baby a bottle of pumped breast milk.

      • Rixa says:

        But I’m not okay giving my baby bottles (worried about the very real possibility of the baby preferring a bottle over the breast). Plus I’d have to find time to pump which is almost impossible with 3 kids. AND I’d also still be awake while he was feeding the baby. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

        Now, my rule is that I only have to deal with the nursing baby at night and for bedtime. Everyone else is my husband’s job! He puts the 2 others to bed and gets up at night if they wake up.

  13. HokieKate says:

    We have a great sleeper that’s 8 months old. On the rare cases she wakes up, usually I go to her because a quick nursing will put her back to sleep.

    But last week she was unusually hungry as she recovered from being sick, but I was too sick to nurse her. So I was pumping bottles for her. Which meant one night, at 4am, when she woke me up with her cries I realized I didn’t have to be the one to go get her! I woke up my husband and had him taker her a bottle. It felt AWESOME to lay in bed and listen to my husband take care of her over the monitor.

    • HokieKate says:

      Oh, and the early few weeks when she slept 12-6, my husband would take care of the baby from when he got home from work until around 10pm, then he’d go to bed and I’d stay up until the baby fell asleep. It was tough, but it worked.

  14. makakona says:

    five kids in and same deal each time. i’m a sahm and he works full-time and often bizarre schedules or hours. but my husband has always insisted that because he’s not around as much as i am and he can’t feed the babies, he’s the one who should get up. when baby wakes up, my husband gets them if they’re not already in the room, changes the diaper, then brings them to me in bed. i’m very lucky that despite having very uneven roles in life, my husband believes we’re equal partners as far as we are able.

  15. Emmaline says:

    Both of our babies were exclusively breastfed for the first six months, and nursed til about a year. I did the middle-of-the-night shifts because I didn’t like pumping more than what I had to do to have milk to cover my teaching absence-from-home times. But my wonderful husband would almost invariably let me sleep in after the last morning feeding at 6 or so. This arrangement was ideal for us – he was well-rested in the morning to play with the kids outside so I could get a 3- or 4-hour stretch after not sleeping well.

    With baby #2, sweet boy though he was he liked to wake up at night even when he didn’t need to nurse. I was studying for qualifying exams at the time and would often finish reading for the night at 1 am or so, then just nurse him back to sleep because it was quicker and generally easier. One night all of that was so overwhelming I just burst into tears in bed with a nursing baby. My husband woke up, took one look at me, and said “He’ll do one nighttime feeding from now on, no more, no excuses. He’s old enough to handle it, and you’re not going to make it if you keep this up. And wake me up if I don’t hear him.” Now, why I needed him to make that call…..maybe I just am too indoctrinated with the “let’s be a good mom” mentality from church.

    We were also both in school for both babies, so we had that luxury of flexible schedules. Now that we’re both working it’ll be interesting to see how it goes for future babies.

  16. Peter says:

    Seems as many definitions of fair as there are people! I have been married twice. With the first I loved getting up and being able to spend one on one time with the baby as I couldn’t during the day so much as I was the one working. I valued it as a time to bond. It was extremely important to me.

    My second wife said all the right things and it started off the same way. However she believes a child should bond with mum most and it really hurt her that the baby was bonding just as much with me. She seemed competitive over it. So she refused to let me do it. At first I insisted I should be allowed to have this precious time, which it was to me and really I didn’t comprehend she was serious about it! So that night I got up first but she got up straight after me and tried to pull the baby from me. Because I resisted by turning away she screamed long and hard at the top of her voice as though a murder was occurring. I was really shocked by this and returned to bed somewhat shaken, hoping the other children hadn’t been woken. It really pained me not to be able to bond with my child as I was used to. I had to wait till she was older. I suppose I only know one way to get my opinion over which is by negotiation and dialogue. I had no defence against this!

    • Caroline says:

      Wow! I’ve never heard of this dynamic before. In my world, both husbands and wives want to get out of getting up with the baby.

      • jks says:

        Maybe your wife was struggling with being a stepmother to kids who obviously had a stronger bond with you. Stepfamilies often have to work through a lot of challenges.
        As to how she handled it, it sounds like this was pretty soon after the baby was born so postpartum hormones might have been a factor. But I believe most of the drama was because you were trying to parent in the exact same way you parented before without understanding that you needed a new shared dynamic.
        It sounds like you two had talked and had dialogue, and you were insisting just as much as she was, in fact, you didn’t think she was serious until she did something drastic.
        Step parenting together can be hard because the natural parent has already made decisions and is raising them a certain way and the step parent wasn’t involved in those decisions, but especially if new children are born, the “step parent” wants to be able to negotiate new shared parenting styles from an equal footing.
        It is obvious to me that I always got up with my baby because my husband didn’t. I let my babies cry it out and learn to go to sleep quite early on and he usually didn’t disagree with this plan. With a different husband, we would have possibly had a very, very different middle of the night routine. Who knows? But most couples figure it out as they go along, together, they don’t have one parent saying “Well, I always parent my child this way.”

      • Peter says:

        I can see where you are coming from based upon the facts and your assumptions. I agree that it is extremely hard for step parents and the reason you gave is certainly one of them. I also am a step parent twice. I agree strongly with you. A new balance was required. I am far more flexible and adaptable than she is and she admits that to her friends. I know how to listen and feel where people are coming from. If anything this puts me at a disadvantage to people who are unwilling or unable to do the same. In this case she was excited at first to have a husband who shared responsibility. It was what she thought she wanted after her first did nothing. THe trigger came because one day I came in from work and she was holding our daughter who had been crying for some considerable time. She handed me her as soon as I had removed my overalls. THe problem was that she stopped crying and started snuggling in and quickly was asleep. I can’t imagine this was anything but luck or as it turned out bad luck! My wife was prone to temper tantrums on anything she didn’t get her way with. THis was a trigger and she said I was not to get up at night ever again. She would scream for hours on things like this. As it was really important to me I insisted I should continue to do what I had been doing for months. Do you really think its unreasonable of me to try and insist on that? Not that insisting on anything is a good way to put it. I objected strongly, but as always it just meant she would scream longer. I learned it would stop about 30 minutes after I said anything conficting her opinion. So usually I wouldn’t say anything. Is it ok for someone to just change the rules on a whim? So, yea, I thought she might change her mind and when she appeared unable to stir I took the opportunity to tend to the baby. I have not said everything I could say about this. Its embarrassing for me as a man to admit that I was bullied by my wife to the point I had pains in my chest each day which appeared half an hour before she came home from work and left the next morning when she left or that I lived in fear of what she might do for months at a time. The guilt I live with now is allowing my children to suffer. My body shook, I lost who I was, I didn’t know what to do, what to say or where to go. Years later I still have nightmares about the whole experience. Sorry, but you really have no idea whats behind this!

      • Peter says:

        P.S. The baby was 5-6 months old when this happened

  17. TopHat says:

    We did dual night time waking because the baby woke both of us up! My husband would get up and bring the baby to me and I would nurse. As the kids get older, we’ve modified it. My husband did the nighttime parenting for our 2 year old when I was pregnant with our second. Right now I do a lot of the nighttime parenting because the kids are a little older (though still nursing). But if a kid gets sick at night or pees the bed, he’s the one getting towels and changing sheets.

  18. When each of our three were newborns, getting up at night was a joint excersize, since we tried for a time using formula with a syninge through a tube at the same time as on the breast. Made it a difficult time, with the milk just not coming in.
    Now, since the two youngest (7 months and 2yrs) are not at all sleeping through the night, we’ve divided the labor by my handling one and her handling the other.
    Now if we could just get the 2yr old to sleep longer than 6 hours a night. 😛

  19. MB says:

    I’d like to insert here that I think that there’s a bit of a booby trap in trying to decide what’s “fair”. Reducing my marriage challenges to making sure that things are “fair” tends to build too much comparing and scrutiny of each other into the relationship my husband and I have. And that gets counterproductive for us.

    So, we’ve tried to rephrase it as a committment about what is most “helpful” to each other rather than what is most “fair”. That’s worked better for us. It does require both parties to be adept at verbal expressions of needs without resorting to demands for fairness and that both be committed to being a helpful sort of person. Not everybody is.

    When my babes were tiny and breastfeeding and I was mostly at home with them and my husband was working 95 hour work weeks, it seemed most helpful in our circumstances for us to have the babe next to the bed and do a lot of co-sleeping. I mastered the art of nursing lying down. If things got too much for me, he was willing to help, but since I was the milk source and he had 16 hours of high precision work ahead of him the next day, it made more sense to me for me to shoulder the night duties.

    When they were no longer nursing and my husband’s work hours were closer to 50, it seemed most helpful for each of us to take the shift that was harder for the other. He can’t get back to sleep if he wakes after 2 am. I feel more exhausted if I am awakened before 1:30 or so. So he’d take care of little ones who woke up between 10 and 2 and I’d take care of the ones who woke up between 2 and 6.

  20. Jessawhy says:

    My babies were pretty good at night, but I still resented having to get up with them (I breastfed and put them right back to sleep). My MiL told me that she and her husband had a deal: She would get up with the babies, and once they finished breastfeeding, her husband got up with them the rest of their lives. At the time, when I was an exhausted new mom, I thought that didn’t seem fair at all, but now that our boys are 4, 6, and 9, it’s looking a lot better.
    My husband now sleeps on the side of the bed next to the door and will often get up twice at night with one or two kids (bathroom, lost his bear, etc). I blissfully sleep right through it 😉

  21. anna says:

    another voice for those who breastfed, whose child wouldn’t take a bottle or a pacifier. so we had no option, really, for who would get up with him, it has always been me. i did resent it at first, it was so exhausting, especially when he would wake up multiple times in one night. i also resented my husband giving up on forcing him to take the bottle, although knowing his personality now it would have been a lot more work, i think, to force him (he’s a stubborn, grudgeholder…hmm i wonder whose child he is?). now he’s about 9 months old and i am used to it, i even enjoy it (it helps that we co sleep and i don’t have to wake up completely, just enough to roll over and let him have a sip). it definitely helps that my husband picks up the slack on everything other than nursing.

  22. Rixa says:

    I should add that I keep my babies in bed with me for at least the first 4-6 months, so there’s really no getting “up” at all. Just roll over, nurse lying down, and go right back to sleep. It would be different if I had to get up out of bed, fetch the baby, put the baby back in the crib, walk back to bed, etc. If I were doing that with a newborn, then I’d definitely get my husband to help out with all of the associated duties!

  23. Cz says:

    Bottle feed. So I sleep unless he has to stay up all night for a test or something. Our oldest is just turned 4 then we have a 2 year old boy and our 1 year old and they all sleep int he bed. So I wake up,with several different little feet in my face. I do not do well on lack of sleep! My husband does a great job getting up with the kids and is just naturally less selfish. 😉

  24. Laura says:

    First – both of ours did bottles so that made what we did possible. 🙂

    With the oldest, he was working and I wasn’t so I did the middle of the night everything. I could nap with her during the day and that seemed to work out well. With our youngest we were both working full time so we each did 3 day shifts – one of us would get up for 3 days and then the other would. (I had read something about the circadian rhythm resetting every 72 hours so I thought we’d try it.) It was wonderful for us. I didn’t even HEAR her the 3 nights he was “on” shift and it made the whole first few months bearable for me.

  25. thelibraryinequality says:

    Am I the only woman who got up with the kids every single time? For the first year, if either of the babies got up during the night, I got up with them. I breastfed the first one, so that made sense, but the second was bottle fed and I still got up every single time. I got up in the morning thirteen days out of fourteen, too. My husband’s excuse was that I was home during the day and could take a nap, while he had to get up early to go to work. He’s a great dad and husband in most ways, but in this way I always felt the division of labor was completely unfair. I thought my experience was fairly common, but it seems like everyone else here had a different one.

  26. jks says:

    I got up with the kids all the time, every time. My husband let me sleep in on weekends, maybe 75% of the time.
    I didn’t really mind this, except on vacations when he didn’t let me sleep in.
    I didn’t want to get up forever, so I made my kids cry it out and they quickly learned to sleep through the night. I still loved to sleep in on weekends and my husband still would let me sleep in for years.
    During my husband’s 5 months of chemo, he would happily lie on the couch and let the kids watch TV so I could sleep in even though the youngest was 11 months so almost never got up in the night. His 5 months of chemo was actually kind of nice for me.
    I miss sleeping in. I’m 41 now and insomnia and inability to go back to sleep, plus busy life means that sleeping in is rare. I get less sleep now. Sleeping until 7 is now a luxury.

    • Naismith says:

      I also had the inability to get back to sleep, starting after the birth of my last child. While doctors initially dismissed it as housewife neurosis, it turned out to be caused by the pregnancies. Having healthy-sized babies in a small frame had ripped open my diaphragm, causing acid reflux that shot straight into my larynx, causing permanent damage that wasn’t discovered until years later when I lost my voice. I didn’t have heartburn that I consciously was aware, but my body was bothered by the reflux, and wouldn’t go back to sleep. It is apparently one of the common reasons for sleep maintenance disorder. Surgery also returned my ability to sleep through the night. If you have the resources to see a sleep specialist, they might be able to help.

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