Dr Zoe Williams: ‘Doing night shifts prepared me for sleep sacrifices!’


by Stephanie Anthony |

Dr Zoe Williams, GP and TV presenter, recently gave birth to her first child with boyfriend Stuart McKay, a gorgeous little boy called Lisbon. We caught up with her to find out how motherhood is treating her, plus get some advice on sleep.

"Lisbon's now nearly five months old, and I think when you ask me how I’m finding motherhood now, I’d say I'm loving it. But it's I think people often say, is it what you expected? And yes, it is, if I take what I expected and times that by 100! There are both things that are challenging and other things that are amazing. Motherhood is a lot. That's what it is, a lot. But it’s been great, I'm very blessed with an amazing little boy."

One of the first hurdles new parents face is lack of sleep, so how did you cope with that? 

"Yeah, I think a lot of it was I was prepared for that. So my advice to new mums or pregnant people would be to set your expectations for things to be really difficult, the whole prepare for the worst hope for the best! Actually what helped me is having been a doctor and having been through those junior doctor years where you do night shifts, I'm kind used to sacrificing my own sleep and being up through the night looking after patients. So by comparison doing that for your own baby was easier. But the big difference was that you're never going to do more than seven night shifts as a doctor in a row without a day off. It can be the relentlessness of it – there are no days off for new parents!

"But, I think having experienced sleep deprivation before and the things that can happen when you're sleep deprived – you can hallucinate, you don't know what's going on, your mood can be all over the place. So having experienced it previously, and knowing what those feelings are, and being able to recognise them as sleep deprivation was helpful, because obviously, when you’ve just had a baby, there's the sleep deprivation, there's the hormones, there's all the emotions that you're feeling. You're sort of reborn, as a parent and as a new person yourself. So for me being able to identify the symptoms of sleep deprivation, because I felt it before, was quite helpful."

What are the health benefits of getting a good night's sleep?

"Oh, well, they're huge. I think sleep is as important as getting good nutrition, it's as important as exercise. And it's important for every aspect of your health and your wellbeing. Sleep helps support your immune system, improves your mood and your physical health, even your ability to concentrate and form memories, all of these things happen better if you've had a good night's sleep.

"And mood is a big one, we know that lack of sleep or lack of quality of sleep, because that's the other thing with a newborn, it's not only that you have reduced amounts of sleep, and the quality of your sleep is poor as well, you don't sleep deeply, you're just sleeping very light all the time. We know that poor sleep is one of the biggest risk factors for things like depression. So it's inevitable when you have a newborn, that it is going to affect your mood. And I think that's probably the norm."

How much sleep do babies need?

"They say that babies need between on average between 14 and 17 hours, but some babies might need 20 hours, and some might only have 11 or 12. We're always talking about averages when it comes to the sleep requirements, every baby is different.

"We need a lot of sleep when we're very young, and as we get older, as we become an older child, and then eventually an adult, the sleep requirement in terms of time gradually reduces. But also the sleep pattern reduces. Newborn babies will sleep every hour or every couple of hours. Then, as adults we’ll fit all our sleep into one block – although there are lots of benefits being discovered to napping, especially to having an afternoon nap, so if you can have a siesta while your baby is napping that’s brilliant for your sleep health.

"For babies and toddlers too, it's the afternoon nap the afternoon after lunch that's the most important and the most restorative."

Is Lisbon a good sleeper?

"Lisbon's onto three 40 minute naps a day now, he's just at the stage where we kind know what times he’ll need to nap. I haven’t forced his routine, I’ve sort of let him pick when he needs it.

"But we both lie in if we get the opportunity. I asked the universe for a baby that loves to lie in and that loves to sleep, and that's what I got! I’ve been very lucky!"

How does lack of sleep affect parents both mentally and physically?

"Oh, in every way in which you can possibly imagine. And lack of sleep affects different people differently. The top of the list would be mood – depression is very closely linked to poor sleep. Beyond that, your patience level, relationships, how you might behave and respond to somebody – I think every single person can probably identify with being more snappy or not being as patient if you haven't had a good night's sleep. Or if you've had consecutive nights without a good sleep, that can build up.

"Physically, it can affect everything from the types of foods that you're likely to want to eat, you're more likely to crave sweet foods and carbohydrates. And if you're tired, you're less likely to want to exercise and be active. And it can affect things like your immune system, your ability to fight off illness and restore yourself. And this is a major one for people who've just had a baby, who are healing. We know that in that time, when you’ve just had a baby, your body needs to heal, especially if you’ve had a  cesarean section. That's the time when also you're your most sleep deprived, your diet kind of goes out the window, you need protein in your diet to help your body heal, and you're probably less likely to get that and you're more likely to be stressed."

What advice do you have for parents struggling to sleep?

"I think when it comes to sleeping, we have to remember that it's a skill. So create a sleep environment that is conducive to sleep. For an adult, the bedroom should only be for sleep or sex, it shouldn’t be for anything else. This helps your brain recognize it as a place to sleep. Also, like you would with your baby, try have a bedtime wind down routine. No screens, especially screens that emit blue light for an hour before bed, and do something that relaxes you whether it's having a bath, reading a book, lighting a candle, massaging your face with face oils – something that you always do before sleep, because that tells your brain to start preparing and getting ready for sleep."

Do you have any self help tips to fight tiredness?

"I'm a doctor and I'm a new mum, so I am a big fan of coffee! There’s no harm in having a couple of cups of coffee in the morning, if that's what helps you. However, if you're somebody who struggles to get to sleep at night, then bear in mind that can hinder your sleep as caffeine can stay in your immune system for a large number of hours. So if you're somebody who does find it difficult to get to sleep, try and limit the amount of caffeine and have it as early in the day as possible.

"But I think I think a lot of it is about trying to plan and preempt. So especially around times when you know that your sleep might be affected. So if your baby's reaching that stage where they're teething, or if your baby picks up a cold, you're just not going to get as much sleep. In the days around that, just have as much chill time as possible. I know they always say ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ to try and get those afternoon naps in but I don't think I've ever managed to do that. You can also try to get to bed earlier to catch up on sleep, babies tend to go to bed very early. But obviously that’s our opportunity to stay up and have dinner and have a bit of time with your partner. But even if it's one night a week that you just go to bed when the baby goes to bed, and you can catch up on a bit of sleep, that's probably a bit more realistic than doing the sleeping in the day."

Do you and Stuart ever share night time duties?

"I'm lucky that I have a partner who's willing to do that. So we have tried it, but on the two occasions where I've handed over naptime duty and expressed some breastmilk for Lisbon, I've been awake. I just end up listening. And by the time Stuart’s got the bottle warmed up, by that point Lisbon can be really crying, and then it takes longer to get to sleep. But I’d absolutely say give it a go, and if that does work for you, then share the responsibility."

With the clocks changing this weekend, is there anything that parents can do to ease that transition, both for themselves and for their babies?

"I'm not much of a planner, but if you're a planner and you like to plan for things in advance, knowing that the clocks are going to go back (so what was 7am is going to be 6am), you could try from a week beforehand just trying to shift bedtime gradually by 10 minutes or 15 minutes. Then by the time the clocks go back, you're halfway there. If you're not the sort of person who that's going to work for, I think there's a level of acceptance that you won’t get as much sleep! It’s like jet lag for babies – it's temporary, it won't last and it'll sort itself out. Can you get yourself to bed an hour early, so it's not impacting so much on your sleep.

"And don’t forget that all important bedtime routine and sleep environment. A good sleep environment can help your baby sleep better and longer. These days there are loads of amazing gadgets and devices, such as the TommeeTippee Dreammaker, which replicates conditions in the womb. Red light can help stimulate melatonin (the sleep hormone), and pink noise replicates the sounds of inside the womb. Make sure that the sleep space is as cave-like as possible, as well, instigate all those things that can help towards a room being conducive to having the best night's sleep."

Dr Zoe Williams has partnered with Tommee Tippee on the launch of the Dreammaker, a new sleep aid developed for babies by sleep scientists.

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