There’s nothing more peaceful and sweet than a sleeping baby, right? After three kids, Mark and I have learned that there’s also nothing that can eat at your ear drums and mess with your head like a screaming baby who will not sleep! Sleep is one of those things that can mark a parent with a new child. It becomes an obsession. Something you talk about over dinner, on line at the grocery store, with your dog walker: Ferber, swaddle, sleep cycle, REM… a not-so-cool parental lingo.
We were lucky to have friends who tipped us off to the idea that babies don’t, in fact, know diddly about sleep and you, as the parent and presumably the one in charge have to teach them how to sleep. Obviously, for the first 6 weeks, a baby will sleep. And sleep. And sleep some more. But right around 6 weeks, time to earn your sleeping stripes and get down to the business of creating some good sleep habits.
Before we had Eleanor, I explored various perspectives on ‘sleep training’ and the one that ultimately became my sleep bible was Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth. Here’s what I liked about it: it felt intuitive, it made sense, and it seemed to touch upon all the little hiccups that we experienced as Eleanor grew older.
There will be moments when you will be prisoner to the sleep. The sleep will OWN you. And you will feel like a chump because you can’t meet your friends for brunch because Baby has to nap. You will be tempted to throw Baby in the stroller for a nap en route to brunch. You will want to take the long way so Baby can sleep in her carseat coming home from brunch. You will justify your decision because Baby fell asleep half way through your eggs benedict at brunch so that’s a nap, right?
BUT… and there is a big but**, 12 months later you will be SO glad you gave up brunch when you have people coming over for dinner and your child goes right to sleep at bedtime leaving you free to enjoy the party. You will be thrilled when you go on vacation, and your child is able to sleep despite the unfamiliar environment. You will be euphoric when bedtime starts at 7, and you are sitting on your couch watching Wheel of Fortune with a Sauvignon Blanc at 7:30. Most of all, you will have happy, focused children because they are getting enough sleep.
I have a few disclaimers before I go into the sleep schtick that Mark and I have settled into for our kids.
- All kids are wildly different: some kids will sleep more than others, HOWEVER, all kids need you to be their sleep-whisperer… they cannot do it without you.
- We are not experts. I listen and I skim books and I ask friends, but I have no training, no expertise, no background.
- This is HARD. There will be times at 4 a.m. when you go to a dark place. Make sure the people around you have drunk the same sleep training koolaid as you; I’m talking spouses, nannies, babysitters, parents, inlaws… the Weissbluth book is called HABITS for a reason.
Without further ado, here’s our CliffsNotes on sleep training:
1. Right around 4 weeks, I start keeping a sleep log. This allows me to keep track of how much sleep Baby is getting, but also whether there are any patterns forming in her sleep times. I.e. does she have her best morning naps when she goes back down 90 minutes after waking up? Does she sleep longer at night when she’s had a short 3rd nap in the afternoon?
2. In general, if Baby has been awake for 2 hours, time for a nap no matter what. Here’s where each child is different as some will need to go back down sooner, but anything more than 2 hours is probably too long and your child will be too tired to fall asleep. I know… this seems wildly counterintuitive, but trust me… you can tell when your child is so tired and upset that she just can’t settle down and go to sleep. Rested kids are better sleepers.
3. Again, this is only based on our three children, but until they were at least 4 months old, we swaddled the everloving bejeezus out of them. With all of them, we went through a few days of self doubt when that little arm would work it’s way out and we’d wonder whether they didn’t like the swaddle… but if their arm could work its way out, then we quickly realized we weren’t swaddling tight enough. We’re BIG fans of the miracle blanket. It’s a straight jacket for babies and they love it. So far, Martha’s the only one who Houdini’d her way out of this, but we doubled up and that kept her contained.
4. Good sleep does not mean silently to sleep. Crying is part of the deal. If you’ve just fed your baby, their diaper is dry, their room is warm and they’re crying… the only other thing they need is sleep. Eleanor was our only pacifier-taking child so we knew this would settle her; we’d let her cry for 5 minutes, go in and replace her pacifier silently. Wait 7 minutes, go in and silently replace. Wait 9 minutes, replace. So on and so on. Eventually she learned to soothe herself and we didn’t need to keep going in. Oliver and Martha didn’t take a pacifier so getting them to sleep was a little trickier, but it was essentially the same process. Let them cry for 5 minutes, and then go peak in to see that they hadn’t kicked lose from the swaddle or wedged themselves into a corner. We tried really hard not to pick them up and rock them to sleep.
5. Create good sleep habits and routines earlier than you’d think. Like when they’re 6 weeks old. Find something that works for you and stick with it. A simple 1-2-3 before bed each and every night. Ours is: Diaper change. Read a story. Swaddle/ sleep sack/ tuck into bed and kiss goodnight. Sound machine turned on and we’re out. Eleanor and Oliver get longer stories so bedtime takes maybe 15 minutes, but Martha’s is closer to 5 minutes. That’s it. Sure, there are nights when we linger, but in general this is what happens every night at around the same time (7:15). (Incidentally, when the children were really little, the read-aloud was sometimes People Magazine or whatever I was reading on my kindle…make it work for you!)
Which leads me to my final point.
6. Once they reached 2-3 months of age, all sleeping happened in a crib. For all our kids. Sleep in a crib meant longer, good solid naps vs. the fleeting, restless sleep that a child gets in a stroller, in a car, even in a swing. (We’ve broken our own rules a bunch here, but it always seems like our kids are happiest when they’ve had an uninterrupted nap in their own bed.) The exclusive crib sleep wasn’t always easy, and there are DEFInitely times when I wish my kids could fall asleep anywhere. It meant saying no to birthday parties, spending days at a time inside because nap schedules didn’t overlap, going on 30 minute outings because it was the only free time we had. But the inconvenience doesn’t last forever. I promise. Having children who put themselves to sleep is worth all these concessions.
Lessons Learned Along the Way:
Babies have shorter sleep cycles than we do: often around 45 minutes. We had friends who shared this little gem with us early on and it saved us many a frustrated nap. It’s remarkably common for children to wake up between sleep cycles; a well meaning parent might rush in and prevent that baby from ever learning how to put themselves back to sleep. Just to make sure Baby isn’t waking up between cycles, we always waited a good 5-10 minutes before going in to get her; many times, Baby would go back to sleep for another 30-60 minutes. And not for nothing, that nap time is win-win!
Oliver has been our hardest to sleep train. I called out a full SOS with him around 5 months. Solution? He was starving… we started him on cereal. I’ve read that cereal has nothing to do with sleep, but that wasn’t the case for Mr. 95th percentile.
Once our pediatrician signed off on the kids’ weight gain, we aimed to have their longest stretch of sleep happen at night. I.e. we didn’t wake them up for feedings and fed on demand. At some point, we stopped feeding at night all together to break Baby of that habit as well; my memory’s a little foggy, but I remember a distinct point when it was clear that my night-time feedings were a quick nibble and nothing substantial… that point meant no more midnight snacks- maybe 4 months?
As with anything to do with kids, the very second you exhale and feel like you’ve got something figured out, they change things up on you. Sleep training is no exception. Whether it’s teething or daylight savings or a bad cold, there will be many a hiccup in all of this. Hang in there. Turn off your baby monitor to avoid hearing the crying for the first 15 minutes after you put them down. Reach out to friends. Reward yourself when Baby has her first great nap.
It’s worth it. Pinky swear!