As I begin typing this post, Darcy is squawking herself awake from a rather crappy and very short nap, so I am clearly an expert on this topic and you should heed my every word.
Before I get going here, I just want to start with this: we all have our own approaches, the same things don’t work for every mom/baby/family, what works for me may not work for you (and vice versa!), and I hope we can all play nice, okay? I think we’ve all probably heard moms get a little nasty sometimes when talking about this (and similar) topic(s), so let’s all just agree to be kind and respectful and supportive of each other and our parenting choices. If you have something mean to say, feel free to say it in your head. Not in my comments section.
Now that we’ve got that part out of the way, shall we talk baby sleep? I’m convinced there is nothing on earth—NOTHING, I say—more frustrating and exasperating and emotionally/physically exhausting than trying to figure out baby sleep—how to make it happen. How to make more of it happen. How to make it happen at the times of day/night when you want it to happen.
Before anyone comments on the deathly toys in the crib—I know, I know, they shouldn’t be in there with her. But she loves them. So there you have it. The sleep sack Darcy is wearing here is the Merino Kids Organic Cotton Sleep Sack, sent as a gift for her by Merino Kids. When I first opened the package, I kind of laughed at how outrageously long it is, but now that we’ve used it a while, I actually really love it (and love that it has plenty of room for her to grow! I doubt we’ll ever have to replace it, either because she’s outgrown it or because it wears out—it is very high-quality and well-made). We’ve always used sleep sacks for the kids in lieu of blankets, and have a stash of the inexpensive long-sleeved fleece versions, which are quite pilly and yucky-looking after being handed down through 2 babies so far, so I’m thrilled to have a replacement that is so lovely. The fabric on this one is beautifully soft and high-quality, and although it’s a heavier material, it’s very breathable and has been perfect during the warm weather we’ve had lately.
After talking with a lot of other young mothers, it seems that many babies figure out how to sleep through the night on their own. I guess they just do it all by themselves? These miracle genius babies go to bed at night and don’t wake up until morning and mom doesn’t have to do much of anything to help them figure out how to sleep all night and that’s that? Hmm. That sounds nice. My babies don’t do that. They both had to be forced to sleep through the night. It seems like some babies learn how to do this quite nicely all on their own, and some need to be taught how to sleep through the night. My babies have definitely been the second kind.
I’ve read baby sleep books. I’ve read so so so many baby sleep books. I’m not going to sit here and list them all because A) since I read them all in a sleep-deprived zombie-mother postpartum haze, I doubt I can even recall all the titles, and B) only one book really made a difference for us, so I’ll focus on that one. We tried all the sweet and gentle approaches with no results whatsoever. I’m not saying they don’t work for anyone, but they absolutely didn’t work for us. With some of these very ‘nice’ sleep approaches, the situation even got worse—less sleep, more nighttime wakings, more fussing at bedtime than before. And despite my best efforts at establishing good sleep routines from day one, both Forrest and Darcy followed a really unfortunate pattern of actually getting slowly but steadily worse at nighttime sleep over their first few months. Very exasperating—I don’t know whether to blame myself for doing something fundamentally wrong from the start, or whether my uterus just doesn’t know how to gestate a quality sleeper.
The book that finally made a world of difference for us (and, I should add, out of all the many books I read, this was the only book that really helped matters at all) was Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber. I worry that this will sound like some sort of sponsored thing if I rave about it too much—rest assured, Dr. Ferber has no idea who I am, although if I ever meet him, I fully intend to kiss that man on the mouth.
The basic theory behind the book is simple and straightforward (and, in my opinion, probably exactly what our grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents and everyone who didn’t try to raise babies in our digital age of overbearing, hypercritical, and overly judgmental parenting did): your baby needs to learn to sleep without you. There. Not much to it, right? If they wake up in the night (which they will, because this is normal and natural and everyone wakes up in the night, even you, even if you don’t realize it), they need to have the skills and practice of putting themselves back to sleep without intervention from you. So if you are the lucky parent of babies like mine who were born without those skills (and never figured them out), you have to give them the opportunity to learn those skills. And sadly, this often means there will be some crying. Maybe a little crying, maybe a lot of crying. Either way, it will be sad and hard for both of you, but for me and my babies, it was a necessary evil to teach them the skills they needed in order to give everyone in the family a good night’s sleep.
Step-by-step, here’s what we did (for both babies):
1) Up until 4ish months? Survival mode, folks. Do what it takes to get through that seemingly never-ending sleep-deprived newborn stage. I swear to you, I did my darnedest to try and set good habits during this stage and it never seemed to make an ounce of difference. (Which isn’t to say one shouldn’t try . . . just that my babies don’t seem to understand how sleep works.)
2) I have heard that 6 months is a good age to begin sleep training. I couldn’t make it that far. Between 4 and 5 months with both babies, I hit my breaking point and just went gung-ho into sleep training. Maybe waiting longer is better. I couldn’t do it.
3) Establish a bedtime routine. In our house, this means taking a bath, putting on lotion, getting Darcy into a clean diaper and jammies and zipping her up in a cozy sleep sack, and nursing in the rocking chair. (Forrest was bottle-fed; otherwise, his routine was the same at this age.) I claim that the kids’ bedtime is 7, but it usually ends up being closer to 7:30. (Forrest usually gets up between 6 and 6:30, and Darcy gets up between 7 and 7:30 in the morning.)
4) Lay baby down while she is drowsy but still awake. The key is that she has to be falling asleep on her own, in the same circumstances that she’ll find herself in when she wakes up in the night (ie, not in my arms, not nursing, not being rocked, etc.). So when she is sleepy and maybe looking like she’s close to drifting off, but definitely still awake, lay her down.
5) Put in earplugs, because it’s about to get ugly. Ferber recommends checking in at intervals to reassure yourself and baby that everything is okay . . . but don’t go in there and put baby to sleep. I would go in, give her a kiss, rub her belly for a moment, talk to her, etc., but leave while she was still awake. The howling starts up stronger than ever as soon as I leave, but the point of returning to her room isn’t to comfort her to sleep. It’s just to reassure both of you that you’re still there, you still love her, and she’ll survive, but she has to do this part on her own.
6) When baby wakes up in the night, do the same thing—check in periodically, but don’t help baby fall back asleep. Just offer a bit of comfort and leave while baby is still awake. These first few nights will be loooooooooooooong.
7) For naps, follow an abbreviated bedtime routine (for us, it is simply putting baby in a comfy sleep sack and nursing before laying her down). If baby hasn’t fallen asleep within 30 minutes, get her up and try again later.
In my experience, the first night is brutal, the second night is slightly better, the third night slightly better still, and within about a week they are more or less good to go! They will still have the occasional ‘off’ night, and traveling or sickness might mess with things, but once they have learned the necessary skills to soothe themselves and put themselves to sleep without much help from you, it isn’t too tough to get them back into proper sleep mode if they should get out of their normal sleep routine for whatever reason.
A few more thoughts:
- Forrest and Darcy both sleep better with fans running rather noisily in the room. I think my family probably snickers quietly whenever we all get together and I show up lugging a gigantic box fan for the kids to sleep next to, but hey, it helps! And I love that the white noise blocks household noise—I don’t feel like I have to tiptoe around the house while they’re asleep since the fan covers up any noise I might make.
- Darcy really seems to benefit, sleep-wise, from having toys in the crib with her. I know you’re not supposed to have anything in the crib with baby, but man, she loves having snuggly toys to cuddle with. Whenever I peek in at her in the night or during naps, she is always snuggling with something—she really seems to find those toys comforting. And when she wakes in the night, I have sometimes heard her laughing and playing with her toys for a while before falling asleep again without crying. So I guess this is something you’ll have to consider and decide on your own, with the knowledge that extra items like toys in the crib are not recommended, but may be helpful if your baby is a snuggler or might entertain herself and put herself back to sleep if she has something in there to keep her occupied. My babies also both love(d) watching themselves in those crib mirrors that tie onto the crib slats (a little entertainment value with less risk, since it secures to the crib).
- When I started sleep training Forrest, I took away the pacifier. My logic was that he didn’t yet have the coordination to put it back in his mouth during the night, so I didn’t want him to rely on it to fall asleep since he might wake in the night and need it to fall back asleep, but wouldn’t be able to replace it himself. He very quickly switched to sucking his fingers—a habit that continues to this day, and I suppose time will tell if this was a bad trade-off. I did the same for Darcy, but reintroduced the paci after maybe a month or two of sleep training since she seemed to really miss it, and it hasn’t been a problem (maybe because she was a little older when I gave the paci at nights, and she has the dexterity to put it in her mouth when she wakes?). I clip one paci to her sleep sack (making sure to clip it quite low so it just barely reaches her mouth—I don’t want slack in the ribbon that could be a strangulation hazard), drop another paci in the crib, and she also has one stuffed animal with a paci attached. When I peek in at her at night, she’s just as likely to be sucking any of the three paci options, and sometimes none of them.
- I found nighttime feedings a little tricky to navigate . . . I think 1 nighttime feeding for a 4/5 month old is probably reasonable, so I continued to feed both Forrest and Darcy just once in the night while sleep training. Forrest dropped this feeding on his own within a few weeks of beginning sleep training—yay! Darcy did not—boo. When she was about 6 months old (and pushing the 90th percentile for height and weight, leading me to believe a nighttime feeding was more preference/habit than necessity), I cut that feeding out and just let her cry when she woke expecting to eat. This is also when I reintroduced the pacifier for her at night—she seemed to not mind too much, and really only cried one or two nights, and not for a very long time. I suppose the paci satisfied her when she wanted to eat.
All right. That’s all I’ve got for you today. I’d love to hear your experience with sleep training—what worked or didn’t work for you and your kids? It’s such a tricky, guilt-ridden, difficult part of parenting babies, and I’m always interested in learning how other moms handle it.