Other than feeding your baby on a schedule, no other baby topic is more discussed than sleeping. Probably because it seems like the hardest thing in the world for babies to do, but the number one things ALL moms/dads want their babies to do. I know very few people who actually ENJOY waking up in the middle of the night with their babies after the first few months… although there are a few weird few =)
So after posting a big blog on sleeping earlier, I have a few more thoughts to add here.
1. See your baby as an immature adult who needs sleep. The tendency is to view your baby as “a baby.” An alien thing, different from a real person, who operates on different rules. But as soon as you have a toddler, you see what your baby is growing into and it hits you that your baby is just an immature person after all. Look at your toddler who normally sleeps eight hours or so but then misses a good night sleep because they were sick or having nightmares. See how drowsy and irritable they are that next day, and how they need a nap. That is exactly what you have in your baby, in miniature form. They are tired, just as you are, from not sleeping a full night’s sleep. They need your help to get it. And contrary to their behavior, their bodies want it, and it is a reasonable goal for them to reach.
2. Look for the longer stretch. Most newborns come out sleeping a lot but with a predisposition to sleep one longer stretch without waking than others. This longer stretch could be during the day or night, four hours or nine. But as the mom, your job is to identify that longer stretch, finagle it to come out at night, and then stretch it to the needed time length. It is like God’s boost, so find it and work with it. But don’t make the totally-understandable mistake of allowing that stretch during the day. Of course you are sleepy and you want to take a nap, do the groceries, help your toddler, or whatever other normal things are calling for an hour or two of your attention. But do the right thing and keep your newborn on enough of a routine that you wake them up after a three-hour sleep (max) to feed them. If you don’t, you will be robbing yourself of more sleeptime at night. You don’t guarantee a longer stretch at night right away, but there is very little chance that a young baby who has slept five hours in the afternoon will repeat another five hour stretch at night (whereas it is likely they will do five hours at night if they haven’t been allowed to during the day). Work with your baby’s schedule to see if you can get that five-hour stretch from 12am-5am, and you will be leagues ahead to getting a good night sleep soon.
If you ignore the longer stretch in the early days, it can disappear completely. Really try your best to look for it, and if they don’t have it, don’t let your baby go more than four hours from one feed to the next during the day (from 5am to 12am that night). You may see it resurface.
3. Skip the Bedtime Routine. I’m not sure who came up with the idea that babies need a bath before bed, but it wasn’t a mom of a normal newborn. I can’t think of anything that woke my baby up more than a bath. All four of them hated it. At least until they were four or five months old. There was no way I was giving my baby a bath as part of their bedtime routine unless I thought screaming and shivering was somehow going to wear them out so they’d sleep. So I would advise skipping that, as well as all changing clothes, massages, playtimes, and whatever else could possibly make your baby stimulated. Little babies don’t need a routine, they need peace. (Toddlers need a routine because they don’t like surprises or you being in charge.) So do all the bathing and changing clothes earlier in the day, preferably whenever they need to wake up!
4. Feed them. When people say you shouldn’t nurse your baby to sleep, that doesn’t mean you can’t feed them before bedtime. Until they are quite a bit older, most babies want a full tummy to sleep. And even when they are older, most babies want a full tummy in order to go to bed for eight or more hours. (Even many adults like a midnight snack!) So go ahead and nurse your baby before bedtime.
Note: I don’t recommend feeding before a nap unless your baby has been awake for more than two hours or so since his last feeding, or unless they are going to sleep for three hours (not normal). THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST COMMON MISTAKE IN KEEPING A 3 OR 4 HOUR SCHEDULE. On a three or four hour eating routine, you already fed the baby when they last woke up, and then you kept them up for a bit until they were ready for their nap. But if you feed the baby before their nap, you will be creating a one or two hour routine because almost all babies want to eat again when they wake up. Feeding both before and after a nap can definitely affect your milk supply, and then you don’t make enough milk to hold your baby for more than two hours at a time. It is definitely true that your baby will LOOK like he needs to eat when he gets tired. They start crying and sucking when it’s nap time because it’s like a reflex: sucking is the only thing they can do. But use your head. If the baby ate two hours ago or less, they probably don’t need food. They probably need to suck, because sucking is soothing and helps them get to sleep. Babies aren’t dumb—if sucking pacifies them, and they need a nap, they will make that trademark sucking/rooting response. Try skipping the nursing or bottle you’d normally give, and put them down for a nap instead (a pacifier or thumb may be worth a try here). Or, if you have an older baby, try giving a cracker or something else.
Back to the main point: when people say not to nurse your baby to sleep, they don’t mean your baby’s tummy should be empty. They mean you don’t want to nurse them to sleep, expecting that they will fall asleep in your arms and then you will be able to seamlessly transfer them to their crib, blissfully staying in Sleepyland. That probably won’t happen after a month or two, nor is it good to depend on it. The same goes with rocking. If rocking soothes your baby, or makes him sleepy, then rock. But don’t rely on the rocking as virtual Ativan. Help your baby prepare for bed by being calm and fed (and relatively scheduled), and then put him in his crib! Don’t be afraid of his awakeness or fussing, but let him figure out how to fall asleep. Trust me, you will save yourself DAYS of stress if you give your baby this ONE opportunity to learn this while they’re young.
5. Don’t rely on other props. Similar rules apply to pacifiers, vibrators, lullabies, swings, special sleeping bags, or other soothers. Use practically, not out of anxiety. Soothers for the baby, not the baby for soothers.
6. Peaceful environment. If possible, give the baby a room of its own or put it to bed later than siblings so she doesn’t have to deal with other people’s noise when trying to learn how to fall asleep. I realize that space of their own is a luxury for some families, and that’s fine. My first baby had to share our small apartment’s living room. But common sense dictates that a baby will fall asleep better if they have a peaceful (non-stimulating) environment to go to bed in. Make the area dark, warm, and relatively quiet. Actually, it’s probably helpful for babies to learn to fall asleep with some noise so they habituate to your family’s hubbub, but any SUDDEN noise is going to wake up most babies. So children playing outside is fine, or the normal hums of dishwashers and television. But if you know your preschoolers are going to drop toys all over your wood floors near the baby’s room, or you are going to vacuum in a couple minutes, try to do that farther away. Or turn on a white noise fan in the baby’s room so the sounds are not so sharp.
7. Fight the good fight with older babies, but recognize the battle you will have. My friends who have had bad sleepers often gave up on them by the time they are crawling around. I think they expected that if their child wasn’t sleeping/napping well by six months or so, there was no hope. Then they got toddlers who wouldn’t sleep, which was much worse. Sleeping tips will work for older babies, and should be used, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it will be easy. By the time babies are crawling around, or walking, or talking, the game gets harder because their emotions and wills are much stronger (and smarter!). They have already had a history of not enjoying sleep for six or twelve months, and that isn’t going to go away because you stop getting up with them at night, institute some patting, or start a schedule. You should do those things, but you are going to have to be firmer and more distant at bedtimes (i.e. no talking, no games, bribes, or engagement). You don’t have to be cold or punitive, but you do have to be more matter-of-fact… e.g. This is bedtime now, and this is how we do it. I can’t tell you how long it will take for your older baby to catch on… it depends on their temperaments and exactly your mannerisms. I’d say that in a textbook case of you doing all the right things that you’d see progress in three to seven days. But it might take a month for a six month old, or several months for a young toddler.
8. Expect testing as your baby grows. I say “testing,” but really I just mean exceptions. Even a textbook sleeper will have times where he or she needs more growing, or more encouragement, to go/stay asleep. You’re not off-duty just because they’re in bed. (You wish!) Some things that caused my kids to wake up: eating/pooping changes in routine, teething, bad dreams, sickness, sudden noises, vacations, time changes, hotels/Grandparents/visitors, learning to stand up, learning to kick the crib/wall, learning to take off their clothes/diaper, getting their feet stuck in the bars, noise from other siblings, cognitive spurts (i.e. learning to babble, talk, sing, etc.) Some of these things were more annoying than others to deal with, but all of them simply required dealing with the problem (instruction, discipline, or care) and then return to regular sleeping rules. With a day or two of the matter-of-fact Mommy Attitude, they returned to their normal bedtime habits. And the behavior was always the exception rather than the rule. It takes some steel to be firmer with your children concerning sleep, but it pays off because then you know when they are crying in the middle of the night, or getting out of their beds, that they really have a problem. This is pure gold.
9. Only some are real fighters. In that case, rest time is your best weapon. You know the old expression, “You can lead a dog to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Well, you can lead your child to bed, but you can’t make him sleep. But that’s ok. By the time your child is a toddler, he sleeps for himself, but he goes to bed for you. Babies are a little different because they really do need that sleep. And food. But by the time your baby is on 3 or 4 meals a day and they aren’t ruled by their digestive system, they need to be on a sleep schedule that really works for you and your spouse. And if you are diligent with your sleep training, you will find that only a few kids are true fighters. The rest give in. If your child is one of those true fighters—and you will probably see evidence of this fighting in other areas—then combat with rest time. Accommodate her needs a little by not making nap or bedtime extraordinarily long, but give her reasonable and firm limits that she has to be in her bed quietly at a certain time. If I had a really resistant toddler, I might plan 2-3:30 as a roomtime and 8:00 or 8:30pm as bedtime (assuming a wake-up of 7 or 7:30am). And I might say that she could play quietly in her room during naptime as long as I didn’t hear or see her. And I might allow her to be in bed with the lights on for half an hour at bedtime before I came and turned them off myself later. I think this would be more than reasonable, even for a real fighter. But the point is, you want to give the resistant child an opportunity to rest and a challenge to see if sleep might grow on her. If you don’t, she will be deprived of the rest she biologically needs and the chances to change her heart about it. There is no reason why a little child should rule the roost with protest over bed as long as the parents aren’t cruel, punitive, or unreasonable about it. Make the bed and room a nice place to be, and not too overstimulating. And stand firm. Present the drink authoritatively, but don’t worry about forcing it to occur.