I am writing this post because even though I have others on here about sleep training, I recently had a working mom friend whose baby is in daycare ask me what she could do to help her four-month old sleep… knowing that she can’t be around during the day to work on the naptimes (which, IMHO, is the best starting point).
I was a little doubtful that tips alone could help the situation since every day care is different and you don’t know exactly what protocol your little one is following while there. Maybe they are getting too much sleep there, or too little. But my friend’s baby was four months old, a very healthy weight, and still waking up at 2am awake and ready to play. She was also nursing while at home.
So here’s what we did, and it made a huge difference! I’m passing on the love. (These tips also work for stay at home moms.)
1. Put the baby to sleep on its tummy. Sorry, I have to go with this one here. A healthy four month old is perfectly capable of sleeping on his/her tummy. If they can’t stay asleep on their back–i.e. they seem to wake up all the time or can’t get to sleep well in the first place– switch them to their tummy and see if it makes a difference. Sometimes this is all it takes. DO NOT SEND ME HATE/HORROR COMMENTS ABOUT THIS. If your baby has breathing problems, neurological problems, or you just have a weak conscience about this issue, I respect that. Skip this one.
2. Do not let them take a long nap in the evening. Working parents are notoriously tired after their long work day, but allowing Junior to sleep in the evening is totally against your best long term interests. Sacrifice having peace for your dinner time to having peace in your sleep time. If your little one is asleep in the carseat on the way home, let them sleep long enough for you to change your clothes when you get home, get a cup of coffee, whatever, and then wake them up! Try to keep them awake as much as possible before 9pm. They can catnap if necessary, but do not let them sleep more than 45 mins. I used to just sling my little babies around for parts of the evening so if they slept, it was in the noisy kitchen, living room, or while I was doing laundry and bending over them! And the best part is, Dad can help with this segment. Most babies are fussy between 5 and 9 anyway, so just roll with it and keep them with you while they’re fussy. The goal is to put them down around 9 or 9:30 and have them be SOOO GRATEFUL they get to sleep! They can’t do this, however, if they’ve slept from 5-7.
3. Tank them up. If you nurse your baby, nurse them frequently throughout the evening so their belly is totally full by 9 or 9:30pm. You might feel empty, but let them cluster feed anyway so they are really topped off. The goal is to put them down totally full.
4. Get a sensible bedtime routine. Babies usually have lots of structure at daycare. Keep this going at home. If you are going to bathe them, change their clothes, or do any other stimulating thing, do NOT do it before bedtime. Do it earlier in the evening when they’re fussy and you don’t know what to do with them. I repeat: make sure they are changed and pajama’d before the bedtime hour. The worst thing in the world is when your baby is drowsy in the late evening and ready to fall asleep on you–and you are ready to lay them down–but then you remember you forgot to change their diaper, and you feel their pjs and they’ve got a huge wet ball in there already. They’re never going to make it through the night without leaking, but now you have to totally disturb your blissful sleeper. Not good.
I used to do this stuff around 8pm. Then I had time to calm them way down. When it was getting close to magic time, I’d institute some brief calming ritual which signaled to them that bedtime was coming (if they’re weren’t already falling asleep). I used to take my little ones to their room, dim the lights a little, and read them a short bedtime story in the rocker. Something like “Time for Bed” (board book) or “Goodnight Moon.” Sometimes I’d read it twice if they were really awake. Then I would turn on the air purifier (wonderful white noise!) and lay them in their cribs… yes, on their tummy =) They usually went out like a light.
If they fussed, I’d stand over them and pat them gently down the back. Say something soothing like, “shh, shh, it’s time for bed now…” and repeat. Then leave and see if they fall asleep. If they don’t, go back in a couple mins and pat/rub again.
5. Do not disturb the baby once you’ve laid them down. You have groomed them for bed, now it’s time to let that work. Do not pick him/her back up unless they’re crying hard. If they’re fussing, just pat and soothe and repeat. Do not turn lights back on, do not change diapers, do not change clothes…and definitely do NOT take them back out and start playing with them again. Do not bring them back out into the living room din. You want to teach them that nighttime is a calm, quiet time, and nothing to be upset about. Keep things low and quiet, or turn on some soothing lullabye music.
If a baby is crying hard, you can try a pacifier briefly. Even if your baby does not use a pacifier, sometimes giving them an opportunity to suck will calm them down. Most babies will suck ferociously for a min or two, trying to calm down, and then pop out the pacifier all by themselves. You can do this while holding the baby, or while they are on their tummies in the crib. If they pop out the pacifier and can stay calm, bravo. Leave the room and try again. If they immediately start crying again, pop it back in again for another min.
6. Go for the dream feed. One author, Tracy Hogg, suggests giving babies a “dream feed” before you go to bed at night yourself. I found this particularly helpful for my nursing babies. If you’ve laid them down at 9 or 9:30 for bed, go in there right before you go to bed at 11 or whatever, and quietly pick them back up for a quick nighttime nurse. Keep the lights off, everything quiet–just pick up and nurse them while they’re sleeping. They probably won’t take in very much, but it is a good way to make sure they’re topped off before you hit the hay. As long as your baby is getting adequate calories during the day, they don’t need a feeding in the middle of the night, so this dream feed helps get them just a bit extra, so they won’t need to wake up at 2 or 3am. They are big enough to make it through until at least 5am.
7. If your baby does wake up in the middle of the night, keep the rules going. Do not turn on the lights (use a nightlight). Do not change diapers or clothes– unless they have “power pooped”. Do not do anything that would signal to your baby that it’s normal to be awake at this time. Just go, feed, and put them back in their cribs. If they fuss then pat, soothe, whisper (or try the pacifier again for a sec if necessary). You want this to be totally gentle and functional, not disturbing and relational. It’s amazing how easy it is to mix this up though! It’s so natural to turn on the lights, start talking, and make a big deal.
8. Toss the baby monitor. AGAIN, DO NOT SEND ME HATE COMMENTS ABOUT THIS. Obviously if you’re a heavy sleeper or on a different floor than your baby, keep the monitor. But many moms sabotage their baby’s sleeping at night because they wake up when they hear their baby stirring. Then they rush in there too early, before the baby is actually crying. I suppose it makes sense that you would want to rescue your baby before they are really awake and screaming, but I have never ONE TIME heard of this technique working! Baby is fussing or cooing wide awake in their crib, and Mom goes in there. Then baby is so happy to see Mom and now it’s Mom time. This is NOT what you want.
At night, you are not Mom. You are the Police. Toss the monitor, wake up when the baby is crying hard enough to wake you, and don’t go in there unless this is the case. For a healthy four month old, there is no need to rush in there multiple times a night to make sure the baby is still breathing. Or to see why they’re awake and cooing. Or for any other silliness. Remember, nighttime is functional: go in there when the baby needs you, take care of the need, and then go back to bed. Don’t ignore the baby—Police them, and go in there when there’s a shout-out. You are trying to send signals that nighttime is different than daytime… you will attend to all “needs” but not other stuff. Daytime is for friends and bonding, nighttime is for food, sickness, or help.
It’s also ok for them to wake up a little at night. They are small little people. Some babies have a blast in their cribs themselves at 3am, but this doesn’t mean you have to get up and check on it. Even if they’re stirring and fussing a little. I repeat: at night, your job is only food dispenser and sickness attender. It is NOT anything else!!
I apologize if some of this sounds harsh, but I had four babies in a row and I promise these things work on healthy, nutritionally satisfied, non-newborn babies. IT WILL NOT UNBOND THEM TO SLEEP TRAIN THEM. If you are a working mom, you especially need your sleep as soon as your baby is physically able to give it to you. For most babies, this is by the three month mark. Start with these principles and expect some progress within a couple days for a younger baby and 1-2 weeks for an older one.
But what about those babies who just hate to sleep? I had four babies with very different temperaments and patterns, and the principles still worked. I had one baby who hated to sleep and still does, at 8 yrs old now. He was the one whose middle of the night stirrings I had to learn to ignore. He would turn over and have to get comfortable again. He would also initially cry himself to sleep when I put him down, for the first 10 minutes, getting louder and then suddenly just dropping off. I had one baby who had to be woken up for feedings because he would otherwise sleep right through them. He was the one for whom cluster feeding and the dream feed was very important, to make sure he thrived and my milk supply stayed high. I had one baby who came out with his days and nights completely reversed (totally knocked out all day and then wide awake all night). He was the one for whom skipping the evening nap was very important. Then I had another baby who I suppose was relatively textbook/normal. She really responded to the routine of naps during the day and the bedtime routine at night.
So this is hard-won advice!! I am not saying to never feed or attend to your baby in the middle of the night. You always feed and attend if there is crying, and hope the next night goes better. But you want to make efforts to influence/coach. Babies don’t always learn to sleep through on their own, and then you’ll have a toddler who won’t, whose emotional needs are MUCH harder to deal with! If you work when they’re younger, you will avoid this problem. So feed and attend, but always do it in a functional way at night until the nighttime waking up stops. Growth spurts, teething, and sickness will always play a role in a baby needing extra attention and food at night. But this should be the exception not the rule… you should know your baby is teething, not just blame his not sleeping on the fact that he “MUST” be teething!
So good luck!
Additional Note: Regarding the attachment parent comment below, it is my belief that healthy babies are capable of having their emotional and play needs met in the daytime rather than the middle of the night. They should actually be taught this as a good pattern for toddlerhood. They are also physically ready to sleep through as long as they are getting enough calories in the day. My four nursing babies were all able to sleep through the night by 9 months old, from abt 9:30pm (+ dream feed) to 7am. Two of them slept through much sooner, but by 8 or 9 months, everyone was a consistent sleeper. I was glad because they shared rooms! Because of some gentle but consistent training, I never had a hard time at night except for sickness, hotel visits, and the brief phase where they could stand up but not sit back down😉 This made me a better mother during the day!