Sleep is an elusive beast when you’re a new parent. Kind of like Big Foot. Or the Loch Ness Monster. Or aliens. You want it. You need it. You’ve seen it before (at least you think you have), so you’re pretty sure it’s a real thing. You just can’t figure out how to get your hands on it again.
Never fear. I am one of those assholes whose babies, at almost four months, were peacefully slumbering for eight to twelve hours each night, so I’m going to tell you how to sleep train your baby. And by “your baby,” I really mean “my baby” because no two babies are alike. But maybe some of these tips will work for you. You never know.
Before I get into it, I feel the need to say that I’m aware some people are totally against sleep training their infants and will accuse me of being The Worst Mother Ever for suggesting this is a possibility or that anyone do it. This post is not for those people. If you are one of those people, might as well close the browser window now. No amount of mom-bashing me is going to un-sleep-train my babies, and as I’ve had my last, it would be pointless to try to convince me of my evil ways.
I have three boys who were all sleep trained. Not one of them has tried to murder me in the night (yet) for being so uncaring, nor have they submitted a list of ways I have ruined them for life and insisted I start saving for therapy in their adult years. I’ll concede, it’s early, so this may be coming. I’ll let you know if and when it does.
In the meantime, if you’re desperate for a little shut-eye (because when you’re a new parent, you also have to survive to take care of your little one, and many times sleep is the best way to do that), here are some steps you can take to maybe sleep train your child too:
Forget about it until baby weighs at least 11 pounds. I read somewhere that babies cannot sleep through the night (And “through the night” means five to six hours — sometimes more if you’re lucky. Sorry if you were expecting a higher number. It just doesn’t happen that way for a while.) until they weigh at least 11 pounds. I wish I could cite this source for you, but as I was reading it in a zombie-like state brought on by serious lack of sleep after my last was born, I have no clue where I read it. But I did. That much I can tell you.
My first two boys were born at a whopping 8 lb, 9 oz and 9 lb, 8 oz respectively, so they reached the 11-pound milestone crazy early. But my youngest? He was born three weeks early at just 7 lb, 12 oz, which for most people sounds like a pretty normal weight. For us, that’s practically still just an egg and sperm. Consequently, he did not sleep through the night nearly as quickly as his older brothers, which meant neither did I. The good news is, there were ways (see below) to prepare him for when he was capable of sleeping through the night.
Provide baby with enough calories to satisfy her appetite during the day. I’ve heard conflicting theories on this one. Some doctors recommend the opposite, suggesting stretching out baby’s feedings so that there is more time between each one, thus priming baby to sleep for longer intervals at night. I did not find this effective. When baby’s hungry, she’s hungry. So I took the opposite approach.
I fed him on command, including in the middle of the night, until eventually, I noticed he would sleep for longer periods without waking up at night. I did not rouse him to feed him or force food down his throat (after the first month, of course). I let him tell me when it was time. And then one day around two months, he started sleeping without needing any food at all in the night. Really. It just sort of happened.
If you’re over breastfeeding or worried about not producing enough to satisfy baby’s cravings, consider supplementing with formula. I can see the sanctimommies’ labias tangling as I type. That’s fine. Tangle away. Truth is, some babies need more than what breast milk alone can provide, and plainly speaking, formula-fed babies go longer between feedings than strictly breastfed babies.
Full disclosure: all my babies were formula fed. It was my personal choice. But to be clear, I’m not recommending anyone stop breastfeeding or put their babies on formula solely for the purpose of getting them to sleep through the night. The medical community agrees that breast milk is best, and I am not one to argue with the expertise of professionals who devote their lives to researching this stuff. I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about.
I’m simply stating that if you can’t breastfeed another minute, it’s OK. And if you worry that baby may not be getting as much nutrition as she needs, formula is a better option than nothing at all. A happy, adequately-fed, healthy baby sleeps longer than a hungry one. Period.
Put baby down while still awake. This isn’t really doable when they’re brand new, but round about two months, you can start putting them down for bed while they’re still somewhat alert. I’m not talking about foregoing the evening snuggles in the rocking chair. Instead, I’m saying just be sure baby is somewhat aware of being put to bed so it becomes part of her routine. When it’s part of her routine, she’ll come to expect and love it.
Swaddle baby. If baby tolerates it, swaddle her. My middle son hated being swaddled, so we gave that up relatively quickly. But my oldest loved it, and my youngest took to it after we gave it another go in an effort to help him sleep through his digestive issues. Not only does it help them feel warm and secure, but it also signals to them that it’s time for sleep. Soon enough, they’ll associate the baby burrito with bedtime, adding yet another something-something to their sleepytime routine.
Let noise happen. I remember, back before we had kids, visiting people who did and having to be very, very quiet lest we wake the baby. It seemed like an awful way to live, this navigating one’s own home as if it were littered with land mines. My husband and I vowed to never tiptoe around our future children. Besides, that sort of thing would never fly with our extended family. We like to travel together, cramming upwards of 10 people in a single, tiny cabin. There was no way to make sure everybody remained silent so the baby could sleep.
So when my oldest was born, we went about our daily lives, carting him up to the cramped family cottage and allowing people to chat and play music to the extent their hearts desired. And you know what? He slept just fine. As did my middle son. As does my youngest.
With two older boys in the house, silence is a foreign concept, so we never require our other children or company to walk about in hushed voices for fear they might disturb the little one. Which is why noise rarely wakes him, if at all. In fact, he seems to love sleeping through it. Best part? He can also sleep when it’s silent. Sound does not determine this child’s sleeping habits. And if you avoid treating noise as your baby’s sleep nemesis, this just might work for you as well.
(CAUTION: Aesthetically-appealing visuals are another story. We bought a fake light-up fish aquarium thingy for him to gaze at before falling asleep. One night the timer went off before he had dozed, and we promptly heard an angry screech coming from his room. My husband ran in to see what was the matter. He turned the thing back on, and instantly, our son was happy again. Needless to say, we may be carting a fake light-up fish aquarium with us everywhere we go for the next 15 years or more. Proceed with this sort of thing at your own risk.)
Allow baby to learn to self-soothe. Before any anti-cry-it-out people get excited, hear me out. When I say “self-soothe,” I do not mean “allow to scream and cry for hours on end or until baby pukes from overexertion.” I mean when baby wakes up in the night, give her a minute to settle back into place and fall back asleep. Many times, babies are just waking up because that’s what humans do. You and I and yes, even babies, sometimes wake up in the night, stir a bit, and then collect ourselves before falling back into slumber.
When she does wake, give baby a once-over to make sure she hasn’t peed through her diaper or isn’t so hot she’s sweating, for example, and if everything looks as it did when you put her down, give her a second to settle back in. Often, my babies would do this, and believe me, they will let you know if it’s something more than restlessness. If after a few minutes baby starts to wail, that’s your cue to swoop in for the rescue. But if she calms down after a few grunts and a couple squeaks, let your head fall back on that pillow. You’ve got a date with the Sandman for at least another hour.
Change nighttime diapers in dark lighting and only when necessary. Again, I’m not talking about stumbling about in the pitch black or letting baby develop diaper rash from sitting in her own waste for hours on end. Instead, I’m talking about minimizing the number of times you interrupt baby’s quiet time.
If you’re a person with a brain, you can tell when baby must have her diaper changed and when it isn’t necessary. If you stick your nose down there and don’t smell anything noteworthy (pee or poop), she’s probably good for a while longer. But if you sense she needs one, try to do it without shining a spotlight on her in the process. The more sleep-friendly the environment is, the more likely she will be to fall back asleep and stay that way when you’re finished.
Use your instincts. All tips aside, don’t forget that you were blessed with this amazing thing called parent instinct. Your gut will guide you when it comes to all things baby. Yes, your mind has to pull its weight too, but your instincts will tell you if something does or does not work for your unique baby. And that’s the first thing you should listen to when it comes to anything child-related.
There you go. Sleep training tips that may or may not work from someone with no expertise to her name other than being a three-time mom. Just remember that every baby is different, and whether your baby is sleeping through the night or not, as long as you’re doing your best, you’re rocking that shit.
Oh, and one more thing:
May the sleep be with you. Eventually.