I’ve been wondering how I could contribute to starting the third world war. I decided that blogging about infant sleep training would be a good next step. I mean, if there is anything that can get some mommas’ panties in a bunch, it’s talking about sleep training or breastfeeding philosophies.
But seriously. Here’s my disclaimer. These are the sleep principles that have “worked” for us with 2 children. “Worked” meaning they slept long stretches (10-12 hours) at night early on (by 12-15 weeks old), and have basically remained good sleepers for infant and toddlerhood. We’re doing the same things with our 3rd and hoping for the best. If you don’t want to do these things, don’t. This is a matter of infant sleep, not life and death. Not right and wrong. It’s just sleep. You are the parent of your kid(s), and I’m the parent of mine. To each her own! While to me, infant sleep feels like life and death (because I do not function well on long periods of sleep deprivation), it is in fact, just, sleep.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get practical.
The primary goal of this post is encouraging moms of babies in their efforts to get baby to sleep. Because sleep is awesome. A well rested baby is a happier baby, and a well rested mom is a happier mom. (And all the sleep-deprived-coffee-addict mommas said AMEN!) This post is long. I erred on the side of tons of details, so that it would be as clear & helpful as possible. If you have input on things that worked for your family or questions about any of this, please feel free to chime in respectfully in the comments below.
In the Hospital
We’ve never had a babe in the NICU, so I can’t speak to that situation. My experience is only with babies born full-term, without complications. For the first few days after baby is born, before my milk comes in, I just let the baby nurse whenever she wants to stimulate the milk coming in. In the hospital, the nurses advise trying to nurse every 3 (ish) hours. If baby is still sleeping at the 3 hour mark, they encourage you to try and wake baby to attempt nursing. If baby is too sleepy, no worries. Just try again later. If you need help nursing, get it!! Nursing can be hard & discouraging! I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it with my first if we hadn’t gone to a local lactation consultant for a few weeks. Our second nursed like a champ early on. Our 3rd was really hard for the first 2-3 days home, then he started to get the hang of it. Get help if you need it.
The reason I went on and on about nursing was because, whether you’re nursing or bottle feeding, the main thing to think about the first few weeks is getting baby full each time he eats (once your milk comes in if you’re nursing). This doesn’t sound like it’s related to infant sleep, but it’s actually the biggest thing! Or, at least the first big thing.
A hormone in the milk makes baby sleepy, but if he doesn’t get full, then he’ll want to eat all day & all night long. (Plus then he’s not getting the hind milk, which is more nutritious.) If you have a newborn (or have ever had one), you know how ridiculously sleepy they are. Almost every baby’s natural inclination is to suck for a few minutes, then fall asleep. Then, 15 or 30 or 45 minutes later, they’ll get fussy and want to eat again. It can make you feel like you are literally feeding the baby all day.
If you can get baby to stay awake and eat as much as possible each time he eats, he’ll go longer in between feedings, and thus sleep longer in between feedings.
I do everything I can to keep baby awake each time he eats. It’s hard at first when they’re so so sleepy!! Some ideas for waking your sleepy newborn up:
- Tickle feet and tummy
- Pull them back a little but not off the breast, which triggers their suck reflex to keep going
- Compress breast to make more milk flow
- If they doze off and unlatch, I take them off and wake them up.
- Take baby’s clothes off
- Lay them down on the floor or couch; they’ll likely startle themselves awake.
- Diaper change! I try to save a diaper change for in between sides when they’re halfway through because it seems to be the most successful trick.
- Addie was so sleepy I had to rub her with a wet cold baby wipe to wake!! #meanmom
Even though the baby may only actually nurse for 10-15 min on each side, the whole process usually takes me about 45 minutes each time depending on how focused I am at keeping him awake and how sleepy he is. It’s time consuming, but I plan for feeding the baby full feedings to be my main priority for the first 4 weeks or so. I nap in between feedings if I can and let everything else wait. The baby will start to be more awake and eat faster by about 4-6 weeks old. Around 6-8 weeks, the full-feeding thing will become worth it because they’ll start sleeping longer at night!
All that to say- the main thing I do for the first few weeks is try to have baby get a full feeding each time he nurses instead of just snacking at the boob all day. This regulates his metabolism, which helps him establish sleep & wake cycles.
How do you know if baby is full? I don’t have a great answer to this. It’s kind of trial and error. But, if baby wakes up screaming and hungry after 45 minutes, you know he didn’t get full. Newborns are able to go 2.5-3 hrs in from one feeding start to the next if they get a full tummy. That’s the schedule NICU and hospital nursery nurses use too, so I’m not just randomly making this up. And it brings me to my next point…
so so so sleepy.
Wake The Sleeping Baby (during the day)
The other thing I do from day 1 is wake baby up to eat every 2.5 – 3 hours during the day. (“Daytime” can be whatever 12 hours you decide. 6am – 6 pm | 7-7 | 7:30-7:30 | 8-8. Whatever works for you with your schedule & lifestyle.)
Every 3 hours means 3 hours in between the start of one feeding and the start of the next. So, if he starts eating at 7am, ideally you wake them to start the next one between 9:30 & 10 am. If the baby wakes up earlier than the 3 hour mark, that’s fine- I feed him and reset my 3 hrs from the time he started that feeding. It probably goes without saying, but I always feed a hungry baby. Always.
If baby doesn’t wake up by the 3 hour mark, wake him up and try to get him to eat. If he just won’t wake up, try again 30 minutes later. If you don’t wake baby during the day, he will wake up more at night. Unless there’s a medical reason (like concern about baby’s weight gain), I do not wake the baby at night.
If you fed the baby every 3 hours, an example of the feedings for a day might be: 7 am, 10 am, 1 pm, 4 pm, 7 pm… Get at least 5 hours in those 12 hours of day time. Remember, if your baby wakes up more often and is acting hungry, feed him more often.
Nurse when they WAKE UP (not to sleep)
After the first few weeks, your baby will likely start to become slightly more alert. Like I said in the previous section, I wake our babes to eat every 3 hours during the day, and I try to get them as full as possible each feeding. Which means, the first thing they do when they wake up is eat a full feeding. This means that when they are tired, they do not need to be nursed to sleep because they already ate.
Initially, the baby is so sleepy that they basically semi-wake up to eat, and then go right back to sleep until the next time they wake up to eat. But, as baby starts to become more alert and awake, they will be able to stay awake for a few minutes after eating. Then they will get tired for a “nap.” I put “nap” in quotes, because they still basically nap all the time the first couple months.
So, what a sample pattern of a day looks like for our 4-8 week old baby is:
- wake up & nurse/bottle (takes 30-ish minutes to eat)
- stay awake for 10-15 minutes more
- go to sleep for a 2-ish hour nap
- [repeat all day long]
I feed the baby when he wakes up rather than when he is going to sleep so that the baby is not dependent on me to get to sleep, and so that the baby is awake enough to get full during his feeding.
Pediatrician Approved Fussing & Self Soothing
Once a baby outgrows his initial sleep-all-day-every-day-any-where-newborn-ness, he gets “put down” for a nap as much as possible. When Addie (our first) was 10 days old, we asked our pediatrician, “how do we get her to sleep without holding her?” It just seemed like she would only sleep if one of us was holding her, which made for some looonnnggg nights.
Our pediatrician who was at least 65 and had raised 13 kids of his own said: “Turn a heater on the bathroom, and make the bathtub water warm. Give her a warm bath in a warm bathroom. You should be sweating. That’s how warm it should be. Then, give her a fresh diaper and clean jammies. Feed her, burp her, swaddle her and put her down in bed. Leave the room. If she cries, let her cry. It’ll air out her lungs and she won’t last more than a minute or 2. She’ll be fine. This is her new bedtime routine.”
So, we tried it. And the 45 seconds our precious-first-born-angel-baby cried were the longest 45 seconds of my life to that point. And then, she stopped. She cried so hard for 45 seconds and stopped so quickly that I went in to make sure she was still breathing. Sure enough – sleeping like a baby.
Y’all. I cannot tell you how freeing that permission from our first pediatrician has been. I feel forever indebted to that man. We have subsequently let all our kids “fuss” themselves to sleep from the very beginning and it works probably 90% of the time. Sometimes, they don’t fuss or cry at all. Sometimes, they get held through naps or nap in the car or whatever. But, the goal is for baby to get himself to sleep sometimes, starting when they’re super duper tiny.
Here’s the thing, new babies grunt, squeak, cough, sneeze, and cry. And while they sometimes cry to tell you “I’m hungry,” or “I’m poopy,” or, “I’m gassy,” they also cry to just cry and burn off some steam and go to sleep. If your baby’s tummy is full (see previous section), she’s burped, she’s been awake for 10-30 minutes (depending on the baby), and her diaper is dry … then fussy usually means tired. 3-5 minutes of fussing will most likely tire your newborn out and put her right to sleep. If it doesn’t, go pick her up, calm her down, rock and sway and sing a song or make a “shhh” sound until she gets very sleepy and calm again, and then put her down. If she starts crying again, just give her a minute. She might get herself to sleep. If not, rock or soothe her until she’s asleep and then try the self-soothing again for the next nap.
Each of our kids has varied at how much they fuss to fall asleep. I can’t really remember how much our first cried. Our second was sooooo mellow. She barely cried at all. Ever. It was weird. Our third is now 7 weeks, and has stopped crying for most of his naps. For the past 2 weeks, he’s cried for 5-ish minutes before almost all of his naps. Then, all of the sudden, one day, he seemed to just “get it,” and he gets himself to sleep without crying for most naps, although not always.
Random tip – we’ve swaddled all our kids for the first few months with these velcro swaddlers, and it seems to really help them not startle themselves awake too much. It also seems like even though they fight it by wiggling a lot when swaddled, they actually sleep much more soundly.
Pay Attention to Tired Cues
Overtired babies have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. It seems like the longer you keep your kids up, the harder they should sleep, but for some reason, it’s actually the opposite. For Elliot (our 7 week old), he starts to make cute baby noises and have a couple big yawns. If I happen to be paying attention and notice him yawning, and can get him swaddled and down for a nap within a minute or two of his yawns, he falls asleep without crying. If I wait until he starts getting fussier, then he tends to cry himself to sleep.
I would suggest paying particular attention to your baby’s tired cues and “awake times” for a couple days. If baby wakes at 7:00 am, eats for 30 minutes, and starts yawning around 7:45, put her down then and see what happens. If she falls asleep without crying, make a mental note that she was awake for about 45 minutes. Or, if she goes down at 8:00 am, and is screaming, make a mental note that being awake for 1 hour was maybe too long, and try to get her down after 50 minutes next time.
It’s not a science, but generally, you’ll see patterns that emerge for your infant. Typically, a baby can be awake for the following times, including the amount of time they are eating:
- newborn: just barely long enough to get full
- 4 weeks: 45 minutes ish
- 6 weeks: 45-60 minutes ish
- 8 weeks: 60-75 minutes ish
My kids seems to have a 1 hour awake, 2 hours asleep routine from weeks 4-10 ish. They eventually fall into a cycle of 1.5 hours awake, 1.5 hours asleep, still waking up to eat every 3 hours during the day. My kids tend to follow that 1.5 hours awake, 1.5 hours asleep routine until around 5-6 months (ish).
Start a Bedtime Routine Right Away
After 4-ish weeks, when the initial sleepiness has subsided, we do this routine (almost) every time we put baby down for a nap:
- Check diaper, change if necessary
- Swaddle with velcro swaddler
- Hold upright on shoulder, rock, and sing a song
- Lay baby down on back, swaddled and say, “goodnight, have a good nap.”
It takes less than 5 minutes, is very simple & can easily be replicated for years to come. It’s still basically the same for our 3.5 year old… with a couple stories added in. My theory is that baby picks up on this routine way sooner than we’d think and the habit serves as a cue. As if to say to the baby: “it’s time to nap now.”
Does a nap always happen like that? Nope. Sometimes baby naps in a carseat or in someone’s arms, or in the ergo carrier on the way to the park.
But, at least once a day, we do the put-baby-down-for-a-nap-in-a-crib routine so that by 3-6 months old, baby just goes down for naps with no fuss or hassle.
Lots of people wait to sleep train until 6 months. Again, that’s totally fine! Whatever floats your boat. But we’ve found it so so so easy to sleep train with these strategies from the beginning, and have saved ourselves the long and painful process of cry-it-out or whatever people do at 6 months to more gradually sleep train an older infant.
45 minute sleep cycle
When our first baby was little, I read somewhere that infants have a 45 minute sleep cycle. You know how you sometimes kinda-sorta wake up in the middle of the night, roll over, and go back to sleep? That’s mostly likely happening in the lightest phase of your sleep cycle. The infant sleep cycle is 45 minutes long, and every 45 minutes, depending on how soundly your baby is sleeping, they are very likely to do a baby-equivalent of kinda sorta waking up, rolling over, and going back to sleep.
Except the baby version often involves a cry of some sort. The baby is still asleep. He just lets out a cry during the stirring process. But if you go in and pick baby up, it wakes him up more, even though he’s still tired.
So, if it’s been 45 -60 minutes since I put the baby down for a nap and he wakes up crying, I usually give him 1-2 minutes of crying to see if he’ll stop on his own. Often, he’ll cry for 2 minutes, or just let out 1 loud cry sound, and then go back to quietly sleeping.
If he doesn’t quiet down on his own after a couple minutes, I usually go try to pop a pacifier in. If that doesn’t work, I might pick baby up and rock him for a minute until he calms down, then lay him back down asleep either in his bed or a swing or something.
If after all that baby still continues to cry, or is rooting around, then I assume he’s hungry and feed him and start my 3 hour cycle over from that point.
This whole 45 minute-sleep-interruption information was helpful for me because I think it’s more natural to assume baby is hungry if they wake crying, when sometimes the baby is just stirring in his sleep.
If you made it to the end, congratulations! I don’t want to go without mentioning my “sources.” We’ve compiled this method/ strategy of sorts from a combination of books and people and trial and error with our own kids. Besides consulting random internet articles for sleep tips and momma friends who have kids that are good sleepers, I also read The Happiest Baby on the Block, and BabyWise. I read BabyWise before I realized it was controversial. And while a few of these tips (the full feedings and waking-baby-to-eat-thing) are from BabyWise, I’d rather just explain the things we do than recommend the book to new moms for a few reasons:
- When I read BabyWise with my first baby, I felt like it was giving me a scientific sleep method. This could have been my mis-perception, but when it didn’t “work” perfectly every single time, I felt very stressed out. #TypeAMomProbs By baby number 2, I was more relaxed about the principles in the BabyWise book, and found the book much more helpful when I re-read it with a perspective of, “these are guidelines to follow,” instead of, “these are rules for perfect infant sleep,” but I think it has the potential to stress new moms out so I shy away from recommending it.
- Another reason I don’t recommend the book is that it’s not very well written. Even on the re-read, I found it confusing and all over the place. I tried to summarize the key principles we use from the book in this post, and hopefully they’re clear. If my post is confusing, then I guess that’s the pot calling the kettle black 😉
- Thirdly, the book comes off as very superior in the issue of sleep-training. Like I said at the beginning of this post, sleep training our kids early on was a big deal for us because I did not want to be waking through the night with our kids for a year, and we didn’t want them sleeping in our bed. But if you do infant sleep differently at your house, fine! I think BabyWise tends to give off the impression that people who don’t use the method aren’t as good parents, which isn’t true.
Whew. That is by far the longest blog post I’ve ever written. Go big or go home! Hopefully you can all have peacefully sleeping babies.
On that note, goodnight!
Pictured: while this process worked for us overall, sometimes you just gotta snuggle your baby to sleep and that’s okay!! no baby or mom or method is perfect. be sure to relax and soak up the snuggles while they’re tiny!