It makes sense to head into the New Year with a resolution for better sleep and brighter days! There's no question about it, sleep is critical. To set you up for success, I thought I would give you some tangible steps you can take for getting your little one to sleep through the night. There are many little elements that go into helping a baby sleep through the night, and many methods as well that appeal to varying parenting styles. However, there are some aspects are are universal if sleeping through the night is your goal.
Before you consider setting this goal, be sure that your baby is ready to sleep through the night. Ask your pediatrician for their perspective. Your baby will need to be at least 4-8 months old (adjusted from due date), gaining wait appropriately for his or her age, and not have any concerning medical issues such as asthma or sleep apnea. Keep in mind, your baby still very well may need 1-2 night feedings during this time period; however, by the time your baby reaches 9 months of age you can usually give up night feedings entirely. Once you've got the green light from your doctor, be sure that you are ready for this step. While you might feel so very done with getting up at all hours of the night, be sure that you've thought through all that you will be leaving behind: those midnight snuggles, cuddling in bed if you are moving from co-sleeping to crib sleeping, nursing to sleep...all of these are things that you need to be ready to let go of to give yourself and your baby the best chance of success. Once you know you are ready, take action:
- Drowsy but awake. This is one that so many baby books talk about, and they do so for a reason. It truly is the first step in getting your baby to sleep through the night. Why? Because when she wakes up, she'll wake up exactly where she went to sleep, and will hopefully drift right back off to sleep. When your baby falls asleep in your arms or in your bed, then wakes up in her bed, it's very disorienting. Start putting your baby to bed when she's drowsy, but still aware of her surroundings. At first, she may fight this change in routine because it's different. Show her with your calm words, calm facial expressions, and gently soothing caresses that everything is just fine.
- Give it time. Begin giving your baby some time to self-soothe. This amount of time can vary for each parent. Some parents cannot wait for longer than 3 minutes at first, some can wait 10 or more. Pick an amount of time that seems do-able for you and then start giving him that amount of time to try to get to sleep on his own. When he wakes up, wait those minutes before rushing in. You are not abandoning your baby, you are providing an opportunity for him to develop a very valuable skill. If that amount of time passes and he's still going at it, go in and check on him. After a few days of giving some wait time, try lengthening your wait time by a couple of minutes, then when you go in do your best to soothe him while he's still in his crib rather than immediately resorting to picking up and rocking or nursing, to reduce the chances that he'll fall asleep somewhere other than his bed. Make your visits short as well. Giving it a little time at each wake up and at each bedtime will definitely strengthen his skills as a sleeper.
- Send in your spouse! If mom usually goes in at night because she's been comfort nursing, it will be very difficult for both mom and baby to manage night time wake ups at first. Try sending in the non-nursing spouse for night time wake ups for one week. This should have a drastically positive impact on night time wake ups. Baby will realize that if he wakes up and shouts, that nursing isn't going to happen. After a week or even less he will wake up, realize he actually doesn't want anything that dad has to offer at the moment, and drift back to sleep.
- Understand the difference between cries of protest and cries of pain. As your baby grows older, you are better able to differentiate between what various cries mean. When you put your baby to bed drowsy but awake for the first few nights, you will likely hear some cries of protest. Your baby is not in pain. He is resisting this change in routine because where he's been falling asleep for his whole life (and for seven or eight wake ups each night and for every nap) is in your arms or at your breast. What a cozy place to be! However, if you've arrived at the place where all of that time awake in the night is no longer sustainable for you, things have to change. Your child is not going to volunteer to change things on his own, trust me. You have to be the one to alter the pattern if you wish to see it improve for both of you. During wait time, remember that the cries are cries of protest, not of pain, that you are not abandoning or harming your baby, and that on the other side of this you will have given him the beautiful gift of a full night of sleep and parents who are full of energy to play with him.
- Get rid of crutches and replace with routine. Sleep crutches vary greatly. Sometimes it's a pacifier, sometimes it's being bounced to sleep. Whatever it is, if it only serves to wake your baby up when it is no longer in place (ie, pacifier falls out of the mouth, baby wakes moments after bouncing stops), you are doing your baby a disservice by allowing her to continue relying on that crutch. You are actually the cause of her constant waking. Getting rid of these crutches is one of the most important steps to teaching your baby healthy sleep. Read more about sleep crutches here. Simultaneously, be sure you've developed a very predictable and soothing bedtime and naptime routine to help communicate with your baby that it's nearing time to sleep. A routine is one of your secret weapons for helping your baby learn quickly to fall asleep on her own. Like a crutch, she expects it and it's incredibly soothing; unlike a crutch, you provide it before she falls asleep rather than during sleep.
- Check the environment. Your baby's room should be very, very, very dark. Blackout shades are a must! Also, put electrical tape over lights on baby monitors, wipe-warmers, or other gadgets in your baby's room. The darker, the better, truly! Triggering your baby's circadian rhythm will put you on the right track towards sound sleep. Be sure your baby's crib is safe, and relatively boring--no extra toys or objects that could be dangerous or could wake baby up. Keep the room around 68-70 degrees. See here to check safety standards.
- Keep a log. Keep a notebook handy by your baby's room and jot down sleep/wake times. Often, parents will give up because they aren't seeing any improvement. When you are exhausted and in survival mode, it's really hard to see any kind of small change that might be emerging as you go. By keeping a log, you might see that night time wake ups have gone from 6 occurrences to 4 over the last week. That's an improvement! It's small, but at the same time, it's progress! Did your baby take 10 minutes to fall asleep yesterday and eight minutes today? Success! Keep it up! Tracking these things even for a couple of weeks might just be the fuel you need to keep going. When you do see progress, party like it's 1999! You deserve it!
- Be sure bedtime is early enough. Many times parents will keep their baby up late in hopes that it will wear her out and help her sleep longer. Because of their sensitive nervous systems, this actually has the opposite effect. When your baby passes "tired" into "overtired" the release of adrenaline and cortisol makes it very hard for your baby to get restful sleep, makes it nearly impossible for her to stay asleep, and will almost guarantee and early wake up followed by an exhausted day. To provide your baby with the best night time sleep, be sure that bedtime falls at an early hour. Watch how long she's been awake since her last nap and try not to keep her up for longer than she should be awake for her stage of development. For young babies, this is going to be between 1.5-2 hours. As they grow and give up the 3rd nap (late afternoon cat nap), they are able to last around 3-4 hours. By the time your baby is between 1-2 years old, awake time can stretch between 5-6 hours. However, this varies among babies and you should always watch your baby for signs of being tired or overtired.
- Don't take a grab-bag approach. If you feel like you've tried everything and nothing has "worked" to help your baby sleep through the night, be sure that you are not giving up too early. While it's so frustrating when advice seems to pour from every other mom you know, your own included, and the lady in the grocery store and your barista...you have to do what works for you and your baby, but do give it time. If you choose a method, try to stick with it and be consistent for a minimum of 5 days before throwing in the towel. Not only is it confusing for your baby to have new expectations placed on him then suddenly removed, but you don't provide nearly enough time for new habits to form before asking him to go back to his old habits. This will lead your whole family towards less and less sleep. Take a breath. Look at your calendar, and devote some serious time to making changes that will stick around for your child's whole life.
- Rest yourself. Before venturing into the land of teaching your baby to sleep through the night, take a few days to get as rested as you possible can. Initially, things might get a little worse for a couple of days before they get so much better. If your batteries are charged, you will be more consistent, more calm, and more in tuned to what is happening with your baby's sleep than if you are running on fumes.