Part 1 here!
Sometime recently James and I were trying to remember how we got here, how we got to the stage where the whole sleep thing feels like a very easy non-issue and to be honest… It’s really hard to think back and pinpoint how it happened. Maybe it’s because there is no way around some level of exhaustion, or maybe it’s because the new parent mind just blocks things out, but whatever the case- it was really helpful for me to proactively think back to the steps we took in those early months to get here.
Like all new parents, I had A Plan. I had read Baby Wise, and 10 days into Henry’s life, I decided to let him cry it out, as instructed by the book once you have had about 10 days to “adjust.” It was an unmitigated failure. I listened to my baby scream and cried so hard, until my mom reminded me that I did not need permission from any stupid book to snuggle my baby. She was right, and I decided that, while some fundamentals of Baby Wise were good, I needed to cast my research net and sleep approach further.
The key thing that my research (read: frantic sob-googling) revealed, is that baby sleep doesn’t mature linearly. So figuring out IF there is a problem is maddening, because sometimes what you think is THE END OF THE WORLD is actually a normal developmental stage. But what you CAN do (because people telling you that a baby will grow out of it is like the least helpful thing ever), is figure out what good sleep skills you can be teaching at each age to work towards independent sleep. So, with the goal of independent sleep, a predictable schedule, and Henry putting himself down easily, here is what we did, broken down by age.
From 0-3ish months, babies are in the “4th trimester” and they just kind of sleep a lot, wherever, whenever, etc. People talk about how their 2 month old “sleeps great! Can sleep through anything, doesn’t need dark, ” etc. Insert eye roll. Yes, they do, but that’s because they haven’t fully realized they are out of the womb yet. During this period, I relied a lot on the resources at Precious Little Sleep to confirm that babies don’t really “learn” much, nor will they have a schedule for more than a couple days before it changes. They need lots of soothing to sleep, so wearing them, rocking, using any combination of sleep props – all these things are awesome and helpful in getting newborns to sleep.
Still, I did follow the Baby Wise suggested cycle of eat-awake-sleep, meaning we did not use nursing to get Henry to sleep, unless it was a middle of the night feeding. He slept in a Rock-n-play at night and for any naps where he wasn’t being worn or in the stroller, and the nap lengths were all over the place. We cranked that white noise machine as loud as it could go at home and he was swaddled. We tried to follow ideal wake times and put him to sleep before he was overtired- but it was a lot of guess work. At around 6 weeks, we established an actual bedtime (much later than it would later become- around 9ish), and around 2 months, we set an actual wake-up time (around 7:30). He was still waking up a couple times to eat in the night, but at least those two set times gave me some solid grounding.
Furthermore, we also started gently teaching him to put himself to sleep (though with the Rock-n-play, which helped). First, I would rock him till drowsy, set him down, and then stay beside him and pat him until he fell asleep. But slowly, I rocked and patted less. Around 2.5 months, we started allowing him to cry a little longer as he went down more awake. I did not use crying to try to prevent any sort of mid-nap wakings or night wakings, but we did let him fuss to sleep. After a very minimal period of this, he started going down initially with little to no crying. Naps were still unpredictable, nights were still interrupted for a couple nursing sessions, but bedtime became smooth.
So the takeaway, of what we found effective and teachable between 0-3 months to set us up for easy sleep training later: separating nursing from bedtime (this is the biggest thing!), and establishing that Henry was capable of putting himself to sleep, even if he couldn’t yet connect sleep cycles to stay there as long as I would like.
If you want to sleep train, this is the sweet spot. Much earlier than this and it will take a bunch longer/ be derailed by just normal development. But after 6 months you are fighting an uphill battle against object permanence.
Starting at 3 months, we did a couple things. First of all, we decided that Henry would fall asleep in his own room (in the RnP still), and then we would carry it into our room before bed because I still wanted him close. Yes, I know that is ridiculous- but it worked. He never woke up, and also learned to go to sleep in his room. At 4 months, we ditched the swaddle and the RnP in one fell swoop as he started rolling. It took approximately 2 nights, then he was back to putting himself to sleep quickly in the crib. He also started sucking his thumb, which was AWESOME, as one can’t lose a thumb as easily as a Paci.
We also used some crying to start eliminating night feeds, something which received the green-light from our pediatrician as his weight gain was fine. Our bedtime routine was solid and consistent: bath, bottle (formula- I breast fed the rest of the time, but some early weight gain issues prompted addition of one formula bottle a day, and I am all about it. It let me pump at bedtime, and allowed James to participate in feeding. Also meant we knew he went to bed FULL), books, sleep sack, one song in the rocking chair, down awake. Blackout blinds closed, sound machine cranked. He would then be nursed again when he woke up after 3 am, and then not again until 7. If he woke earlier, James was sent in to rock and soothe him initially, and then we allowed him to cry some too. This was not pleasant. It also was very short lived and did not scar him. Starting at 4.5 months, we started slowly tackling that last feeding. I didn’t want to just eliminate it like the others (which had been inconsistent and slowly disappearing on their own, thus were easier to drop). Instead, I started timing it and shaving off 30 seconds every couple nights. It took a month, but then he just stopped waking up once the feed was only a few minutes. At 5.5 months he was started sleeping 11 hours a night without waking. And all the tired mamas said AMEN.
As for naps… these became so much harder than night sleep, as most people with a baby will find. The length of an infant sleepcycle at this age is approximately 45 minutes, and until they learn to connect 2 or 3 into one long nap, they will wake after the first cycle (almost) every. single. time. It is the worst, and you want to lose your mind, and start trying everyyyyythhhinnnnggg to fix it. Finally, I read this very helpful article. Inspired by it, I decided that the battle would eventually be won by Henry growing into connecting sleep cycles since he had learned to initially go down awake. In the meantime, I would cling to the semblance of a schedule by going in when he woke mid-nap and soothing him back to sleep through patting or rocking. It worked. For 2 months, I had to intervene almost every nap. But then one day- it clicked, right around 5 months. Yes, I realize this will be impossible with a second baby, as a toddler doesn’t give you the freedom to cater to every nap. We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
If you are a schedule lover like me, between 3-5 months, Henry had 3 naps a day, 2 that were 1.5ish hours in length (usually with a rock down in the middle) and one that was 45 min. I went on waketimes between naps instead of a fixed schedule. At about 5 months, I moved to a set schedule, so I would keep him up/wake him early to stay on it. Yes, there were hiccups, like around 6 months when naps sucked again and I had to drop the end of the day catnap to get them back on track.
The hard work was done! Once we sleep trained, we rarely had to redo it. Illness, travel, etc. might throw us off for a couple days, but the groundwork was there. Yes, there were (and are!) inexplicable nights where we were all up. There is no short cut to sleepless nights as a parent, because children are humans who sometimes need something other than a sleep schedule. I have had to learn that over and over again. But on the whole, the work we put in those first 6 months gave us a really wonderful sleep system that bends and flexes as we need and delivers us all a lot of rest.
If there were more than a couple nights or days that got wonky, I did check in with sleep resources and some great panting forums I am on to seek out advice. Often a tiny schedule tweak was needed as he grew older and needed less sleep. Around 10ish months I started capping the first nap a little to allow the second to be longer and nights to still go smoothly. Between 13-15 months I had to cap it more and more until Henry finally dropped to 1 nap around 15 months. Bedtime had to move back and forth a little bit as naps shifted. As he got older, he stopped accidentally falling asleep in the car coming home from places and “ruining” naps, which also allowed our schedule more flexibility.
For the schedule lovers! We embraced a 2-3-4 wake time schedule, with naps starting at 2 hours each (so wake up at 7am, nap from 9-11 and 2-4, bedtime 8) and slowly nap 1 shrunk. When we dropped to 1 nap, our schedule became 7ish wakeup, nap 12:30-3:30, bedtime 7:30. Now that he naps a little less, we do wake up 7-7:30 (he is not allowed out of his crib before 7 even if he randomly wakes early), nap 12:30/1-3, bedtime a little before 8. He often talks, sings, or applauds in his crib awhile before falling asleep for naps or nights.
Henry loves sleep. He loves his routine, his schedule, his crib. Because he knows those things so well, he also goes to sleep pretty much anywhere as long as I put him in his sleep sack, crank the sound machine, and go through our rhythms. He does not ever skip naps, because he knows that he isn’t getting out of it. Sometimes now he will talk to himself for 30 minutes before falling asleep, and that is totally fine. We recently went through some random night wakings, and I actually was able to explain to him that it wasn’t morning, and he had to lie down and sleep… and he did. I know there will be issues when we drop the sleep sack and he realizes he can climb out of his crib, or when we add baby sister to his room. But the fundamentals of good sleep are there.
Most importantly, embracing this approach to sleep is what allowed our family to thrive. It gave us predictability that I desperately craved and professionally needed. It facilitated my extroverted love of social nights out, as Henry will go to bed anywhere and can be transferred home without a problem. It allowed him to get rest at his babysitter’s house, which allowed me to go to work without worry. It restored a calm to our evenings and gave James and I sleep early on. It allowed me to have big chunks of time to write my dissertation.
But again…having your baby sleep well/long/anywhere/predictable is not a moral good, like teaching your kid to love the Lord or even making them eat vegetables or something. If you love __________ (nursing to sleep, co-sleeping, lengthy bedtime routines- anything deemed “bad sleep hygiene” by judgey websites) then it is up to you to decide if the pros of independent sleep are worth the cons. Sleep training is one element of what helped our family thrive, so we could stop stressing about sleep and get on with the business of cultivating family culture. Sleep is not the end goal, but rather a daily discipline that facilitates bigger goals.
And now… if any of you have great success stories about sleep training second babies who shared a room and a very small living space… by all means, SHARE AWAY.
Edited to add: We sleep trained a second baby, they started sharing a room at 6 months/2.5, no one wakes each other up, it is awesome, and some day I will write about it.