I never intended to write a blog post on sleep training, but after posting an offhand comment on Instagram about how Xavier sleeps 11 hours overnight, I got a bunch of requests for baby sleep tips. Let me start by saying - I am a first time mama. I have no expertise when it comes to baby sleep. I spent many, many nights in frustrated tears thinking my baby would never sleep. But, now he does! We sleep trained around five months, but it took until he was about 8-9 months for him to sleep consistently for 11 hours straight. And for the record, for all of these tips, I'm talking about babies older than four months. I heard the advice "you can't spoil a newborn" over and over again when Xavier was brand new, and I agree. Those early months, baby just needs mama and I don't believe trying to implement any kind of rigid routine is going to work. And all babies are different, so these tips might not work for you. But here's what worked for us!
1. BOOK: THE SLEEPEASY SOLUTION
I got this book from the library on the recommendation of my friend Gail, who used it to sleep train her son. I really only needed to read two or three chapters - the chapter on overnight sleep, the chapter on naps, and the chapter on nighttime weaning. This book does advocate for "cry-it-out" which I know can be a hot-button topic, but it approaches it in a very gentle, loving way and it worked great for us. We followed it to a T - printed out the chart, sat with a stopwatch, the whole nine yards. The first night, Xavier cried off and on for over an hour but the second night, he didn't cry at all!
2. NIGHT WEANING
The book outlines how to do this, too. When we decided to sleep train, I decided to wean Xavier from nighttime feedings. He was on track with his growth, gaining weight consistently and didn't need to eat overnight. I read somewhere that at this age (5-6 months) babies don't wake up out of sheer hunger usually. It's like adults - you wake up at 3am to use the bathroom, and while you're up, realize you're starving. Same idea with babies. They wake up for any number of reasons, realize they're hungry or are just used to being fed at that time, so they cry and we feed them and then we think they're never going to break the habit. I was nervous to night wean - was I depriving him? Was he going to keep growing? Was I being cruel? But it was a really good decision for our family. Xavier was totally fine and it was crucial in me continuing to breastfeed as long as I did. I simply needed that overnight break. I did continue to "dream feed" Xavier around 10pm until he was 9 months or so. Once he hit 9 months, I weaned him from that feeding and that's when he started sleeping from 7pm to 6am.
3. CONSISTENT BEDTIME ROUTINE
When we stopped waiting for Xav to act tired and started laying him down at the exact same time every night, we had a breakthrough. We experimented with lots of different bedtimes between 6:30 and 8:30 but settled on 7pm. It does make evenings a little hectic, because by the time Matt gets home from work, we don't really have time to eat dinner before starting Xavier's bedtime routine, so we usually eat after we lay him down. But, I digress. Xavier's bedtime routine takes around 30 minutes usually, which might sound really long, but I really think it helps him unwind and get ready for a good night of sleep. So around 6:30, we start the process. He'll take a nice warm bath a couple times a week, followed by lotion, and then I rub essential oils on him (if it's not bath night, we go straight to oils + jammies.) I put lavender oil on the soles of his feet and peace + calming on his chest. Then we put him in warm jammies, and sit down in the rocking chair for a song (the same song every night), the same litany of prayers, and sometimes a story. During the song and prayers, I feed him (he is 13 months and as of now, completely weaned, so we give him a sippy of milk), then lay him down in his bed with his lovey, several pacifiers and a blanket and that's it! I do think the consistency of the routine helps a lot, so that when we head to the bath or start the oils, it triggers his little brain that it's time for bed. I will admit, sometimes this is hard for me. Sometimes I want to stay in there longer and cuddle him. And sometimes, I do just that! But I also know that consistency is so good for babies and children and sometimes I just have to tell myself "no" because it's best for him.
4. ENVIRONMENT CONDUCIVE TO SLEEP
Another thing that I think has helped is keeping Xavier's nursery really conducive to sleep. We don't let him play in his crib, and haven't since he was teeny. We want him to associate his bed with sleep, and not play. We have blackout curtains at his windows, and no night light or anything of the sort so his room is pitch black for sleeping. We also have a very loud sound machine and a small space heater, so there's lots of white noise and it's toasty warm. He doesn't have any toys or pillows or anything in his crib - just two small stuffed animals, a blanket and his lovey. No mobile or light-up singing aquarium thing or anything like that. It's very dark, very quiet and distraction-free - perfect for solid sleep.
5. waiting before going in
This is less of a "sleep tip" and more like a general parenting philosophy, but in general, if Xavier cries out or makes noise while he's supposed to be sleeping - whether it's the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, during naps, whatever, we don't go in right away. This was something I picked up from the book Bringing Up Bebe that made a lot of sense to me. I want to give him a chance to self-soothe first, and to learn that he's not always going to get instant gratification. I hope that doesn't sound cruel - of course if I wake up and he's obviously screaming in pain (you really can start to tell the difference in your baby's cries), I will be flying out of bed and in there in 0.2 seconds. But if he's just mildly fussing, or talking to himself, I'll let him go for awhile. He currently does this after his morning milk at 5:30 or 6. I feed him, then immediately lay him back down because he'll sleep until 8 or sometimes even 9 (!!) if I let him. But, he will usually lay in his crib and talk and giggle and coo and sometimes fake cry for 10-20 minutes before falling back asleep. If I took that as a "sign" that he was ready to wake up (and I have made that mistake a couple times), I'd be missing out on 2-3 HOURS of solo time (the biggest chunk I get all day!) and he would miss out on 2-3 hours of good sleep. Also, when we DO go in, we usually don't pick him up or rock him (again, if he's inconsolable or something is clearly out of the ordinary, this goes out the window). If we go in, we usually don't say anything, just give him his pacifier back, and gently lay him back down if he's standing up or sitting up in his crib. Finally, even if he doesn't actually sleep, I think it's important to still give him that solo "quiet time" in his crib to build that habit. Especially during the late afternoon cat nap time, he'll often not ever fall asleep, but just lay in his bed and talk and yell and coo and sometimes (fake) cry once or twice, just to see if I'll come and get him (I usually won't until time is up, unless he's clearly crying for real.) He is go-go-go all the time, so I think that restful time to just hang out in his crib and chill out is important even if he doesn't actually sleep.
Basically all the same tips I mentioned above apply to naps. I don't do a long pre-nap routine, though. I change his diaper and dress him in comfy clothes if he's wearing something like jeans. I rub lavender on his feet, and put socks on him. I close the curtains, turn on the sound machine and heater, cover him with his blanket and that's that. He typically naps for an hour to an hour and a half. Rarely he'll go two hours. He naps around 10, 2 and takes a final 30-minute cat nap around 4:30. My mom gave me this advice and I've found it to be true - if a baby wakes up from a nap crying, they usually didn't sleep long enough. It's totally true with Xavier. When he's taken a solid nap, he wakes up cooing and talking. At first, when he would wake up after 45 minutes crying, I would be like "well I guess he just doesn't want to nap today!" and be frustrated and defeated. Once I learned to lay him back down when he wakes up fussy, things totally shifted. Also, sometimes he'll wake up happy, but within 10-15 minutes is super fussy and a total grump. I have no qualms about laying him right back down - and usually he'll fall back asleep. I had to teach myself to view his naps and bedtime not as torture for him - although all the crying can make you feel like it - but an important building block in his health. I want Xavier to learn that when he's tired, he should rest. That sleep is good and necessary.
A FEW OTHER NOTES...
- As a newborn, Xavier was swaddled to sleep. We used Aden + Anais muslin blankets for a little while, but honestly could never get the hang of blanket swaddling very well. We switched to the Halo Sleepsack pretty early on, and would keep Xavier's arms in until he started to really protest that, around 3 months. Then we'd keep his arms out. Once he started rolling over consistently, around 4-5 months, we ditched the Sleepsack altogether because he would get very mad that his legs would get tangled up in it while rolling.
- Crib liners are awesome. All the recommendations say to skip crib bumpers for safety, but we got this breathable mesh crib liner off Amazon because Xav was dropping all his pacifiers outside the crib, and also getting his feet stuck between the bars once he learned to roll over. The liner is still on his crib and it works great!
- Glow-in-the-dark pacifiers look promising. The biggest "issue" we still have is Xavier waking up and crying out because he lost his pacifier. Even though there are usually 3-4 in his crib with him, he seems to wake up discombobulated and rather than looking for one, just cries until we go in and find one to give him. I'm seriously considering these glow-in-the-dark pacifiers, which might make him more apt to grab one himself? Or maybe they're just ridiculous? I haven't totally decided.
In general, I try to think of Xavier's sleep as a rhythm, rather than a strict schedule. He does seem to thrive on routine and consistency, but life is life and I don't want to be super strict about things 100% of the time. Sometimes we stay out past his bedtime and he doesn't go down until 7:45 or 8. Sometimes for whatever reason, I can tell he just isn't going to go back to sleep after his morning milk and so I get him up and we cuddle on the couch at 6:30 a.m. The fact is that life with a child is unpredictable, and I just have to learn to go with the flow. To establish rhythms and routines that work for our family, aim for consistency but also be flexible. It's hard to always follow, but life is so much sweeter when I keep that mind!
And with that, I hear my little dude gabbing away in his crib, so I'm going to sign off. If you're discouraged about sleep - hang in there! It DOES get better. Pray, pray pray. Keep trying. Babies DO learn to sleep. Cheering for you!!