I’m not sure how it’s possible my boys are 3 and a half years old! In some ways it feels like we just brought them home from the hospital. In others it feels like they’ve been a part of our lives forever and we can’t even remember what life was like pre-kids. We just went on a ten-day family adventure (notice I didn’t say “vacation” since this was NOT an actual relaxation type of trip) to see family and friends and slept in three different places. Aside from a few wake ups the first night I have no complaints about the amount of sleep they, and as a result, we were able to get. They even napped 1.5-2.5 hours almost every day! How did we get to this point of being able to able to travel so easily?
When I look back over the last 3.5 years it’s hard to remember the first few months of the boys’ lives. They were a sleepy blur of a roller coaster of emotions. Luckily I documented their sleep and milestones so I can look back and marvel (or shudder) at how it all went down. The boys were not always “good sleepers”. Like any babies they cried a lot and wanted to sleep during the day and party at night those first few months. Why do babies do this? Why must parents sacrifice so much sleep? Why, how, and when does it get better?
It will get better!
Around 4 months of age (adjusted), circadian rhythms begin to form. This is important because if your baby was born a few weeks early, the development of circadian rhythms will likely take a few extra weeks to develop. Before this time babies experience day/night confusion, later bedtimes, and disorganized naps. Your main job before circadian rhythms develop is to keep your baby well rested by whatever means possible. This includes rocking, swinging, feeding, shushing, etc.
While a formalized sleep training program isn’t likely appropriate before the age of 4 months adjusted, there are still some strategies you can implement to help prepare your baby to learn to fall asleep independently and to sleep longer stretches. Around 6-8 weeks nighttime sleep should start to lengthen to 3-4 hours and your baby starts to smile and make eye contact. This is the point when your baby is ready to start making connections and able to follow cues. Here’s what you can do to help facilitate a happy little sleeper:
1. CONSISTENT AND SAFE SLEEP SPACE. Have baby sleep in the same place for every bedtime/naptime if possible. This way your baby will learn to associate the crib with sleep. This is also a great time to introduce the crib! Make your room or baby’s room cave-like by installing room darkening shades and keeping the temperature at a cool 68-72 degrees. Ensure there is no smoking in the home and no toys, blankets, bumpers, or positioners in the crib. Make sure nothing is covering baby’s head and that pajamas are well fitting. Always place baby to sleep on her back! White noise is a great way to drown out environmental disruptions and is preferred over music. If your baby goes to daycare try to recreate your home environment as best as you can by including white noise, and a consistent soothing routine that you communicate to caregivers.
2. Get to know baby’s SLEEPY CUES. Does your baby rub their eyes, space out, or pull on their ears? This can happen after as little as 45 minutes of awake time for younger babies and around 1.5 hours for babies closer to 4 months.
3. Start your SOOTHING ROUTINE once baby gives you the cue. Even better, once you know your baby’s cues, start your soothing routine BEFORE they show you signs to see what they’re capable of. This way you avoid an over tired baby. Now, if you place baby in the crib is he/she able to settle to sleep? If not this is when you start your soothing routine. Your routine should be a cue to sleep and not a means to sleep. Try shushing, patting, and using your voice. If you know that the morning nap usually comes easiest try to experiment with baby’s ability to self settle then.
4. START TO WEAN USE OF SLEEP AIDS like swings or walking or rocking to sleep if you can. Remember that baby is making connections now (socially smiling and making eye contact) so eventually he/she will learn to require these sleep aids to sleep. You can wean down gradually on swinging, rocking, or walking by slowing the speed, then stopping once baby is asleep and then eventually by placing baby awake in the crib. Don’t wait until baby is overtired because an over tired baby is much harder to soothe to sleep!
5. INCLUDE DAD in your soothing routine. If nursing pass baby to dad after nursing to carry out the rest of the routine including bath time, diaper changing, putting on pajamas, singing, reading, and/or rocking.
6. FEED EARLY IN ROUTINE. If baby is consistently falling asleep while nursing/bottle feeding then nurse/feed earlier in your soothing routine and in a different room with the lights on. This will help ensure that nursing is a cue that it’s time for sleep and not a means to sleep.
7. GIVE BABY A CHANCE! If baby wakes up in the middle of the night or wakes up early from a nap don’t rush to the crib! See what your baby is capable of. Maybe baby fusses for a minute then falls back to sleep. Let your little one impress you!
8. A GOOD SLEEPER KNOWS HOW TO RETURN TO SLEEP INDEPENDENTLY. Remember we all have partial arousals when we sleep. As adults we have learned to put ourselves back to sleep without thinking twice. Babies need to learn to do this too. During partial arousals babies will wake up enough to check their environment to ensure everything is OK. If baby went to sleep nursing/feeding and wakes up alone, he/she will look for mom to nurse. “Why did mom leave me alone in here?” and cue the crying. Try to ensure that your baby’s environment is consistent throughout the night. If white noise was on when baby drifted to dreamland then make sure it stays on all night. Eventually your baby will realize there’s nothing to check because everything is the same and drift back to sleep independently without you ever knowing.
This is highly unfair, but be forewarned that the first time your baby sleeps through the whole night you will not! You may have to pump or you may be so conditioned to wake up that you automatically wake up anyway. If you are one of the few parents who do happen to sleep through the night you will wake up in a panic! What did you miss? Is everyone OK? Don’t get too bogged down by this because it will get better and soon you’ll ALL be sleeping through the night again!
If you’ve gotten to four months adjusted, tried all these tips and are still up all night you have some options. Of course I recommend you give me a call and I can assess your specific situation and devise a customized sleep plan that I can coach you through to sleep success! If you have just one or two specific questions please fell free to contact me or visit my blog/website or Facebook Page.