Not to brag, but my baby is a pretty awesome sleeper (for a five-month-old).
Okay, I’m bragging. But, she’s my second baby. And this time around we did things a lot differently than we did with our first—things that all payed off big time in the sleep department. Also, we didn’t do it alone. We had help (a lot of help) in the form of a night nurse to guide us.
Not only did this night nurse allow us to survive the inevitable sleeplessness and exhaustion of the newborn months, she taught us how to break bad habits and—more importantly—avoid creating new ones.
With her guidance, we unknowingly did all the things that pretty much all baby sleep experts recommend you do from the start—the very start. By implementing all of this advice from the day we brought number two back from the hospital, she was sleeping through the night by the time she was two months old. Now at five months, she’s still going strong (with a few hard nights here and there). No need to go to any drastic measures. No need to sleep train. Just good habits from the start.
Of course, every baby is different, and there might be lots of reasons they don’t sleep well, including health conditions and acid reflux. But, for what it’s worth, here are suggestions from an expert who has taught hundreds of babies how to sleep on their own.
1) Practice “Le Pause”
This is probably the number one most important thing our night nurse taught us to get our baby to sleep—and, more importantly, go back to sleep—on her own. Instead of running to her the minute she made a peep, we waited to make sure that her whimper, cry or little complaint was actually something that needed tending to. Essentially, we practiced what that lady in Bringing Up Bebe calls “Le Pause.”
I’m not saying ignore your newborn’s plea for food or comfort. What my night nurse (and many other sleep experts) encourages new parents to do is allow for a little lag time between when babies make a noise—any noise—and when you tend to them. In fact, by intervening too quickly to a sound in the middle of the night or during a nap cycle, you might end up actually waking up a sleeping baby who was just making some funny (albeit disturbing) noises in her sleep—which is totally not what you’re going for.
Truthfully, this might be something only a second-time parent can do, after you’ve gained some confidence and learn that babies are more resilient than you think.
So, if you baby is making noises in the middle of the night or nap time—even if it sounds like a cry—resist the urge to go running to her straight away. Just give it a minute (or two) to see if your baby truly needs you or is just working something out. (I know, it’s easier said than done.)
2) Don’t rock her
Don’t rock, bounce, swing or nurse your baby to sleep. Ever. From the start. Don’t do it. (Although the nursing to sleep is totally inevitable in the first few weeks.)
In her experience of more than 20 years with hundreds of newborns, my night nurse learned this: baby humans are born blank slates. Whatever habits you introduce to them, those are the habits they will form. So, she wouldn’t let me rock the baby to sleep. She made me throw away the bouncy ball I relied on so heavily with my first. And, she was totally relieved to see I didn’t own a single baby swing.
Surprisingly, this was one of the hardest things for me. It’s like human nature to immediately start rocking back and forth when holding a baby. Babies love motion, we know this. But, I guess, if you rock them to sleep, then that’s what they’re going to expect should happen every time.
Instead, we were instructed to simply put her down while drowsy, but awake. In the first couple of weeks, this is incredibly easy, since babies sleep so much, anyway. And when she woke up in the middle of the night, first we tried simply picking her up, burping her, shushing her and putting her right back down. Sometimes, this meant picking her up, burping her and shushing her about five times over the course of an hour. But still, all I did was pick her up, give her a kiss and a little loving reassurance, then put her right back down.
3) Create a consistent bedtime routine from day one
I’m not sure about scientific studies, but there seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to prove that leading babies through the same sequence of calming activities each night helps them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer through the night.
This is something we started when my first daughter was about 6 months old. But with the second, the night nurse said there was no reason not to start early. Very quickly, the baby learned that after a little warm bath, a tight swaddle and one round of “You are my sunshine,” the lights would go out and she would go into her bassinet.
Now at five months, we do the same routine with a cozy little sleep slack.
4) Keep a consistent routine
Admittedly, getting a new baby to nap and eat at the same time every day has probably been the hardest thing to keep consistent with a toddler running around. My active toddler needs to get out and, you know, do stuff. But we pay for it.
When we follow the schedule, the baby sleeps until 7:30 in the morning. The moment we break it on the weekends, she’s up at the crack of dawn. It’s sleep science, I guess. I won’t go into sleep routines, but here’s a great resource.
5) Wake her up at the same time every day
It’s super tempting to let the baby sleep until whenever she wanted in the morning—especially when she was up several times during the night to eat. If we let her, she would go until 9 or 10 a.m. some days.
But the night nurse told us that if we didn’t start the day at the same time every day, then we would never be able to achieve a consistent routine. And apparently, waking up at roughly the same time each day helps keep the body's circadian rhythms attuned. For babies, it helps form a circadian rhythm.
Starting at week four, we woke the baby up at 7 or 7:30 every day, regardless of when she last woke up to eat or went to bed. By week six, she was stretching that last early morning feed to 7 a.m.
6) Consider a “dream feed”
Loading your baby up right before sleep is something a lot of parents do. It’s actually something a lot of babies do naturally, with “cluster feeds” that start around sunset to bedtime.
Our night nurse introduced us to the concept of a dream feed the week after we came home from the hospital. The whole idea is giving the baby a bottle that she’ll naturally suck down in her deepest sleep cycle to fill up her belly for several more hours and therefore stretching her sleep. It worked for us, as she dropped her middle of the night feeding by week four. Here’s a great resource on how to do a dream feed.
Again, while most of these things are easier said than done, I’m now convinced that they work. And if you try it with your second, or maybe your first, there’s a chance you will be handsomely rewarded with more sleep, more quickly than you could’ve ever imagined.
While nothing can truly prepare anyone for what it’s like to be a parent—and the learning curve is steep, my friends!—maybe we can prepare ourselves on how to deal with baby sleep.