After 3 months of intermittent sleep, I finally have some more time to sit down and collect my thoughts. That is because my newly 4 month-old baby finally learned to sleep 12 hours a night without feeding. In addition, she self-soothes herself to sleep when put down awake so my work load as a new mom has become much more manageable.
Putting my baby to sleep hasn’t always been easy, there was a time when I was so sleep deprived and not thriving at all as a new parent. I remembered feeling the stress of trying to juggle everything I needed to do – pumping, feeding, laundry – each day with the limited amount of time I had. When Bibi started to sleep more, I was finally able to get enough sleep myself. It allowed me to recover from my postpartum complications and I finally really enjoyed motherhood like I had always imagined.
Newborn Only Slept When Held
In the beginning my dear Bibi would only sleep soundly in her own bassinet during the day when we had help from our parents. It made their time taking care of their granddaughter a real joy. Come evening, Bibi would cry all throughout the night if we tried to let her sleep by herself in her bassinet.
My husband and I even devised this routine called “shifts”, there was an early and late shift, starting at 11 pm and 4 am respectively. In order for her to sleep at night, we would take turns holding her in our arms for 4-5 hour stretches at a time. Night “shifts” were an absolutely isolating period of time that neither of us enjoyed. We were left alone to fight off our own late-night fatigue and deal with a newborn that cried for what seemed to be no reason at all. When baby didn’t sleep, we didn’t get to sleep. It’s no wonder why the topic of baby sleep and sleep training is such a preoccupation of parents.
Which Sleep-training Techniques to Use?
We tried many different sleep-training techniques before we found ones that worked for us practically and emotionally. On a practical level, there were certain techniques that didn’t quite work within the time constraints and lifestyles of our family. For example, I really needed my early evenings free to prepare dinner instead of doing a completely baby-focused bedtime routine because I prefer to have a hot meal on the table for my husband after he’s had a long day at work. On an emotional level, I couldn’t bring myself to follow a true “cry it out” method which involves leaving the baby alone to cry and eventually soothe herself to sleep.
The Case For and Against Cry It Out Methods
Most resources don’t suggest implementing the Cry It Out method until the baby is at least 4-5 months old. However, I couldn’t help marveling at how easily and confidently my friend’s daughter, who was the same age as Bibi, slept while on a playdate at my house. Her mom asked me to put a pack-and-play in a dark corner of our home and she laid her down fully awake while I witnessed the little miracle that is an infant putting herself to sleep. When I asked how she got her daughter to sleep so well, she said that she had used the Cry it Out method since week 5.
I remembered we tried a modified version of a Cry It Out method for a little over a week when Bibi was nearing 3 months. By then, she was already showing signs of being able to roll over so we had to stop swaddling her. Because of that we felt she was on her way to maturing beyond the newborn stage and gave the more aggressive form of sleep training a go. During the short intervals when we let her cry it out, she was very mad and made her intense displeasure known with a very high-pitched cry that was almost like a scream. Hearing this, hubby was usually the one to break first and told me to reconsider such a harsh method. Although there are opposing views on whether or not it’s psychologically damaging for babies to cry it out themselves, in the end, I listened to him. I thought he made a good point that since babies cannot talk, we will never truly know if they have been negatively affected emotionally when left to cry it out alone in their early days. Because our health and family situation allowed us to continue soothing her before her bedtime or anytime she woke up in the middle of the night, we decided to put the Cry It Out method on the back burner. Besides, I asked myself why I was in such a hurry to force her to grow up. She was still literally a baby after all.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t try the Cry It Out method yourself, different babies have different temperaments and respond differently to different methods. In our case, through trial and error, we found that special combination of techniques to successfully sleep-train our baby in a way that made us all happy in the end. Below I will outline the techniques and resources we used to sleep train Bibi. It’s by no means a How-To guide or does it aim to replace the actual books and programs from where the techniques derived. When I was reading these books/programs, some of the techniques sounded very good in theory but I always wondered how real families made use of them in their own homes. Therefore, I want to share my own personal experience and hope you might find reading my experience insightful. All the books and programs mentioned are very valuable resources of information and should be read in their entirety if you’d like to dig deeper and solve some of your baby sleep problems. And remember to always consult with your own doctor or pediatrician.
The resources I used and referenced in all my baby sleep posts are:
• The Happy Sleeper Book – Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep – Newborn to School Age
• Taking Cara Baby Paid Sleep Program
• Bringing Up Bebe Book: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
• One-on-one meetings with lactation consultants at BC Women’s Hospital
• 7-week Pre-natal Class at the Childbearing Society
• Local La Leche Meetings in Vancouver
• Today’s Parent: Cry-it-out sleep training will not harm your baby
• Baby Sleep Site: The Ferber Method Explained
• Today’s Parent: Giving your baby morning breastmilk at bedtime might be ruining his sleep
Sleep Training and Baby’s Maturity
Many sleep programs do not recommend sleep training a baby until she is at least 4 months old. The Happy Sleeper even says that you can spoil a baby and give her all the comfort she needs for the first 3 months, which we did. Nearing the 3 month mark, I saw some marked changes in Bibi and discovered that her moods became much more stable and she finally seemed to understand the difference between day and night. Then it hit me, of course! That’s why these sleep programs are more effective when the baby is older, they naturally no longer confuse day and night and seem to have the capacity to recognize and accept new patterns. That’s not to say that you can’t get a head start paving the way for baby to be sleep-trained as soon as possible. At around 2 months, we started to do two things which helped lay the foundation for her to be eventually sleep trained: helping her recognize the difference between day and night and establishing a bedtime routine.
Exposing Baby to Day Light
In my prenatal class we were forewarned that in the beginning most babies would be more alert in the evening and sleep more soundly in the day because that’s how they slept while in the womb. I remembered when I was carrying Bibi, she was often lulled to sleep with my active daytime movements but as soon as laid in bed at night, it was party time for her.
The Happy Sleeper recommends creating an environment that helps baby distinguish the difference between night and day. For example, in the daytime I would expose Bibi to daylight by taking her out for walks and keeping her in the brightly lit areas of our home. Near bedtime we would dim the lights in the house and use a more relaxed tone when we spoke or handled her. During the night, the bedroom is kept almost completely dark and the shades don’t get drawn until morning.
Our Own Modified Bedtime Routine
Bedtime routines get a lot of coverage when it comes to sleep-training. A bedtime routine or ritual is a set of predictable set of steps taken with baby before bedtime each night so it can act as a cue that it’s time to go to sleep. Most recommended bedtime routines consist of a bath, infant massage, story time, changing into pajamas, feeding or songs, all together lasting for about half an hour.
One very important takeaway for me from the Taking Cara Babies sleep program was that bedtime routines, “don’t need to be complicated, just predictable.” That was important for me because sometimes Bibi wasn’t fully tired enough to go to sleep and her routine would drag on for hours but I also needed that time to prepare dinner for my husband when he came home from work.
I had to find a way to complete both tasks simultaneously so Bibi’s routine started with a feeding and and a story in the living room. We would then move to the kitchen where she would watch me prepare dinner in her Mammaroo chair (set on still). At this point I would watch for cues from her to see if she was tired enough for bed. If she was still alert and wanted to stay with us, I would let her continue sitting with us until we finished eating dinner (in a very dim dining room). If she seemed tired, I set aside our food for the time being and finish off the rest of her routine in the bedroom where she would ultimately end her night. In the bedroom, I change her, give her a quick massage with lotion and then read 2 more stories. Then I lay her into the crib with a kiss. As you can see, there is some flexibility with my routine as some days I let her stay with us until we finish dinner and some days I might complete the routine in one go. I just make sure some parts of the remain consistent. This includes playing the exact same soothing song for the duration of the routine and reading the exact same story at the end. This way, she would have something consistent to rely on but I could also deviate from the rest of the routine if circumstances required it on some days.
The Magical 7 O’clock Bedtime and Babies Own Cues
Once we had her routine down, we needed to choose the right time to do it. In the beginning, I was a bit confused as to when to do the bedtime routine since my newborn slept at anytime during the day and night and had no periods of “long sleep.” The Happy Sleeper describes 7 pm as the “magical bedtime”. Sleep begets sleep and since babies tend to naturally wake up early in the morning no matter what time they go to bed, it’s better to put them down earlier than later. Because Bibi slept at all hours randomly throughout the day, I tried not to worry so much about the fact that baby would eventually wake up an hour or so even after doing her routine. Doing it just helped set the stage for later when her system was more mature and she started having long sleeps.
At first, we weren’t so flexible with the routine or with the time she went to bed. We used to start her routine early at 5:30 pm, focusing solely on her without cooking or eating our own dinner, expecting that she would fall asleep by 7 pm. With such high expectations, we were all in for a world of frustration. After doing all the steps in her routine, come 6:30 pm when I finally laid her to bed, she was mad at being laid down to bed alone and screamed nonstop to be picked back up. Our dinner would be pushed back as we tried to soothe her over and over again. When we finally did eat, we each took turns holding her as we ate. Then we’d do the ritual again near 8 pm, she seemed more relaxed and more tired so she protested much less and fell asleep quickly. It finally dawned on me that she wasn’t a bad sleeper, she probably just wasn’t ready to sleep when we thought she “should be” in bed. We decided to let her sleep later so bedtime could be met with less resistance. She seemed much happier to sit with us and watch us eat dinner and when it came time for bed, it didn’t take her long to fall asleep in her crib.
5 to 6 weeks later, she naturally started getting tired earlier, closer to the magical 7 pm bedtime. We learned that for us, it was better to put her down when she was more tired and drowsy than to follow a strict time. Having those successful bedtime experiences allowed for all of us to keep building on that success.
Lay Down Awake & Le Pause
Even with a bedtime routine and narrowing down the right time to put Bibi to sleep at night, it didn’t mean that she accepted being put down in the crib to sleep on her own. Prior to sleep training, she was used to being held or bounced to sleep by us. Naturally, she really resisted being put down in her crib to sleep on her own and cried immediately as soon as we put her down. This is what I hear often from other parents, no matter how gently you put a sleeping baby down, they seem to just know when they’re mere inches away from being laid down on the crib mattress.
At first, it seemed easier to bounce her to sleep and stealthily lay her in the crib asleep but we also saw the drawbacks of that method when she would wake up screaming just a little while later. To prevent Bibi from feeling the shock of being held to sleep and waking up only to find that she was in a crib all alone, we followed the Happy Sleeper’s recommendation on laying down baby drowsy but awake. This required a lot of patience and guts.
It was a lot of work laying her down drowsy but awake. She cried so much and resisted a lot. We used a French method referred to as “le pause” in the book, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. The author, Pamela Druckerman, describes le pause as a brief 5-minute period in which French parents let their sleeping babies cry while observing them before intervening. During this time, baby is given the space to get themselves back to sleep by self-soothing.
Besides it’s purpose for when baby awakens in the night, this “wait and observe” method was also useful for us in putting Bibi to sleep by letting her cry for 5 minute intervals at time. If she couldn’t self-soothe within that time we would then go in and comfort her using methods that are least to most intrusive (referred to as the “Soothing Ladder” in the Happy Sleeper). In our particular situation, we first let our presence known in the room, pat her gently while she was in bed and if that didn’t work, we’d give her a pacifier, pick her up and then finally offer a feed if needed.
With all the drama of doing all those steps when we were already dead tired, sometimes we’d still end up with a very resistant baby who still wanted to be held to sleep. To make our own night easier, we would bounce her to sleep some nights but we kept trying to lay her down awake whenever we had a chance at nap time and each night. She was actually much more open to this during the daylight hours and that’s when we first saw that she had the ability to self-soothe herself to sleep. We kept trying to put her down awake each night and eventually, Bibi understood the pattern, that mom and dad wasn’t going to be bouncing her to sleep anymore and she resisted less and less on being laid down awake.
When Bibi did finally fall asleep, we followed Taking Cara Babies’ recommendations to “create an environment conducive to falling asleep and staying asleep” by eliminating any light where baby sleeps, setting a sound machine and making sure the room stays a comfortable and cool temperature.
Sound machines help babies stay asleep by producing constant white noise that reminds baby of the constant noises found in the womb and drowns out sudden random noises which can wake him. You don’t necessarily need to buy one but it’s more efficient to have one that can be easily set up and can be dedicated for use in baby’s bedroom for the entire time that he is sleeping. We downloaded an hour-long white noise soundtrack and played it using an old cell phone and bluetooth speaker. It helped a lot in drowning out our footsteps when we had to go into the room to check up on her.
Eat. Play. Sleep Routine
Once Bibi is awake again, we try to follow an “Eat, Play, Sleep” routine to help her disassociate milk feedings with sleep. This prevents her from asking for milk when she has trouble falling asleep and encourages self-soothing at bedtime. Mind you, in the beginning when she was a newborn, she fell asleep during a feed and we let her. After all, she was still a baby – a newborn baby. Only when she was past the 2 month mark, did we see her sleep tolerance increase to a point which allowed her to stay awake during and after a feed. Some activities we did with her after a feed include babbling, listening to songs, looking in the mirror, playing with stuffed animals or reading a book.
Naps and the 90-Minute Rule
After playtime, it would be time for Bibi’s naps again. One of the best tips on baby naps is the 90-minute rule from The Happy Sleeper in which the baby is put down to sleep 90 minutes from when she was last awake. The authors caution that, “Don’t fall into thinking that the longer you keep your baby up, the more easily she’ll fall asleep. A chronically overtired baby whose nervous system is overstimulated… is even less capable of falling asleep”
We are always mindful of the 90 minute-awake span and make sure she doesn’t stay up past that awake window after which she would actually get more hyperactive or extremely fussy due to being overtired. If she happens to be napping close to her 7 pm bedtime, we’d make sure to wake her up before 5:30 pm.
Another nap strategy we follow is waking baby up from her long naps. I know, why ruin a “good” thing… but I found waking her up from her longer naps helped create a sleep deficit for a restful long sleep in the evening. I usually wake her up from her daytime naps after an hour or an hour and a half. Of course, I only did this when she started having long sleeps at night (7-8 hours) along with 3-5 daytime naps. Prior to that, her naps were all over the place so we allowed her to sleep whenever she wanted.
“Night Time” Milk
One interesting thing I learned from seeing a lactation consultant was the concept of “night time” milk. Melatonin is more prevalent in mom’s breast milk at night and this can help aid in baby’s sleep. It’s something to consider if there is a choice between nursing baby or giving formula for the last feed before bedtime. And as for pumped milk, time-matching the pumped milk with baby’s feeding time may help provide baby the right awake/sleep signals.
Getting Enough Calories During the Day
Besides night time milk, getting enough milk throughout the day was crucial for helping Bibi sleep 12 hours without feeding. This is something I can completely emphasize with. Even as an adult, it’s difficult to go back to sleep when I’m feeling hungry. All I’d be thinking about is getting up for a bedtime snack and why should Bibi be any different.
I took the Taking Cara Baby’s instructions on “Topping off the Tank”, by offering a dream feed a few hours after the bedtime feed. Following the program advice, I would grab Bibi for a dream feed sometime between 11 pm to 12 am, right before my own bedtime. After that feed, she could usually last another 4-6 hours, making her total long sleep time about 11 hours with one dream feed in between. During that period of time in her life, I would sleep from 1230-530 am, feed her, eat my own breakfast and then go back to sleep with her when she napped from 7 am to 9 am. This gave me a total of 7 hours of sleep. I finally started to really feel refreshed.
The last step in getting Bibi to fully sleep through the night without her 12 am dream feed happened nearer to when she was turning 4 months old. She was older, her food intake during the day had increased and I finally mustered up the confidence not to wake her up for her dream feed. Lo and behold, she didn’t wake up either and when I closed my eyes at 12 am and woke up at 7 am, I was ecstatic that I had finally gotten a night of truly uninterrupted sleep. It was the most excitement I had ever felt after sleeping only 7 hours lol. After that day, I didn’t wake Bibi up for a dream feed again and she didn’t ask for one.
These last three topics on daytime independence, tummy time and removing sleep aids helped Bibi fall and stay asleep by herself for good. When she was able to self-soothe, it cut down the time it took for us to bounce/pat her before bedtime and eliminated the need for us to pat her or put back the pacifier every time she awoke in the middle of the night. It translated into a nice stretch of uninterrupted sleep for all of us.
In the beginning, we didn’t use the crib at all because Bibi only wanted to be held in our arms for her night time sleep. We did notice that in the daytime, she was much calmer and slept peacefully in her bassinet which we kept in the living room. To help Bibi familiarize herself with her crib where we eventually wanted her to sleep, we gave her time to play in it whenever we saw an opportunity. These times often came in the afternoon when she was in a good mood after being fed, changed and had a lot of morning snuggles with us already. We would always try to put her to bed drowsy but awake so she didn’t awaken to find she was all alone in a crib when she initially fell asleep in our arms.
Once she started to have some experience sleeping in her crib during the day, we tried letting her sleep in it during the night when she was 2 and a half months. It wasn’t always easy putting her to sleep in her crib, she would often wake up crying and wanting to be held again. We kept trying and in the beginning, she would only do her first sleep of the night in there. When she did cry later in the night, we’d pull her out and finish her night time sleep with me holding her. It was hard but it was a start and the more time she had in her crib, the more she felt safe and relaxed there, setting the stage for long night time sleeps in her crib.
Tummy time is one thing that parents are told to give baby often so he can develop his head, shoulder and neck strength. Beyond strengthening the body, Taking Cara Baby recommends practicing tummy time frequently in the daytime for baby to get acquainted with the belly down sleeping position. I didn’t realize the importance of giving Bibi tummy time at first but saw the huge benefits of it when she started to become strong enough to roll over by herself at 3 months.
Bibi would roll from her back to her tummy with the motivation coming from her very strong desire to sleep on her tummy instead of her back – the recommended safe sleep position for all babies until they are strong enough to roll over by themselves. At first, she wasn’t able to fall asleep in that position nor was she able to flip back from her tummy to her back so she cried every time she found herself on her belly when she couldn’t fall asleep. Hubby and I had a heck of a time helping her flip back every time she cried for us in the middle of the night. After a few nights, she acclimatized to the new sleep position and slept very soundly in the belly down position. Now we always start Bibi’s sleep on her back even though she finds a way to flip to her belly when we are asleep ourselves. Until she can fully flip from belly to back, we will still continue to flip her back onto her back.
Removing Sleep Props
Weaning sleep props like the pacifier is an important step for baby to move towards self-soothing. Once Bibi could do that, she was able to be put down into the crib awake and she could self-soothe herself back to sleep when she awoke in the night. The pacifier helped Bibi fall asleep more readily when we first put her down in the crib. In the beginning we already felt successful when she could fall asleep with only a pacifier and stay that way for a longer stretch of time there. However, every time when she would awaken during the night, she would cry for her pacifier that had fallen out. We’d have to get up several times in the night to pop it back into her mouth. Some sources recommend removing it completely at bedtime so baby doesn’t wake up looking for it.
We didn’t eliminate pacifier use at bedtime since Bibi absolutely refused to fall asleep without it. It was more important for us to have her fall asleep closer to 7 pm than to have a power struggle on whether or not she could have her binky. The pacifier was especially helpful during those nights when she would wake up in the morning too soon at 4 am and I’d have to soothe her back to back sleep by putting the pacifier back into her mouth every hour until 6 or 7 am when I was ready to feed her. I rather give her the pacifier than let her get used to the idea that she gets to wake up for good early in the morning.
As you can see, her binky served its purpose and I never found a great way to get her off pacifiers at night time with my own efforts. In the day, we would wean her off of it by putting up with her tantrums without it but it was only when she discovered she had hands that she finally weaned off the binky for good. Once she realized the function of her hands, she started to enjoy sucking her thumbs and eventually learned to self-soothe that way as soon as we laid her in bed. When she wakes up in the middle of the night, she doesn’t wake us up and just starts sucking her thumb. (We are working to wean her off thumb sucking eventually. More updates on that later.)
When Baby Sleeps, Mama Gets to Sleep
Currently Bibi goes to sleep roughly at around 6-7 pm each day and wakes up at 6-7 am. We continue to be flexible with her bedtime routine and when she sleeps by watching her sleep cues. Some nights her bedtime routine includes staying up with us until we finish dinner, some nights she doesn’t and we complete her bedtime routine with one go. She doesn’t need a night feeding anymore but some nights she might wake up crying and I’d go in to change her diaper and she’d fall back asleep right after. When we first put her down to sleep at bedtime she is completely awake and she soothes herself to sleep by rubbing her face in the sheets, sucking her thumb and getting into her favorite sleep position which is on her belly. Late in the night when she awakens, she’d play in the crib and eventually falls back asleep by herself without asking for us. In the morning, she usually wakes up around 6 to 7 am and she plays by herself until I am ready to feed her. So far so good, we are dreading the 4-month sleep regression which most babies will go through. Here’s how we got through Bibi’s 4-month sleep regression.
We know that for now we are very lucky to have a baby who sleeps well in the night and appreciate the fact that it can change at any time. Every child is naturally different, some sleep more than others, some less. Nevertheless, I hope you were able to gain some insight into how the sleep programs and courses I took worked for us on Bibi’s journey towards getting a full night’s rest. I wish you some restful nights ahead too.
With much love.