Sleep training caveat: Be sure to check with your pediatrician before embarking upon a sleep training adventure.
There are instances where sleep training should be postponed due to slow weight gain and/or other medical conditions. As long as your baby is healthy and the pediatrician agrees they can sleep through the night (which in my mind is 12 hours), then seeing your baby sleep for long stretches is in your future! Let’s begin…
A baby technically “sleeps through the night” when they sleep for 5 hours straight. Sleeping from 10pm-3am was not cutting it for me, so when Esther was 3 months old, I asked our pediatrician when I could expect her to sleep through the night. He said now. I was taken aback and totally caught off-guard. I had no idea what sleeping training was, so I asked how you phase out feedings and he said if the baby is waking up with really full peepee diapers, they are getting plenty. He pointed out, “We’re adults and when we wake up, we don’t get a snack from the kitchen at 1am. There comes a time when the baby can sleep through the night without needing to eat.” When the girls slept for 5-6 hours straight, I learned they do not need a midnight feeding. They do not need to eat at 2am either. So what is sleep training?
I needed to learn, so I have read countless books and articles on the subject of sleep (I keep a bibliography because I will often forget if I have read something before – thanks twin mommy brain). I am happy to share what I have learned on the subject of sleep. For example, there is no research supporting giving a baby a tummy full of cereal helps them sleep longer. Scientifically proven, exclusively breastfed babies and parents sleep about 45 minutes more each night than formula-fed babies. Another interesting tidbit: the neurological systems for our little ones is different from adults. So, waking a baby up, or keeping them awake thinking they will sleep longer when you do allow them to fall asleep is not true. So, cutting out naps or trying to keep your baby up later in hopes of him/her sleeping in will not work. If you find a peer-reviewed study published in a reputable journal which supporting this, then I’ll believe it, but right now – sleep begets sleep. The more you sleep, the more you sleep. However, it’s a different story if you have little ones who need to eat every 2-3 hours for proper weight gain. Please remember, waking up a baby to ensure they sleep later makes no sense, and there is no science or research backing this up. I am certain there will be some moms who say, “Well, it worked for my kid.” My response is, you should do what’s right for you, but I’m going off of research conducted in peer-reviewed journals. I personally like to stick with evidence-based sleep science.
Here is just a sampling of the sleep-related books I read in no particular order:
- Ezzo, G., Bucknam, R., “On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep”
- Ferber, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems: New, Revised, and Expanded Edition”
- Karp, Harvey, “The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep: Simple Solutions for Kids from Birth to 5 Years”
- Weissbluth, Marc, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”
- Weissbluth, Marc, “Healthy sleep habits, happy twins : a step-by-step program for sleep-training your multiples”
- West, Kim, “Good night, sleep tight: the Sleep Lady’s gentle guide to helping your child go to sleep, stay asleep, and wake up happy”
- McKenna, James, “Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping”
How I sleep trained my singleton, then my twin babies:
I gave myself some time to mentally prepare because it’s really hard to hear your baby cry and know all they want is you and you have the magic boobies to make it all better. We trained Esther at 4.5 months when I was ready to lose my mind.
Up until this point, I followed what I read in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League. I would nurse her until she was completely asleep and ever-so-gently lift her up and tenderly place her in her crib. If she stirred or woke up even slightly, I would need to start all over again because she associated nursing with falling asleep. I was not giving her the chance to learn the skills to fall asleep on her own. I was literally a human pacifier and it was really, really exhausting.
At first with Esther, I started with Ferber where you try graduated extinction. You set a timer and go in after a given amount of time if the baby is still crying. You space the time out, so it’s 5 minutes at first, then 10, then 20 etc. I realized this is harder on the parents than the baby. By going in I was only hitting the “reset” button for Esther and reinforcing the behavior of, “If I cry long enough and hard enough, they’ll eventually come in.” It was heart wrenching. No thank you. It was not going to work for me.
I think I eventually landed closer to what Weissbluth recommends in Baby Wise and Harvey Karp (who I really like – he is the Happiest Baby on the Block pediatrician), which is super simple and basic. Go through your nighttime routine (could be bath, nursing, stories, etc.), and put the baby in the crib while they are still awake and showing the very first signs of sleepiness. Voila! They are done for the night.
Josh and I just decided it was time and we did not go into her room for a good 8-10 hours after we put her to bed. NO MATTER WHAT. Esther cried for 1.5 hours the first night, 45 minutes the next night, then fell asleep quickly on the third night. We did this over a weekend, so Sunday night was awesome. I felt so well rested come Monday morning!
Eventually, she stretched out her sleep duration on her own to 11-12 hours. In my experience, babies will slide backwards and occasionally wake up early (like 2am or 3am) and cry for a while (sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 1.5 hours!), but I will not go into the room because it only reinforces the behavior: crying = mama gets me. Once I start to hear intermittent crying, I know she is beginning to wind down and it’s only moments until she falls back asleep.
Now with my twins, Miriam and Ilana, they learned to fall asleep on their own at 3.5 months. There are some nights they fall asleep with their screaming/crying sister in the crib next to them because this is life baby – buckle up. I cannot kowtow to a crazy sleep routine because I just don’t have the luxury with three. I put my girls in their cribs at the very first sign of sleepiness (a yawn, eye rub, or just becoming a little mellow and quiet). It’s like they are telling me they are ready to wind down. They’ll go in their cribs looking wide eyed and squealing/screeching in the most adorable way – but I know they are tired, they need their sleep and within 10-15 minutes they are done with their antics, roll over and fall asleep.
As long as they are not screaming bloody murder, I am not going in (also it helps to see them on the video monitor). I can make up a bunch of excuses as to why they need me in there. “They look like their legs are stuck between the crib slates. Maybe she pooped herself? Maybe she peed all over herself?” It’s all silly – they just need to sleep, and I cannot do it for them – they need to figure it out.
At 3.5 months, the twins were successfully sleeping 11-12 hours straight through the night. I think it’s good to know (for other mamas of multiples) they sleep in the same room in side-by-side cribs. In so doing, they have learned to sleep through their sister crying next to them. If one wakes up, I don’t remove the other in fear of her waking up her sister.
Here is a typical sleep schedule at 6 months of age.
6pm: big nursing session and down for the night
5:45am: big nursing session and diaper change
6:05am: back to sleep
7:45am: up for breakfast of baby food because milk won’t fully satisfy them now. We usually have oatmeal mixed with pureed fruit like prunes or applesauce.
9am: morning nap for 1-2 hours
1pm: afternoon nap 1-2 hours
5:30pm: start bedtime routine of putting on nighttime diapers & change into jammies
6pm: big nursing session and down for the night
Helping the Baby Self Soothe (removing the sleep crutches, e.g. pacifiers, rocking, tummy rubs)
Once I put my girls down for the night, I do not go back in. To calm themselves, my babies suck their thumbs or fingers. My girls weaned themselves off of a pacifier before 9 weeks old. Very early on, we tried the pacifier for one night with Esther and it was nothing but an exercise in me getting up every 30 minutes to put it back in. Esther would suck on her binky until she’d get sleepy and relax enough to let the pacifier fall out of her mouth. Once it fell out, she would absent-mindedly make the sucking motion and wake herself up when the pacifier wasn’t in her mouth anymore. She needed the pacifier to fall back asleep (sleep crutch!), and with it missing, she would wake up and cry for me. No bueno. Through this experience, I learned not go in because I couldn’t keep it up. She needed to figure out how to fall asleep on her own.
We once had a babysitter ask what to do if the girls wake up. Josh and I jumped out of our skin to say, “Nothing! Don’t go in there!” She asked if she should just go in, rub their back or pick them up, let them know someone was there. I nearly yelled, “Please don’t! If you go in to soothe them, they’ll expect it all the time and they’ll need it to fall asleep!”
I know this all sounds super simple, but I guarantee it worked for us. If you consistently go in to replace a pacifier or offer comfort, the baby will rely on those things to fall asleep again. They are sleep crutches. Harvey Karp talks about making the room/sleep environment exactly what it will be like when they wake up in the middle of the night. If they fall asleep alone in their crib, then they’ll wake up and think, “Oh hey, I’m still here and it’s still dark out- I guess I’ll just go back to sleep.” If they are used to you rocking them to sleep with a pacifier, the baby will wake up and think, “Wait, I don’t remember any of this! I was just being rocked with my binky, I need those things – BLAAAAAHWAAAA!”
The name of the game is teaching them to get a good night of sleep on their own.
The Signs of Sleepiness
I have found a lot of people miss the signs of sleepiness. They are subtle, but once I tuned into them, it’s clear to see when my girls are getting tired and time is of the essence to get them down for a nap, or for the night. If I miss their sleepy time window, they become overtired and calming them down to get to sleep is nearly impossible. They become wired and the window is closed. Signs of sleepiness are exactly what you would expect them to be: a yawn, eye rub, or just becoming a bit quiet, mellowing out, slowing down, or spacing out. My girls even get a little pink and puffy around their eyes. Not many people notice it, but it’s a very clear sign to parents who pay close attention. Josh and I act on these signs right away and we don’t understand parents who take their child’s quietness as a sign they are just playing nicely. This may be so, but most often those same kids quickly cross over into tired & wild behavior, and then it’s really hard to get a kid to sleep. When a well-meaning peer tells me my child is fine, I have to follow my mommy gut because I know they need to get to bed. If not, my girls and I will be the ones suffering the overly exhausted consequences in a few hours, not the well-meaning adult. I know when my children are on the threshold of blissful sleep and I need to take advantage of this time immediately. I have seen what happens otherwise and it’s not pretty.
Furthermore, the baby needs to learn the signals for bedtime, they will self-soothe (my girls like sucking their thumbs or fingers), and they will fall asleep on their own. My girls know when I bring them into the nursery to eat in the dark (because they are so easily distracted) it’s sleepy time and they immediately become little cuddly/sleepy babies (it’s so sweet). I cannot nurse them in my bedroom where Esther is bouncing around and daddy is there to play with and get distracted. Their big bedtime signal is nursing in their dark bedroom.
Go with your gut
My girls will occasionally deviate and try to push the envelope. For example, just last night Ilana had been crying for 20 minutes when I got home from yoga at 8:15pm. Josh was very sad about it, but she had been asleep for no more than 2 hours, she did not need anything. Josh and I had to “be strong” for one another and fight the urge to get her because we both knew nothing was wrong and she was just going to play us once we walked into the nursery (all giggles and smiles once we enter the room – totally cute, but not helping with getting sleep). It’s really hard to hear them cry, but I know they don’t need anything. If I went in to nurse her, she would wake up again at 11pm, then at 2am, etc. It’s a matter of what behavior I reinforce. I know it’s not nice, but it’s a lot like dog training. I don’t have a dog, but I have three kids I often train like little puppies! It’s classical conditioning. For my girls, crying = mama gets me. When they cry it gets the desired reaction from me/Josh, we get them. Babies are very very smart – they are training us! You hear a cry and it gets a reaction, who is training who?! We did not go in to get her last night and then I didn’t hear from Ilana or Miriam until 6am this morning. Blessed sleep!
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this though. Josh will reference one time when Esther was crying really hard and his daddy-gut told him something was wrong. Esther had pooped all over herself and he was vindicated for going in to get her. Still, 99 out of 100 times – the girls do not need anything. They poop themselves in their sleep all the time and sleep through it! If your gut tells you something is different about the cry and it just feels wrong to not attend to your baby – by all means, go to them. I always trust my gut and it’s never failed me.
You care for and love your little one 24/7. You deserve a good night of sleep because if mama is happy, then everyone is happy. You are giving her the gift of good sleep. This gift keeps on giving!
Here’s a great bonus. Teaching Esther good sleep habits early on has made her the easiest kid to get to nap and go to bed. Esther basically puts herself to bed. It’s FAN-TAS-TIC. Friends, family, our nanny and babysitters tell us how Esther is awesome and so easy to watch. She is an amazing little girl and very well behaved. She is totally wonderful, magical, and so much more – but we had to sleep train her because I was otherwise going to lose my mind! The benefits continue throughout toddlerhood! She gets into bed and doesn’t call out or whine, she knows it’s bedtime and that is that. She’ll play with her toys/books in bed, but she doesn’t fight us on going to sleep. Now that is wonderful and magical.