Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Teach Your Baby to Sleep through the Night

Last night I fed Betsy around 10:30 and put her to bed. Then we all slept until 7:00.

The first time I've had a full night's sleep since...last November?

This was the second night of our Ferber-esque quest to train her to sleep through the night. The first night she woke at her normal time and fussed for about 45 minutes before going back to sleep. I predict that tonight was somewhat of a fluke and a night or two of nighttime crying is still in our future. But I'm thrilled about the prospect of my new life as a person who rarely sees 3:00 a.m. face to face. (There's only a teensy slice of me who will miss snuggling up to a nursing baby in the quiet wee hours.)

With some of our babies, we've done brutal, cold-turkey cry-it-out routines. With others we've endured years of nighttime awakenings and bedtime battles. I'm a believer that it's well worth it to teach your baby to sleep through the night. Our babies that we've sleep trained have maintained healthy, well regulated sleep patterns for the rest of their childhoods. Mothers may give (nearly) all their waking hours to their children, but they need their own sleep at night in order to be happy and healthy themselves.

Here's the somewhat gentler version that Mark and I are using on Betsy:

Wait for the right time.
We've done it with a baby as young as three months, and I think that's the absolute earliest. Betsy is four months old, and that's probably more reasonable. By that time, babies don't physically night feedings, they're just in a bad habit. Don't do it with a baby who's underweight, sick, traumatized, undergoing some transition, or about to go on vacation.

Lay the foundation.
In my book, babies under three months get whatever they want, whenever they want it. That includes co-sleeping, round-the-clock feedings, and hours and hours in mother's arms. Even so, you can start gently nudging even a newborn toward good sleep habits. Give baby a bit of blanket time by lying her down during a happy, well-fed time each day. Sometimes put her into bed just before she's fully asleep and let her finish the job on her own. Try to put her to sleep at the same time in the same way each day.

Enlist Daddy.
Especially if you're nursing, you'll need Dad's help with this one. When baby sees you in the night, she thinks snack time. Sit this one out and let Dad handle it.

I am stupid in the night. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in bed furiously thinking, "So the baby last ate at two, and now it's does that mean she's hungry?" And a crying baby further diminishes mental capacity. Before you begin your sleep training system, map it out step by step. Make sure you and Daddy agree on exactly what you will do under any contingency.

There's nothing worse than starting to Ferberize a baby and then chickening out. You must commit. All the way. You must resolve that even if this baby chooses to scream until your heart and ears break, you will hold your course. There will surely come a time when you are tempted to swoop in and rescue your miserable baby. When that happens, tell yourself that your baby can learn to sleep through the night and that your whole family will be blessed when she does so. You're not traumatizing your baby, you're giving her the gift of self-regulation, sound nighttime sleep, and a well-rested mother.

Mark and I handle it thus: We choose a night when everything is typical--no big event day of, no big event the day after. Even if baby went to bed earlier in the evening, give her a nice big feeding right before you go to bed. When she cries in the night, wait a few minutes. If she's still crying after 3-5 minutes, send Dad in to pat her on the back and say, "Go to sleep baby." Dad shouldn't stay in the room for more than a minute or two.
If she's still crying after another 5 minutes or so, Dad makes another brief visit. Don't turn on the lights, don't pick her up, don't do anything stimulating at all. Your visits are to soothe her just a bit and let her know that you are around. But the whole point is that baby is the one who must put herself back to sleep.

As long as baby continues to cry--and it could be hours--send Dad in every 10 minutes or so to give her a brief pat on the back. It's grueling. It's painful. If Dad begins losing his mind, Mom can take a turn. If you're both seriously approaching meltdown, put in earplugs and sleep for a half hour.

After about three nights, you'll wake up one morning feeling strangely light and beneficent. You'll say, "Did you get up with the baby last night?" And he'll say, "No, did you get up with the baby last night?"

And life will have gotten a whole lot brighter.


  1. Hey I know you don't know me, but I was Ruthie's college roommate and she told me about this blog post because I have a 6 month old daughter. So I read it last night and we tried it last night. Hannah woke up to eat at 10:30 and I fed her and put her back in her crib. Around 12:30 she woke up and I tried the patting thing, and then she cried until 5:30 before I gave up and fed her and let her sleep with us again. I probably wasn't supposed to give up, but I was exhausted and so was my husband. Is it normal for her to cry for 5 hours? She went to sleep twice but it was only for about 30 minutes each time and then she woke up again... So I know you said she could cry for hours, but I was thinking that would be 3 at the most. I could be paranoid, but it's my first haha. In any case, the way she sleeps now, I have to do something, so I'm willing to keep trying it for a few more nights, but I was just wondering. Sorry for the long post from a person you don't know, but I had to ask. Thanks!

  2. Yikes Heather! Sounds like a rough night! I think crying for 5 hours isn't totally abnormal and calling 5:30 "morning" isn't a bad idea. It may be that your baby just needs a couple more rough nights.

    I might take a step back and look at your baby's sleep habits overall. Does she only sleep with you? If so, I'd work on teaching her to sleep alone for naps before making her do it all night long.

    I'd also check her daytime eating schedule. If she's eating every couple hours all day, then she needs to learn to stretch out her daytime feedings and then she'll do better at night. Or if she only eats 3 or 4 times in the day, she might be too hungry at night to sleep soundly.

    I know it's so hard, but if you conclude that your baby really is ready to sleep through the night, then you'll be so glad once you teach her to do it.

  3. Thanks! She eats a lot during the day, but I have a feeling it's because what I produce for her is pretty thin. So I think she is ready to sleep through the night I think she might just need more to eat before she goes to bed and more to eat during each feeding during the day so that she can stretch it out. She naps completely fine by herself and loves her crib for naps. But at night she just wants to sleep with us and refuses to go in her crib quietly. I think I'll try some changes during the day and try it for the next couple nights and if it doesn't work, revisit it in a month or so. Thank you so much for this post and your help! I appreciate it!

  4. Hooray for Betsy! Keep it up, girl!

    And Heather, hang in there! It'll work when she's ready, so just keep trying and making small changes until you and your babe find the perfect combo.

  5. Love this post. I just woke up from a good night's sleep the other day, and marvelled at how lovely and bright the world seemed.

  6. nothing better than a sleep trained baby : )

  7. I had to wait til Chris was out of town to do the Ferberesque!

  8. Life is especially brighter for the baby, I think. I was always reassured that all is forgotten by morning, and we were each of us happier.

  9. I'm way late to weigh in on Heather's issues, but when milk is thin, you can feed on only one breast per feeding. It can be uncomfortable for mom, but the baby gets more of the rich "hind-milk."