This is the story of how I helped my baby learn how to go from waking up every 60-90 minutes to sleeping for 11 hours straight.
(Hi, I’m writing about baby sleep on the internet. Am I new here? I’ve had, what, two babies and I think I can write about sleep?)
What this post is not
I am not an expert. I don’t want to solve all your problems. I don’t think you’re a terrible person for doing baby sleep differently.
I don’t think there’s one solution. This is merely what rescued us from a deep pit of sleepless despair. I realize it’s a case study of one, but it’s based on other smart people who’ve helped hundreds.
I’m writing it down in case you, too, are in a pit of sleepless despair and this might help you just a little bit. I’m writing it down in case we someday have another child and I want to remember what we did to make our lives infinitely better.
A little (not so) sleepy history
I don’t birth great sleepers.
Gabe was a terrible sleeper and still fights sleep.
Theo was great for the first few months (he fell asleep on his OWN! I didn’t even think babies existed like that.) (And by great, I don’t mean sleeping all night. No, no. More like 4-6 hours straight. Which felt magical!)
Then he hit four months or so, and things got dismal.
By the time he was 6 or 7 months old, things got more and more and more dismal and we were waking up every 60-90 minutes.
He’d scream for an hour and we’d take turns bouncing him on an exercise ball.
I cried I was so tired. I cried when I read that babies his age should be sleeping 12 hours straight.
It felt like a deep hole of sleeplessness that I had no idea how to dig myself out from. I felt like I broke my baby. Like I was doing it all wrong. I cannot overstate how crappy it felt.
And so, I took action.
I read a ton and watch a million hours of sleep webinars. I was ready to fix this. The only problem was I didn’t want to have to do a sleep intervention that involved more than 5 minutes of crying at a time. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we live in an apartment building and I didn’t want to subject my neighbors to an hour of sobbing at 3 am.
If I encountered a “sleep theory” that told me I’d be screwed if I didn’t follow their way, I immediately closed the book or clicked the x in the window. I’ve been a parent (and a human) long enough to know there are multiple paths to the same end.
Here’s what I consulted to create a plan of action:
ISIS Sleep Webinars – (Not that ISIS. Unfortunate name, super helpful parenting resources) These are my sleep Bible. I belong to the Church of Isis Sleep Webinars and like to evangelize how they saved my life. I’ve watched almost all of these more than once and have taken lots of notes. I watched them when I felt hopeless about sleep. They are so gracious and well-balanced. No ultimatums or parent shaming and allow for a wide variety of what’s okay.
Baby Sleep Science Resource Blog – Meg from the ISIS webinars went on to create this blog with another former ISIS sleep consultant. Lots of great posts here! (I was also thisclose to book a sleep consult with her. If my plan failed, it was my Plan B. I was so desperate.)
No Cry Sleep Solution – This book has mixed usefulness, but it was helpful in a few big ideas for me (I used her tables for data collecting) and the compassionate angle it took. Plus, it made me feel less alone in having a baby that didn’t sleep. That value is nothing to sneeze at.
Baby Sleep Site Schedule Maker – This helped me on a daily basis figure out what an approximate schedule should be. Just plugged in when he woke up and his age and BAM! Nap times.
What Fixed My Baby’s Sleep – 9 Actions We Took
Collecting data before starting.
I wanted to skip this part and just get to the fixing (I was so tired), but I’m glad I took the notes on phone and scraps of paper of when he woke, how long he was up, and how he fell back asleep.
It was a good place to start since I could see how bad it really was and that his overall sleep total was too low. It also was a good yardstick for progress later. (I love data.)
Giving him ibuprofen when he’s in pain.
He’s earache prone and likes to cut, like, 4 teeth at once. When in doubt, I give him medicine. This seems like a no-brainer, but there were many nights he’d be miserable and I didn’t realize it was pain. I can tell now that if he’s waking up 2 or more times a night, he likely has an earache. I give myself pain medication when I’m uncomfortable, so I should do the same for my baby!
A good sleep environment.
Super dark room, super loud white noise, and his favorite stuffed animal.
Having a plan
I wrote the plan out and shared it with Mike. I reread it every day to remind myself what the plan was. I even set it as the desktop background on our computer in the room. I knew consistency was key! I even wrote down his bedtime routine – even though it was just “diaper, book, song, bed.”
Also, I knew a little crying might happen, but I reminded myself that Theo cried when he had his diaper changed or got buckled into a car seat, so it’s not like crying always means he’s in despair and alone. Sometimes what’s in his best interest makes him cry a little!
Sticking to a ridiculously regular schedule.
Preserving his schedule come hell or high water made such a difference in his sleep habits. I actually have to wake him up almost every nap because sticking to the schedule.
It sucks to not be able to leave my house most mornings before noon (though 3 of those days I have a babysitter anyway so I can work), but the gloriousness of a consistent 2 hour nap every morning (and 1 hour in the afternoon) and better overnight sleep is so worth it.
I do break my rules sometimes, of course. But I’m addicted to his regularly scheduled napping time.
Moving him out of our room + white noise in our room.
He was probably around 7.5-8 months old when we finally moved him out of our room (pack n play at the end of our bed) and into Gabe’s room. We made sure to use white noise at a night for us, so we didn’t wake up every time he made a peep (he’s about 10 feet away on the other side of a wall, so we can hear everything).
Having my husband put him to bed at night.
I had read and heard that having a suck-to-sleep association at bedtime would make him expecting to be nursed to sleep when he awoke at night, so I had Mike take over his bedtime duties.
I’d nurse him at least 20 minutes before Mike started bedtime. Thanks to an established, super consistent yet simple bedtime routine, Theo was totally fine with it. (We never did this with Gabe while he was still nursing, and whoa, it helped so much.)
Teaching him to fall asleep on his own at bedtime.
After we transitioned him from not nursing to sleep, we (Mike, since he was bedtime duty) traded down sleep associations (as per this and this) from rocking to patting to singing. After that, to help him learn to fall asleep after just being placed in his bed, we did intervals where Mike would put him in bed after his song then would come comfort him after 1 minute, then 2 minutes, etc. (Resource 1 + 2)
We didn’t do more than 5 minutes of letting him cry. But since we’d already traded down sleep associations from nursing to just being patted or sung to and had a very consistent bedtime routine and schedule – it took just a few minutes of fussing for a few nights and he could fall asleep on his own.
Again, the idea is that how babies fall asleep at bedtime is how they expect to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night.
Night weaning verrrrry slowly.
I first documented how long and when he was nursing during night, then reduced it by 30 seconds every 2-3 nights (following these instructions.) I’d set a timer and gently unlatch Theo when the timer went off and would rock him. If he protested, I’d give it 30 seconds, then just let him nurse a little more.
I never thought it could work since Gabe nursed once a night until he completely weaned. But lo and behold! IT WORKED.
Sleep is good
Now he’s napping twice a day for 3 hours total and sleeps 11ish hours, usually straight. It’s an absolute miracle to be able to sleep. Writing this post has reminded me how terrible it was before Theo slept well. (Not just waking up, screaming for hours on end. It was huge progress when he slept for three hours straight. *shudder*)
I was so scared about going on vacation and ruining his sleep, but he’s bounced back quickly after a few days of his normal routine. God bless the internet for teaching me how to sleep train without lots of tears.
So much happier since sleeping more. SO much happier.
Not sleeping is so hard. It’s soul-crushing to have 6 months, 18 months, 2 years of not sleeping well.
Sending sleepy vibes your way, fellow tired mamas. May your babies sleep well and you have no insomnia. Amen.