When Oliver was just a few weeks old, I learned that “sleeping through the night” is medically defined as sleeping for five consecutive hours. What I didn’t know at the time, however, is that it refers to a very specific five hours; namely, the hours between midnight and 5:00 A.M. I also didn’t know that during those hours, babies are in their light sleep phase and will rouse approximately every 45 minutes. Thus, “sleeping through the night” does not mean that the baby actually sleeps through this period without waking. It means that upon waking, the baby is able to put him or herself back to sleep without assistance.
I learned that babies’ sleep patterns change at around four months of age. This was why our baby who had previously been sleeping for seven to eight hours at a stretch suddenly decided he needed to wake every two or three hours.
At the beginning of February, J and I hired a sleep consultant to help us teach Oliver to sleep through the night. That’s where I learned all of those interesting details above. In retrospect, we probably could have done the sleep training ourselves if we’d just followed the advice in the books we read, but the sleep consultant was beneficial in that she forced us to implement a consistent strategy and routine, to meticulously document all of Oliver’s activities for several weeks, and to be accountable to someone (i.e. her) for following Oliver’s routine as closely as possible. She reviews and provides feedback on our daily activity logs, and is available to troubleshoot and answer questions throughout the process.
Our sleep training goal was to have Oliver sleeping 12 uninterrupted hours each night — 7:30 P.M. to 7:30 A.M.
Before we started sleep training, Oliver was going to bed around 9:00 P.M. and sleeping until somewhere between 3:00 to 5:00 A.M., when he would wake up crying and not be able to be settled without a feed. He would then go back to sleep until 7:30 A.M., feed again, and go back to sleep until 9:30 or later. We wanted to get Oliver to bed at a more timely hour and eliminate the early morning (3:00 to 5:00) feeding, which had been shifting progressively earlier.
Here are the strategies we employed:
Move him into his own room, into a regular crib. Install light-blocking curtains and run a white noise machine.
Devise a daily schedule of naps and feedings, and work towards following it as closely as possible. This has been a difficult process for us, as it required scaling Oliver’s feedings back from eight sessions to five (which will further reduce to four once he is taking in solids on a regular basis), and trying to keep him awake for much longer stretches than he was previously accustomed to. We are still not entirely on the schedule, but our days follow a consistent pattern, and we are gradually working our way towards it.
Stretch daytime feedings as much as possible to every four hours (presently, we’re anywhere from three to four hours).
Implement a bedtime routine to allow him to understand what to expect next, and to help him gear down for sleep. Our nightly routine includes: a bath (with or without actual washing), baby lotion and hair brushing, some naked playtime, a story, putting on PJs, brushing teeth, having a drink of water, and finally, nursing (but not nursing to sleep!).
Remove the “sucking to sleep” association — no pacifiers and no nursing to sleep. We had already implemented this step a few weeks prior to officially beginning sleep training, and it helped Oliver to go from waking every couple of hours to only waking once each night.
Put the baby to bed awake so that he learns how to fall asleep without assistance.
Implement a parent-led “dream feed,” to start no later than 11:00 P.M. (while the baby is still in a deep sleep phase, and before he transitions to light sleep). This is the feed that will be eliminated once Oliver is taking in more solids.
Ignore mild fussing. Allow the baby to have controlled opportunities to learn to soothe himself (limited crying), but avoid prolonged crying, crying to the point of vomiting, crying to hysteria, or crying to exhaustion. The sleep consultant gave us a time-based strategy for dealing with crying, but we prefer to just use our best judgement as to when Oliver needs our help.
When it is obvious that Oliver is not going to soothe himself, J is the one who goes to comfort him, in order to avoid the association of mom equals feeding. He does not remove Oliver from his crib; rather, he pats or rubs his tummy or back, while whispering, “shhhhhhh.” Sometimes his presence helps to calm Oliver, and so he stays until Oliver has settled. Other times, it only seems to rile Oliver up even more, so J stays for a couple of minutes and then leaves. He returns if the crying does not subside soon after.
We do not remove Oliver from his crib until the designated wake-up time, unless there are exceptional circumstance (e.g. he went to bed extra early for some reason).
We delay Oliver’s morning feed so that he does not associate waking with being fed immediately. This way, if he wakes before the designated time, he can play quietly in his crib without feeling too hungry. Instead, J gets Oliver out of bed, changes him and plays with him, while I get myself washed and dressed. Once I am finished getting ready, J brings Oliver to me for his first feeding.
Once Oliver has had his morning feed, he is kept awake for the morning (until nap time, of course). This was one of the most difficult changes for us to make, as we were accustomed to feeding him around 7:00 A.M. and then all of us going back to sleep for another couple of hours. The sleep consultant explained that allowing Oliver to go back to sleep would perpetuate the night feed/waking problem, since Oliver would not be capable of distinguishing this feed from a feed that occurs earlier (in the middle of the night).
We have completed 18 of the 21 days of the sleep training program, and Oliver has slept through the night without parental assistance for the last 12 nights straight! He sometimes wakes briefly between 6:00 and 7:00, but has been able to settle himself back to sleep (until 7:30 or later) with minimal fuss.
Here is the schedule we are working towards:
07:30 – wake up
07:45 – first feeding
08:30 – breakfast (solids)*
10:00 – nap (1 hour)
11:30 – second feeding
12:00 – lunch (solids)
14:00 – nap (2 hours)
16:00 – third feeding
17:30 – supper (solids)
18:30 – start bedtime routine
19:15 – fourth feeding
19:30 – put to bed
(23:00 – dream feed)
*Note: the scheduling of breast feeding and meals will change as he begins to take in more solids. Right now, he is being breastfed before his meals to minimize frustration, since he does not actually consume much food. He is also only having one meal of solids per day at this time.
Sleep training has been a great experience for our family. It has resulted in a happier and more well-rested baby, and added an element of predictability to our lives. I believe that I am calmer, more patient and more enthusiastic parent, and am much better equipped to take on the challenges and joys of parenthood.