1. Know that sleep training is not the only way to get your baby to sleep
First things first, let’s get the most important part out of the way. Sleep training, Controlled Crying, Ferber Method, Extinction and any forms of Cry It Out (CIO) are not required to get your baby to sleep. Yes, you read that right. You do not have to sleep train your baby. You do not need to teach your baby to sleep. You can support your baby to sleep well, without doing anything that doesn’t feel right to you. No, it does not mean you are signing up to never sleep again.
2. Set realistic expectations
Keep the expectations low. Really low. Lower than that. Did you know that “sleeping through the night” at 4 months, means sleeping one, four hour stretch in a 24 hour period? (that’s right only one!). Sleeping through the night in general, for adults too, is a 6 hour stretch of consecutive sleep.
3. Learn what normal is for YOUR baby
Babies vary in the total amount of sleep that they need in a 24 hour period, and a quick google search will show you that even the “experts” completely disagree on this one. So, before getting down on yourself, if someone tells you that your baby is sleeping too much or too little consider that even adults have varying hours of sleep. The best clue as to whether your baby is getting enough sleep is the quality of their sleep and their mood on waking.
4. Develop solid Routines not Schedules
Around four months of age, babies begin to develop the mental capacity to notice patterns in their world so this is a good time to start building a routine. For example, your baby will begin to make connections that when the room is dark and daddy sings a lullaby, next it will be time to go to sleep. Keep in mind the distinction between routine versus schedule. Routine is the order in which things get done in relation to each other. A schedule is a plan based on the time on the clock. Focus on having solid routines, because frankly, babies can’t tell time! Note that routines for naps and bedtime do not have to be the same. The only constant is consistency – doing similar things in a predictable order every time.
5. Make friends with sleep associations
We all have sleep associations, or behaviors that help us to fall asleep. I for one need to go to the bathroom, brush my teeth and have water by my bedside in order to go to sleep. Sleep associations get a bad reputation when, in fact, they are your best friends and having more than one will set you up for sleep success. When you have lots of associations and you remove one, it may not be a very difficult adjustment. However, when you rely on only one thing to go to sleep and then you lose it, it can be much more difficult to adjust. Some examples of sleep associations include: routines, feeding/nursing, pacifiers, sounds, smells, darkness, sleep clothes, holding, rocking, patting. If a sleep association works for you and your baby, feel free to continue using it. In the same vein if it no longer serves you remember you can change a habit that is no longer working, when it stops working.
6. Know that wake windows and bedtimes vary
Keep in mind that bedtime can vary greatly (and be non-existent for newborns) for babies under 6 months because the circadian rhythm is not fully developed yet – so watch your baby, not the clock. Most babies will be within a range of wake windows, the amount of time they can tolerate being awake. For newborns this time period is extremely short (like, 30-45 minutes – that’s basically a feed and diaper change and back to sleep). For babies six months and older sleep happens when enough sleep pressure and sleep drive build up. Sleep pressure is a built-up chemical balance in the brain connected to the hormone melatonin. Melatonin, the relaxation and sleep hormone, is increasingly produced throughout the day and peaks in the evening hours. Amazingly it is also found in evening and nighttime breastmilk to help newborns whose bodies don’t produce it yet! Sleep drive is built up by the balance of time spent awake and decreased by time spent asleep. When sleep drive and melatonin peak together, they create a longer stretch of deep sleep, which often occurs at the start of the night. How can you help? Melatonin is moderated by light so be sure to keep artificial lighting to a minimum and use this build up of melatonin to your advantage by getting baby to bed with the sun. Depending on the season, and baby’s age, this often tends to fall between 6:00pm – 9:00pm. Make sure your baby is tired just enough by following both wake windows and their sleepy cues. Want to know more about sleepy cues and wake windows? Head over to our blog: Overtired Baby: How to Get an Overtired Baby to Sleep
7. Ditch the generic sleep advice
Do not, I repeat, do not follow manualized or generic sleep advice. Ditch the books that are older than you are. If you were sick, you wouldn’t use someone else’s prescription, you would go get your own. If it didn’t feel right, you might get a second opinion. Don’t take sleep (feeding etc.) or any other advice that was made for someone else, either.
8. Accept that nothing about sleep is linear
Your baby having a good nap or a good night means just that – that they had a good night or good nap. That is no indication on how they will sleep for the rest of their life. How they sleep is also not a reflection on how good of a parent you are. Entering parenthood can feel like a roller coaster and sleep is no different. You baby’s patterns will change many times throughout the first year. In fact, as soon as you feel you got it, it will change. You may as well settle in and get comfortable with the fact that when it comes to babies, change is the only constant. Go back and read what I wrote about routines versus schedules and save yourself the stress of feeling like you are off schedule.
9. Let your village in
Babies are born with the ability to form attachment to anyone. Having multiple attachments ensures that there is always a familiar, caring, loving adult around to meet their needs and help them feel safe and secure in the world (so they can easily drift off to that sweet sleep!). The new baby phase is the best time to bond with your baby, and for your baby to also bond with their other parent, grand parents, aunts, uncles, or with anyone else who you will entrust with their care. Having someone in addition to yourself who will bond with your baby and gain experience in putting them to sleep, will go a long way in giving baby’s primary caregivers (that’s you!) a much needed and well-deserved break.
10. Get to know your baby and their cries
You have just entered a new relationship with a tiny human whose main method of communication with you is crying. Crying is communication. It is not a sign that you are failing or doing anything wrong. Being there with your baby and listening to your baby’s cries will help you know when they are tired which will help in getting you (and them!) more sleep.