Infant Sleep: How to Support Your Baby's Sleep WITHOUT Crying It Out
Sleep. Precious, precious, elusive sleep. Let's be honest, as parents we spend an absurd amount of time obsessing over it. Not just our own sleep, but our kids sleep. Are they sleeping? Why aren't they sleeping? When will they sleep more? Will I ever get a full uninterrupted 8 hours again?!
Please tell me that's not just me!?
Let me fill you in on a little back story, and why I feel like I have some valuable information to share with you guys on this important topic. Rewind about 3.5 years ago, and picture me, a first time mom. TOTALLY EFFING CLUELESS. I have a colicky, silent refluxy, high needs, BEAUTIFUL son, who WILL.NOT. SLEEP. 8 months in, and we were still waking up several times a night, I'm a zombie at work, and I'm quite literally close to losing my sanity from sleep deprivation. I'm not proud of it, but we tried traditional CIO methods, and not only did they not work, but nobody ever tells you that YOU'RE the one doing most of the crying. I would sit outside my son's room and be bawling my eyes out, couldn't last 5 minutes, and it just felt inherently wrong. But I was desperate. I was worried about myself, I could feel PPD/PPA creeping in on me, and I was also worried about my son. How could he be functioning and feeling his best with so little sleep?
Then God/fate/the universe stepped in, and on a whim I entered an online giveaway for a Gentle Sleep Coaching package AND I WON. I mean, can you imagine?! 8 months in, me, a desperate mombie, and I get that email saying "I'm going to help you figure this out...for FREE." I wept about a million happy tears. I connected with my sleep coach, and together we worked out a plan that I was comfortable with, and through her I learned so much about infant sleep, and how I was unknowingly sabotaging all my attempts to help my son learn to sleep. What I also learned is that sleep training/sleep coaching does not mean CIO. There are so many gentle, holisitic options for families to try. Ones that support breastfeeding, infant development, and yes, even co-sleeping.
After my experience, I became obsessed with the science behind infant sleep, and signed up to take the International Maternity and Parenting Institute course for Maternity and Infant Sleep Consultant. The IMPI offers tons of holistically minded courses for people interested in supporting parents through pre-conception, pregancy, and parenthood. I LOVED the course. It was in fact totally holistic in nature, I learned so much, and was able to apply it not only with my son, but with my daughter when she was born. Throughout the course, I realized that working in a one on one capacity with others wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do long term, so I did not complete the certification, but I did finish the course information. So although I know the information, I'm not qualified to work with anyone directly besides just giving general advice and personal recommendations, which I'm happy to do!
So, just a general note, most sleep coaches will not even recommend a formal sleep method until a baby is around 6 months. Up to that point, there are just too many variables of growth and development for most babies, and neurologically and developmentally, most babies just don't have the tools to "learn" sleep until this point. Does that mean that babies don't sleep through the night before then? No, in fact, some babies will do this on their own with no help at 6 weeks old...we call those magical unicorn babies, and although we are happy for you and your unicorn baby, we secretly hope your next baby doesn't sleep at all. Just kidding....sort of...
Also, I want to be totally honest here, I'm not perfect. Whatever that means. With my second kiddo, I did things a whole heck of a lot different than my first, and yes that means I held her ALL THE TIME. I held her during naps. I nursed her to sleep. We co-slept until she could crawl off the bed. And she figured it out all on her own, with us incorporating most of these strategies from around 6-8 weeks on. I'm not saying I didn't still hold and nurse her to sleep, or that she didn't still sleep with us in our bed, but I'm saying that utilizing these strategies, while we figured out what worked best for our family and THIS individual baby really helped lay a healthy foundation for sleep. So there's that.
So what can you do in the interim to help support sleep and encourage the development of healthy sleep habits in your child as they grow? Luckily, there's a lot you can do!
1) MAKING SURE YOU ARE EMOTIONALLY CONNECTED:
Perhaps the biggest thing I would suggest working on from the start is fulfilling the emotional needs of your baby from day one. What does that look like for newborns? It looks a lot like holding, holding, holding...nursing/bottle feeding on demand, throwing any sort of ideas about a schedule out the window, and just being present. A newborn's needs are food, sleep, and connection. With my first, I was so focused on teaching him how to sleep, I'm talking about from day one, that I took every chance I could to put him down...I didn't want to spoil him, I didn't want to teach him to rely on nursing to sleep.....let me just be totally honest about my personal experience..I REGRET THAT SO MUCH. I was fighting so much to try and get back to what I knew as my "normal life", that I failed to understand or accept that life would not be that way again. I resented it, I fought for it, but as soon as I learned to accept and embrace my new normal, I was able to move forward. Think about adult sleep, when we are stressed from our environment, our relationships, when our needs are not being met, how do we sleep? The answer for most, is like S%$@. Emotional issues will often times manifest themselves in our sleep state--for adults that can be insomnia, anxiety, nightmares, frequent night waking, etc...why wouldn't that be the same for babies?
Ok, there is no judgement on this post, if you disagree, that's totally fine by me! My job is to talk about my personal experiences, and try to present information that is based on science. That's where these environmental considerations are coming from, but no doubt I'll have someone message me saying that THEIR baby doesn't fit into these general recommendations. That may be totally true, BUT for the most part, a majority of babies will thrive with these general sleep conditions, so if you are having trouble with sleep, trying to just make a few of these adjustments and seeing what happens might be the best place to start for you. If, after a few weeks, you find that nothing has changed, then pivot and try something else!
DARKNESS: Believe it or not, babies are not born with a fear of the dark. In fact, the womb is pretty damn dark. Babies actually are only inherently born with the startle reflex which can be attributed to their natural reaction to the sensation of falling, loud noises, etc. Fear of the dark is not an inherent reaction, but a learned one. Think about what we know about blue light, and how adults best sleep...we know that unnatural exposure to blue light for adults leads to disrupted sleep on a hormonal level. As an adult, do you sleep best at night with darkness or a night light? One study determined that our bodies can feel the affect of a single laser point of light on our skin while we sleep....a hormonal reaction will occur, and can cause a night waking, even if our EYES aren't perceiving the light.
I'm not saying it has to be PITCH black, but a room that is mostly darkened will best support the natural development of a normal circadian rhythm. Plus, as your baby gets older and becomes more alert and interactive with their environment, being able to see everything in their room can be a real distraction and impede falling asleep. Darkness can also be a natural cue to your baby about what to expect...for instance, when it is time to sleep, we go to our room, and it is dark. It's not sleep training, but it is a sort of conditioning that we all do for ourselves as adults. Whether that's through environmental signaling, or simply a night time routine that helps our bodies transition to a sleep state. There are tons and tons of blackout curtains and sleep shades available to help with this, but if you're ghetto like us, tinfoil and thick curtains work pretty well. :)
With newborns, trying to avoid turning on an overhead light during night time feedings or diaper changes would be a great thing to start implementing right away. Flooding you and your kiddo with blue light, multiple times throughout the night, will not only affect your baby's development of normal circadian rhythm and sleep cycles, but will also jack your sleep cycles up as well. Pink himalayan salt lamps, night lights that don't have blue light, head lamps (if you want to feel really cool and fashionable), etc...can be great sources of gentle low light for these instances. And for god sakes, put down your phone at night. I was totally guilty of this with my first, I was up so much at night, I figured, why not get on Facebook while I nurse. Then I wondered why I couldn't fall back asleep. (insert face palm here). I promise Instagram will be there in the morning--do this one not just for your baby, but for you!
TEMPERATURE: For most humans, sleep is optimized somewhere in the 68-72 degree range. Of course, there are people who will naturally fall outside of this general range, but as far as figuring out what works best for you baby, this is a good average to start experimenting with. Remember what it feels like to lie in bed and be HOT?? It's not fun. It's also effing terrible to lay there shaking your balls off, unable to get warm. This is why temperature can play a significant role in getting comfortable and relaxed enough to fall asleep. Remember, it is not recommended that babies sleep with blankets in their beds, so if they are sleeping in a crib and not co-sleeping (for which there are a whole other set of safe sleeping recommendations), you'll want to take that into consideration when dressing them for bed. We love footie jammies that zip up in our house because for the love of pete who the F@#$ wants to button 57 tiny buttons at 3:12 am? Honestly, I don't understand why button baby jammies are a thing. It's just not ok.
NOISE: Again, I feel like some of this is common sense, but I'm going to throw it out there because I had no clue and I wish someone had told me! There are two schools of thought here, one is that a baby should be able to sleep through loud noises, vacuums, movies, etc....and one that it should be so quiet you could hear a pin drop during nap time. So what's the right thing? Honestly, I've done both. With my first, I was a quiet NAZI. I would shoot a mouse the death stare from across a room if he farted during nap time. The downside of that was that it was so quiet that if we DID make noise, he would wake up. On the other hand, with Camille, when she was a baby, I basically held her for the first 8 weeks of her life. Meaning she napped in my arms, with the tv on, brother screaming, all the noises. All the time. But when I did need to put her down during this time, we heavily relied on WHITE NOISE. The thing was, she would sleep awesome in my arms with noise all around, but the second I would put her down and something would startle her, forget it! The thing is, her napping in my arms with noises blaring was fine in the beginning. Tiny baby squishes sleep SO much in the beginning. As she got older though, and more alert, and more aware of her surroundings, this became more and more difficult to do.
Again, I'm going to ask you how YOU best sleep? Do you like to take naps while the tv is blaring? Do you love it when you're napping on the couch and someone up and vacuums your rug? Or, on the flip side, do you like it when its totally quiet? It's worth repeating, I know someone is going to say "oh, i love sleeping with a tv blaring in the background" or "it has to be totally quiet for me to relax", and look, I get it, people are unique AF. But for the most part, for the MAJORITY of people, what we call ambient noise (white noise, fans, rain, dryer, etc.) in the background makes it easier to sleep. Not only does it help to block out other loud sounds, but it also helps ease most minds into a more relaxed state. It's science bro.
There are tons of apps out there you can use, as well as good old fashioned fans, but we use this white noise machine and I LOVE IT. It's the best purchase I've ever made, and we all sleep better at night because of it! It will run all night with no timer, and the volume has two settings. Keep in mind you don't want your white noise blaring, it needs to be at a moderate level, not jet engine landing.
3) LOOSE ROUTINE:
So focusing on the above two things for the first 12 weeks, or what is often times considered the "fourth trimester" is really the only thing I would suggest in those very crucial early moments with your new kiddo. Not only is "sleep training" dangerous for many reasons at this age (among them the need to feed on demand OFTEN, the inability to neurologically organize sleep, and the need to form a strong connection to you, their sole provider), but melatonin levels, which are crucial to forming normal circadian rhythms, are often times not at more stable levels until after 12 weeks or older.
At around 12 weeks, sometimes earlier if babe is showing signs of organizing sleep naturally before then, I would start incorporating loose structure to your sleep routines. What does that mean?
TIMING: Trying to loosely follow what a typical schedule might look like for the age of your baby. This site has a ton of great examples of sleep schedules for every age. Keep in mind these are general recommendations. This includes suggested nap times, and bedtimes, as well as trying to have an understanding of what your infant's sleep needs are for optimal growth, development, and restoration. At 12 weeks, baby is still napping a ton during the day (and those may look like 4-5 shorter naps as baby hasn't yet starting consolidating day time sleep--this is normal). Between 3-4 months, you may find that baby may drop the evening catnap, and bedtime might start to move up from 9/10 pm, to more like 6:30/7ish. An infant in the 3-4 month range will need on average 12-16 hours of sleep a day (this includes day and night time sleep).
BABIES NEED SLEEP. Please please please don't try and keep your baby awake during the day so that they sleep better at night. What you'll end up having is an overstimulated, EXHAUSTED, tired but wired kiddo, that more often than not will have even more trouble falling and staying asleep. If you only take one thing with you from this whole article it's that sleep begets sleep. Well rested kiddos are generally happier and sleep better at night.
ROUTINE: In addition to meeting emotional needs, and starting to incorporate some of the environmental suggestions previously discussed, you might start to consider a loose bedtime routine for you and baby. I say loose, because being too rigid can back fire at times with a kiddo who cannot fall asleep if things are not "just so". (I have a kiddo like this :-P) Consider this routine an opportunity to connect with your baby, and to teach him patterns--a mental leap that will develop as he grows in the next few months. Babies, much like many adults, thrive when they begin to understand consistency and what to expect. Here are some things you might want to try when playing with a routine that works for you.
- A gentle, calming bath.
- Short, non-stimulating books.
- A special night night song.
- A special night night story.
- gentle infant massage.
- A special word or phrase that you use when putting your baby down to sleep (we use "night night, I love you.")
Really, your routine can be anything that works for you! This is a great time to get your spouse involved with baby to help foster that connection as well. Only thing you want to do is try and keep it low key, calming, and relatively short and sweet. Other than that, make it special!
So there you have it. This actually turned into a novel, but rather than cut out good, quality information in an effort to be more concise, I hope that maybe, just maybe, one mama out there finds something in these suggestions that makes sense to them. There is a ton of more information, questions, schedule issues, environmental, emotional, developmental and random considerations out there, but in the spirit of keeping it simple in a time where sleep deprivation is a very real thing, this is where I would start! Also, keep in mind, there are normal, natural disruptions of even seemingly consistent sleep patterns that can occur throughout baby's growth and development, and it is OKAY. The key is maintaining consistency with what YOU'RE doing, and those rough patches will pass much easier.
Feel free to comment with any other considerations that have worked for you, we'd love to hear it!