Funny that I was already working on a post on the topic of baby sleep habits when the book “Go the F— To Sleep” became the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon.com yesterday. It’s essentially an R-rated parody of a children’s book that no doubt is hilarious to both those parents who have a problem and those parents who don’t admit that they have a problem when it comes to getting their kids to sleep. But really, it’s no coincidence. Among parents with young children, sleep is the topic du jour every jour.
Most of the time the topic comes because there’s something about their babies’ sleep habits that mommies (and daddies) are struggling with. The issues are all over the board–baby won’t sleep in the crib, baby wakes up super early, baby only falls asleep in mom’s arms or in bed with mom and dad, baby doesn’t nap, baby doesn’t sleep through the night, and on and on. Most of the time during these conversations I hear other mommies commiserating; rarely do you hear mommies talking about what’s working when it comes to sleeping babies.
It could be that the issue of sleep just gets totally marginalized in mommies’ brains once their wee ones start sleeping through the night; it’s like if it’s not a 4 am-problem, it doesn’t get bandwidth. (I totally get that.) Or it could be that mommies who are seeing some degree or another of sleep success are afraid to sound like either braggards or know-it-alls, if they talk about it. (I get this, too.)
The latter is in fact a little bit my fear in writing this post, but the possibility that something I write could help any one of my mommy friends currently struggling with a monster at bedtime is enough to take me out on this limb.
I lucked out and my wee one started sleeping through the night at seven weeks. He did it on his own (or so I thought at first), so for awhile I just enjoyed it. But I couldn’t stop wondering what what made him suddenly do it. I also wanted to be sure I didn’t do anything going forward that would mess it up. Sleep is good.
A number of parents I know swear by Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. In the interest of full disclosures, I’ve never read the book. My go-to guru on baby sleep habits was an old friend, Meg Casano, who had in the many years since we used to tear up the playground together gone on to become a nurse and then an infant sleep consultant with Baby Sleep Science. (You may remember that I’ve written about Meg before, when she launched a blog to illustrate successful sleep training techniques.) But I’m guessing, given that my friend completed a lot of her training and research with a woman who got her start with Dr. Weissbluth, that her sleep philosophy is of the same vein as Weissbluth’s.
There has been a lot of back and forth with Meg over the months to get me to the point where I understand what baby needs and can make adjustments as necessary. I don’t want to get bogged down in every detail, so I’m going to boil it all down to the five things I’ve learned about babies and sleep that have not only helped me ensure baby is getting healthy doses of Zzzzs but also allowed me gain a few hours of my life back every day. Both are priceless.
- Know the basics. I’m not someone who can really follow anything to the letter–my schedule is too erratic–so, just having someone give me a few rules of thumb to think about while I’m managing the rest of the chaos was really helpful.The big one I think about nearly every day (even now that baby’s almost a year old) is how much total sleep baby is getting in any given 24 hour period. It’s recommended that babies get, on average, between 10.5 and 12 hours at night and then around 3 hours during the day across typically two naps. That’s just a rule of thumb, so I’m not exacting on executing on it, but it definitely helps me gauge where baby is during the day.
- Bedtime is serious business.The one thing I’m really pretty anal about is baby’s bedtime. And it’s more out of necessity than anything else. Once he hits his wall, it’s meltdown city and, at the end of the day when I’m tired and my nerves are shot, honestly, I can’t deal. So, baby has a pretty strict routine.My friend recommends babies hit the crib sheets sometime between 6:30pm and 8:00pm. In our case, we head up to the nursery around 6:30-6:45pm. Baby gets a diaper change, put in his jammies, and then has a little time to play while I read stories. After about 15-20 minutes of play, I nurse (maybe 10-15 minutes at this stage of the game) and then it’s lights out by 7:30pm.
- Never underestimate the power of naps. I’ll be the first one to admit that baby and I are still working on getting him on a really good nap schedule. We’re doing better–he’s pretty consistent with a morning nap now–but the afternoons are still hit or miss. But knowing that baby needs three hours one way or another is helpful because even if he won’t rack out in his crib for a full-fledged nap, I can start to count his quick snoozes in the car or stroller toward the three hour goal. And I’ll tell you the days that he gets his full three hours of naptime, he is definitely a happier baby at the end of the day than the days he doesn’t quite squeeze it all in.But the one thing I have noticed about baby and his naps is that if I take the time to enhance his sleep environment, his chances for nap success are higher. I think at bedtime, he’s more tired, so he’s less distracted by everything and anything; but during the day, I have to try harder to work him down so he will get some good daytime Zzzs.
My friend recommends room-darkening shades and a white-noise machine. I have neither, but I don’t turn on any lights and I’ve also started playing very soothing music–my favorite right now is Baby Einstein’s “Naptime Melodies”–and it really helps set the mood. I put it on about 10 minutes before I nurse and by the time I hear the whale sounds in song 6, nine times out of 10 baby is asleep.
- Routine is key.It pains me to say that, as I don’t like to characterize myself as someone who “schedules” everything. But life with baby is so much easier when there’s some predictability to it. You find yourself getting really efficient during naptime because you know how much time you have to check things off your list and the whole bedtime process goes so much quicker. (At this stage, if I’m entertaining at home, I can get it done in about 10 to 15 minutes.)So, in our house, baby gets up every day at roughly the same time (within a 30-minute window), I try to get him to nap (as best I can) at about the same time every day, and he most definitely goes to bed at pretty the same time every night.
- Take ten minutes.No one likes to hear their wee one wail, but it’s likely going to be part of the process. The good news is that once baby is in a routine, there’s less crying. But there’s still a little bit of crying, so don’t try to hold out for a perfect–and improbable–bedtime situation. Even now, there are days when my wee one is just really angry at me when I put him down in his crib. So, here’s what I do: tell him I love him and walk out.Babies need to learn to put themselves to sleep or they will be screaming and counting on you to do that every time they wake up during the night. And babies do go in and out of sleep during the night as part of their natural sleep rhythm.
I hate the wailing as much as the next mom, so I give myself the 10-minute test. I walk out of his room, shut the door, go downstairs, and without turning the monitor on, I do something like put in a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher, or set the table and then after 10 minutes or so, I flip the monitor on to see if he’s still crying. (A few of my friends set a timer, but I don’t bother.) I have yet to turn that thing on to him still crying. And if he was, then chances are something is wrong, like he’s still hungry or he’s not feeling well.Similarly, if I hear him start to make sounds during the night, the same rules apply. If he’s still crying after five or 10 minutes, I go in and check on him. Otherwise, I stay right in my bed. And you can sort of hear the whole self soothing process. There are a few cries, then some little grunts and wiggling around, and then sweet silence.
These tips probably don’t sound like much more than common sense, but sometimes that’s the first thing that goes when you’re dealing with your child, especially an overtired and (likely) unhappy one. For me, once my friend Meg articulated a lot of these things to me, I was like, “duh.” There were things I didn’t realize I was doing but I was and they were working unbeknownst to me and then there were other things that I had to really work on.
And the reality is that there are always things that I’ll have to work on when it comes to baby’s sleep habits. He’s going to keep growing and changing, so his needs may change, forcing me to adjust his schedule. But having a few basic rules or tips to help guide me has helped us get off to a good start. After all, this is the time when healthy, long-term sleep habits start to form.
But more selfishly than that, I really don’t want to have to buy the book to get some perspective and a sense of humor about why my baby won’t go the f— to sleep. I’d rather him just do it.