To prepare for my baby, I read a lot of mom blogs while pregnant. When it came to posts on sleep, I felt like I was already judged before I even had a baby. Just by trying to get prepared and read about newborn sleep, I had entered a huge debate when all I wanted was useful tips and tools.
After having two kids of my own, I am now well aware of how much that screwed me over. I was so focused on making sure she was okay, I wouldn’t let her sleep anywhere but in my arms for fear of being one of those unloving moms.
Not shocking, this led to really bad sleep for both baby and me. I was so sleep deprived that I couldn’t even function as a mom. The sleep deprivation over months resulted in me hitting a wall. I couldn’t take it anymore and that’s when I realized, you eventually hit a wall with sleep if you weren’t working on it all along, and that’s really why cry it out exits. Parents aren’t given the tools they need.
So, to save you from extra sleep deprivation that you don’t need to go through, here are actual useful tips to work on so your baby learns how to sleep. Yes, it is a skill just like crawling, breastfeeding and everything else. And skills take continual practice and encouragement.
Make sure your nursery is sleep-friendly
This is your very first step to good sleep. Ensure the environment is sleep friendly. You can do this even before baby is born.
When my first baby would wake in the night, I would need to turn on bright lights. I would always change their diaper. I also swear they were either too cold or too hot. I had no idea what I was doing. Over time I learned the hard way on all the things I was doing wrong. Here are the very basics to a sleep-friendly nursery.
Keep the room dim and at the right temperature
First, use black out shades to keep the room ideal for naps. Next, add night lights so you don’t have to turn on big lights during the night. Ideally, you want the room to be about 72 degrees.
Use a good diaper and don’t change them at night
You are adding more unnecessary wake ups if they are waking up to be changed. I did cloth diapers during the day but used disposables at night. Nothing can compete with the technology diapers today have. They could hold so much more liquid while still being dry to the touch.
I learned this particular lesson the hard way. The first night I switched to disposables, my baby slept 5 hours for the first time. We absolutely love Luvs.
Swaddle, Magic Merlin then Sleep Sack
I know most people hear about swaddles but what comes after the swaddle is more important. Once baby is around 3 months old, it is time to start to “work” on good sleeping habits. It is also the time when you can’t swaddle, so baby doesn’t like sleep. Therefore, you need a transition. My favorite transition outfit is the Magic Merlin for 4 months old. It gives more range of motion but still some snuggles.
After that, you want to use Sleep Sacks because until they are older than 3, they won’t know how to keep covers on. The sleep sack is the perfect “blanket”. It also helps them feel snug. I wish I had learned about this sooner with my oldest.
Breastfeed first, sleep second
Your second step is to ensure breastfeeding is going well.
For those of you with a newborn, don’t worry about good sleep habits until you are set with breastfeeding. Your goal needs to be breastfeeding first because your milk supply is completely based on frequency. The more often you nurse, the more milk you will produce. Baby knows this and will do this automatically if they are fed every time they show hunger signs (rooting, opening mouth, turning head side to side, crying). Therefore, it is in baby’s best interest to sleep for only a few hours at max (day and night), to maximize nursing.
So many women have supply issues mainly because they didn’t nurse as frequently as they needed to in the beginning. Stay away from pacifiers. All sucking should be breastfeeding. And this amount of nursing is hard so seriously just get sleep when you can (day or night).
Additionally, in those first few months if baby is awake, then baby is hungry. There is no such thing as awake time so if they are awake, then nurse. Awake time isn’t really a thing until around 3 months and even then it’s very small amounts of wake time.
No baby will sleep if they are hungry. If they eventually fall asleep, then they won’t sleep for long. They will wake 10-20 minutes later very upset because they are now very hungry. Therefore, working on breastfeeding first and getting a good supply going is a must to good sleep.
This is your last step.
I was under this false impression that if I try something and it didn’t work within a few days, then it wasn’t going to work. I was very wrong. Since learning that sleep is like any skill, what I should have been looking for is small steps of progress.
Just think about crawling. When you put baby on their belly they are “practicing crawling”. However, you don’t put them on their belly for three days and decide it didn’t work because they didn’t crawl. Instead, you encourage them, you make tummy time fun and you keep with it. Slowly over months, a baby will first hold their head up, then push their arms up, etc.
Learning to sleep is the same thing as long as you know the tiny steps you should be seeing. It won’t be overnight, but it will be much sooner than trying all of these “tricks” that books and the internet will sell to you.
To help baby sleep, you should be working on these small skills that I will go over. For each one, you should be working on them daily, hence why I use the word reps. You help baby by continually doing reps so they can work on progress towards sleeping.
Just think how much better baby would sleep if you worked on sleep every day just a little bit. You are basically training baby to learn how to fall asleep slowly.
Sleeping in the crib reps
You can do this at any age, and it doesn’t matter how you get baby to sleep. Your only goal at this point is to get baby use to sleeping in a crib. So, get baby to sleep nursing, rocking or singing and then once they are asleep, place them in the crib. If they wake, you can pick them up, get them back to sleep and then immediately place them in the crib. Repeat this process until they stay asleep in their crib.
What you are doing here is familiarizing baby with the crib and that it is a place to sleep. Continue doing this for naps and night (aka reps) until baby will sleep in the crib.
Sleeping cue reps
After this step, we will work on a sleep routine, but the most important part of the sleep routine is the very last thing you do. Start as soon as you can to always sing a specific song when you see baby drifting off to sleep.
Baby will associate this song with sleep, and it will help them know it’s time to sleep.
Add in the sleep routine reps
Now you need to add a sleep routine. I never thought sleep routines worked because I didn’t see a change immediately. However, you have to do them religiously for them to work.
The routine should be 15 minutes. I wouldn’t add a bath or something that might be hard to do every night. Just simple: pajamas, books, songs, nurse and bed. There is one key step in your sleep routine. You need to have the “thing” that puts them to sleep be last. For my babies, this was nursing. For others, it’s rocking.
Thus, once you do your routine, you stay on the last thing until they are asleep. Remember we aren’t working on falling asleep in the crib yet. Just working on getting baby familiar with the sleep routine. If you continue to do this every night and nap, baby will start to realize the pattern.
Once you finish your sleep routine and baby is falling asleep, do your sleep cue just as a specific song.
Drowsy but awake reps
This step you can start to work on at around 4 months or later.
Now that your baby is used to the crib, has a good sleep routine that they are familiar with, it is time to start the drowsy but awake step. So, do your normal sleep routine and your final sleep routine step but instead of letting baby fall asleep completely, put them in the crib right before they fall asleep.
Once in the crib, try your sleep cue. They might go to sleep. If they don’t and start to get upset, pick them up and continue the “thing” that puts them to sleep. So for us, this would be nursing. I would nurse until baby was almost asleep and then put them in the crib.
The eyes would pop wide open and she would cry at me. I would pick her up and continue nursing until she closed her eyes again. I would then put her down. Eventually baby will fall asleep in the crib. I promise you. And once she does, sing her sleep cue song.
Now expect the first night you do this to be many up and downs. It doesn’t matter how many times you do this; you are still making progress. The goal is that they fall asleep in the crib. Every time they fall asleep in their crib and not in your arms being held, rocked or nursed, they are working on that new skill.
As you work on this, they will get better and better at it.
As newborns, they needed a method (rocking, or nursing) to be able to sleep because they didn’t have the skills yet. Just like they can’t crawl yet. Once they turn 4 months, they start to develop melatonin meaning they can start to work on falling asleep without rocking, nursing etc.
Things to remember
Keep emotions in check
You want them to sleep. You are so tired. You are also so frustrated. Babies can sense this and they start to associate the crib and sleep with you losing your mind. You want them to know they are safe, and sleep is a happy (not stressful and scary) thing. Keep your emotions in check. Use a cheerful voice and smile.
Get sleep yourself
You are going to cheat a lot and take the easy way out if you are tired. Find ways to get sleep. Ask a family member to watch baby while you nap during the day. Take as many naps as you can during the day. You need to find ways to get rest so you can help them fall asleep properly.
Know the tired signs and the hungry signs
I think nothing frustrates me more than when I try a nap and baby isn’t tired. Here you did the whole sleep routine and got baby into the crib and they aren’t sleeping. Just take a deep breath and try again in another 20 minutes. Keep an eye out for tired signs so you will have better luck timing naps. Also check for hunger signs. A lot of times, if you nurse, then baby is ready for a nap. Remember nursing isn’t just food but also hydration so baby might just be thirsty before nap.
Tired signs include eye rubbing, ear pulling, staring into blank space. Hunger signs are rooting, opening mouth, eating hands (until 6 months, then it’s exploration), and turning head side to side.
Pursue baby sleep Today
I hope sharing what I did to encourage my baby to learn to sleep will help you in getting your own baby to sleep. It is hard because sometimes progress isn’t what we want. It is easy to forget waking up a lot is normal, and they are working on the sleep skill even if we think they “never sleep.”
The best thing you can do today is to give them the opportunity to work on these skills. Remember they are learning so if they are always falling asleep on the go or in your arms, they won’t ever associate the crib with sleep. Your goals are for baby to be familiar with the crib, the sleep cue and the sleep routine. Once you have those down, then it is time for baby to learn to fall asleep on their own (drowsy but awake).
Work on sleep by doing reps and you will never have to make this decision to just let baby cry for hours. You won’t run into a wall because you are slowly working on good sleeping skills every nap and every night.
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Check out this great resource when you’re ready to transition your baby to a toddler bed.