UPDATE; Since I posted this I have received some objection to letting a baby cry at all. Some people were rude and judgey and some were kind and respectful. All I can tell you, which I feel like I say already in this post but I want to stress it again, is that you have to figure out what is right for you. What I’m sharing is what was right for my family. I did a lot of research, talked to mothers that I trusted, talked to our pediatrician, read books, and made a decision with my husband to give this a try. It worked for us. It brought more harmony to our home and allowed me to get some desperately needed sleep. I didn’t do this with a newborn. I didn’t let them cry all night long. I didn’t do it if they were sick or teething or if they seemed ‘off’ like something else was going on. I totally understand that this might not be for everyone and also that not everyone will agree with me. I’m not saying this is the ONLY way. It is just one way, especially if other ways haven’t worked for you. If this way isn’t for you, don’t do it. If you disagree, don’t read it.
Sleeping through the night is sort of the holy grail of parenthood. Everyone wants it to happen, only some seem to get it. Is it luck? Is there a trick to it? My answer: a little of both. But I do think that every baby is capable of sleeping through the night — sometimes they just need to be given the right tools and other times it comes naturally.
I used to think “anyone can get their baby to sleep through the night if they take the time to teach them. It isn’t that hard, you just have to be committed.” And then I had Quincy. Quincy is not a great sleeper. He never has been. I attribute much of that to the fact that he had reflux and spent his first 6-8 months trying to sleep through a condition that caused him a lot of pain. But I contributed to his poor sleep habits a bit too. He may not be a great sleeper, but he is capable of it when I’m able to commit to being consistent. For example, he sleeps better when I’m able to put him to bed by 6:30 pm. But having two older children and a husband who (when working) doesn’t get home until almost 6:30 himself makes that almost impossible. And I know that he wakes up at night to nurse, purely because he knows I’ll come in and nurse him. When I only had one child, or even when I had two, I wouldn’t have done this. I wanted and needed my sleep and I knew they needed to learn to self soothe (except when they were sick or teething, of course.) But with Quincy, I’m SO tired that I would rather quickly nurse him and have him go back to sleep so that I can as well instead of letting him cry and put himself back to sleep, but also keeping me awake for much longer. So those night wakings? Those are on me. And I know it.
Having had three babies, two of which slept through the night at a pretty young age, I can tell you with certainty that all babies are different. Not all babies are capable of “sleeping through the night” as you think of that concept. Not all will be put down at 7 pm and sleep until 7 am. But I do think every baby can be taught to how to sleep on their own, and if yours still isn’t by 6 months old then there may be a bigger reason than “he’s not a good sleeper.” I think some of us are given naturally good sleepers and others are given babies who need to be taught how to soothe themselves. I’ve had both. So instead of telling you that I can teach you to train your baby to sleep through the night (even though I probably could and it would work for most of you) I’m going to share ways to help your baby learn to sleep better and share some tips or products that have helped me with specific sleep issues.
First off, I am not an “expert.” I mean, I’ve had three babies and managed to get really good sleep out of two of them and decent sleep out of the third. I do think I have a pretty good grasp on how to get your baby to sleep and how to establish good patterns and routines to optimize that sleep. But I’m not a doctor and I didn’t go to school for this. I’m just a mom who has been there and done it and who wants to help other parents who are going through it. Sleep and sleep training can be a touchy subject. If you read this and don’t feel it is right for you, don’t do it. If you aren’t willing to really commit to teaching your baby to sleep (read: aren’t willing to hear them cry a bit or to forgo some freedom to stick to a sleep schedule or be consistent for however long it takes) then don’t bother. Because if you don’t really commit, then you’ll all suffer through a couple hours or nights of trying and crying, and then you’ll cave and it will have all been for nothing. Not only that, but the next time you decide to try again, it will likely take longer because your baby just learned your breaking point. And we all know how smart those little people are.
STEP ONE: Get Your ‘Good Sleep’ Toolbox Ready
First I’m going to name off some basic tools/tips to have in your sleep arsenal to help you prepare. Not every baby will need these things, but many do (all of mine did).
- White Noise: Babies like white noise because that is reminds them of being in the womb. Plus it drowns out I like this white noise sound machine. Since we live in the city with lots of noise and neighbors and sirens I tend to layer the white noise and use two of these, or one and another source like a table fan. Regardless, you need white noise and it needs to stay on — not kick off after 30 minutes.
- Darkness: My kids are not those you see on Instagram who sleep in a big white bed in full sunlight. My kids like it dark. I like it dark. Charlie used to wake up with just the tiniest crack of light coming in through a window. So blackout shades are a must. You can either get curtain panels with blackout included, or layer blackout shades between your window and curtain. We have horizontal blinds, blackout curtains under regular curtains, and also have these to block out the light that comes in from the sides of the window — they are amazing! Or, if you don’t want to invest in anything yet, cover the window in black garbage bags if you have to — just black it out and see what happens.
- Their own space: To be in their own bed in their own room. I know this is where I’m going to lose some of you. I get it — this is where our issue with Quincy’s sleep (or lack of) started. I’ll explain more further down, but for this to really work, baby needs to be in their own space away from you. In their own crib in the nursery is ideal, but if you have other children and don’t have the space for that, at least move them out of your bedroom or bed.
- Keep rooms on the cooler side. All of my kids sleep better when the rooms are between 66 and 68 degrees, rather than into the 70s. We live in Southern California and don’t have central AC, so we put window units in both of our boys’ rooms and they sleep SO much better because of it. We LOVE this fan for white noise and keeping rooms cool (it works so well and is cheap enough to put in every bedroom).
- A consistent bed time. While it is hard to always get them to bed on time, being consistent is key. Sure, you can keep them up later for a special occasion. But most kids thrive on a set bedtime, and it is often better earlier than you would think. Both of my older kids are in bed between 7:00 and 7:30, and they sleep almost twelve hours a night and take naps on most days. Sleep begets sleep.
- A consistent bedtime routine: I find that a consistent ‘bath, book, bed’ routine works well for us (although I do bath, book, nurse, bed for baby). We do baths less in winter months and we don’t do them every night now that we have three kids vs. when we only had one. But still, I think bath time is a cue to my kids to wind down and that bedtime is near so they don’t put up as much of a fight.
- A good swaddle (for 0-4 months) and a sleep sack for 4+ months: I cannot recommend The Ollie World swaddle enough. It is the only swaddle my second baby could not bust out of, and it kept him feeling cozy and secure. My third baby loved it as well. It is also ridiculously easy to use. I have recommended it to all of the expecting parents I know since I discovered it. Don’t waste your time trying to swaddle your baby in a swaddle blanket for night sleep — it’s great for naps and when they’re just chilling, but they always bust out at night. And there are other swaddlers that have a velcro type fastener, but I have found that they don’t really work (which is probably why they are cheaper). Don’t waste your money – just invest in the good stuff and it’s the only thing you’ll need to buy. For me, good sleep is priceless. And I know many people don’t think a sleep sack is necessary. For us, our reasons for using sleep sacks are two-fold: 1) our kids move all over the crib and a blanket doesn’t stay put (plus we don’t use loose blankets for SIDS reasons for the first year) and 2) the sleep sack is a sleep signal. The routine of putting it on lets the baby know that it’s time to go to sleep — both for naps and at night. I really like this one for an affordable and soft heavier weight sleep bag and this one for a lighter, more breathable sleep bag.
STEP TWO: Establish a Good Bedtime Routine
A consistent bedtime routine is key starting around 6-8 weeks, in my opinion (I started even earlier with my second two). Around that time I start putting baby to bed, versus just holding them and hanging with them until I go to bed (which is basically what I do the first 4-6 weeks). That is around the time when they are growing out of that drowsy newborn state and having more awake time during the day. They are also more receptive to routines around that age.
As you decide on a schedule for your baby, keep in mind that in a 24-hour period most one to two-month-old babies need the following:
- 12 to 24 ounces of breast milk or formula, though this amount may be much higher (and often varies depending on whether baby is having breastmilk or formula).
- About 16 hours of sleep a day, including nighttime sleep and naps. Three naps during the day (morning, afternoon, and evening) is typical, although my babies were never great about the third nap and tended to take two longer naps.
- Playtime, tummy time, talking and reading to your baby, and getting outside for walks are important stimulation during awake time. So once my babies would wake from a nap and I breastfed them, we move on to some fun time: usually walks in the morning, tummy and book time later in the day. Baby wearing is also great during this time, and I would often take smaller neighborhood strolls with baby in the carrier, especially if I wanted to get my other children outside to play or ride their bike or scooter as well.
I’m going to be putting together a downloadable sample schedule for different ages, so be sure to sign up for my newsletter here so you don’t miss that, but for now, here’s a brief idea of wake time/sleep time routine for a baby around 2 months old. You can add your own times in and calculate from there.
Wake up for the day, eat, play, put baby down for morning nap within 2 hours of wakeup (I make another feed part of this nap routine at this age). So our schedule would look something like this:
- 7 am: wake up and nurse
- 7:30 am: playtime
- 8:30 am: start nap routine (diaper change, swaddle, nurse)
- 9:00: morning nap
I would repeat this schedule all day – basically putting baby back to sleep within 2 hours of waking up. If I didn’t stick to this schedule (which is sometimes hard, especially if you have older children to tend to as well) then I would find baby would get overtired and fussy, have a harder time settling for sleep, and generally having a harder time throughout the day. This would also often effect night sleep. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to deal with bad sleep by putting a baby down less or later! SLEEP BEGETS SLEEP.
STEP THREE: Once You Establish a Routine, STICK TO IT
Seriously, once you go through the hassle of creating a sleep routine and implementing a sleep routine, you MUST stick to the sleep routine. There are exceptions for travel or the occasional outing, but if you don’t stick to it you are only undoing all of your hard work. And starting from square one.
STEP FOUR: Come Up With a ‘Soothe Training’ Plan
I don’t really like the term “sleep training” but that doesn’t mean that I object to the idea behind it. Sleep training can be a really touchy and controversial subject, but honestly I truly think that many (maybe even most) babies need help learning to soothe themselves. It isn’t that you are forcing a baby to sleep. You are giving your baby the tools to sleep. And sleep is such an essential part of their development and also a hugely important aspect of your mental health and family harmony. Everyone NEEDS sleep. You aren’t being selfish by teaching your baby to be able to sleep on their own — you are teaching them a lifelong skill and helping them to learn and grow in the best possible way. Listen, no one likes to hear their baby cry. It is incredibly difficult to hear, experience, and feel you are the cause of. And if you disagree with the idea of letting your baby cry to some extent, then this post isn’t for you, and that’s ok (I don’t need to hear why you’re right and I’m wrong — I’ve heard it already. Just pass by if you disagree.)
I don’t think there is one right way to teach your baby to self soothe that is a one size fits all. I have strategies that worked for me and that I think work for most babies if you are consistent with them (which I’ll share in a sec) but at the end of the day you have to come up with something that you are comfortable with and that you can commit to being consistent with. If you feel more comfortable following a specific “sleep training technique” then I really recommend and found this book (also available as a free audio book with an Audible trial if you prefer to listen rather than read) helpful and think it is a good one to have in your sleep toolbox too, just for reference when you get stuck.
Here is my basic sleep/soothe training strategy:
- Be consistent with your bedtime and routine.
- Make sure to follow the tips in the toolbox section above to create an environment that supports good sleep: dark/cool room, white noise, a good swaddle, etc.
- Put baby to bed drowsy but not asleep. I’ve struggled with this with Quincy because he often would nurse to sleep. And then he would wake up when put down, or wake up at night when his sleep cycle shifted. It got to a point where, when he was 8-9 months old, he was waking up 4-5 times a night again. When you put baby down drowsy but awake, then he learns to fall asleep on their own and won’t need you to help later in the night.
- If baby cries as soon as you lay him down, pat on his back or bum (if he is old enough to have rolled to his belly) or place your hand on his chest. You can shush or speak in a soft calm voice. But DO NOT PICK THEM UP.
- After baby calms, falls asleep, or a few minutes have passed (whichever happens first) leave the room.
- If baby starts crying again, wait 5 minutes (use a timer because 5 minutes will feel like 50 when your baby is crying) and then go in and repeat same soothing technique: shush, pat, etc. Stay no more than 5 minutes, then leave the room.
- Repeat the cycle above each time baby starts crying, but wait 5 more minutes before going in. So first 5 minutes, then wait 10, then wait 15, then 20, etc. Do this for as long as it takes.
- If one of the parents simply cannot take being present in the home for this, take a walk if you can. Put on a podcast or meditation with earbuds if you are home alone. Take a shower. Whatever helps soothe you while you are trying to teach your baby to soothe themselves!
- If baby falls asleep on the breast, try nursing a shorter period of time or move your bedtime routine/nursing up by 15 min.
- If baby is sick or teething, soothe them and resume sleep/soothe training once this time has passed.
- If baby seems to get worse (i.e. crying/screaming louder) when you go in but don’t pick him up, consider sending your partner in instead (if applicable and available.) Especially if you are breastfeeding, having the mom go in to soothe can make things worse because baby smells you and wants his favorite form of comfort (nursing). I had to do this with Quincy as well and still do when he regresses a bit and we need to remind him that he has to soothe himself by letting him cry a bit.
- Sleep train for night first and separate than training for naps. Both are different skills and naps can take longer into baby’s development to work. Plus baby may be overtired from night training and need those day naps to catch up and keep from becoming really overtired.
- If baby is in your room, try to put baby into his own bassinet (or use this, which is what all three of my babies slept in for the first 4 months!) and put it as far away from you as possible (if you are breastfeeding).
- If baby is overly fussy during the day or before bedtime, try to move bedtime up by 15 minutes. An overtired baby can’t function, learn, or soothe like a rested baby. My babies typically had a bedtime of 6:30pm and once they learned to self soothe and no longer needed a feeding at night (usually around 4-5 months) they slept at least 12 hours. Quincy goes to bed closer to 7 (although I can tell he would benefit from a 6:30 bedtime, but it is so hard with two other kids!) and typically sleeps until 5:30 or 6 am.
A soothing/sleeping success shopping guide:
- swaddle and sleep sack
- white noise
- A cozy, safe place for baby to sleep. I think this and this are both great and worked really well for my babies.
- If you are a nervous parent, especially if you are a first time parent, this monitor is great to ease your fears and help you relax and let your baby sleep.
- A video monitor is a really great tool so that you can reassure yourself that baby is in the crib, is fine, and can be left to try to soothe himself. We didn’t have a video monitor with our first baby (I thought it was totally unnecessary because I wasn’t yet a mom — it is very helpful and I highly recommend having one!)
- A book like this to guide you when you get stuck or have questions.
One last tip: let baby fuss it out if he wakes up during the night. Babies often fuss or cry for a few minutes during sleep cycle transitions, but often if you don’t respond right away they are able to put themselves back to sleep. This also works if baby wakes up around 45-60 minutes during a nap. Often they are transitioning into deeper sleep and if they know how to soothe and are given the chance, they will fall back to sleep and sleep for another hour or more!
Again, this post is based on my experience with my own three very different babies. I’m not a medical expert or professional — I’m simply sharing what has worked for us. If you take away anything from this post let it be “consistency is key” and “sleep begets sleep.” I know both of those things to be very very true across the board.
Ok, so what are your questions? Leave them below in the comments or email me and I’ll do my best to add a FAQ with answers here in the post as questions come in. I hope some of you find this helpful!