A friend called me this weekend, asking advice on behalf of a fellow new mom. This mom has a two-month old baby. The baby, since birth, has been a super sleeper. As in, sleeping six or eight hours at a stretch. But, all of a sudden in the past week or two, it all went to pot. The little gal was up every hour or so, and was having a very hard time getting herself back to sleep.
There are many possible reasons for this sudden change. But, this blog post is not about looking back…it’s about looking forward. Guess what, new moms? At some point, every baby will need some sleep training. It’s hard work, but you’ve got to do it!
I think this particular mom was really lucky for her first few months of motherhood. But, now that her baby is getting smarter and more attached to mom and dad, it is time to help her start learning how to get herself to sleep. Here are some tips:
1. Establish a bedtime routine: In the first few months of a baby’s life, the idea of having a bedtime routine is a bit funny. They wear jammies all day, they sleep on and off 24/7…so really what is the difference for them between day and night? Well, at about 6 weeks of age, it is important to start teaching them this difference even if it seems arbitrary! At “bedtime” (pick a time somewhere between 7 and 8 PM), begin a set routine. For many babies a routine like this work — bath, jammies, story, bed. Do the same routine, in the same order, every night at roughly the same time. Babies generally do not need daily baths, so skipping the bath on some nights is fine.
2. Be mindful of where feeding fits into your routine: You might notice that I did not put feeding into the nighttime routine. Let me explain why. Babies often completely conk out while they are nursing or having a bottle. Many people jokingly call this the “milk coma.” My husband, being a physician, did not like using the word coma in reference to his precious babies, so he coined the term, “milk mellow.” In all due respect to him, I would say coma is a better word for how asleep our guys were after a bottle or nursing!!! The problem with this scenario is that babies then come to associate sleep with eating. When they wake during the night (as all humans do), they then can’t fall back asleep without eating. Although babies need to eat during the night for their first several months of life, they do NOT need to eat EVERY time they wake up. So, it is essential that they have some experience falling asleep without the assistance of the milk coma! Therefore, in the bedtime routine, consider feeding baby before the bath….or doing a story after nursing….or nursing right before bed but in a bright room with some noise so that the baby knows that it is not quite time yet to conk out. Here’s the golden rule of sleep training: put your baby to bed DROWSY, but not asleep. When you put them in their crib drowsy, they learn to soothe themselves to sleep and then have this skill to do so again in the middle of the night when they wake up.
3. Consider the pacifier: Pacifiers are complicated. Babies love to suck, and many find pacifiers incredibly soothing. They can be very helpful at bedtime, luring little ones into dreamland. The problem is that until your little one is at least half a year old, she won’t be able to get the darn thing back in her mouth on her own when it drops out at night. The missing pacifier can prompt piercing, wailing, desparate cries! I remember endless nights of emergency pacifier insertions with our first baby (who cried like a singer in the Opera). The good thing about this was that it bought us another hour of sleep; the bad thing was that we were up and down many times a night. Again, when we think of sleep associations, our goal should really be to teach our kids to fall asleep using cues they can control on their own. Let me be clear — I have nothing against pacifiers. Both my kids used them until they turned one. But, if you sense that the “popped-out paci problem” is disrupting your baby’s sleep and your sleep, you can consider getting rid of it. Parents worry that if they do so, they will be harming their child. It just isn’t so. Babies will learn another way to soothe themselves. They will find their fingers, or you can give them a little stuffed friend or tiny blanket, or they will just cry a bit (note to new parents: babies cry, and it’s okay!). The idea is to set up an association between something they can do on their own to lure themselves into sleep.
4. Have reasonable expectations: New parents often have terribly inaccurate beliefs about infant sleep. They expect babies to sleep through the night much earlier than they do. They hear other parents talking about how their babies sleep through the night and worry about what they are doing wrong. It is not until six months old that most babies should be able to sleep through the night. So, make a plan for establishing good sleep habits, be consistent, and be patient. Remember, you are teaching your baby skills that will last a lifetime so it is worth establishing really good ones!