Sleep training my son was one of the best parenting decisions I ever made. But it's not something I had planned on doing.
The ideacame to me after reading the book, “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” by Pamela Druckerman. She's an American mom raising her kids in France, and she writes that French babies sleep through the night a few short months after they are born. In contrast, American parents often rush to pick up and soothe babies who wake at night, and so we create a habit where they do not learn to self soothe on their own.
I didn’t think of it as sleep training, I thought of it more as establishing a bedtime routine. Routines are great for babies, they know what’s happening next and that makes them feel safe and so I sort of thought of sleep training more like establishing a bedtime routine. But I didn't exactly know how to do it.
I needed more information, so I met with a more experienced mom who recommended another book, one that truly changed how I thought about sleep. “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” by Marc Weissbluth is a must-read, because it provides research and data for every conclusion it makes. His most useful tip is that you really shouldn’t expect any baby to sleep through the night until they are at least 15 pounds. It's at that point that their tummies can hold enough milk for them to sleep through the night.
I would literally watch my son go to sleep. I observed how he moved, how his breathing shifted. It was then when I noticed he was, indeed, able to self-soothe.
My son hit 15 pounds when he was around 3 months old. So that when I started creating his bedtime routine. Also important to note: In the first few weeks, newborns do not have a sense of day and night. These two milestones are crucial before setting things up for solid nights of sleep.
The routine we set was pretty simple: bathtime, PJs, story, song and bedtime. I determined his bedtime by learning his “sleep signals.” Weissbluth's book also taught me that parents miss the signals—or notice them too late—and this can make the baby cranky and exasperated. And not sleepy.
So when I saw signs he was in the initial phases of sleepiness, and I would start the bedtime routine. I didn't let him cry it out at this stage. Instead, we kept interaction to a minimum and fed him, which let him know that this was bedtime.
The key to tackling a bedtime routine was consistency. This meant that, no matter what our plans, we had to be home by 6:30 p.m. to ensure we did not miss his “sleep window.” You know that feeling, when you are really tired and not able to go to bed, you become super irritable? Well that is the same thing that happens to babies. Putting them to sleep later does not mean they wake up later, but it does mean they are overtired by the time you do put them to sleep.
By about 6 months old, our child was sleeping through the night. There were, of course, developmental milestones, teething and flus that caused sleep regressions, but for the most part our son was—and still is—a great sleeper.
I will also note that, while my son does have tantrums every now and then, the terrible two’s have not been so terrible for us.
Another trick that we liked followed the French advice to not jump in to soothe our kid every time he moved or maked a sound (again, after it is developmentally appropriate and you feel comfortable doing so). I would literally watch my son go to sleep. I observed how he moved, how his breathing shifted. It was then when I noticed he was, indeed, able to self-soothe.
He is now almost 3. He still has a consistent bedtime and routine. I’m not sure he knows that the world continues into the night. I was joking the other day that, during summer, we put him to bed at 7:30 when the sun is still out. We had actually shifted his bedtime to 8 p.m. but noticed he would become quite manic that last half-hour, which is one of the signs of tiredness described in Weissbluth's book, so we shifted to an earlier. Now, he is out after we sing and tell him a story. He says “goodnight” and “bye” to us, and he drifts off to sleep.
He's regularly sleeping from 7:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., and he takes a 2-hour nap most days. If this sounds like too much, it's not. This falls well in the range of the most recent guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, who recommend that kids his age get 11 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hur period. Those between 3 and 5 are advised to sleep 10 to 13 hours a day.
I will also note that, while my son does have tantrums every now and then, the terrible two’s have not been so terrible for us. Though, I will say that when he is off his sleep schedule, we definitely see a shift in mood.
We are those parents people make fun of, because we can't be out with the baby after dark.
The only drawback to all of this great sleep that he is getting is that on days when I work late, I don't see him until the next morning. But I trust that getting a proper night's rest is important for his development.
We are those parents people make fun of, because we can't be out with the baby after dark. I have no regrets since my baby is one of the best sleepers I know. Besides, it’s easy to get grandma to babysit a baby that sleeps quite easily, which means more date nights for Mom and Dad! Again, every baby is different, so I'm also willing to admit that maybe we just got extremely lucky!
This isn’t for everyone. In my case, I was not nursing often after my son was about 4 months old, and we were not co-sleeping. But whatever your circumstances, you shouldn’t feel bad for wanting time in the evening for yourself or for wanting to sleep more than three hours at a time.
There are also baby sleep specialists who can support you if your child is colicky or if you need tips and advice on how to get your baby to sleep. New parents are, in some cases, “dangerously” sleep-deprived, and this can lead to all kinds of issues that can be harmful to you and your baby. So remember, never feel bad for taking care of yourself, too.