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The Secret to Sleep Training

The Secret to Sleep Training

So, you’ve read every book, blog and article you can on how to sleep train. There’s the Ferber method. Cry it Out, the happy sleeper, Bedtime-routine fading, Bedtime-hour fading… the list goes ON.

There’s also the opinions of your in-laws (“In my day, we never let a baby…”).

It’s all a bit confusing not to mention the baby brain. It is a real thing. 

I’m here to tell you my story of how we went from waking up 4-6 times a night to sleeping through the night - literally overnight. 

Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t come without setbacks and some crying (please don’t throw darts at me on that subject).

WAKING UP TO THE WORLD

Our son was born 4 weeks early. Even though he was considered a preemie, they sent us home from the hospital within a few days with what felt like was a very little direction.

Actually, in retrospect, that first month was pretty easy. We were running on adrenaline. Friends and family would stop by and bring us food. He slept ok and didn’t cry all that much. 

Four weeks later - at his nature birth date, it all changed. We later learned that he “awakened” to the world at that point. And, boy did he.

Given that he was early, the pediatrician was constantly weighing him and reminding us how important it was to add weight and get every ounce of milk into him. Breastfeeding did not come easy. He had acid reflux. We sought help from lactation consultants and local feeding classes. Everyone looked at us with sympathetic eyes and gave us helpful advice and basically said to power through it. 

As the pediatrician will tell you in those early weeks, babies cry because they need something - not for attention. Every time he cried, we did the routine again: feed, change, swaddle, hush, bounce on a balance ball at 30 degrees and back to sleep

This went on for FOUR months. 

THE SNACKING PROBLEM

At that time, we started to go crazy. We went to the pediatrician and asked WHEN CAN WE SLEEP TRAIN? He said (and you should consult with your doctor) that we could sleep train at 5 months or 15 pounds. 

He explained to us that four months of eating whenever he wanted turned him into a ‘snacker’.

“That’s ok”, he said, “I know grown adults who snack all day. This works perfectly fine if you live in Peru and wear your baby on your body all the time.” Yes, those babies are feeding on and off 24-7 as an extension of their mother’s body.

In our society, we don’t do that. We go to work. We have errands to do. We try and live with some independence.

THE ONE QUESTION YOU NEED

Our pediatrician added that we needed to add more structure to the day (and night) and re-teach him that we eat meals at certain times of the day and that we sleep at night. He didn’t give us a specific sleep method to follow, but he asked us one question which I believe is the secret to successful sleep training.  

The secret to sleep training is a simple answer to this question:

On a scale of 1-10, how ready are you to commit to a sleep training plan?

When asked this question, without hesitation, my wife and I looked at each other and said 11.

There are two points to make here:

First, you need to be ready to commit. The sound of your own baby crying is a terrible feeling. You need to be ready to take on this uncomfortable feeling and stick to a plan or it will not work.

Second, your partner (if you have one) needs to be equally ready. If one person in the relationship is not up for it, the plan will not work. 

Why? Because those tiny humans are smart. They pick up on things FAST. 

By the time they are five months old, they may actually be crying because they know you will come and give them milk. Actually, they are physically capable of sleeping through the night.

Our baby had learned to snack and had learned that he could snack all night long with dream feeds and every other trick we could come up with to make the night bearable. 

What our baby really needed was to learn how to fall asleep on his own. Your baby needs to learn how to self-soothe.

We all have self-soothing strategies to soothe yourself into sleep. During the night, we have natural rhythms where we fall in and out of sleep. Sometimes, we wake up and it takes time to fall back to sleep.

Your baby only knows how to fall asleep with props. Maybe you pick them up, re-swaddle, given them a few ounces of milk, and rock in the chair until they are asleep. Even a pacifier is considered a prop because if it falls out, the baby needs you to put it back in.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

Here are some pointers to remember no matter what method you choose:

  1. Prepare the room. Pitch black and a white noise machine if you’re worried about outside noises waking them up. Black trash bags and blue tape work GREAT for darkening your room. This also works great when traveling. Also, avoid blue lights. Do not use any night lights, stars on the ceiling, etc. Remove everything from the crib (no toys, extra blankets, etc.). We DID leave a lovey (small baby blanket) that he now loves.

  2. Start a clear bedtime routine - consistency is key! For us, the flow has been the same since we started… Feed (nurse or bottle), bath, baby massage, story, turn on white noise, lay in a crib.

  3. Daytime effects nighttime. Encourage an eat / play / sleep pattern. The number of naps and wake time will depend on your child’s age. For us, at 6 months adjusted, it was 3 naps a day with a 2 hour “wake time” starting from the morning. We followed these times to a T and had him down every 2 hours IN HIS CRIB for a nap. People thought we were crazy, but if you miss one nap - well, you will get payback at night.

  4. Get your caregivers onboard. Let them know the new schedule and the plan. Once you start the sleep training, there is no going back if you want it to work. This includes your mother-in-law, the nanny share, and can be difficult in daycare environments. If the babies aren’t napping on the same schedule, yours needs to follow a different one and that might mean they stay indoors for a few weeks or even a few months.

  5. Choose a method and stick to it. Every sleep method has its strengths and as long as you stick to it, and I mean stick to it 100%, I believe you will be successful.

 

WHAT WE DID

After countless hours of research, we chose a method called the Sleep Lady Shuffle. You should choose whatever method you are comfortable with. Once everyone is onboard (including your pediatrician), and the room is ready, you are ready to start. Here’s how we made it work.

BEDTIME

Start with bedtime. Melatonin levels are the highest during your first hours of sleep.

  1. Night 1 & 2: Put a chair next to the crib and do your nighttime routine (feed, bath, book, in the crib without pacifier) while talking to them about what is going to happen. “You’re going to learn to sleep on your own.” Start the routine early enough to have them down in the crib by bedtime (for us, that was 7:30 pm). Sit in the chair next to the crib as long as it takes for them to fall asleep repeating a key phrase like “night night time” and occasionally pat, touch, or sing, being careful that this does not become a new prop. 

  2. Night 3 & 4: Move the chair to the middle of the room. You can go over to the crib every 5 minutes and repeat the key phrase, but try to do it less.

  3. Night 5 & 6: Move your chair to the door. Don’t go over to the crib. Use your key phrase and periodically let your baby know you are there.

  4. Night 7: Remove the chair and leave the room. If the baby cries longer than 10 minutes, you can go back in, say your key phrase, give a light touch, and LEAVE. Repeat every 10 minutes if necessary. 


On our first night, we decided that it would be best if my wife left the house during bedtime and I put him down. She drove around the neighborhood expecting that I would be sitting with a crying baby. ON THE FIRST NIGHT, HE WENT DOWN WITHOUT CRYING ONCE.

I thought… what have we been doing for 5 months? Our challenges came later.

WAKINGS

When your baby wakes in the middle of the night and starts crying, WAIT 10 minutes before you respond at all. This is the painful part. I mean… it’s the worst feeling in the world. Set a timer. 10 minutes of your baby crying feels like an eternity. You are not a bad person and no baby has grown up to be a bad person because they cried too much (provided you are giving them proper love in every other way).

If the baby continues to cry for more than 10 minutes, and it’s after midnight, you can offer 1 small feeding. HOWEVER, before you start the feed, delay it 10-15 minutes with a diaper change first. Make sure your baby is awake for the feeding and keep them awake when you put them back down so they are aware of their surroundings. This is part of teaching them how to learn how to fall asleep on their own.

If the baby has already had a feeding and it’s after midnight, and they are still protesting after 10 minutes, then go in and repeat the same strategies used at bedtime. Don’t feed them more than once in the night. If you pick them up, put them back down AWAKE. 

On our first night, our baby woke up once. We heard the familiar sound of his crying and started the timer. We sat in bed feeling like terrible parents listening to him cry. We waited. For me, it felt like fingers on a chalkboard so I can only imagine how it felt for my wife - you probably know women have an actual hormonal reaction to the sound of a crying baby.

At the 10 minute point, he started to soothe himself. I KID YOU NOT, HE FELL ASLEEP ON HIS OWN and slept until 6:30 the next morning. 

I started to think about it. When I wake up at night, it takes me about 10 minutes to fall asleep. Hmm, maybe this is going to work!

MORNINGS

Don’t consider morning anything earlier than 6:30am. Anything before that should be treated as a night waking. Pick your baby up and do your first feeding in a bright room. Delay the first feeding by 10-15 minutes. 

Our baby went from drinking 2 ounces of milk every 2 hours to guzzling 6 and eventually 8 ounces first thing in the morning. We went from waking 4-6 times a night to 11.5-12 hours of sleep in one night. I thought… whose baby is this? Our life was changed. 

Don’t get too excited, you’ll soon learn about the word sleep regression. 

In fact, we had multiple sleep regressions. The first was on night #5. I think they literally called it the “night 5 regression”. He started waking up every two hours again, and we thought… oh no. We stuck to our plan, waiting 10 minutes before going in, and made it through the night. The next night, he went back to 9 hours, and then back to 11-12. 

Sure, we had other regressions, but we stuck to the plan and we remained CONSISTENT during the daytime and nighttime sleep.


HAPPY ENDING?

Since our baby was 6 months old, he has slept 11-12 hours a night (plus 3 then 2 and now 1 nap a day). Yes, this is me bragging. 

But just think about it for a minute. If we were waking a conservative 2 times a night on average for 30 minutes each - that’s 60 minutes of lost sleep a day. He’s now almost 2 and a half, which means we would have lost 43,800 minutes or 730 hours or 30 days of sleep. I’m told that sleep training is harder the older they get.

The beautiful thing once your baby is sleep trained - beyond the obvious that you feel like a new person - is that when they DO cry at night, you begin to know that something is wrong. Teething? Sick? Milestone reached? Check, check, check. One final note: If they are sick (fever), pause the routine and give your baby the love and attention they need. 

Remember, if you are committed, consistent, and follow your plan, it will succeed.

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P.S. I’d love to hear your stories! Whether you have already successfully sleep trained your little one or if you are currently starting on the challenge, let me know in the comments below. We will make sure to share the best stories on our social media channels.