This is for all the parents out there who are struggling to get their babies to sleep through the night. Here I recount my story:
Having a baby changes your life and it changes you. It changes you mostly because you no longer are getting the required 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. At first the hormone Oxytocin surges in your body and you feel insurmountable! You are willing to do anything for this precious gift of life- even if its sacrificing sleep to get up countless number to attend to the crying baby. Fast forward four months and it starts taking a toll on you.
Like all mothers, I did not know what to expect and what to do with a newborn. Consequently, I turned to books and experienced moms. When K was only a few days old I was reading ‘On Becoming Baby Wise’ by Gary Ezzo and I thought: this is rather straightforward, I just follow this book and get K into a sleep-wake-eat cycle that runs 2 to 2.5 hours. Of course, K had his own cycle and I began to realize that it was actually very hard to train a newborn. Nevertheless, the book gave me some tools to instill good sleeping habits from the get-go.
Early sleeping habits
Here is what I tried to implement from week 1 (I say tried because in the beginning it wasn’t easy and it didn’t always work so I had to resort to other means but I remained persistent and kept trying).
- When it was his nap time or bed time we would give him the pacifier, swaddle him, put him in his crib and leave the room.
He would cry a bit and we would go back in and try to help him and then leave the room again. Sometimes we would take him out of the bed and hold him. Other times we just rubbed his head or forehead. But then we would leave the room again so he learns that he needs to sleep now. Sometimes we had to bust out the breast as nothing else was helping but we tried to not let that become a habit.
The first three months most breastfeeding babies will sleep at the breast. K did that a lot. In the beginning, I tried the usual techniques to wake him up to finish his feed like tickling him on his feet and arms, removing him from the breast, take his clothes off etc. If it was his bedtime and I was certain he had finished his feed I let him sleep on the breast and then moved him to his crib. However, we tried as much as we could to put him in his crib awake for his nap time.
- The pause at night time
Unless it was his feed time, if he woke up at night we would always pause a few min before going in, hoping he would settle himself.
Sleep training at 6 months
K had generally been a good sleeper from the beginning until about 3.5 months. He would sleep ‘through the night’ and would only wake up once or twice for a feed and then would go back to sleep. Around 4 months he started walking up earlier and more often. I didn’t pay too much attention and faulted a growth spurt or a temporary regression. I ended up nursing him 2 to 3 times at night and sometimes even more as a pacifier wouldn’t settle him. By the time he was 5 months it started to get worse. At times, we would have to wake up every hour to give him a pacifier or nurse him.
Thus, at 6 month we acknowledged that it was not a regression or a growth spurt but a sleep problem. Now we were ready to tackle the problem.
Eliminating the night feed
I got lots of advice from different people but one that stuck was: eliminate night feed for better sleep at night.
This is especially true for breastfeeding babies as in my case at night time K was only using the breast for comfort. At six months if your baby is eating the right amount during the day and is in general good health, he does not need a night feed.
(A friend advised to cut down night breastfeeding by having the baby sleep with the dad for a few days and mother slept in the other room. We tried this strategy where instead of me going when K cried, my husband went but that didnt work very well for us and we were not able to sustain it for too long. )
I was convinced that night feeding had to go if I were to sleep train K, so I gradually moved the night feeding to later and later and gradually reduced the amount of milk. First, I cut out breastfeeding by offering him a bottle. Eventually we cut the bottle also and only allowed him an early morning breastfeeding (5 or 6 am). During this time he was still waking up quite a bit at night. Since we weren’t feeding him anymore we had to spend more time settling him to sleep and he was getting up more often.
As I was eliminating the night feed, I put K on a strict feeding schedule during the day to make sure he was getting the right intake to not be hungry at night. I followed the Gina Ford schedule in her book ‘The Contented Little Baby Book of Weaning’ (Now, I know some people find Ford too regimented but her schedule worked for me).
My sleep training strategy
The strategy I employed was very similar to how I cook…I take a few different recipes for inspiration and then create my own!
Here are the three main strategies I came across (in the books I have referenced at the end of the blog):
- Gradual extinction: you increase the time interval between you go in to soothe the baby. In some versions of this you are ‘allowed’ to pick up baby and in others you are not.
- Extinction: you go cold turkey instead of gradual increase in intervals, you just let the baby cry as long as he/she needs to
- The Limited Crying Solution: You let the baby cry 3 to 5 min before going in, if the baby calms down anytime between this waiting period you start the clock again, however, go in if the cries become high pitched/wailing. Soothe the baby by all other means except picking up
Once his eating schedule was set, I started by using the ‘gradual extinction’ technique in which you gradually increase the intervals between when he starts crying and when you go in. From 5 min, to 10 min to 15 min. One of the books recommended not picking him up but just soothing him, holding his hand, making the shhh noise and rubbing him. Another book said that with some babies you may have to pick them up. I was confused on what to do. However, K was in such distress I felt I had to pick him up. He couldn’t stand me just standing there and not picking him up. I tried gradual extinction for 2 days and was ready to give up. I felt it was having an effect on his personality: he was getting crankier and would cry every time I would put him in his crib and that usually wasn’t a problem with him. He was usually a good napper and did not cry at bedtime. Also, the 5 minutes of crying was already too hard for me I didnt know how I could allow 10 min! His screaming pierced through my heart and I felt as if he would lose his voice forever.
Then, I spoke to my friend J’anvieu, who has the two most beautiful, happy and well-behaved boys and they had been sleeping through the night since they were 4 months old. She recommended the book ‘Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child’ by Marc Weissbluth and she gave me the courage to implement ‘extinction’. I see J’anvieu as a role model mother who gives her boys so much love but at the same time can set the appropriate boundaries. She gave me the courage to let K cry it out and to believe in myself, to know that I am not a bad mother if I am helping my baby sleep better at night. So, I decided not to give up but try my own version of Cry It Out (CIO). In my version, I did not let him cry for hours and hours without going in. I would let him first cry for 5 min, would then go in and give him a pacifier. If he did not settle than I would not go back until it was over 30 min. However, if he woke up multiple times at night then I would stop going in at all. I adapted CIO to what works for me and my baby.
Here is a summary of how the 4 days of training went for us (and really that’s all we needed was 4 days!)
The first day was the hardest. I did go in in the beginning when he started to cry but then I realized that me going in there and not picking him up or not giving him milk only makes him more angry. So I put on the timer and sat outside him room determined to try extinction. He cried his heart out for 45 min and then continued a bit less hysterical for another 30 min. I felt horrible. I went in and sat next to his bed so he couldn’t see me but I could see him (if you have a video baby monitor you don’t have to do that!) just to make sure he was ok. It was one of the most grueling hour of my life. But once I had already let him cry for 20 min I could not go in and have those 20-min count for nothing. He cried from 1.50 am till 3.40 am. After which he went to sleep for an hour and a half. When he woke up again I let him cry for a few min and went in and gave him a binky. I didn’t have the heart to let him cry that much when he woke up the second time…he had already cried so much!! But the fact that he went right back to sleep after I gave him the pacifier was already comforting. He then woke up at 7:30 am.
He went to bed at 8:30pm and woke up at 11:20. I waited 5 min before going in and giving him a pacifier and caressing him. I stayed in his room less than a minute and left. He obviously started to cry again but within 10 min he was asleep again. There were a few shrill cries but he managed to calm down himself a lot easier than day 1. Wow I could already see the improvement.
But then he woke up again at 4 am, cried for about 8 min with a pause of about 60 seconds before he cried again for 5 min, I went in and gave him a pacifier, soothed him a little bit and left the room. He whimpers for another 5 min before going to sleep.
5:20 up again, went in to give him a paci after 5 min, leave the room, continues to cry for another 25 min after which I go in and give him a pacifier and he falls asleep within 5 min
6:18 up again, crying really hard for about 15 min, I don’t go in and he settles himself.
Wakes up at 7:30 in a good mood.
So you see I did a mixture of not going in at all and going in a little bit. But when I would go in I did not stay more than a minute and I did not talk to him or make eye contact.
8:30 pm Bedtime
3:05 wakes up cries on and off for 45 min but low intensity thus it wasn’t very painful. But since he has now already done a stretch of 7 hours this was starting to feel like victory.
4:45 up again. Wait a few min and go in and give him a pacifier. Sleeps within 5 min
7:30 wakes up for the day.
I had heard that Day 3 will be significantly better than the first 2 days and it was! There was almost no high intensity crying.
He woke up at 10:30, cried for 5 min and went back to sleep himself. I did not go in. He did the same at 4 AM and again I did not go in and he went back to sleep very easily. He was just whimpering and not really crying. I did not have to go to his room even once. It was so much better! In fact I was waking up more often than him since I had become so used to him waking me up!
From day 5 onwards he was pretty much sleeping through the night. If he did wake up every now and then, I did not need to go in. He was able to settle himself within a few minutes without hysterical crying.
In the beginning he was waking up earlier than I had wanted (at 5am) so I started to put him to bed an hour earlier (as I had read that putting him to sleep earlier may help him sleep later) and that seemed to work. Now its been almost 2 months and he is sleeping from 7pm to almost 7 am. Every now and then he would be up earlier but I can deal with that. But we try not to take him out of the crib until at least 6:30am.
I can now say that he is sleep trained and he sleeps through the night. If now he ever cries hard at night, we go in to check on him since it’s an anomaly and we want to make sure he is ok. But that rarely happens.
So there, that is my story, hopefully something in there for you. I am not advocating one strategy or another, I am just letting you know what worked for me. Do whatever you are comfortable with. CIO is hard and by god it was hard for us but I am happy we mustered the courage to do what I think was great for K and the rest of the family. He is now getting is 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep, for which he is a happier baby , and we, well, have finally claimed our nights back!!
Books for your reference
- On Becoming Baby Wise by Gary Ezzo
- The Contented Little Baby book of Weaning by Gina Ford
- The Complete Sleep Guide for Contented Babies by Gina Ford
- The Baby Sleep Solution by Suzy Giordano
- Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth
- Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman