I’ll preface this blog post by saying – this is a work in progress! My son is 10 weeks old and while sleep is nowhere near perfect (children are not robots, after all), we are in a MUCH better place than when my twins were this age. Back in 2015 I had zero knowledge of good sleep habits, or babies at all really, and once I started to really learn about it – I learned we were doing everything wrong! I’m right back in the same boat as many of our clients which has been both a humbling experience, and a very empowering one as I can see healthy sleep habits really making an impact, even this early on.
I knew from my training at the Family Sleep Institute that the first 6 weeks are really a free for all. However you can maximize sleep for both mom and baby – as long as it follows safe sleep guidelines, is fair game. I did a lot of baby wearing and Netflix-watching while bouncing him in a bouncy chair. Bad habits cannot be created this young as a baby’s brain is simply too immature to form connections. I’m a big fan of Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby on the Block” methods to help calm a fussy baby and encourage sleep. Light therapy, exposing a newborn to lots sunlight during the day (even a well lit room can serve this purpose) can help end day and night confusion more quickly. Regardless, – those first 6 weeks were TIRING. Anyone who says “sleep when the baby sleeps” has never had twin toddlers in addition to a newborn. Sleep deprivation on top of twin motherhood, c-section recovery and the blistering cold temperatures of this past December made for a long stretch. But this time around, I at least knew it wasn’t forever.
Once our baby boy started smiling socially (indicating that he was becoming a more social being and was now able to form associations) I knew it was time to start making some changes to how we were doing things. It was exciting but also scary – because even though I know how important good sleep habits are, I also knew it was going to take a lot of time and consistency (in other words, it’s a lot of work!). We’ve had a couple of weeks to implement some good habits and I’ll say that while sometimes it feels like we’re banging our heads against a wall…our baby boy is going into his bassinet wide awake around 7PM, putting himself to sleep, and sleeping 9+ hour stretch until his one nursing session of the night. I have a whole new appreciation and enthusiasm for what we do at Well Rested Baby. Here are a few things that we’ve been doing that I would recommend to clients with babies 6-8+ weeks of age:
- Establish a consistent place to sleep. While Declan sleeps in a bassinet in our room at night, we are trying to have all of his daytime sleep happen in his crib. Now that he is becoming more social a busy environment is too distracting and does not allow for lengthy naps. Unfortunately, at this age your baby is no longer “as portable” and cannot sleep anywhere, anytime. Additionally, because he is now capable of forming associations we want to lessen the use of sleep props (RnP, stroller, carrier, car etc.) so that he can learn to associate his crib with sleep. The best environment for sleep is dark, (think cave-like), with white noise on a consistent “shhh” sound. The crib should not contain anything aside from a pacifier if your baby uses one.
- Pay attention to awake time. Although he is not on a super set schedule at this age, after about 60-90 minutes of awake time (after his previous nap) he should be fast asleep again. At the 60-90-minute mark after his last nap we get him back into his crib before he’s too tired to settle into a good sleep. It’s important to keep babies rested – as overtiredness is the root cause of many sleep issues.
- Develop a soothing routine. With two other small children in the house, I wanted to keep our soothing routine very short and simple. When it’s time for sleep, we change his diaper, swaddle him up, turn the lights off and the white noise on and put him in his crib. It’s as simple as that – but if done consistently he will start to associate this little routine with going to sleep. Small things, over time, make a big impact.
- Put baby down awake. I rock Declan for a very short time so that he’s content when going into his crib – but wide awake. Watching him learn how to put himself to sleep has been extremely rewarding. As time goes on, the ability to put himself BACK to sleep when he wakes will allow him to take long naps and sleep through the night without our help. Scientist and author Alice Callahan notes that one of the most consistent findings in infant sleep research is that “babies who fall to sleep on their own at the beginning of the night tend to sleep better during the night, whereas more active soothing from a parent at bedtime is associated with more disrupted sleep during the night.”
- Don’t end a nap too quickly. If he wakes before he has napped for an hour (which is almost always) we implement the gentlest sleep training method, pick up/put down. This goes exactly as the name sounds – if he wakes and cries, we go to him and gently rub his chest to see if he will calm. If not, we pick him up, calm him and promptly put him back down awake to put himself back to sleep. If we get outside of the room and he’s still crying, or starts crying again, we repeat the above steps. We continue to do this until he either returns to sleep or it has been one full hour from the time he first fell to sleep. By doing this we are allowing Declan to return to sleep, practice his self-soothing skills and learn that naps should be at least an hour or more in duration. (Something that will help him get the restorative daytime sleep his brain and body needs for years to come.) You heard it from me – naps are HARD. But while naps are your worst enemy, consistency is your best friend.
- Begin to implement an earlier bedtime. At this age, babies will start to get tired and seem ready for bed earlier in the evening. Let this happen! A few weeks ago, Declan was going to bed around 9. He’s now in his bassinet by 7PM and goes right to sleep. This is so much better than dealing with late evening fussiness – so don’t fight it! This will not cause additional night wakings or early morning wakings. Instead, it will allow your baby to get the consolidated sleep nighttime sleep provides rather than another catnap.
- Have support. Even though I’m a sleep consultant, I still find myself needing support. Some days I feel like I’m making zero progress – but it’s important to remember that lifelong habits take consistency and time. Find some like-minded people that you can reach out to when you’re frustrated (I’m lucky enough to have WRB’s owner, Lauren, on speed dial – ha!). If you can get your partner and/or childcare provider on board it’s even better for the sake of both consistency but also to be able to take a break when you need one.
- Remember why you’re doing this! Most important to remember is that even though it’s glorious to start getting longer stretches of sleep again yourself, it’s even better for your baby. Healthy sleep habits are crucial to a child’s health and development, and teaching a baby to sleep autonomously does not decrease secure attachment. As Alice Callahan said, “Being sensitive to your baby’s needs (including the need to sleep) and being consistent (including when you make changes to your sleep routine) are vital to healthy attachment, and you can absolutely maintain a secure attachment while encouraging independent sleep for your baby.”
Once our baby boy is 16 weeks, his biological rhythms will form and allow for a more set schedule. Until then, we plan to continue the above in hopes that we never reach the level of sleep deprivation we did the first time around! I hope any new mamas out there find this helpful!
Colleen is a Family Sleep Institute Pediatric Sleep Consultant trained with Well Rested Baby where she helps families navigate the confusing world of baby sleep. Please feel free to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.