Baby sleep is a lot like the stock market. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down, sometimes you can help nudge it in the right direction, and sometimes it’s completely out of your control. Sometimes it feels like you’ve hit the jackpot, and sometimes it will RUIN YOUR LIFE.
Sleep is notoriously tricky because so many variables are involved. Your baby may need less sleep than average or be a naturally short napper. She may have tummy issues or reflux which interrupt her sleep. He could simply be at a developmental stage when he is waking more frequently (like a growth spurt, sleep regression, or teething). Her temperament might make it harder for her to self-soothe, or he might be so easily distracted that it’s difficult for him to fall asleep. Basically, you and I could be doing exactly the same routines and achieve very different results, depending on each of our babies.
This is not a “how to get your baby to sleep, guaranteed!” type of article. This is a “holy crap, baby sleep is ridiculously difficult to figure out and here are some mistakes I’ve made so hopefully you can avoid some of these same issues but ultimately good luck because who the hell knows” type of article.
Also, babies love to make fools of their parents, so my son will probably wake up 5 times tonight to punish me for having the audacity to write this. See how I’m willing to sacrifice for you?
Without further ado, here were the top 5 mistakes I made when I started wrangling the baby sleep monster:
1) Keeping my baby up too late
Newborns are like college girls in New Orleans: they love to party all night. For both groups, partying tends to include lots of drama, pee everywhere, occasional vomit (or spit-up), and the guarantee that someone will cry at some point in the evening. (I lived in New Orleans and may or may not be speaking from experience here…)Now take one of those college girls and fast forward a few years: once she’s in her late 20s, she can’t regularly stay up till 2 AM and still function the next day. If she’s smart, she’ll get her ass to bed at a reasonable hour. The same principle applies to older babies.
After babies move out of the newborn stage (around 3-4 months) their sleep starts consolidating and they’re capable of sleeping for longer stretches. If your baby starts showing consistent fussiness around 7 PM or so, please don’t be dumb-asses like us. He’s probably crying because he’s tired (we didn’t realize this until it was pointed out to us. We just figured 7-10 PM was his “fussy time.” It was, but only because the poor kid was exhausted.)Before you freak out and start thinking (like me) that putting your baby down at 7 PM will mean that she wakes up at 3 AM, never fear! Babies can sleep for 12 hours, no prob. (Important note: “sleeping through the night” does not mean that baby won’t wake to eat! Young babies still need to eat every 4-6 hours on average, so this doesn’t mean 12 hours of completely uninterrupted sleep for you. Sorry ‘bout that.)
2) Not being consistent with his schedule/routine
The only thing babies love more than eating and pooping is routine. They thrive on it. And when you mess up their routine, they’re going to let you know it.
We used to be pretty loosey-goosey with Ben’s bedtime routine, and as a result, we got inconsistent sleep results. Sometimes he went right down, other nights were, eh-hem, not so smooth.
We realized that we weren’t giving him clear cues that it was time to sleep. Now we have a very predictable routine, and Ben knows from our behavior and activities that it’s time to wind down. By 6:45, we head to the nursery, dim the lights, change into jammies, read his bedtime books, feed him a bottle, sing his bedtime song, and then it’s bedtime. Even for naps, we have a shortened version to signal sleepy-time. It’s clear that he knows exactly what this routine means because some nights he protests pretty loudly as soon as we start, but fifteen minutes later, he’s out for the count.
3) Not letting him cry
Let me be clear: I’m a big softie and do not have the emotional fortitude for the “cry it out” approach. If my baby is in distress, I’m going to comfort him. Period.
However, there’s a difference between “protest” crying and “distress” crying. Ben routinely protests for anywhere between 5-15 minutes before he settles, but this is part of his wind-down routine. If his crying starts to ramp up, I know he actually needs something (food…always food) and once his needs are met, he goes to sleep.
When we first started sleep training, I didn’t understand this difference and would run in to rescue him at every peep. Once I learned to differentiate between cries, I also learned to wait and watch to see what he actually needs. Now I let him cry a bit, and he’s much better at self-soothing and settling for naps and bedtime.
4) Not paying attention to his cues
Newborns are like tiny narcoleptics. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around them, if they’re sleepy, they basically just… fall asleep. At least that’s what Ben did. Pretty easy. (Until it’s 2 AM and the baby is wide awake and you’re so tired you think you’ll die. That’s not so easy.)
Older babies are capable of fighting tiredness to stay awake, especially since they’re just learning social connectedness and, like Aerosmith, don’t want to miss a thing.
This was really confusing to me because I’d never had to put Ben down for a nap while he was still awake. My mom pointed this out to me one day and basically said, “You have to tell him when it’s time to sleep. He isn’t going to do it for himself anymore.” Ooooh.
Now, I pay attention to his behavioral cues to watch for tiredness. Sometimes this is a yawn or eye rub, sometimes it’s as subtle as zoning out while playing or sitting still for a few seconds longer than normal. Then BAM! It’s crib time. If I’m not paying attention and I miss these cues, it’s much harder (sometimes impossible) to get him to settle. It’s like surfing; you have to catch the wave at the exact right time.
5) Not feeding him enough during the day
Ben loves to eat, but he also loves to play. Sometimes he gets so distracted by something fun (the dog, the TV, books, Dad emptying the trash can) that he pushes his bottle or applesauce away before he finishes. I would think he was full, until it was 4 AM and he was waking up crying for the first time in weeks.
Ben has the appetite of an NFL linebacker, so we have to make very sure that his tummy is very full before we put him to bed. Our motto? “When in doubt, one more ounce.” This may not apply to every baby, but if you have a 99th percentile kiddo, you probably know what I’m talking about. Feed that baby at every opportunity during the day, and your nights will probably be much more peaceful.
There you go! Like I said before, I can’t guarantee that your baby will sleep if you follow this advice, but I’m pretty sure none of these practices will hurt your chances. Hopefully, my hard-learned mistakes will help you avoid some of the same issues, and you’ll be enjoying eight full hours of shut-eye soon!
References: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth