How to get your baby to sleep through the night

Four moms spill what really worked to get their babies to sleep through the night, from cry-it-out to co-sleeping.

Sleep_Main_Feb_2104_Todays_Parent

Four moms share how they get their babies to sleep through the night.

“I let my baby cry it out”
By Sasha Emmons

“Mommy, I love sleeping,” my five-year-old son, Julian, said the other night as I tucked him into bed. I arrange his stuffies just so and turn off the light, knowing that in all likelihood I won’t hear a peep from him for the next 11 or so hours.

When Julian was five months old, I spent a week sleep-training him, using the good old cry-it-out (CIO) method my paediatrician recommended. I caved once or twice when the sobs went on too long, but generally, I carried out the bedtime routine (nursing, plus a few rounds of “You Are My Sunshine”), closed the door and then didn’t go in again until morning, even if I stood just outside his room crying along with him. At that time, we lived in the attachment-parenting capitol of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I’m pretty sure the other members of my moms’ group thought I was barbaric. There were plenty of books and blogs that told me the same.

But by this age, we were down to one nighttime feed and my paediatrician said Julian was big enough to go for longer stretches without eating. I firmly believed we’d all be better off with a full night’s sleep and, as a second-time mom, I was already comfortable making decisions for the good of my child that were not particularly appealing to said child. Besides, I was usually on my own at bedtime, and was finding it increasingly difficult to occupy my four-year-old daughter while rocking Julian to sleep for half an hour. I needed him to fall asleep on his own, and sleep through the night. Hearing your baby cry—especially when you’re in that emotionally fragile postpartum haze—is torture, but I believed it would work. And it did. His naps (previously maddening 20-minute affairs) got longer, too, because he would soothe himself back to sleep.

I’ve read the concerns over CIO, namely that letting babies get distressed can damage their brains, increase anxiety and undermine the parent-child relationship. But I haven’t observed any of those outcomes. Baby Julian beamed at me when I walked in every morning, all the tears of the night before forgiven. Throughout his childhood there’s been little anxiety about visiting la-la land—or about anything at all (except zombies, but who can blame him?). He’s an easygoing, happy kid, who says I am his “best grown-up.” I guess there’s no way to know what Julian sans a few nights of CIO would be like, but I do believe he has benefitted greatly from regular, plentiful sleep. Yes, I sleep-trained my baby. And I’d do it again.

“I slept in my baby’s room”
By Louise Gleeson

For her first four months, my daughter happily slept in a bassinet beside our bed. And while I probably checked on her more than I needed to, it worked well for both of us.

Then she outgrew the bassinet. The beautifully coordinated nursery, with a carefully chosen crib, seemed like the next logical step. My memory of the actual transition is fuzzy—in part because it was plagued by epic sleep deprivation for both my daughter and me, but also because it’s a period of time I’d rather forget.

Our attempt to move her into the crib coincided with the darkest months of the year, and her constant wake-ups and early morning rising affected my ability to function. I wasn’t even really enjoying time with her when she was awake—we were both too tired because she wasn’t sleeping through the night.

I went through the motions for a couple of months and spent countless hours walking the halls until she fell asleep, only to have her wake again as soon as I left the room. No matter how hard I tried to train her to sleep apart from me instead of in my arms, or at my breast, she couldn’t or wouldn’t learn. As a first-time mom, I wasn’t feeling confident enough to try bed-sharing or letting her cry it out.

She was about six months old the night it all changed. I had bolted out of my bed, yet again, because her wails were lighting up the baby monitor. I looked over at my sleeping husband, who had trained himself to ignore it, and knew I was done.

I stomped downstairs, grabbed the cushions from the couch and dragged them up to her room. I made a makeshift bed on the floor and threw my pillow and a blanket on top of it. Then I lay down beside the crib and reached for her hand, while shushing her until she quieted. And she did.

For three blissful months we shared her room, and I came to enjoy our private, quiet time together. And, yes, she eventually taught herself to sleep apart from me, and, no, it didn’t negatively affect my marriage—we went on to have three more kids and I shared a room with each of them when they were babies.

My daughter is 12 now and hasn’t looked for me in the night for years. But she knows I’d be there if she did, and that’s all she’s ever needed to sleep through the night.

“I put my baby on a strict schedule”
By Susan Treen

It’s time for me to come clean: My baby sleeps because she’s on a strict daily schedule. This is something our grandmas used to do, but like smoking while nursing, it sounds wrong. Parents are now supposed to go with the flow and follow baby’s cues, right? At playdates, I might casually mention Phoebe’s “routine.” But the truth is, it’s much more than a routine.

My nine-month-old has been on a rigid sleep schedule since she was two days old. For most of her short life, our fridge door has been plastered with yellow Post-it Notes detailing exactly what she will be doing every minute of every day. The notes are mostly for my husband, who never seems to understand why our darling daughter has to go back to sleep 90 minutes after waking up. He is the sort of person who only sets one alarm clock when he has an important business meeting. I, however, like to have a plan.

So when the kind fertility doctors finally knocked me up after years of trying, I went to the bookstore, sat down in the middle of the parenting section, and skimmed through dozens of books. I settled on Cherish by Helen Moon, Elton John and David Furnish’s Hollywood nanny. The cover was cute, and the book promised to help me raise a calm and confident baby—who sleeps through the night.

Moon’s program includes a step-by-step plan for the first six weeks, which is how long she thinks it should take parents to teach babies to sleep all night. There are lots of rules. All babies go to bed at 7 p.m. and wake at 7 a.m. Not allowed: pacifiers, co-sleeping, putting babies to sleep with help from a bottle or breast, rocking or bouncing into a deep slumber. Babies must be swaddled for naps and at night.

Schedules for weeks one and two weren’t that difficult because Phoebe was pretty sleepy already. Week three’s timetable was much tougher because Moon wanted me to begin gently teaching Phoebe how to get some shut-eye on her own. This is when I started waking my sleeping baby up so she could learn how to get back to sleep. I know it sounds absurd, but every three to four hours day and night, I got Phoebe up, un-swaddled her, changed her diaper, nursed her, changed her diaper again, re-swaddled her, and then did an extended bouncy-jiggle walk until she was drowsy. According to the plan, I couldn’t put her down if she was totally asleep, so I waited for her eyes to flutter with fatigue, then eased her into the bassinet with the stealthy grace of a ninja. The most difficult part of week three’s schedule was the night shift. My alarm would go off at 10 p.m., 2 a.m., 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. Phoebe was almost always out cold, and she would scream when I woke her up.

These were dark days—I had to set 20 different alarms on my iPhone to keep it all straight. My friends and family found all of this highly entertaining. I wasn’t laughing. But the schedule got a lot easier by week five, when I was able to eliminate one of the night feeds, and only nurse her at 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. For six blessed hours in between, she slept. Naps were pretty consistent, too.

It took Phoebe about 12 weeks to learn how to sleep from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., but she did it. And thanks to the schedule, I’ve enjoyed some luxuries many new moms don’t. I’m not exhausted. I can hit an evening yoga class and have the time and energy to go for dinner with my girlfriends. My family still thinks our strict schedule is insane, especially when I email it to them ahead of an extended visit. But Phoebe is a happy baby who has adapted to this schedule beautifully, and I’m a happy mama. It’s been totally worth it.

“I shared a bed with my baby”
By Lauren Ferranti-Ballem

I remember the moment vividly, when a colleague I barely knew got down on the office floor to demonstrate to me, due any day with my first baby, how to breastfeed while lying on your side. “This,” she said confidently, spread out and grabbing the breast closest to the floor, “is how you’ll get sleep in the early days.”

I was horrified. Not only by this awkward new level of familiarity, but by the concept. Breastfeeding against gravity? It seemed impossible, in the way that everything around having a baby seemed impossible. And a newborn in my bed? No way. And then I had my baby.

She came via C-section, which was rough, but thankfully breastfeeding turned out not to be. It wasn’t always comfortable to do sitting as I was healing, and I was a tired zombie mom. That’s when the memory of my co-worker’s desk-side display came to mind. Like everything else with a newborn, it took practice, but I was determined (when I wasn’t crying hot tears of frustration). And we figured it out. Sleep came easily and sweetly for many months after that. I was one of those parents who slept with her baby. And I loved it. I knew how to make bed-sharing safer, so I did just that: kept her far from blankets and pillows in a safe little nook with my body curved around her.

Having her in my bed got me to sleep earlier—I’d swaddle and nurse her and then nod off myself, snoozing soundly instead of straining to interpret the squeaks coming from the bassinet. I didn’t have to get up multiple times a night to feed her.

These were the practical reasons that made sense to me at the time. But the many other little things that kept her in my bed were just as important. The way her body would inch closer to me through the night. The smell, softness and warmth of her head just under my chin. Watching her sleep. The secrets we (mostly me) shared in the dark. Waking up together lazily, beaming the smiles of happily rested people.

So I couldn’t understand why, around the eight-month mark, she got restless. She was wiggly, chatty and wanting to play. Why did she want to ruin the good thing we had going? The cuddles and breastfeeding weren’t lulling her like they used to and, as she grew, it was getting crowded. I realized we needed our space. The transition to her own room, her own crib, was—shockingly then, predictably in hindsight—harder on me.

We sleep easily on our own for the most part now. But I never turn her away when she pads into the darkness of my room and slips in beside me. One whiff of that head and I drift away.

Safe sleep guidelines: The Canadian Paediatric Society provides these important tips to create a safe sleep environment for your baby:
1. Infants should sleep on their backs, in cribs meeting the Canadian Government’s safety standards.

2. The sleep environment must be free of quilts, comforters, bumper pads, pillows and other soft items, like toys.

3. Room-sharing (a baby sleeping in a crib in the same room as her parents) is protective against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and is a safer alternative to bed-sharing.

4. Parents should not place infants on waterbeds, air mattresses, pillows, soft materials or loose bedding, even temporarily (e.g., during travel). Car seats and infant seat carriers shouldn’t replace cribs due to the risk of harness straps causing upper airway obstruction.

5. Sleeping with your infant, or letting her sleep alone on any type of couch, recliner or cushioned chair, is dangerous, putting her at substantial risk for asphyxia or suffocation. Any makeshift bed is not safe for your baby.

6. Give your baby a smoke-free environment. Babies who are regularly exposed to cigarette smoke have a higher rate of SIDS.

A version of this article appeared in our February 2015 issue with the headline, “Secrets of baby sleep,” p. 55-59.

Read more:
6 ways to help your baby sleep through the night
What you need to know about the new safe sleep guidelines for babies
Why won’t my baby sleep?

9 Comments