Thoughts on Sleep

I’ve written quite a bit about Stella and her sleep (or lack thereof at times) over the past few years, and I figured it was time to document what we did with Harvey that was the same or different and why. Then when I started to write out this post, it took an entirely different turn, so I’m going to post this first and then write up a detailed post of what we’ve actually DONE with Harvey.

As a caveat – I know that sleep advice can be VERY controversial. Obviously every kid is different in temperament & ability to self soothe without being shown the way, but there are a few basic concepts that I think were really important for us to know & follow, and I hope that sharing some of what we’ve learned about kids & sleep over the past 2.5 years will be of help to some of you!

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Lesson #1 – Every kid is different. Don’t feel like a failure if your infant cries a lot and wakes every 2 hours to eat but your best friend’s kid never cries & sleeps through the night. Related, don’t be uppity & think you’ve done everything perfectly as a parent if your kid is an angel who never cries & slept through the night on her first night at home. You might have just lucked out with a chill baby!

For what it’s worth, Stella was a typically fussy baby. By that I mean she (like many babies) had her “witching hours” from around 4-8pm almost every single night for a few weeks (months?) around 1-3 months of age when we loosely followed the “five S’s” made popular by Dr. Harvey Karp in The Happiest Baby on the Block. You can read more about the Five S’s here. I know that some “gentle parenting” advocates get ragey about that book, but I consider myself a gentle & loving parent, and part of that is being a smart parent who picks and chooses which advice to follow for my baby. I use what I need to and disregard what I don’t. We spent many evening hours with Stella swaddled up tightly in our arms laying on her side/stomach, bouncing on the exercise ball, and whispering “shhh” (albeit not as harshly/loudly as Dr. Karp demonstrates) to her in order to get her to stop wailing. With Harvey, we never had to do this once.

Seriously, please remember that every baby is different – and that’s a big reason to not feel pressured to follow ANYBODY’s advice when it comes to sleep. It could be amazing advice… but it might not work for your kid. Also, it could be really shitty advice, and that’s no fun either. Do your research, and then follow your gut.

Lesson #2 – The first few months of a child’s life are generally the most flexible ones when it comes to sleep. Take advantage of it!

I know, if you’re in the bleary eyed newborn phase you might not believe me right now, but truly, your baby is pretty flexible right now, and you need to take advantage of it! Here is the “routine” we followed with both of our kids for the first few months:

Eat – play – eat – sleep <– repeat … and roughly every 2 hrs as an infant and every 3-4 hours as an older baby, we threw a diaper change in the mix.

That’s it. No crazy regimented sleep & feed schedule. If you are a parent of multiples or someone who needs a schedule to feel sane, go for it… but if you don’t have an intense, burning need to have your children eat and sleep at scheduled times, don’t stress out that you’re somehow ruining your baby by not having  them on a routine as an infant. Feed on demand and take advantage of those first few months when the baby can sleep anywhere. You DO NOT need to make your 1 week old take naps in the crib in fear of ruining his/her sleep habits for life. You honestly don’t. Snuggle on the couch, wear the baby in a sling, take a walk with the baby in the stroller to get some fresh air, go out for lunch with your friends and let the baby sleep in the car seat. In short, take advantage of this little window of time where the baby can sleep anywhere and you don’t need to schedule errands around nap time.

Lesson #3 – An overtired baby is a cranky baby. No baby doesn’t need to nap. If your baby doesn’t nap well, you are most likely keeping the baby awake too long. 

I can’t tell you how many of my friends have said “my baby just doesn’t need to sleep much” or “my baby only naps once for 45 minutes a day” – but then follows up with how the night time sleep sucks or the kid is fussy all the time. ACK! This is an overtired baby. Usually by the time your baby is rubbing his/her eyes and showing visible signs of fatigue, it’s too late. Think of when YOU are overtired and toss and turn in bed – that’s what has just happened to your baby!  We have had really good success with following the guidelines laid out in “Baby Sleep: What is Normal?” That means we currently do our best to not let Harvey stay awake more than 3 hours at a time EVER (at nearly 6 months old).

For anyone with sleep questions, I highly recommend you check out Troublesome Tots. It is hands down my favorite sleep resource out there, and I honestly still refer to it all.the.time.

Lesson #4 – Do not miss the window of opportunity for change! Separation anxiety tends to hit around 8 months, but it can really happen at anytime between 6 months – 2 years for most kids. Don’t be stuck like we were and be trying to fix sleep issues at the height of separation anxiety time!

First off, don’t be afraid of using elements like the swaddle, swing, and white noise to help your baby sleep in the beginning. Don’t even be afraid of nursing & rocking to sleep in the beginning. Enjoy those snuggles while they last. Then you’ll reach a point around 4 months when you realize SHIT, my baby is not an infant anymore… and that is when you should start to think more about these things.

I think the biggest issue we had with Stella was never letting her / teaching her how to fall asleep on her own between 4-6 months. I loved the cuddles so much and nursing her to sleep was so easy that I never bothered trying anything different until shit hit the fan around 8 months and she woke up every 45 minutes all night long. Don’t get me wrong – those first few months I think it is TOTALLY AWESOME & WONDERFUL to nurse/rock your baby to sleep. However, the time will come that it’s a huge benefit if you can lay your baby down, walk out of the room, and feel confident that s/he will fall asleep without issue. The key to this is putting baby down drowsy but awake whenever possible so they get used to settling in for sleep without you rocking/patting/singing/nursing/etc all the way into dreamland. This is MUCH easier to do if the baby is not over tired (see point 3 above). Also, remember that there is a massive difference between letting them fuss for a few minutes and CIO, so if you’re not wanting to try CIO, don’t automatically discredit the idea of letting your baby fuss for a few minutes. You’ll probably be surprised at how often s/he falls asleep without you if you just give them the chance. My personal rule is 6 minutes – if the baby is just fussing and not hysterical, I give him 6 minutes to try to settle on his own. If he’s getting more worked up after 6 minutes, I go in. You’ll find what number works for you!

Lesson #5 – The importance of learning to fall asleep without a nipple in your mouth cannot be understated.

Remember, the easy option isn’t always the best option when it comes to babies and sleep. Yes, it is EASY to nurse a baby to sleep. Believe me, I have done it many, many, MANY times, and it’s hard to change your process if it’s working. However, there will come a time that you aren’t there at bedtime…or more likely, you won’t want to nurse the baby to sleep for the 18 millionth time that night. This doesn’t make you a horrible mother – it’s just reality. It’s helpful to everyone involved if you can nurse (or bottle feed – whatever floats your boat!) and enjoy that snuggle time… and then while the baby is still awake, lay him/her down in bed. That way if the baby wakes up later (like we all do throughout the night), your baby can wiggle around, readjust, and hopefully fall back asleep all on her own because she doesn’t think she needs a nipple in her mouth to do this. Win/win!

Lesson #6 – Give your baby time to adjust to the new routine / way of sleeping that you’re attempting to implement. Be patient – it’s a learning process for everyone!

My final tip in regards to babies/kids and sleep is to remember the fact that sleep is an ever changing beast. This works both ways. If your kid is in a great sleep rhythm, enjoy it while you can, because eventually a nap will be dropped or daylight savings time will hit and you’ll probably have to change things up again. On the flip side, if you’re currently a sleep deprived zombie, remember that things WILL get better. Give yourself and your baby the tools to sleep better and it WILL change. Just give it time. Just because you tried it one night and it didn’t work doesn’t mean it won’t work. Habits have to be created, and time is required to make that happen. If you’re trying to change the routine, give it a couple of weeks of trying to see if it will work for you and your baby. It will be worth it in the long run!

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So there ya go…there are a million other tips out there, but off the top of my head those are the top 6 things I’d tell a new parent who is struggling with sleep issues. How about you – what are your favorite tips to live by when it comes to kids and sleep?

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18 comments

  1. Yeah, “my kids just don’t need naps,” is a big parenting fail. That drives me nuts. I am a nap dictator – not an option in this house. Not an option on vacation. NOT AN OPTION, and certainly not one the kids get to exercise (because sometimes, like this past 4th, a three year old just isn’t going to nap – and I tried HARD. But it was me who made the final call).

    My kids are completely different with sleep. They both suck up to the time they sleep through the night, and need help to learn, but that help we give has been vastly different for them.

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  2. mcmissis · · Reply

    My advice is to start out with the worst sleeper in history; then all subsequent children will seem like sleep champions 🙂

    But really, if people ask, I’ll spit out every piece of advice from every sleep book ever written, from no-cry to CIO, but mostly I stress the every baby is different point you made. I felt so guilty for so long about how I had ruined Gracie by doing or not doing this and that, and I can finally admit (sometimes) that it’s just the way she is. I wake up a ton at night, too; so should I really be surprised?

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  3. sangela71 · · Reply

    Lesson #1 is so, so true. Having twins will teach you this because you will do most things the same for both babies in the beginning, and yet one of them will slept great and/or be easily comforted and the other will not. So it’s obviously not due to your wonderful parenting, LOL!

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  4. My kids have always been amazing sleepers and started falling asleep on their own in their cribs by four months.

    I attribute the majority of this to luck…and swaddles…and for Taylor, white noise.

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    1. Ya – Stella was tightly swaddled for 6 months — Harvey HATED it (and I used to be the santimommy that said “all babies need to be swaddled – they’ll just fight it for a minute or two and then sleep better)…. so ya, I Harv was swaddled the first week or two, and since then he sleeps with his arms up and on his side or belly. It’s just what he wants, so we go with it!

      Yes, there might be some luck involved with them both falling asleep on their own by 4 months — BUT, it sounds like you gave them the chance to try that. It never even occurred to me to try laying Stella down awake at that age, and we paid dearly for it later. With Harv, I lay him down awake all the time and he settles himself to sleep most times!

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  5. Oh! I am so glad to see someone other than me does the Eat, play, eat, sleep routine.

    Every baby IS different, and it’s so important to remember that.

    L has an easier time falling asleep on his own (thumb sucking helps). His magic number is 10 minutes. G’s was 20-30!!!!! And we’d go in a 50 times a night to replace a pacifier. (Ok maybe not 50, but it felt like it!)

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    1. Ya, I’m pretty stoked neither of my kids would take a paci, and Harv being a thumb sucker has DEFINITELY helped with the self soothing aspect of thing.

      I try to not always do the eat before sleep thing now (at 6 months), but those first few months we ALWAYS did eat/play/eat/sleep.

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  6. Question: about falling asleep with a nipple… what if I got him dependent on it and he is now 2? How do I get him to sleep without it?!

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    1. Oh man, 2 year olds have OPINIONS about things (as you obviously know), so that might be a little rough. Do you cosleep or is he in a separate room? If a separate room, I’d move nursing to about 20 min BEFORE sleep time, and separate that with a couple of books or songs or something else you’ve been doing as part of the bedtime routine already, then lay him down awake, tell him he can nurse in the morning (if he asks – otherwise dont’ mention it!), and walk out. I’m not a huge advocate of CIO, but at that age, the 2 year old can totally manipulate things – and he WANTS the boob/sleep association b/c you’ve trained him to believe it’s the only way to go. Now you’ll have to do the work to change what he “knows” as the routine. On the upside, you can really communicate with a 2 year old, so you can actually talk to him about how and why you’re changing the routine. Good luck!

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      1. Heather · · Reply

        We’re co sleeping.. I’ve decided its a mindset thing, I just have to make the decision and do it but it’s hard…

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        1. Good luck with that! I loved cosleeping with my kiddos, and Stella still ends up in our bed from time to time (2.5 yrs old). I weaned her at 1.5 yrs though, so I never experience her wanting to nurse at this age to sleep. Can you maybe try giving him a sippy cup of water at bedtime to suck on instead? Stella still wants that – she says she’s thirsty, and since Charlie and I both drink water all night long, it makes sense that she would too.

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        2. Heather · ·

          Ok I might try that… Funny thing about the sippy cup, I decided to do that on the same night I taught him about spitting (ie brushing teeth) and we landed up with a lot of water in the bed because he was practicing!

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  7. jesicabrennan · · Reply

    I agree with everything you’ve written here! Can’t wait to hear how Harvey sleeps differently than Stella!

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  8. It really is true that each kid is different, and hell, each kid may change up his or her routine multiple times throwing you for a loop as well. Drake’s sleep has been all over the place and for the life of me I can’t figure out what makes him sleep well some weeks and sleep like crap others. I’m just glad I got a good sleeper first. 🙂

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  9. OMG I love this so much. This just sums it all up so perfectly, and with such a lovely emphasis on doing what you’re comfortable with. Definitely bookmarking this and passing it off as my own advice. =)

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  10. Laying either of my babies down awake meant the murdering of my ear drums. There was no such thing as fussing and not hysterical with either of them. But, maybe because they were so awful as babies they knew they owed me one bc despite the fact that I wasn’t able to/didn’t dare try to teach self soothing tactics – they both just magically became really good sleepers around the age of one. I’ll be calling you for advice if I have a third that shows any sign of not being like the first two, though it all worked out great in the end and I have two great sleepers. Harvey seriously needs to stop smiling!!! He is too cute!

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  11. I think the overtired thing is key. Learning to get them to bed before that hits is key. We did pretty good with X but still have challenges. He wakes up and gets in our bed every single night it seems. Now he’s so heavy that neither one of us has the energy to pick up a sleeping floppy kid at 2am. *shrug*

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    1. Oh, not to say we’ve totally given up , but moving him back to his room is much harder these days. When he does sleep in his bed all night we make a huge deal out of it.

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