Sleep is essential to all of us. Without it we get cranky, sick, and we can’t think straight. No amount of coffee or pure will can get you through yet another day of waking up 3 to 4 times a night to soothe a newborn. And, for the first month or so, the adrenaline, novelty and learning opportunities of rocking your newborn to sleep can keep you going and make you forget that sleep is actually necessary, this thought will creep back in as the collective damage to your nervous system will remind you once the high has worn off.
Here is the thing, what sleep or the lack of sleep’s affect on you is, it is double for your partner, especially if they are breastfeeding, and even more so for that little being you are now in charge of helping to grow and develop. Lack of sleep can lead to stunted development and growth, as well as irritability. I was a reluctant sleep trainer initially. I did not like what I read and heard about sleep training. The cry it out method, seemed mean and promoted levels of cortisol and stress that I couldn’t bear to allow. Co-sleeping, in addition to its potential perils, seemed not fair on Mom (the 24 hour milk diner) and it did not teach my kids how to self-soothe. And everything in the middle seemed too complicated. We consulted sleep training experts and YouTube and everything in between to find something that would work.
One night, at around 5 months old, I told Satya that I would do the night shift with our daughter. Satya was at wits end, the stress caused by Wish’s sleep issues were causing the house to tear apart. I prepared myself for the worst I could imagine. That nightmare scenario was not even close to what actually happened. As if my daughter had an atomic alarm clock in her soul, she managed to precisely cut each sleep period in half successively throughout the night. In bed by 6 pm, she woke at midnight. I rocked her & fed her and she went back to sleep. At 3 am, bing!!! I am up. I rocked her and fed her. Ok. This is not so bad, I thought, One more 3 hour stretch and that a successful evening. I can handle this. Well 4.:30 am, Guess who?!?! Rock and feed. Lay back down on her floor in my cozy makeshift bed. 5:15 Hello!!! Rock and feed. 5:37. Its me again. Rock & feed. As I shut my eyes thinking there is no way this is happening. Bam. 5:48. Let’s play. I got up. Got her up and we went for a drive to see the sunrise and then go get a cup of coffee. I was shot, fried and at a loss – a deadly combination.
I luckily got a piece of advice a year or so prior from the wisest of the wise Dads, Kelly Starrett, who told me amazing stories of his daughters sleeping 15 hours a day (12 hours at night and 3 hour naps) and what that meant for their overall health and development. Better consolidation of memories, etc…. I was convinced. He recommended Health Sleep Habits, Happy Child. I did what Bruce Lee suggests, I read it, absorbed what was good, discarded what was bad and added what was uniquely my own.
So, on the next night I went in with a game plan which has worked ever since. Just a quick note here on one important thing: Dads should do the sleep training and here is why.
- Moms do so much already and they are tired. Give them a break, a hand. They probably have not gotten a full night’s sleep since somewhere in the middle of their pregnancy.
- Infants are like milk vampires. They will smell the slightest hint of boob and fresh milk a mile away and once they catch that scent, nothing else will do. So keep them away from it as much as possible at night once you have committed to sleep training
- With just 3 to 4 nights of training, you should have a major success on your hands and everyone wins. You get to be the the hero of that story.
- Finally, once you have mastered the sleep of your kids and their nighttime routines, the 10 to 15 minutes a day you spend doing it some of the most peaceful and sweet times you will have a parent.
So, enough fanfare. Here is how you do it:
- Pick a series of nights which are good for you to not get a lot of sleep, not need to be productive the next day and someone can be available during the day to do childcare. I have always started sleep training on Thursday nights (I could get by on Friday like a Zombie if need be and then I had Saturday & Sunday to zone out after more training on those nights. By Sunday night you should be able to get at least a good nights sleep with maybe one interruption.
- Make sure your child is sleeping in a separate room / quarters / closet and find a good place for you to sleep near by outside her door. If your child sleeps in your room with you, find a closet or somewhere dark, quiet and private for them to sleep in and also send your partner to sleep somewhere else so they are not disturbed by the wakings in the middle of the night.
- Put your child to bed at the normal hour (6 or 7 pm works best in my experience) and start to wind down yourself. Read some fiction, get off your phone or computer and get ready for bed at an early hour. Before heading to bed, make sure your milk warming set up is ready to go in case you need it. The last thing you want to have is a screaming kid in the middle of the night have to scream for longer than is necessary. Nobody wins in that case. Set up your cozy little makeshift sleeping arrangement and tuck yourself in.
- Go the Eff to Sleep and wait. When your child wakes for the first time (likely at around either 3 or 6 hours depending on her previous schedule). Before doing anything, before rushing in or jumping up off the couch, just wait a second. Set a timer for 10 minutes and wait. As bad as it sounds, just wait.
- At the end of those first 10 minutes, if your child’s cries are diminishing in intensity and getting further and further spread out, reset the alarm for another 5 minutes and see how it goes. If the cries are staying the same or increasing in intensity, go in to her room, do not say a word, so not make eye contact. Just pick her up and rock here. Shushing if that helps soother her. Rock her for a minute or two just until you can feel and sense her heart rate reduce and her breathing becomes more regular. Slowly and carefully, put her back down into her crib rocking her on the way down. She might squawk and cry realizing she is no longer in your loving arms. Give her friend or pacifier or whatever comforts her and quietly leave and close the door carefully.
- If she is quiet and sleeping, go back to sleep assuming the worst that she will wake you up as soon as your eyes close. If she does, set the timer for 12 minutes and wait. Repeat step 5.
- Again if she is quiet and sleeping, go back to sleep. If she wakes, repeat step 6 but set the alarm for 15 minutes. At the end of the 15 minutes repeat step 5 but instead of going in empty handed, go in with a bottle of milk. Feed her and put her back down to sleep.
- Repeat Steps 4 through 7 as many times as you need to this first night.
- For the next 2 to 3 nights repeat this same process and mostly likely by the 3rd night you may have one waking period and that’s it. If not, do it for a 4th night and a 5th night if necessary. After 5 nights, if she is waking up for more than 1 time and not able to self soothe during the process, the chances are that your child may not be ready to sleep train at this time. That is a possibility, our son was not ready as early as our daughter and we also had a lot of changes to his schedule and travel during the same period, so sleep training was not as easy. But when he was ready, this method worked like a charm in 2 nights.
A few other notes to be aware of.
- Make sure you have a private / separate area for your child free of light and noise during your sleep training. Once the child gets the sleep system, they typically can tolerate a lot more noise and light later, but they have to learn how to sleep first in as much ideal conditions as possible.
- Hunger makes the best seasoning, as we say in the kitchen. So, by reducing & limiting the all night buffet during this process, you are forcing your child to eat more during the day and at the feeding before going to sleep. This is really crucial to success.
- Infants wake up and stay awake for only a few reasons. Hunger, Disturbance (Noise, Light, Temperature) , Wet Diaper and that is about it. By removing disturbances and hunger you limit 2/3rds of potential issues. By having your child eat more during the day, you are likely reducing the chance of a wet diaper.
- A note of diapers, no parent wants to leave their child in a wet or stinky diaper, but I advise not being the type of parent who immediately changes diapers the minute they pee or poop in them. Here’s why. If you get them comfortable with a less than perfect diaper during the day or at other times, they will be less likely to mind it during sleep and that is fine. For more on diapers, changing and diaper rash,j etc.. see here (post to diapers)
- Over the course of a few weeks or the next month after the initial steps above, you might have to go in once a night to feed. I have found this to be a necessary stage as their stomachs can handle more food as they grow. I suggest you be mentally prepared to go in and do the feedings and expect them. They are the sweetest 7 minutes you have sometimes and they will go away at some point, which is both nice and sad. Also, during these weeks of night feedings, start to reduce the amount of milk you provide every couple of days and this will wean them off of the night feeding.
Overall, this takes about 3 nights of intense lack of sleep and crying and then 2 more weeks of maintenance and then it is sweet dreams for everyone and a game changer until night terrors and ear infections and fevers, but those are for another time.