Sleep. It’s so precious, especially so for new parents. I have shared tidbits about our journey to sleeping through the night with Zoya on social media and have gotten a lot of questions and requests for a post on methods used.
Before I begin to share, I want to preface with a few disclaimers:
I do not see myself as a baby sleep expert(although they are out there and they are fabulous!). The following is not so much a how-to on getting your baby to sleep well as it is a record of what Vlad and I did to reach that point in our family.
We did not follow any one particular sleep training method. Instead, we did a lot of research on all of them, as well as the science behind infant sleep, to come up with a strategy that made sense for us and one we were comfortable with. I think this really helped us stay unwavering on the path even when things got bumpy. After all, its really hard to follow through on anything you don’t understand or are having trouble reconciling in your head.
I give you a list of strategies, in no particular order, that we used that I believe were most paramount to our eventual success.
- Build a bedtime routine & keep it consistent: Babies love this and widespread supporting evidence exists to back it up (BabyCenter, 2019). When we first brought Zoya home from the NICU, she had to eat every 4 hours around the clock no matter what – so we were waking her up constantly. As soon as we got the all clear from the pediatrician for her to feed on demand, we began implementing a bedtime routine and allowing her to sleep as long as she wanted (around 6 weeks, 38 weeks gestation adjusted for her premature age). The routine consisted of a final bedtime bottle, diaper change and a fresh pajama, and a song or book. The routine began paying off quickly – she realized that all of these steps, in their sequential order, meant bedtime and started sleeping at least 6 hours at a time. We were thrilled! Having sleep is a valuable commodity to us, so we constantly make sacrifices in order to keep things consistent – this means leaving parties early and scheduling other activities accordingly in order to make it home for bedtime. I see it as a classic “doing what’s best for your child” parenting moment; certainly difficult at times but ultimately very rewarding for all involved.
- Create an association between the crib and sleep:Piggybacking off of bedtime routine creating a cue for sleep within a baby, I wanted Zoya’s crib to create the same effect. Although this was difficult in the newborn stage, I tried my best not to let her snooze in anything but actual designated sleep areas that were flat, hard surfaces: her crib, bassinet or pack n’ play. When she would fall asleep in a swing or my arms, I would quickly transfer her¹. Adding to this, I keep the crib as a sleep only zone – no toys, playing or hanging out allowed. I’ve definitely been tempted to use the crib as a playpen while I got things done but refusing to give in has yielded awesome results. When she’s in her crib, Zoya knows what needs to happen.
- Learn & listen to sleep cues:Yawning, rubbing eyes, a suddenly cranky mood – all of these are signs that Zoya (and most other babies) is ready for sleep (Karp, H., 2019). We learned to watch out for those cues and respond to them quickly by ceasing activities and putting her down for a nap. Initially, we would try to stave off naps and bedtime with the thought process that if she would sleep less or stay up later during the day, she would sleep longer during the night. We quickly found out that this was not the case. If sleep cues went ignored, Zoya would get very frustrated, tearful and eventually, overtired. This made it actually harder to get her to go to sleep and stay that way! If you have done any baby sleep research, you have probably heard the phrase “sleep begets sleep”, coined by Dr. Mark Weissbluth (Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, 2015). As we progressed along our journey to quality sleep, Vlad and I both noticed that when we quickly responded to Zoya’s sleep cues, she would take longer & better naps. The better the daytime naps, the easier time we had with her during the day and at bedtime. Paying attention in an effort to not allow her to become overtired actually led us to the decision to move her bedtime up from 9:30pm to 8:30 to 7:30…until we finally hit the sweet spot of 6:30.
- A calming environment before bed is gold:Zoya has major FOMO (aka Fear of Missing Out, for those unaware). She wants to see and do it all, no matter how tired she actually is. This desire to keep participating despite exhaustion also makes it very easy for caretakers to miss her sleep cues. We had to understand that just because Zoya keeps playfully interacting does not mean that she is not tired. It’s totally unfair then to expect her to shut herself down instantly when its time for bed. When we are out and about, leaving any area with a lot of activity and things to look at for a few minutes allows her to settle, leading to great stroller naps. During bedtime, we intentionally destimulate her and create a calming atmosphere. This involves stopping rambunctious games, singing and speaking in soft voices, blinds down and dim lighting while implementing the bedtime routine. If you have not done this previously, I would probably suggest to destimulate even earlier, up to half an hour prior to bed.
- Ditch the sleep crutches:This was probably the most difficult aspect to our sleep journey, and the one that stood in the gap between Zoya and sleeping through the night. As explained by Dr. Shana Christian, my amazing pediatrician, a sleep crutch can be anything (or anyone!) the baby uses as a “step” to help them go to sleep. When they hit the light sleep stage of the sleep cycle and wake themselves up, they feel the need for the “step” of the crutch in order to fall back asleep. Habits start to really take hold at 6 months and up, at which point it becomes more and more difficult to wean from sleep aids. Thankfully, we were always pretty good about not letting Zoya spend a ton of time sleeping in our arms or in bed with us¹. After the bedtime routine, we would place her in the crib, sing the goodnight song and walk out. When she was really little, she would sometimes cry at this point so we would sit with her for a little, sometimes picking her up to soothe for a minute or so. Ultimately though, we would always make a point to exit while she was still awake so that she would learn to get herself to sleep on her own. This worked really well but there were still a few other sleep crutches we needed to get rid of. Namely, a tight swaddle, a paci and a nighttime bottle. If you want me to go into detail about the transition from a swaddle and saying goodbye to paci, I will be happy to do this in a subsequent post. However, since this one is already lengthy, I will just resort to saying it was done successfully. The bottle was the hardest to let go – in part because of all of Zoya’s crutches, this one was massive (plus we waited a bit long – 8 months) and in part because I was so used to ensuring her growth progress as a preemie with consistent eating. I consulted my friend, NICU nurse and certified infant sleep consultant Kate Arquilla (follow her @bumble.baby on Insta!), who calmed by anxieties by saying that as long as babies are over 12lbs and eating over 24oz per day, they are ready to go through the night without a bottle. We started by going in to her room for quick soothe sessions when she would cry for her bottle at around 3amevery night. This worked initially, but after a week she would only calm down while we were at her bedside and become absolutely hysterical upon our exit. I guess I expected to keep soothing her successfully until she realized she needed to sleep through the night, when in reality I was supposed to phase out the soothing and let her figure it out. When, after two weeks of no progress, we finally made the executive decision to let her cry it out, it took about two nights for her to grasp the concept of self-soothing and sleeping through the night. Here is where you find us today…
Zoya goes to sleep at 6:30pm; she knows her bedtime like its her mantra & will begin asking to be put down even if she’s been in an active and playful mood all evening. She will sleep until anywhere from 5:30 to 6:30am, at which point she wakes up and begins babbling in her room to get our attention. We wake up, change her and feed her a morning bottle. Most mornings she is not quite ready to wake up for real, so after she has breakfast she goes back to sleep until around 8:30am. This is phenomenal because it gives Vlad and I the chance to either sleep in a little, have a productive “adults only” morning or for our childcare provider to get settled in the house. Throughout the day, Zoya has two naps consistently; that sometimes gets adjusted to three depending on what’s going on – again, we watch and follow her sleep cues above holding to a rigorous schedule. In fact, there have been times that she has napped pretty much up until her bedtime. We were very skeptical about her going down successfully for a night during a day like that, but lo and behold – she does.
If I do have any advice that I can confidently give out as “advice” and not just a retelling of my story, it would be this – There are going to be times when things are really, really tough. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry in bed at least a few times during the stage when we took away the bottle and Zoya was having a fit in her room.
Support during those times is everything. Whatever method you choose to follow, or if you blend techniques, arrive at a united front with your partner. Talk to people who care for baby when you are not around so they are also on the same page. Have people in your life who have been there to reach out to during the tough moments and to reassure you that you aren’t breaking your baby. Speak with your pediatrician or an infant sleep expert and let them be your personal guides. Armed with knowledge and support, be confident that you are teaching your baby, growing them, and ultimately setting them up for success.
Remember that every baby is unique. I understand that what worked for Zoya may not be the perfect formula for our next little (whenever they may arrive) or your current one. Allow for trial and error as you figure out what works in your particular situation.
Keep in mind that any good thing takes time. It took us pretty much eight months to get to our current situation. We didn’t institute all these routines and principles in a single night. In fact, we would usually only introduce one big change at a time, allow her to get used to it and slowly move into the next phase. We had no expectations on timeline. Zoya took two nights to figure out she didn’t need a paci to sleep but almost three weeks to be fully sleeping through the night without a feed. I always just prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.
Also expect setbacks. Sleep regression is real, just as travel, teething, or just simply rough days can throw make all your efforts seemingly go out the window. I assure you that your work is not wasted if you don’t let it be. Stay consistent and power through the hard nights. The more consistent you will be despite circumstances, the less confusing it will be for baby. You will arrive back at a good place faster than if you allow exceptions to the rules you set. I am telling you honestly that there are times even now when I am tempted to give Zoya a paci because it seems like the easy way out of a bad situation…but I resist because I know I will be setting her back in the long run. Vlad and I have resolved to have a “no going back” mentality.
Having achieved Zoya sleeping through the night has been a dream pretty much since the day she was born. It’s hard to believe we have actually arrived. One challenge down, about a thousand more to go…am I right?
If you have any specific questions, as always, don’t hesitate to reach out via email, comments or Insta. I don’t know if I can find a solution, but I am always happy to lend an ear.
¹Per the safe sleep guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants are to be put to sleep on their backs, on a flat, hard surface without any soft pillows, blankets or toys (2016). Incidentally, a lot of items and practices not supported by the AAP such as DockATots or cosleeping can actually be considered sleep crutches that you will eventually have to work on weaning. The only exception to this would be a paci, which when used appropriately, is shown to reduce Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. We noticed that following the AAP guidelines actually helped us develop Zoya’s healthy sleep habits with less bumps in the road.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). SIDS and other sleep related infant deaths: Updated 2016 recommendations for a safe infant sleep environment. Pediatrics: 138(5).
BabyCenter. (2019). The basics of baby schedules: Why, when and how to start a routine. https://www.babycenter.com/0_the-basics-of-baby-schedules-why-when-and-how-to-start-a-rou_3658352.bc
Karp, H. (2019). There’s a ‘golden moment’ for putting your baby to sleep. Happiest Baby: https://www.happiestbaby.com/blogs/baby/signs-your-baby-is-ready-for-sleep.