I thought I was sleep-deprived during the newborn stage. But then we hit the dreaded Four Month Sleep Regression. In one night, we went from mostly-sleepless nights to completely-sleepless nights. Just when I thought we might get longer stretches of sleep, 12-week-old Ellington suddenly started waking up every 45 minutes to 2 hours at night. After a couple weeks of this, his naps also became fragmented. He was increasingly fussy during his awake times without restorative sleep. And to top it off, our usual tricks to get him to sleep (bottle & bouncing) were suddenly becoming less effective.
After lots of research, we decided it was time for sleep training. After only a couple nights, Ellington started waking up only twice in twelve hours overnight, and taking two 1.5-hour naps per day (plus a shorter one in the late afternoon). We were also able to put him down fully awake and let him fall asleep on his own, even after night feedings. Many of you have asked what we did and I am happy to share!
I am a mother. I am not a pediatrician or sleep expert. This is what is working for my family, but it may not work for you or align with your values as a parent. That's okay! Do what works for you and your family!
Why Did We Sleep Coach + Our Goals
I don't think all babies are meant to sleep through the night, especially at four months or younger. From what I have read and experienced, breastfeeding/pumping in the middle of the night is important to supply and since breastmilk is quickly and efficiently digested, not all babies can go eight, ten or twelve hours overnight without milk. And night weaning was not our goal.
However, we found that Ellington was waking up even when he wasn't hungry. Sometimes he would take a sip or two of milk, but mostly he just needed help getting back to sleep. Between this and night pumping, I was only sleeping 3 hours per night usually in 30-minute chunks. My mental health was deteriorating and we needed a solution fast. Our goals were to (1) spend less time getting Ellington back to sleep at night (i.e. no more bouncing for 45 minutes), and (2) have him only need us in the middle of the night for feedings.
How I Felt About Sleep Training
I rarely saw articles and books on baby sleep address the emotional toll of sleep training. However, based on the comments from parents on many blog posts, sleep training is controversial and many parents especially worry about hearing their baby cry. That was me. I resisted any sort of sleep training because I did not want to hear Ellington cry, I worried about what it would say about me as a mother, and I thought that since all babies eventually become teenagers who sleep through the night, this would resolve itself.
However - and this is really hard for me to say in a public space - the sleep deprivation was becoming so bad that I found myself fantasizing about death or just one day getting in my car and driving away. I dreaded every single night. I had zero energy to interact with Ellington when he was awake, and I was crying A LOT.
Something had to give. We decided not to do extinction cry-it-out, but there was some crying involved (maximum 25 minutes off and on). But here are some things I realized about the emotional toll of sleep training:
1. The baby has one responsibility. The rest is on the parents.
As we teach Ellington to fall asleep on his own, he has one responsibility - to try his best. The rest is on us.
It is our responsibility to make sure he isn't hungry. It is our responsibility to make the sleeping area is perfect for him (black out shades, white noise, nightlight, comfortable temperature, right clothes, sleep sack/swaddle, as necessary). It is our responsibility to put him down on time, not too undertired and not too overtired. It is our responsibility to introduce things that may help him sleep, such as different sound machines, different swaddles, etc.
And if we mess up any of these things, we have to help Ellington sleep.
For example, sometimes I accidentally let him get too tired before putting him down for a nap. Rather than let him cry, I owned my mistake and gave him some assistance (bouncing, more milk, etc.). A couple times, the room was too hot (no AC here), so I'd help him find his sleep or drive him around in the air-conditioned car. Twice, I misread his cues and put him down when he wasn't tired enough. As soon as I realized this, we came back out into the living room for 10-15 more minutes of play time. I soon realized that even with these mistakes, if I put Ellington down for a nap under the right conditions, I could easily just walk out of the room and he would get himself to sleep with very little or no crying.
2. Consistency does not necessarily mean cold-turkey.
If you're reading a lot about how to sleep coach/train, you'll read that you need to be consistent. And you should definitely not start something, and then slowly retreat back into your old ways. This isn't fair to your baby who is trying so hard to learn.
However, this does not mean never doing some of the old things. I am a grown adult and I know how to fall asleep on my own. Even so, there are days I just can't turn my brain off, days I feel ill or have pain, days when I cannot pinpoint what is wrong, but I just can't fall asleep. On those days, I may need support to help me sleep (and given the number of sleep aid medications out there, so do many adults). So I won't expect more of Ellington. As I mentioned above, I helped him when I messed up, but there were also a couple times, he was just having an off-day and needed some help.
3. Have patience and faith in your baby!
I imagine when I teach Ellington to tie his shoes, there will be lots of frustration. Often it will be faster for me to tie his shoes for him, but then he won't learn. And I must have faith that he can learn if given the space and support to do so. When I put him down for a nap, I often tell him he is smart and can do this! I fought back any thoughts while he was fussing that he wouldn't be able to do it and that I would have to do it for him. At first, it took more time, but he is learning!
4. Think long and hard about what you're doing for you vs. what you're doing for your baby.
Gosh, this is a hard one. And I'm still not sure I got/am getting it right. Ellington was fed to sleep or bounced to sleep. I thought a gradual weaning, first to pacifier + bouncing, then to pacifier, then to no pacifier (since he isn't old enough to replace it) would be the easiest on him. But then it dawned on me, it would be the EASIEST ON ME. It didn't seem fair to get him hooked on the pacifier (which he wasn't a huge fan of anyways) only to take it away. Sure, I would feel like I was being nicer, but it wasn't kind to Ellington.
Turns out, he needed a day or two of bouncing and then we just went for putting him down awake and letting him cry a bit. It took him 15-25 minutes at first, but within days, there was often no crying. We would have just prolonged this process by moving from one sleep crutch to another, even though we eventually planned to take them all away.
Phase 1: Fed-to-Sleep Cold Turkey
Starting on a Thursday, there was no more fed-to-sleep. He could have the pacifier or bouncing, but I was determined not to feed him to sleep and to put him down drowsy, but awake.
I had a few important rules during this time:
Put Ellington down at the right time, not under- or over-tired in perfect sleep conditions.
Offer Ellington a bottle 30 minutes before his nap in a well-lit room if he did not finish his last feeding or his next feeding would land in the middle of the nap. This was so (1) he didn't associate feedings with sleep, (2) if he cried in going to sleep, I knew it wasn't out of hunger, and (3) he would not wake early from a nap out of hunger.
If he wasn't already drowsy, help him get there with cuddling or bouncing.
Put him down awake. I'd let him cry/fuss for a bit, and pick him up for cuddling/bouncing if the crying got out of hand.
Phase 2: No More Bouncing + Pacifier
The following Monday, we moved him to his own room and decided to remove the pacifier and bouncing. This part involved the most amount of crying.
The rules for this phase were:
Put Ellington down at the right time, not under- or over-tired in perfect sleep conditions.
Before naps, offer the bottle as stated above and follow the same routine: enter dark room, sleep sack, hand lovey, kiss and tell him to have a good nap, sound machine, leave room and close door.
Before bedtime, follow the same routine every night: bath, lotion, PJs, books, bottle, sleep sack, hand lovey, kiss goodnight, turn on sound machine and turn off lights, and leave the room and close the door.
After just a couple days of this, I could put him down fully awake for his nap, leave the room and he did the rest. Sometimes it took him 20 minutes, sometimes 2 minutes, but he would just talk to himself, play with his lovey, and eventually fall asleep.
***Note: I did stay in the room for a couple days while he cried/fussed, but I found this made it worse. He did much better when he couldn't see us. The most he ever cried was 25 minutes off and on.
Sleep Training Tips
Create the perfect sleep environment. I swear a huge reason he is sleeping better is because we got a louder sound machine. We got the Hatch and play it at 55-65 decibels on the TV setting (we used an app to measure the decibels where his head is). We had the Dohm before and it just wasn't doing the trick. In addition, we have blackout shades, Ellington sleeps in a Snuggle Me Organic (at least for now until he can roll) and in a Burt's Bees Sleep Sack (with footie PJs or onesie on underneath depending on the heat).
Consider a lovey. This is controversial and you should ask your pediatrician before giving a baby anything in the crib, but we noticed Ellington rubs fabric on his face when he gets tired (either a burp cloth or our shirts). I gave him a gauze burp cloth one day and he just rubbed in on his face until he fell asleep. He loves it, and it helps him sleep.
Have a routine for sleep cues. We follow the same routine and I think it gives Ellington comfort in knowing what comes next.
Nail the awake times. I bought a sleep program (Little Ones) and I found this to be the most useful aspect. They have the maximum awake times for babies based on their age. When you put a baby down before the overtired meltdown, they are far more likely to get themselves to sleep. Therefore, we watch the clock carefully and when he nears his maximum awake time, we start looking for cues he is tired: avoiding eye contact, rubbing fabric on his face, talking to himself (without interacting with us), yawning a lot, showing no interest in toys, etc. and we put him down!
Start with the first nap of the day, not at night. Ellington is obviously more tired at the end of the day, which doesn't seem conducive for learning. So we decided to start sleep training with the first nap of the day and go from there!
And that's it! We are all getting a lot more sleep and it is wonderful! If you have any questions about what we are doing, please feel free to comment or send me an email!