I knew that sleepless nights would arrive right along with the sweet baby I'd been anxiously awaiting for 9 months. However, it was hard to imagine just how sleep deprived I could be!
In the first few weeks after my daughter, Ada, was born, I was recovering from a C-section, dealing with the emotional stress of having a baby in the NICU, and pumping every 3 hours through the night to try to keep my milk supply up. I was exhausted! I even developed a case of Bell's Palsy due to all the exhaustion (both physical and emotional) and stress. My baby wasn't even home yet and I was more sleep deprived than I could ever remember being!
Luckily, my sleep deprivation didn't last too long; my incision started healing, Ada got to come home, and I gave up breastfeeding, which all helped relieve my stress and contributed to me sleeping better. But what really helped me catch up on sleep was teaching Ada to sleep through the night when she was about 3.5 months old.
Like many confusing sleep terms, "sleeping through the night" can mean different things to different people. For some, it means sleeping seven or eight consecutive hours, since that's how much sleep an adult needs. For others, it means waking briefly for one or two feedings but returning to sleep easily. For me, I only consider it truly "sleeping through the night" when Baby sleeps 11-12 consecutive hours with no night feeds.
But how can you get there? For many people, this seems to be an illusion saved for only the lucky parents. But I promise that you, too, can experience a full night's sleep again, and you don't have to wait until your kids move out of the house! ;)
Keys to Sleeping Through the Night
There are three main keys to teaching Baby to sleep through the night. Some babies have issues with all three, but some babies just need one or two items adjusted. Read on to discover what you can do to get your baby (and you!) sleeping through the night.
Break Negative Sleep Associations/Teach Self-soothing
Sleep associations are created when Baby's sleep is always linked with another activity or condition. Some sleep associations are positive -- they help Baby recognize that she is supposed to sleep, but then she still has to fall asleep all by herself; positive sleep associations are usually along the lines of a predictable routine. Other sleep associations are negative -- negative associations take Baby's effort (and power!) out of the equation.
So for instance, if you always sing Baby a song before laying her down, that song will cue to Baby that sleep should come next. This is a positive sleep association because it shows Baby what you expect of her, but after you lay her down, she still has to do all the work of falling asleep.
If, on the other hand, you always nurse/bottlefeed Baby completely to sleep before laying her down, that is a negative association. I'm not saying that nursing to sleep is morally wrong or something -- it's most definitely not! But it's a negative association because it's something that Baby can't replicate on her own.
So many babies wake every hour or two at night because they have such strong sleep associations. You must break the negative associations and teach baby to self-soothe instead. All babies wake between sleep cycles, but those who do not possess self-soothing skills will cry until they receive their sleep association (whether that's the boob, a bottle, a pacifier, or tons of rocking), while those who do possess self-soothing skills will simply roll over and go right back to sleep.
Establish an Age-appropriate Schedule
I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- having an age-appropriate schedule is crucial to all sleep skills. Babies who are undertired or overtired will have problems sleeping well. Overtired babies have an especially difficult time sleeping through the night because they have excess cortisol (stress hormone) in their systems. Therefore, make sure Baby is sleeping enough and sleeping at the optimal times in order to improve her night sleep. Check out my posts on scheduling for some starting points.
Give Appropriate Feedings
Sleeping through the night isn't something that all babies are ready for. Most young babies, especially those under about eight weeks old, still need nightfeeds in order to take in enough calories throughout each day. Babies up to six months old may need up to two feeds each night, and babies up to nine months old may still need a single nightfeed. So if Baby is only waking once or twice each night and she is younger than nine months, she may truly need to wake for those feeds. (This means that if Baby is older than 9 months, you can implement a training method to eliminate nightfeeds completely, unless your pediatrician says otherwise.)
However, many babies are ready to sleep through the night before nine months old, whether they do so on their own or with a little push. Make sure to follow the advice of your pediatrician and only take measures that you are comfortable with.
Starting around 3 months old, Baby should be able to go a longer stretch before her first nightfeed. Nightfeeds go as follows:
3 months: 4 hours/2.5-4 hours
4 months: 5/3.5-4
5 months: 6/3.5-4
6 months: 7/3.5-4
7-9 months: one feed, anytime after midnight.
So what this means is that if your 4-month-old had her last feed of the day around 6pm, then the first night feed should be no earlier than 11pm. So if Baby wakes around 11:30, that's great timing and you would go ahead and give her a feed. Then her next feed should fall somewhere around 3-3:30am. Only give the feeds if she wakes for them. Knowing these cutoffs can help you determine whether or not you should give a feed or use a sleep training method. If Baby wakes outside these cutoffs, she likely either has a negative sleep association or she is not eating efficiently enough throughout the day.
If Baby is older than about 4 months, I recommend waiting 10-15 minutes after Baby wakes before going in to give a night feed. This way, if Baby is more tired than hungry, she has a chance to fall back asleep.
During the day, Baby should be taking full feeds (rather than light snacks) upon wakeups so that she can get as many calories as possible in during the day rather than the night. Then, if you decide to push her to give up nightfeeds, she will reorganize her feeds to take more throughout the day to make up for missed nightfeeds.
So if you're ready to be done with sleepless nights, try working on self-soothing skills, appropriate scheduling, and sufficient feeds throughout the day, and pretty soon, the whole house will be sleeping more soundly!