Helping your baby sleep through the night: Setting your baby up for success

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In my first installment about helping your baby sleep through the night, I talked about managing your expectations. One of the big points I made was that when it comes to baby sleep, there are two equally important components.

The first component is not something that you can control; you baby has to be ready to sleep longer stretches and eventually all the way through. Period. This will happen at some point, and if there is nothing standing in your babies way, it will likely happen sooner than later. Which is where the second component comes in.

The second component is you doing things to set your baby up for success. Think about it. If you are trying to master a new skill, it may take you a period of time to actually learn that skill. But if you have the necessary tools available to you during this learning process, the likelihood of you learning this new skill quicker and more efficiently is much higher because you’ll be set up for success from the start.

The same is true with teaching your baby to sleep. While you cannot choose when they will be ready, you can provide them with all the tools they’ll need so that when they are ready, they will have nothing standing in the way of them getting that full night’s sleep. Know your role: it’s your job to provide the tools they need, it’s their job to use them.

Here is some practical advice and tips on how to help your baby sleep through the night. Specifically everything we did to set our kids up for success. These tips helped both of our girls SO much and they're both fantastic sleepers!!

Now let me be clear: I’m not telling you to let your newborn cry it out or anything like that. We’re not that savage! Though I’m not against it under the right circumstances and at a more appropriate age, one of the main purposes of setting your baby up for success is to avoid ever having to let your baby cry it out and creating healthy sleep habits from the start.

Now keep in mind, these are the things that worked for us. Every baby is different and every family is different. When I began researching baby sleep, eating, routines etc., I read about all sorts of different ways to do things. And I’m pretty sure these all worked for different people. So I took the things that were a fit with how we’re choosing to parent and left the rest behind. I encourage you to do the same (with absolutely no judgement from me- this is judgement-free zone.).

Here are some tips for setting your baby up for success to help them sleep through the night:

  1. Establish a day routine- I’m not talking about watching the clock and planning your babies day out minute-by-minute. That would be a schedule. If you do that, you may find that your baby is not about that life. That being said, babies and children thrive on routine and the comfort of knowing what is next. I found that the best way to do this is to keep track of when he or she eats, sleeps and gets their diapers changed (though keeping track of the diapers was more so that I could remember how many they have per day for those early pediatrician appointments). After a few weeks I began to see a pattern and I built my girls’ routines around that pattern. The great thing was, once the pattern was established, I was able to change things when necessary to accommodate my baby’s changing needs (cluster feeding in growth spurts, teething, illness etc.) and we always had a framework to come back to. I found the whole eat-play-sleep thing happened naturally and as they get older and had more waking time, they eventually fell into a routine where they ate around specific times and took naps at consistent times.
  2. Differentiate night and day from the start- You know how people are always telling you new babies might have their days and nights mixed up? This can be true to an extent. While our babies weren’t horrible with it, we made a point to keep our home well lit during the day and not tip toe around during naps. This has resulted in kids who don’t wake up to every little thing (though our crazy dog has been known to wake A from naps here and there- nothing is ever perfect!).
  3. Tank up during the day- This will especially come into play when your baby is a little older, but even in the beginning, try to get as many calories as you can into your baby during the day. When mine were really small, I fed on demand but never went more the two hours between feeds (and they spread out naturally as they got older). This meant I woke them from naps at the very beginning, before they were older and more settled into their nap schedules. While they will still need to eat at night when they’re really little, eventually they won’t and I’ve found great success with tanking them up through the day, especially in the early evening hours.
  4. Establish a set bedtime- Once we figured out what time was ideal to put our babies down, which was based on the signals they sent us (rubbing eyes, general crankiness, etc.) we were able to build a routine at night which helped get our babies into sleep mode. Though many parents choose a much later bedtime in hopes of a longer stretch of sleep, I haven’t found this to be the best course of action for our kids for a variety of reasons. A’s bed time as a baby was 7/7:30pm and T’s bedtime is currently 8pm (I wish it were earlier but now that we have a toddler our whole family’s routine is a bit different than the early days of just having one kid). Bottom line: set your baby’s bedtime and stick to it.
  5. Establish a bedtime routine- I’ve already detailed why a bedtime routine is important, but what should this include? It’s up to you. Both of our babies bedtime routines are vastly different and have a lot to do with where our family is at in each case. A’s bedtime routine involved getting a bath (though not always soapy), then a fresh diaper and jammies, a bottle, then we would swaddle her (or put her in her sleep sack once she began turning over) and then we would snuggle, turn on the sound machine and put her down awake. With T she sometimes gets a bath (slackers, I know) and then I’d put her jammies on, I nurse her while A watches Mickey and then swaddle/sleepsack her and snuggle, turn on the sound machine and put her down awake.
  6. Make sure when you put them down they’re drowsy but awake- At first I didn’t really get this. Newborns are sleepy, right? True. But after those first couple of weeks, your baby will start to have more waking time and that’s where drowsy and awake comes into play. In the early days I will wait to swaddle my baby until after the last feed because it wakes them up just enough that they aren’t falling asleep on the bottle or boob. I would then snuggle with my baby with the lights off (save for a nightlight) and rock her a bit. Generally, she’d stare up at me and we would bond a bit. But once I started noticing her eyes just starting to getting heavy, I would immediately put her into the crib, turn on the sound machine and hightail it out of there (after closing the door). Like I said, no nursing or bottle feeding to sleep. No bouncing her to sleep. No taking her out for a drive and letting her fall asleep in her carseat or swing or mamaroo (though I am a bit more lenient for naps in the beginning). The reason for this is that around nine months, your baby will be at a point where they understand object permanence. Once they understand that concept, them falling asleep on the bottle or boob or in your arms will only set them up to be confused and discombobulated if they wake between sleep cycles and may cause them to not want to go back to sleep. By putting them down drowsy but awake, you’re setting them up so that if they do wake, they won’t get freaked out because they’ll be in the same place that they were when they went to sleep and will be more likely to go right back to sleep on their own. Set them up now to try and avoid regressing later.
  7. The Pause- This is concept I picked up from the book Bringing Up Bebe (which I loved!) as well as The New Basics (which I also love and refer to often) and it makes perfect sense. The long and short if it is don’t jump up the second your baby wakes and starts fussing, but instead pause before you go and pick your baby up. Now, I’m not telling you to let them cry it out! But take a couple moments and study your baby (I did this through our video monitor since our girls were in their own rooms and cribs pretty early in the game but if they’re still in your room it’s as simple as peeking into their bassinet- if you’re worried that you’re pausing for too long, just watch the clock and time it). Here’s why this works: Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults. In general, humans wake up throughout the night between sleep cycles. You probably don’t even realize you do it because you’re in the habit of just going right back into the next sleep cycle. But like us, babies also need to learn to transition easily into the next sleep cycle. They’re also loud sleepers. Sometimes they may not even be waking fully, they may simply be shifting or fussing a tad in their sleep. But you’ll never know if you don’t give them a chance to show you and help you understand their natural rhythms. Sometimes after a few moments of pausing and studying your young baby, you may find that they are in fact hungry or have another specific need. By all means, at that point I encourage you to meet that need.  Eventually they won’t need to eat throughout the night. But in doing this pause, you may also find that they are only shifting or just having a quick fuss and they may stop after a moment or two. This gives them the opportunity to learn to keep sleeping in between sleep cycles and if they do this successfully, even once, then they are well on their way to sleeping through the night. So take a pause, use it to learn about your baby and their rhythms. It will pay off in the long run and in the mean time, pausing for a couple minutes won’t hurt anyone.
  8. When everyone’s ready, let the baby sleep in their own room- This will vary per family and may seem controversial to some, but in our family everyone slept better once our girls were in their own cribs in their own rooms. In our case this meant moving them out of our room at three weeks for A and one and a half weeks for T. That’s just what worked for us and if that’s not how you roll, that’s totally cool too. Feel free to move on to the next tip. Maybe it’s just that J and I are loud sleepers and night people who like to stay up and have some time to ourselves after our kids go down, but we found that our girls gave us longer stretches after they left our room. Now some of the sanctimommies out there will probably comment about how the AAP recommends rooming-in for 6 months the first year and so on. That’s great if that’s how you do. We still followed all the other guidelines to avoid SIDS (putting the girls down in an empty crib with a tightly fitted sheet and firm mattress, laying them on their back etc.) but this is simply what worked for us and we are all better off for it (I also didn’t start my kids on rice cereal or wait 6 months to introduce solids, which are both AAP recommendations #worstmommyEVER). Incidentally, I have two happy and well-adjusted kids. Bottom line: do what you feel is best for your family, you are the expert on your own kids.
  9. Consistency is key- This pretty much goes for anything baby and young child related but is especially true here. We went out of our way to be very consistent with getting our girls down around the same time each night with the same routine each night for the first few months. We were hardcore and sometimes made sacrifices and left various events early. Was it a bummer? At times. But by creating a strong framework at the beginning, we were able to go off routine once in a while several months down the line when they were older. Since we had a solid foundation established, our girls not only handle the nights off of the routine like pros, they swung right back to normal the next night.
  10. Implement the dream feed- This has truly been a game changer for us. Our pediatrician recommended this when A was still a teeny baby as a way to try and get longer stretches in the late night hours, it worked even better for T because we started it earlier. It’s called a dream feed because you’re basically feeding your baby in their sleep. It goes like this: We put T down at 8pm (or 7pm for A). Around 10:30/11pm I would go in, pick up the baby (note: I did not wake her up) sit down on the glider and put the bottle or boob right into her mouth. She would feed in her sleep and when she was done, I’d put her right back into her crib. Through this all, she would stay asleep and often get a longer stretch through the later part of the night as a result of the dream feed. Now in the first weeks your baby may not accept it. In those first weeks with T, she simply wouldn’t latch on in her sleep (though trying also didn’t actually wake her up either, which had been my fear). It wasn’t a huge deal because we were pretty much in survival mode anyway. If they deny it at first, wait a week and try again. Weeks in baby time are like months in adult time. Eventually, she latched right on. This was especially helpful when T was down to one feed around 2/3am. Once I added the dream feed, she would skip that later feed and sleep right through until morning. So it basically allowed me to when she was feeding at night and get her longer stretch in the later period instead of the earlier period which was amazing after a few weeks of waking every night! I truly believe if we had implemented this earlier with A, she would have started sleeping through earlier. And once they’ve gotten bigger and more consistent in their sleep habit (ie- sleeping through consistently for a while) you can eventually wean or completely drop the dream feed too.
  11. Know the difference between feeding and snacking- This may be another one of those tips that’s viewed as controversial. There is a certain train of thought that says babies and kids need to feed throughout the night for several months and/or years. If you subscribe to this more power to you, but this tip probably isn’t your cup of tea. If you’re still reading this tip, you’d probably figured out that we don’t subscribe to that particular train of thought. A few different pediatricians have indicated that after a certain age, a baby doesn’t need to feed at night as long as they’re staying on their curve in terms of growth and gaining weight/soiling diapers consistently. It’s my understanding that at around 4-5 months eating at night is not as imperative for many babies as it was in the earlier days. Now I’m no doctor, so I encourage you to talk to your pediatrician and work with them in a way that works for your family as well as your own kid’s unique needs. It was around that age that I also started to notice night feeds were becoming less about getting a meal and more about snacking (at least in A’s case- T was already sleeping through at that point). When she would feed at night, I started noticing it wasn’t for the longer period that she would feed for most of her meals, but generally a short burst that barely lasted. It became evident that she was waking out of habit, grabbing a quick snack/comfort and going right back to sleep. Now if comfort nursing is your thing, that’s awesome. No judgement whatsoever. I personally am not down with being used as a pacifier, especially when I’m exhausted. Once this became obvious, and at the recommendation of our doctor, I started reducing the amount of formula in A’s late feed bottles by an ounce every couple of days (I’m told that if you’re nursing you can instead reduce the amount of time for the nursing session). By the time we got down to a two ounce bottle she started sleeping right through that feed on her own. Call me heartless if you want, but it worked out well and much like the rest of us, once they’re out of the early days its good for their bellies to have a little rest. Please note: my kids are pretty average, they do not have any special needs or health concerns so I can’t speak for those type of situations. When in doubt, always seek out your doctor for medical advice.

These tips all made a huge difference in our babies’sleep habits. They may not be for everyone, but I’m positive that with anything parenting-related there is no single right way. I hope some families find these helpful and I hope you’ll comment below about what worked best for you babies sleeping (Please note- this site is a judgement free zone- all different parenting philosophies are welcome but keep it respectful).

I will definitely update this if I come across more great tips. For my next baby sleep post, I’ll be putting together a list of some of the items that we use help our babies sleep through the night.

You can read all of my parenting related posts here.

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  • Reply
    Michelle @ Vitamin Sunshine
    October 24, 2016 at 8:42 pm This is such an important topic to new moms. I was so clueless when my son was born! He cried just about every time I set him down, so he pretty much lived in my arms, day and night, until I went back to work when he was 3 months-- and he continued to sleep ON me every night until he was 6 months. I just couldn't handle the crying! But, 14 months in, I wish I had let him cry a little and learn to settle, because he still wakes up twice a night. Like so many things in life, I just keep thinking, I need to do this again because I would do so many things differently! (like read about it before he came along!)
    • Reply
      October 24, 2016 at 9:47 pm I'm with you- I think it's a huge learning curve for everyone. I also think there are tons of ways that can work, it's about sifting through the noise and finding you own best practices. It can be hard because before you have kids you assume that once they sleep through the night they'll never wake again and that's simply not how it works. Things happen, kids get sick, get teeth, regress. He will sleep eventually- hang in there, Mama!

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