How I Taught My Baby to Sleep

Just a heads up, I’ve divided this post into sections, depending on how much time/interest you have. If you’re up in the middle of the night pumping and your two choices are to A) read this or B) slowly lose your mind to the sound of your pump, just read the whole thing. If you only want to know the exact “how-to” because you only have 10 minutes before your baby starts screaming again, skip to that section. Scratch that— at least read the disclaimer, too.

SO. Here’s my sleep story and what I did in order to have a little munchkin who sleeps in his crib soundly, happily, and without a fight-- without ever letting him cry longer than 10 minutes without being comforted.

The Disclaimer:

I can’t believe I’m going to write this for the general public to read, because we all know that baby sleep is the most touchy subject EVER. Besides maybe the Trump administration or shopping for puppies.

But here I am-- a mom who never actually knows what she’s doing, but manages to be upright, sane, and happy about 85% of the time. We call that a win in Momland right?! So I’m going to share the sleep experience I had with my now-20-month-old, which has led me to being 85% sane. Big stats! Read on!

(If any mother claims to be more than 90% sane, she’s either Mary Mother of Jesus or Joanna Gaines.)

I guess I should get used to Big Scary Topics if I’m going to do more of this #mommyblogging thing, but I’m not there yet, so for now I’ll continue telling you how nervous I am to write everything before I write it.

Listen, I know some of you will disagree with how I got my babynut to sleep. And that’s cool! I think most of parenthood is finding the right combination of what helps your baby thrive, and what makes YOU feel comfortable. If you’re more comfortable surviving on three hours of sleep because your brain and heart can’t fathom letting your offspring whimper, do you!! That’s the best choice for you!

My heart, however, is made of mostly dark coal and cheesy foods, so I went the “he won’t grow up and remember crying” route. I also quickly found that I was a mess of a mother when he was awake if I didn’t get any sleep whatsoever. I decided that instead of being a frustrated, tired mom 100% of the time, I’d be an evil mom 20% of the time so that I could be a fully engaged mom the other 80% of the time.

But that’s JUST ME. Certain people need different amounts of sleep. I know some moms who get 30 minutes of sleep a night total and somehow still curl their hair and take their babies to playdates full of loud noises and energetic conversation. I also know some moms who get 30 minutes of sleep a night and are struggling to the max, but they choose that struggle over the struggle of their heart being smashed by sleep-training. Choose your own adventure! IT’S REALLY OKAY!

Anyway, 400 words into this and I hope you get the gist that if you disagree with what I did, it’s probably just because we are different types of human beings and/or have different types of babies. Let’s still love each other! And don’t feel bad for my babe. He’s the happiest, most well adjusted 20-month-old in the history of toddlers.

The Backstory:

When Anders was 6 weeks old, I was dying a slow and painful death. My Coast Guard husband was out to sea, so I was living at my parents’ house, terrified of staying alone because—again—the whole “I’m dying” issue. Part of this was because Anders would only sleep 2-3 hours at a time, which isn’t much, but a bigger part of this was because I am a terrible sleeper myself. 

I’d wake up to feed him (20-30 minute ordeal since breastfeeding was bit rough for us at the get-go), put him down, then take at least 45 minutes to fall back asleep myself. If I was lucky and he went right back to sleep, this meant that HE would get 2-3 hours of sleep during that stretch, but I would only get 1-2 hours of sleep before the next feeding—often even less.  

For six unrelenting weeks, I was getting a total of 3-4 hours of sleep in 45 minute to 1.5 hour increments. The only way I was surviving at all was because I’d bring him downstairs after his 5:30 a.m. feeding, hand him off to my stepmom, and go back to sleep until he got hungry again around 7:30 a.m., giving me a total of 5 hours for the night (on decent nights). This was enough to survive. But not without my stepmom. And not functioning as a highly-engaged, happy mother throughout daylight hours.

Speaking of daylight hours, he only napped when being held, and even then it was a nightmare getting him to drift off without breaking my back bouncing around.

Anyway, so here I am, six weeks into motherhood and needing some form of light at the end of the tunnel. I missed my husband, I barely knew my own name, and the only things I’d eaten in 50 days were lactation cookies and fenugreek pills.

Aaron’s ship pulled into port in Boston on a Saturday night, where he was having a drink with some shipmates when I called. “AARON I’M DYING, OMG I CANT DO THIS, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO, HOW WILL I LIVE, I THINK I’M AT THE END OF MY ROPE AND THERE’S NO MORE ROPE, HOW DO I GET MORE ROPE????” I sobbed. This is definitely what every new dad wants to hear when he’s away from home for months and has no control over anything.

When we hung up, he told one of his buddies what poor shape I was in. Said buddy’s wife happened to be visiting them in Boston and listened in on the “my wife is dying” saga. With two kids of her own, this angelic human told Aaron she was going to come to my rescue on Monday when she flew back home.

Upon hearing that a woman I’d never met was going to come over to our house and cook me dinner, I told Aaron that he was insane because there’s NO WAY I’m hosting a house guest in this state…but he insisted. I was instructed to leave my parents’ house for one evening and listen to what this pro-mom had to say. My strength to argue was obsolete (for once in my life #bless), so I reluctantly agreed.

I drove Anders over to our own house a few days later, pulled up a wooden chair into our tiny kitchen, and let a stranger cook me dinner while she walked me through exactly how she got her kids to sleep when they were babies. This woman’s name is Ally. Ally the Angel.

Ally’s kids were pre-teens at this point, and she assured me they were loving, happy girls who showed no signs of detachment or anxiety resulting from learning to sleep as little babies. PHEW. Oh, and one of them slept 9+ hours a night by 8 weeks old, and one slept 9+ hours a night by 11 weeks old. OKAY SIGN ME UP. Also important: She told me I could do this. I would be fine at home alone without Aaron. I was strong and would get through these impossible days. Oh, how I needed to hear those words.

The Practical “How-to” Outline:

Thanks to Ally, here’s what I did when Anders was 7 weeks old:

First, I figured out how many naps were appropriate for his age. I think at that age it was like four or five 45 minute naps. I referred to the book Baby Wise for this information. Anders’ naptimes would vary depending on the length of his naps—we never landed on a totally consistent nap schedule when he was super little since he never slept for the same amount of time. Instead, I just went off cues and a general sense of how many hours he needed to fit in during the day. Nonetheless, his day sleep was a huge priority, and looking for sleep cues was monumental in order to put him down during that crucial window when he was ready to sleep.

Second, I committed to being consistent with where and how he slept. Some parents want their kids to sleep in the middle of a carnival, but I just wanted my baby to sleep in his crib overnight, so screw the carnival. This meant for the first 3 weeks of training, all sleep was in his crib with the dark curtains drawn and swaddle on. No exceptions the first 21 days. This also meant I was back at my own house so he could get used to his room and the environment, which gave me confidence knowing that I had a plan.

Third, I made food (breastfeeding/formula) a huge priority. We worked very hard to have full feedings. He always ate upon waking up, and I’d patiently encourage him to eat plenty each time, because he didn’t get to eat before going to sleep. He needed enough calories in the daytime in order to be okay at night (just like we do). Therefore, eating after each nap was a big deal. Through many hours with a lactation consultant and lots of self-hate, then self-acceptance, I learned that I needed to supplement with formula on top of breastfeeding since I only produced two ounces at a time (one from each side), and it wasn’t increasing no matter what I did. The point is that we fully embraced eat-play-sleep so he wouldn’t depend on nursing himself to sleep.

When it was bedtime (7 p.m.), I’d do our short bedtime routine, stand and rock him for a few minutes in the dark room so he knew I loved him, then put him down on his back in his crib while he was still awake, but sleepy. 

I’d leave the room, shut the door, and let him cry for 10 minutes.

Every bone in my body and hair on my arms and pounding in my chest made me want to throw up when I heard him cry, so I took this time to wash dishes or listen to music in my earbuds. Using a clock is 100% required, otherwise you think it’s been 10 minutes but it’s only been 30 seconds.

If he was still crying after 10 minutes, I’d go back upstairs and rub his tummy for a minute or less, “shhhhh”ing and telling him I love him without picking him up.

I’d leave the room, shut the door, and let him cry for 10 more minutes.

In the first day or two, he almost always fell asleep during this second 10 minute interval. However, there was one more step if he didn’t.

If he was still crying after those 10 additional minutes, I’d go back upstairs and rub his tummy for a minute or less, “shhhhh”ing and telling him I love him without picking him up. Then I’d leave the room, just like last time. 

I’d let him cry for 5-8 more minutes, depending on my strength that day.

If he didn’t fall asleep during this final 3rd step interval, I’d go back to his room, turn on the light and bring him downstairs. We’d call it a wash. I didn’t rock him to sleep or bring him to bed with me. In fact, even during the “dark days” in the first 6 weeks, I never slept with Anders because my fear of SIDS was so intense that I preferred Zombie Land to co-sleeping. Again, choose your own adventure.

Anyway, I’d wait 20-30 minutes and as soon as he let out a yawn or enough time had passed that he was completely calm, fed, and ready to try again, we’d start the process all over.

I did this 3 interval, 28 minute system for bedtime and all naptimes. Overnight wake ups would be feed, then straight back down.

I only had to do the whole “call it a wash and start over in 30 minutes” thing ONCE. ONE TIME. Within the first few days, he almost always fell asleep during the first two intervals. After one week, it was rare that he’d cry more than 2-5 minutes total before passing out. By 1-2 months of this routine, he rarely let out a peep as he put himself to sleep. Over the months ahead, he’d occasionally go through spurts of crying again for 10 minutes, but that never lasted long, and I always went in and comforted him after an interval just like I did in the beginning.

Since he was getting a lot more daytime sleep and accustomed to being in his crib, his stretches at night changed pretty drastically, as well. After a week, he pretty consistently did 3 hours, 5 hours, 3 hours each night—which for us was a big deal. It allowed me to feel human again by usually getting 6-7 hours of sleep myself. By 10 weeks old (only 3 weeks after we started), he was doing 7-8 hours for his long stretch.

I think he was about 4 or 5 months old the first time he slept 7 p.m.-7 a.m. A lot of times I’d gently wake him around 10 p.m. for a half-asleep snack (“dream feed”) to tide him over for a long stretch, but I don’t really know how much of that was necessary and how much was just mental for me.

I do know that 6 months old is when I stopped doing the dream feed altogether and just let him have a bedtime feed. He didn’t get to fall asleep while drinking, but I like to think it helped him stay full and happy throughout the night. This was the only time that he ate before sleep. It was really easy to wean him off that feeding at one year, because he never depended on it to go to sleep. It was just a nice little booster.

I’d say that at this age, about 50% of the time he did 7-7, and 50% of the time he did 7-5, eat, then back down until 7.

When he hit 9 months old, he basically never woke up before 6 a.m. ever again. I’d say there’ve only been four, maybe five, instances since then that he hasn’t slept through the night and needed us to comfort him. (Most of those times were 15-18 months old when all of a sudden he had a few random night terror-type situations, or he was sick.) Sometimes he’d let out a little cry or whimper for a minute when he was still in the training stage, but I never went in unless it’d been 2 or more minutes of him truly crying. That still applies, even though it’s even more rare for him to so much as whimper anymore.

I also let him whimper a bit if he woke up early from a nap (still do). Usually I’d have a good idea of how long he should be asleep, so if he woke early, I gave him a short time to figure it out and go back to sleep. If he didn’t, he didn’t. It happens. But you’d be surprised how often he did go back to sleep if I just gave him a second to figure it out before barging in.

He’s gone through different wake-up time stages. For a while it was 7-7, then it was 7-6:30, then 7-5:50 (nooooo), then 7-6:15. Right now it’s usually 7-6:40. He’s just never been super consistent with his wake ups, but how can I complain when he’s down for at least 11 hours a night? And does so completely on his own without a peep? (Okay, I definitely complain if it’s before 6:30 because I’m spoiled now.)

The Exceptions and Important Notes:

Never once did I let him cry at night when he woke up hungry. I don’t believe in skipping feedings until it’s clear that the baby isn’t actually hungry. When I noticed that he’d consistently wake but not eat much, that’s when I did let him cry for a few minutes at night, subsequently “dropping” those night feeds. But again—that was only after days and days of it being clear that he wasn’t really hungry during those times.

Of COURSE there were times we had to make exceptions to his sleep rules once my strict three weeks of training were up, but by that time, he knew the drill, so he didn’t regress if we let him sleep in the car for a nap, then put him back in his crib for the following nap. On the mornings he’d wake up at 5 a.m., sometimes he wouldn’t want to go back to sleep, so we’d rock him in the glider until 7 a.m. for him to understand that it was still quiet/sleep time. When he’d get sick and not want to nap on his own, I’d rock him during his naps to comfort him. I’m not a TOTAL monster.

It’s important that you spend energy really listening to and observing your baby (duh). Trust yourself. I trust myself when it comes to Anders’ cries. It’s certainly gotten easier to decipher “types” of cries as he’s gotten older, but it’s important to learn their tired “I’m going to sleep cry” versus their “I’m scared and truly need you” cry. For me that was crucial.

Oh, also I used an Owlet monitor starting around 4 months old, which really helped me get back to sleep and know that he was okay in his nursery. Some people say that device would increase their worry, but for me it really helped, both for naps and overnight. 

In conclusion:

I really hope this was helpful for those of you who want to train your babes to sleep on their own! It worked beautifully for us, and I am SO happy I took this approach so that I could be the best mom I, personally, can be. We all have different needs and priorities as mothers, and this was what worked in the best interest of Anders and me.

If you have ANY questions, please feel free to reach out! Happy to explain anything further or do my best to help with “what did you do when _____ happened?” I’m no expert, but I certainly found the community of moms around me SO important when I had questions during that first year, and I’m here to pay it forward!

Also…one last shout out to Ally the Angel. Thank you for saving a stranger’s life.

MommyhoodShannon Leyko