It’s been six nights of sleep training and our nine week old babygirl, Chloe, now sleeps from 7pm to 7am – waking only once at 4am to feed, after which she promptly goes back to sleep. These past few nights have been a dream! And not just because she’s sleeping through the night, Chloe has done a complete one-eighty. Since starting sleep training, she’s become an amazing nighttime sleeper, a great napper during the day and even tolerates situations she once screamed and cried at only days prior (ie. her baby swing, Ergobaby carrier). But most importantly, she’s become a happy, alert, and minimally fussy baby all from gaining what she (and we) desperately needed – sleep and the ability to self-soothe. In this blog post, I’m going to share how we sleep trained Chloe and got her sleeping through the night in less than a week.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is teaching your baby how to self-soothe themselves to sleep. Not only is this learned ability necessary for sleep, it also gives your baby the ability to soothe themselves in stressful situations – loud places, new people, etc. According to Dr. Garcia Narvaez, in a 2013 Psychology Today article, “Over time,” she states, “this ability to self-soothe leads to a strong, self-settling child who can calm him or herself when challenges arise.”
When should I start?
Most healthcare professionals, like our pediatrician, suggest sleep training can begin once a baby reaches three months of age or 12 pounds. Some recommend three months, others 6 or even 10 months, so you have to feel out what’s best for you and your family. But I will say, our pediatrician told us that the longer you wait, the harder it gets because habits begin to form. And older babies tend to resist sleep training more so than younger ones, crying harder and longer when their parents do begin to sleep train them.
Sleep training methods
There are various sleep training methods, but our pediatrician highlighted three options:
- Cry It Out (CIO) method: “Cold turkey” is how our pediatrician described this method. You sleep train your baby by putting them in their bed and letting them, as the name suggests, cry it out. By not interfering, proponents of this method believe this gives your baby the space and time they need to soothe herself believing that babies have the capacity to learn how to self soothe on their own and will eventually figure it out and sleep through the night.
- Ferber method: Is when you let your baby cry it out, but go into their room at various intervals to check on them. You don’t pick the baby up during these checks, but verbally soothe and pat them reassuring them you’re still there. Gradually, the intervals get longer giving baby more time to practice self soothing until eventually baby is sleeping.
- Chair method: This method has you sitting in a chair next to your baby’s crib verbally soothing them while they cry and practice self soothing (occasional patting and picking up.) Each night, you move the chair farther and father away from their crib until you’re no longer in the room.
How do babies self-soothe
One thing I noticed while devouring sleep training articles is many pieces left out my main question – how do babies self-soothe and how can I help my baby self-soothe?
Our pediatrician filled in this gap and informed us that most babies typically soothe themselves by rubbing their faces with their hands or sucking their hands. Many babies even do this in utero. Therefore, she said when you begin sleep training, it’s important to transition from swaddling to a sleep-sack or Merlin sleep suit so your baby has access to their hands. If a baby doesn’t use their hands to self-soothe, since not all babies self-soothe this way, some parents choose to introduce a lovey; a lovey can be a pacifier, stuffed animal, or small blanket the baby can hold onto and find comfort in.
If you use anything other than a pacifier, which is safe to use at any age since pacifiers have been shown to reduce the risk of SIDs by 90%, be sure your baby is old enough to sit up on their own or rollover. This ensures baby is capable of removing the blankie/stuffed animal lovey if it were to cover their face/mouth.
Why we decided to start sleep training
Chloe was one of those babies that from the get-go struggled to fall asleep on her own. She needed to be held, rocked or breastfed to go to sleep. This continued and seemed to worsen as the weeks went by. She progressively became more and more dependent on external comforts to soothe her to sleep. It got to the point where she was waking up after every 45 minute sleep cycle in need of me to soothe her back down.
Babies have 45 minute sleep cycles whereas adults have 90 – 120 minute sleep cycles. At the end of each cycle, we briefly wake up during the transition into the next cycle. As adults we’ve learned how to soothe ourselves quickly back to sleep into the next cycle so we don’t even notice momentarily waking between cycles, but many babies have-not learned this skill yet.
This was one of the biggest issues for us with Chloe. I tracked her sleep with the Baby Tracker app (highly recommend) and noticed she was sleeping for 45 to 1.5 hours stretches at night and during the day. When she would wake up, she needed me to rock, bounce or hold her to soothe her back to sleep since she did not know how to soothe herself.
At first, I assumed she was waking and crying because of the usual – dirty diaper, hungry, cold/hot, gas – and so more often than not in those instances I attempted to feed her. She would eat a little out of a natural instinct to root/suck, but then begin to cry because she wasn’t waking out of hunger; she was waking due to her inability to soothe herself back to sleep. This lead to her overeating which caused bloating, gas and hiccups making it even harder for her to fall and stay asleep.
I was exhausted, frustrated, and more than anything, I felt bad for her. She was unhappy, fussy and overtired all the time. All she wanted to do was sleep, but she couldn’t unless I held her. If she came out of a sleep cycle not in my arms, she would wake up and I’d have to soothe her back to sleep. Each time she would wake up, she’d become progressively more tired and move into an “overtired” state. Her body would flood with cortisol and adrenaline, and it would become more difficult for her to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sometimes I would have to rock her for an hour (or two).
So when our pediatrician gave us the green light to start sleep training at our two month check-up after she saw Chloe met the 12 pound weight limit, we were hesitant since she was so young, but a few days later knew we needed to go for it – for our sanity and hers.
What worked for us
1. Bedtime routine: The first thing I did before we started following the Ferber method was establish a bedtime routine. I started this a few days prior to beginning sleep training to introduce a signal to Chloe that when we do this routine, nighttime sleep follows.
Chloe’s bedtime routine begins between 5-6pm and follows this order every night: breastfeed, change diaper, bath, pajamas and bed. By following this routine, once you put baby to bed, when/if they cry, you’ll know it’s not from hunger or a dirty diaper since you’ve already taken care of both.
*According to baby expert, Tracy Hogg, and author of Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer (a MUST read for any new parent), babies thrive on a predictable schedule and knowing what to expect next.
2. Creating an optimal sleep environment: Chloe is very sensitive to light and sound. When she was co-sleeping with us in our bedroom, I realized that our movements, our dog’s barking (he sleeps in bed with us) and light from the windows (we don’t have blackout shades) would often wake her. Once we began sleep training her in her crib in her own room, she immediately started sleeping better because her room eliminated sleep noise: light, sound, and distractions. I put up blackout shades and kept the room cool and quiet.
3. Understanding self-soothing preferences: Chloe is a face rubber and hand sucker when it comes to self-soothing. When she was in utero, we could never see her face at our ultrasound appointments because she was always sucking on her hands. Knowing how your baby prefers to self-soothe can be helpful (ie. My girlfriend’s three month old baby doesn’t go for her hands, so instead she introduced a lovey blankie that her baby rubs on her face to fall asleep.) Knowing how your baby prefers to self-soothe will help you provide the right tools your baby needs, if necessary.
*Even though Chloe uses her hands to soothe, we also introduced a pacifier. She likes to use the pacifier and rub her face with her hands to fall asleep, but during the night, after the pacifier has fallen out of her mouth, she’ll self-soothe with just her hands.
**The reason, I believe, Chloe was able to sleep train so quickly is that she was already practiced at self soothing herself with her hands in utero, but during the first few months postpartum, we (and our postpartum Chinese nurse who often held Chloe for hours while she slept) took away any opportunity for her to self-soothe (by swaddling her and taking away her hands, which is probably why she hated being swaddled) instead picking her up the instant she began crying attempting to feed, change, or rock her. This is probably why she became progressively more dependent on us to soothe her to sleep. We were teaching her that when she woke up, rocking or being held was how she should go to sleep.
4. Ferber method: We decided to try the Ferber method of sleep training letting her cry and then check-in on her to comfort her every couple of minutes.
When I comfort her, I give her the pacifier, place my hand on her chest and tell her, “I’m right outside. You’re okay. Shhhhhh” in a calm voice. Then with my hand still on her chest to feel her breathing I say “shhhhh” a few more times until I can feel her breathing relax at which point I leave the room.
- First night: Chloe cried on and off for almost an hour. She fell asleep at 8pm and woke for a feeding at 9pm, 1am and at 6:30am.
- Second night: Cried on and off for 30 minutes. Fell asleep at 7:30pm and woke up to feed at 9pm, 1am and 6:30am.
- Third night: Cried on and off for 15 minutes. Fell asleep at 7:30pm and woke up to feed at 4am and at 7am.
- Now: Cries on and off for 2-5 minutes. Falls asleep at 6:30/7pm wakes up to feed at 4am and at 6:30/7am.
*Since the third night of sleep training, Chloe has been following this same schedule. Falls asleep around 7pm, wakes at 4am to feed, then wakes again finally around 7am. Our goal with sleep training was not to eliminate night feedings completely, but rather teach Chloe how to fall asleep on her own and let hunger wake her, not her inability to fall back asleep after sleep cycles. She still cries for a few minutes when I put her down for bed, but after checking in on her once or twice and comforting her, she quickly falls asleep.
When I looked back at my Baby Tracker app to see what changed on Day 3 that allowed Chloe to sleep from 7-7, I noticed that she cluster fed in the hours before bedtime at 4pm, 5:30pm and 7pm. Since then, her daytime feeds have become longer and she typically cluster feeds in the late afternoon and early evening.
5. EASY during the day: I follow the EASY schedule explained by Tracy Hogg in Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer. It stands for Eat (feed/burp), Activity (diaper change, tummy time, playtime etc), Sleep, You (take time for yourself while baby is sleeping). This structure is really easy for me to keep in mind throughout the day and creates predictability for Chloe. Here’s a rough outline (times slightly vary depending on what she needs) of what our daily schedule is like right now at 9 weeks old with Chloe sleeping an average of 16 hours a day. (See here for recommended sleep amounts for babies.)
6:30/7am – Wake, feed, burp, change diaper, change clothes, activity
8am – Nap
10am – Wake, feed, burp, change diaper, activity
12pm – Nap (usually she sleeps in her carrier while I walk the dog)
1pm – Feed, burp, change diaper, activity
2pm – Nap
4pm – Feed, burp, change diaper, activity
5pm – Feed, burp, change diaper, activity
6pm – Bathtime
6:30/7 – Bedtime
Overall, I’m really glad we decided to begin sleep training Chloe. She’s so much happier now that she’s getting the sleep she needs. And it’s interesting to see as a parent how she uses her newfound ability to self-soothe in various situations. For example, she doesn’t cry when I change her diaper or her clothes anymore. She just lays there and calmly sucks on her hand. Her carrier is now something she loves and falls asleep in (with the help of her pacifier), and she’s generally much calmer in new situations and around new people.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I’m hopeful it will help other new parents out there, but I also want to say that every baby is different. Their needs, temperament and personality all vary, so what works for one, definitely doesn’t work for all. So to all my mamas out there, be kind and patient with yourself and your baby, and follow your intuition on what feels right for you both. There’s so much information out there and it’s easy to go down a Google black-hole (been there), but at the end of the day, you know best what’s right for you and your little one better than anyone else.
*PS – Feel free to reach out with any questions or anything at all via DM on Instagram. I’m happy to offer support or answer any questions I can. I know how important it is to have someone there to act as a sounding board while transversing this new terrain. If it wasn’t for my friend, Marie, who sleep trained her three month old before Chloe and was there to answer all my questions/offer support, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to begin sleep training.
Written by Amy Chang; photographed by Wing Ta for BONDENAVANT