Let me preface this post by saying: I am not a parenting genius.
I am also not a “sleep expert” and what I’m about to write is based off our own experiences with our small wee-bean, who has never really been a great sleeper.
For the past six months I’ve talked on and off about my struggles with Ruby’s sleeping patterns. She was extremely inconsistent in her sleep schedules, she didn’t nap, and it took forever to settle her at night. From day one she struggled with sleeping alone, which is ultimately how we decided to co-sleep for the first three months of her life. We then smoothly transitioned her to her bassinet at three months, and into her crib in her own room at six months.
The transitioning beds was the easy part.
Getting her into them at night was not.
But let’s back up a little, shall we? When Ruby was born, I read all the debates about co-sleeping vs. sleeping on their own. However none of the many books or articles I read mentioned anything about “sleep associations”.
Sleep Association? What’s that, you say? (I said exactly the same thing.)
About.com describes it as:
Simply put, a sleep association is something that a person relates to the moments just before she falls asleep. The association may be an action, object, sound, series of events, or the like.
When you’re a new mother trying to find your rhythm with a new wee one, I’m pretty sure you’ll try just about anything to find ways to ease your babe into a restful slumber. Not only does the baby need it, but you do too. A sleeping baby = a break for mom, so naturally you do what you can do get your baby to sleep.
For me, I found that Ruby was often drowsy after she nursed, so I would sit in a quiet corner in my rocking chair, and gently rock her to sleep as she nursed. It was very peaceful, and I often really enjoyed this little ritual.
And so did she. So much so that as she grew it was taking me longer and longer to rock & nurse her to sleep at night. As she got older and we progressed through the summer, it was often taking me 2.5 hours to get her to sleep at night. Once she was out she was usually okay–waking a couple of times to eat quickly–but I was pretty much confined to my bedroom from 7pm – 9:30pm as I tried to get her to fall asleep. We rocked, nursed, sang, walked, bounced, danced–anything to get her to fall asleep. Once she was asleep, we had to wait until she was out cold, then delicately lay her in her bassinet. She’d wake up crying 90% of the time seconds after I lay her down. She’d drift off eventually, but it was usually after she was just so exhausted that she couldn’t stay awake anymore.
The Hubster and I were both frustrated, especially since our darling girl also wasn’t napping much during the day. She sometimes napped for an hour on a good day, but normally she’d go down for one, or maybe two 30 minute naps in an entire day.
So, I started reading. I knew it wasn’t enough sleep for her growing body, and I couldn’t keep spending hours and hours each night trying to get her to bed. I began implanting a few new strategies, and have already seen major improvements.
Today Ruby woke up at 7am. She had a 45 minute nap this morning, a 90 minute nap over lunch, and a 35 minute nap late this afternoon. She let me know she was tired after dinner, and was asleep in her crib (alone) by 6:45pm.
For a girl who wouldn’t nap or fall asleep before 9:30pm a month ago, this is a major improvement. She wakes up smiling and happy every morning, and is a ray of sunshine all through my day.
So. How did I work this magic, you ask?
The first step was researching about sleep associations. I wish wish wish someone had talked to me about that before she was born, but luckily I caught on before she became even more attached to the habits I was helping her create. I read “The No-Cry Sleep Solution” by Elizabeth Pantley, and I found some great ideas to help me build a foundation for good sleep. I immediately stopped rocking her to sleep at night, and began helping her form an attachment to what Pantley calls “a lovey”. For Ruby, it was a little pink bunny blanket that stayed with her in her bassinet. I started having her hold it while she nursed before bed so that it would comfort her, and smell like me when we moved her into her bed. Any time she was going to sleep, I had her hold the bunny and placed it beside her in her bed. It wasn’t long before I saw her reaching for it on her own, and I often found her curled up on her side snuggling the bunny after I lay her down.
I also began implementing a bedtime routine that was consistent every night: bath, jammies, story, songs, nursing, sleep. I tried to begin the routine at roughly the same time each night so that she would begin associating that time of day with sleep. We soon realized that her bath was too exciting and stimulating for her (she loves to play in the tub), so we switched it to the morning and shortened her bedtime routine. It worked out even better.
The next step was easing her out of her sleep association: me. This happened through a few steps. I began by immediately stopping rocking her to sleep. I would rock her a little to relax her, but then I would stop as she got drowsy so she wouldn’t rely on the motion to keep her asleep. I also stopped letting her nurse when I realized she was finished eating. The sucking reflex is very soothing for babies, and I knew she was essentially using me as her pacifier. I tried to shift her up onto my shoulder so she would know that nursing was finished.
The next step was the hardest, and it was something I really struggled with: I knew I needed to teach her how to settle herself and fall asleep on her own. I never ever considered that you need to teach that to a baby, but if your kid is not a natural sleeper, it’s a skill like the many others they need to learn as they grow.
I read Richard Ferber’s “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems”, and while I found it… informative, I also found it too “black and white” and a little harsher than my style of parenting. That being said, I thought that I could apply the essence of what he suggests while manipulating it somewhat to better suit my family.
I used all the ideas I’ve already mentioned for a couple of weeks to lay a good foundation for Ruby to sleep. Then I began putting her into her bed while she was drowsy, but not completely asleep.
As you can imagine, the first night her eyes popped open and she began to fuss. I made sure that all her needs were taken care of, then I said goodnight and left the room for one minute. As she was still fussing, I went in 1 minute later and repeated the actions I had just completed. I rubbed her back, sang to her, and left again. I returned and repeated the same actions 3 minutes later, and then every 5 minutes after that until she fell asleep. The Hubster and I alternated going in to her, so that she would also associate him with comforting her at night.
The first night was hard. I never ever let her reach a point where I felt she was really in distress, and if I felt she wasn’t ready for me to leave the room, then I stayed longer. Ferber suggests that you don’t ever pick up the baby once she’s in her bed, but I absolutely would have if I felt that she needed to be. She would cry and fuss a bit, almost fall asleep, then wake herself up and repeat the cycle.
The first night took 65 minutes. Once she was out, she slept for 12 hours and only woke up once to eat. The next day she woke up smiling and rested, and began to put herself on a nap schedule. She would let me know she was tired, and I repeated the routine I did before bed. She fussed for a half hour before her first nap, and by her second she simply rolled over and fell asleep when I lay her down in her crib.
The second and third nights were harder. She wanted to have her regular nursing marathons that she had become accustomed to, and was upset that I was changing the routine she had become accustomed to. She cried, I cried–it wasn’t pretty. Again, I never let her reach a point where I felt she was really in distress, and I continued to go in and comfort her at regular intervals. Each night the time increased: night two was 3, 5, 7 minutes, and night 3 was 5, 7, 10 minutes.
The difference in her naps was immediate: she began napping at consistent times each day, and if she fussed at all before she slept, it was only for a couple of minutes. Each night / day the time intervals increased by a minute or two, though I didn’t always stay rigid with them. If I felt she needed me before the time was up, I just went in.
On night four, I decided to try giving her a bottle before bed instead of nursing her. Everything else remained the same, but I was able to monitor how much she was taking in and making sure that she was full before putting her in the bed. The change was incredible: she was fed and asleep in less than twenty minutes. And almost every night since has been the same.
It’s now been almost two weeks, and she has consistently napped 3 times a day, and gone to bed without much trouble. If she fusses at all, it’s usually for less than 5 minutes before she simply rolls over, finds her bunny again and falls asleep.
I cringe a little at the term “cry-it-out”, but I guess essentially that’s what we did. I just waited until I was sure she was ready and capable of falling asleep on her own, and made sure she had a good foundation for sleep before doing so. Her reaction after sleeping so well that first night was a confirmation that my wee-bean finally got the amount of sleep that she needed, so it made everything worth it.
As far as sleeping through the night goes, I still feed her 1 – 2 times through the night. She usually sleeps from 7 / 7:30pm – 2:30am, eats, then sleeps again until 6:30am. Sometimes she is up more often, but I really don’t mind as it’s rarely for more than 15 – 20 minutes. As long as she is hungry I’m happy to feed her and have those quiet moments with her when the world is still.
So. If you have a small one of your own, or are planning to one day, you’ll find what works for you. Everyone and their mother has an opinion on how to get a baby to fall asleep, and what works for one child may not work for another. That being said, my one piece of advice to you is to be aware of sleep associations and habits from day one. Try to help your wee one form attachments that will help her sleep on her own, and it’s never too early to begin a soothing bedtime routine. Remember: a rested baby is a happy, healthy one.