When I was a first time mom I mistakenly thought kids sort of led themselves into an amazing sleep routine. I kept waiting for the moment when she would nap for two hours twice and day and go to bed at the same time each night. It never happened. For three months we sort of went by the seat of our pants, letting her sleep when she felt like it (never), and eat whenever she cried (always.) Except I’m not that kind of girl. I’m a routine and task oriented person, I thrive on knowing what is coming up. This, in case you are wondering, is not a lifestyle that newborns go by. I wanted my baby to have set nap times and sleep through the night and be able to count on certain breaks in the day for ME. Some would say this is impossible for young children, but I know it’s not. My kids are great sleepers to this day and I credit this to hard work and dedication in the early months. This isn’t a quick fix. A lot of what I did was harder than just letting my babies sleep and whenever they wanted. I learned I had to teach them to put themselves to sleep, teach them to sleep when they are tired and wake up at a decent time.
It was hard.
Let me back up a minute and tell you what I did, step by step, from the early days on to create this awesome sleep schedule. This awesome sleep schedule that made me and my babies happy, because we were both getting what we needed. Let’s begin!
In the hospital, you will be handed this little baby and there are NO INSTRUCTIONS that come with it. You will be confused as to how much and how long to feed, what times you need to do both, and how to create good sleeping habits. The good news? You can take a good 4ish weeks before you get hard core with a routine, but I did start in the hospital with my second, (complete with charts and notebooks, I’m a nerd.), and it was better. It’s easier to start out fresh in the hospital and lead them from there, but you don’t have to.
In the beginning I started with a two hour feeding schedule, which continued for a couple of weeks, eventually bumping this up to three hours after two to three weeks. My thought is this: shoot for a three hour feeding schedule, but if your newborn is screaming and sucking their fists and can’t be held off with a pacifier? Feed them. I followed a simple formula that I learned from The Baby Whisperer (my baby guru), that goes Eat, Activity, Sleep, and Time For You (EASY.) You will repeat this sequence FOREVER, at least for a couple of years. Here’s a sample schedule for a baby under four months:
7am: Wake up, change diaper and feed. If nursing, this can take approx. 45 minutes, bottle feeding takes less. In the early days you will be working harder to feed them fully, stripping them down and taking breaks to keep them up. This gets easier as time goes on.
7:45am: At this point a young baby can only stay awake for a couple of minutes after feeding time, and it gets longer as they get older. Feeding time is included in “awake” time, though often with newborns you will have to fight to keep them awake.
(If you are doing a two hour schedule, just adjust the times, but keep the E.A.S.Y routine. They’ll wake at 7am, sleep 7:45-9am, eat again at 9am, sleep 9:45am till 11am, and so on. You just repeat this sequence and these steps with all the sleep routines I describe below, it’s just a shorter time period.)
8:30-10am: The KEY thing to look for after a baby is done eating is their sleep signs. Why is this important? If you miss a babies’ sleep window it is HELL getting them down. In the early days it isn’t an issue as they will sleep constantly, but it will be a factor later. As soon as you see a sleep sigh (yawn, rubbing eyes), it means they are done being awake. Immediately begin the sleep routine. I think swaddling is key, and my babies both would relax the second I swaddled them. In my opinion all babies should be swaddled, but that’s only because I’ve seen the benefits. Don’t feel “bad” that they can’t move, or that they will feel trapped. They like it. I PROMISE.
Create a routine for naps. Bring the baby into their room, shut the curtains and swaddle them. Put them high on your shoulder, with their head your neck (swaddled), and pat their back while “shhhhhh-ing” in their ear. Loudly. Do this until you feel them relax against you, then lay them in bed barely awake. In the early days a newborn will sleep right away and stay asleep. They will give you the false sense that this is EASY. Go with it and enjoy it for now.
An older baby will often wake up early at the 30 minute mark. This is because a babies’ sleep cycle runs approx. 30 minutes, and they awaken after that and are unable to fall asleep on their own. This doesn’t mean they are ready to wake up. It means you need to TEACH them to get back to sleep. First, give them a minute or two to fuss and see if they will go back down on their own. If they don’t (they rarely do), go in quietly (keep lights off, shades drawn, quiet voice) and “shhh/pat” them again until they relax against you and you can put them down again. If you are lucky, they will go down again easily and sleep till the end. I never was. I would have to shhh/pat my babies every 30 minutes (during the entire duration of the nap), for a month or more until they learned to sleep the entire nap time (usually an hour and a half under four months old.) I will say this, it works. Take the time in the early days to teach them to fall asleep and stay asleep for an entire nap period. They need it. Children need way more sleep than you think and they are happier with it. In the beginning they will only sleep small bits of their nap and you will end up working on getting them to sleep MORE than they will actually sleep, but it will work. It always gets worse before it gets better, remember that! Babies that sleep well are no accident. It takes hard work and perseverance. You can do it!
10am: Here’s the tough part. You may have spent an hour getting your baby to sleep, but now it is time to eat again. What do you do? You wake them up. I KNOW. This hurts. The point of this is that you are creating a routine that they (and you) can count on to live by. By the time they are six months old or so, they will know to sleep so long, and they will know when it is time to wake and eat and you will have your life back (er, mostly.) Sometimes your baby won’t fall back to sleep and you will be frantically shh/patting them for an hour and a half in their darkened room, they will be exhausted and so will YOU, but get them up and feed them.
10:45-11:30am: Awake time. I call this the “potted plant” stage. A baby that can’t move is often moved from room to room for different activities. Sitting in an activity seat, tummy time, bouncy seat, etc. I used to have different stations in my house in different rooms so I could get stuff done and be with them while they were awake.
This can also known as, “let’s go to Target really quick during activity/awake time.” In the beginning, when you are building a routine, you won’t be able to leave the house when you want to. You will be a slave to creating good sleep habits. For those with more than one child, you will have to leave the house more and have an “on the go” nap time. I always figured I owed my second child one good crib nap where we did the sleep routine and shhh/pat thing, the rest were in strollers and baby Bjorn’s at the park. Just go with it;)
11:30am-1pm: Nap time again! Keep an eye out for the sleep signs and repeat the morning nap routine, and pray they sleep the whole time;) If not, repeat the shh/pat, swaddling and darkened room routine until you go insane. The first four months or so of this are the toughest and where you put in the time and teach them to sleep well. I promise that all the hard work of creating this routine, and keeping them in their room during an entire nap time are worth it. Just don’t give up. It confuse the crap out of babies when you do things for a day or two and then give up. Stick with it and remember, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” I quoted this a thousand times to myself when I was near tears and bone tired, and you know what? My babies got it and slept well, early. They still do. I credit this routine and my perseverance to that.
1pm: Get up and eat (again!)
1:45-3:30pm: Activity time (again!)
3:30-5pm: Sleep (again!)
5pm: Wake up and eat.
5:45pm: At this time your baby will often need a little catnap before bath and bed. I KNOW this sounds like a lot of sleep, but babies need it. Mine often slept 30-45 minutes during this time, and often in a bouncy seat all swaddled up, or being held. This doesn’t confuse them by sleeping less at this time, they just come to expect it.
For a young baby (under three months) you can give a little mini feeding after their cat nap to “tank them up” for the night. The key to feeding a baby on a schedule is to give them the calories they need in the daytime so they won’t (eventually) wake up at night and need them then. Obviously a younger baby still eats in the middle of the night, but you are setting the stage for later on with this!
6:30ish pm: I’m a big fan of bathing a baby every night. I think it creates a scene for bedtime and they will come to expect it and KNOW that bedtime is near. A newborn with their umbilical cord still on cannot be fully bathed, so skip this for them, but after it falls off you can give them baths every night.
7:00 pm: After the baby is bathed, get them in their jammies and feed them. After they are done, swaddle them up and follow through the same sleep routine as nap. For some reason, little ones seem to know they will sleep the longest at this time eventually, but you have to teach them. Follow the same shh/pat routine at night as you do in the day. Then shut the door and pray they stay asleep;)
10pm: Dream feed. What is a dream feed? Go in your child’s room (or the bassinet beside the bed, as mine were in for the first two months or so) and get them up with the lights OFF. Don’t talk loudly, just get them up, change them quick and swaddle them back up. Then feed them. The key is to feed them while they are sleeping. You will be amazed by how they stay asleep the entire time. After they eat you can put them right back in bed, then go to bed yourself;)
10pm-7am: Here’s the part that matters. The hours between dream feed and up time are sleeping hours. You don’t wake them up to eat during this time. A baby under two to three months or so will get up every three hours or so to eat still, but the distance will change as time goes by until soon they are going four and five hours, then the whole night.
Tip 1: If your baby wakes up and cries 30 minutes after eating you can KNOW that they aren’t hungry. They either have gas or they woke up after their sleep cycle. Try not to fall into the habit of feeding a baby every time it cries. I learned that when you follow a routine it is easier to figure out what is wrong, because you can eliminate things based on the time. If it has been two hours and forty five minutes since they were fed and they are crying uncontrollably, they are probably hungry. If it’s been an hour? I think sleep or gas is the issue. Feeding a baby is not the cure all and won’t help in every instance, plus it creates a vicious cycle of constant feeding, which you don’t want to do. Try to lengthen feeding times by creating diversions, either a pacifier or snuggling or shhh-ing/patting. You don’t have to be a Nazi about the schedule, but I found that things always worked out well when I followed it and my children did eat and sleep at around the same times every day.
Tip 2: Babies are often awake for bits and pieces in the middle of the night, or they eat at 5:30 and appear really chipper and ready to start the day. PLEASE, don’t get them up at that time unless you want to create a child who thinks 5:30am is a great time to start the day. They are OKAY laying in a crib all swaddled up and staring at a mobile while you pass out in your bed, (or watch Laguna Beach, whichever you prefer.) The biggest kicker is this: You will spend far more time in the beginning trying to get them to sleep than they actually DO sleep. Trust me, it is easier to feed a baby and let it fall asleep, or not follow any schedule. IN THE BEGINNING. This becomes less cute when you have a six month old that wakes up four times a night while you wonder how others get “lucky” and get good sleepers. People who have babies who are good sleepers worked for it. It takes time and dedication and a lot of hard work.
With any luck, your little one has only woken up twice or three times at night, give or take, and put right back into their swaddle and bed. You’ll learn the fun lesson of a baby that eats every three hours means it actually eats every two hours and fifteen minutes, because you count from the beginning of a feeding and not from the end. That one hurts. The good news? Newborn and infant sleep, for mama’s anyway, is the best, deepest sleep ever, because you are so exhausted you sleep like a rock;)
7am (the next day): this will be the wake up time. (Funny enough, this is still my kids’ wake up time six years later. Old habits die hard?) The day starts even if your baby was shhhh/patted for two hours before, or they are sleeping after a three hour crying binge. This will become the time your child will expect to wake up and be fed. Begin the same routine over and over again until you feel like it is Groundhog day and you may go nuts. You will at first;)
Lastly, this routine isn’t for the feint of heart. It is a time commitment and takes a lot of perseverance. As a mom there are so many questions of what is the best way and where can the best answers be found. There are so many ways to do things, and no right way. I can only say what worked for me. This routine gave me two kids that slept through the night at 12 and 16 weeks, and two kids that continue to sleep amazingly well. In my world, if the baby is sleeping well, mama is sleeping well…therefore all is well in the world;)
Stay tuned for part two of “how to get your children to have great sleep routines” (four months and up!) tomorrow.