I climbed into bed at 10:30 last night, fell asleep within seconds from the sheer exhaustion of momming six kids all day, and woke up to my crying baby alarm at 7:30 this morning. Nine hours sleep. That’s considered an average night’s sleep, right?
What’s not average? I have a five-month-old, an eight-month-old, a two-year-old, a three-year-old, a five-year-old, and an eight-year-old. Six little kids makes for a combined six to infinity number of possible sleep interruptions, but I slept uninterrupted last night and every night for as far back as I can remember.
I must warn you. I am about to draw a line in the sand. I want to hug all of you on both sides of this proverbial sand line, but you may not want to return the hug once I tell you something about myself. I am the dreaded scheduling, sleep training, cry-it-out mom you’ve heard about. To answer your questions: Yes, it works. No, my kids are not distant, un-bonded, and emotionally scarred.
If you think you may be one of these dreaded scheduling moms, too, or if you’re struggling with an unpredictable, keeps-you-up-all-night-baby, then you may want to keep reading. If you’re comfortable with your method or non-method and uncomfortable with mine, then please accept my “you’re doing a great job” hug, close this post up, and I’ll see you next time. You do you, mama.
But me, I buy into this scheduling thing. I believe it makes for happy and well-rested kids and happy and well-rested moms. I believe it helps baby to feel secure and safe and know what to expect. I believe it releases mom to feel rested and free to leave the house and know what to expect. Methods are flawed and limited and not for everyone, but I believe in this method.
The basic gist of this scheduling thing is that you teach your baby the difference between day and night. Kids aren’t just born understanding how the earth’s rotation affects when their eyes should be open and their bellies hungry. Just like nearly every other thing in their little lives, my kids rely on me to teach them. This means I work my butt off to encourage my babies to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Here’s the rundown on how it works:
LAY YOUR PLAN
First, you decide how often you will feed your baby. It will be somewhere between 2 ½ and 4 hrs, typically with less time between feedings for breastfed babies and more time between feedings for formula fed babies. My two biological children were breastfed, so I fed them every three hours, which meant I had a child attached to my boob for a good half of each day. These days, the babies I care for are foster children who are released from the NICU and already on a four hour feeding schedule. Next, you pick a general “start the day” time. This is when you will break the very first rule of motherhood and wake a sleeping baby. This time will be between 6-9, depending on your personal lifestyle and routine. Mine is usually 7:30. If you’re organized, you can shower and be ready before your baby. If you’re like me, you’ll sleep to the last second and use your baby as your alarm clock. To each his own.
Making sure your baby gets a full feeding is one of the foundations of scheduling. Knowing my babies have full bellies takes the guesswork out of interpreting what they need. 90% of the time, if one of my babies is fussy, I know it’s because they’re tired. And 90% of the time, when my babies have full bellies, they’ll be happy when awake and take nice, long naps when it’s time to sleep.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Keeping a newborn from falling asleep mid-feed is Herculean feat of strength and willpower. You can do it. I believe in you. Undress her, burp her, change her diaper mid-feed, or do whatever else it takes to keep your baby awake long enough to fill her belly (If you’re breastfeeding, this probably also means switching from side to side to side to side to…).
EAT, PLAY, SLEEP
The basic schedule for the day is: eat, play, sleep, on repeat, until bedtime.
- Eat: Baby eats as soon as she wakes up. My first daughter was so scheduled and expectant of milk right away, that the second I picked her up from a nap, she was mouth open, rooting and searching for boob.
- Play: Newborns don’t exactly play, so don’t take this “play” thing too literally at the beginning. Play may be better named “mom is forcing me to be awake” for the first few weeks and “blankly staring into space” for the first few months. This is the 1-2 hour period (that amount of time includes the time it takes to feed) when your baby is awake. Again, newborn babies typically eat themselves right to sleep, so following feeding with wake time may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the key to the whole thing. Encouraging a milk drunk, heavy-lidded infant to stay awake for any period of time may be the very hardest part of this whole scheduling thing, but:
- For the first few weeks, my goal is to keep the baby up for about 30-45 minutes after the feeding, or (when that’s not possible) 10 minutes longer than seems humanly possible. I undress and bathe and tickle and change and kiss and lovingly torture my babies to keep them awake.
- For the first few months, your baby will probably be up for about an hour. As time goes on, they will seem less tired after the hour and you’ll push the amount of time to 1 ½ – 2 hours.
- Sleep: Now that your baby has had a full feeding and a good period of being awake, she’s going to be tired! My babies will typically nap 2-3 hours after their 1-2 hours awake. When they wake from nap time, you start the whole cycle again.
GOING TO BED AWAKE
This is the key to teaching your child to take good naps and sleep through the night. Listen, I love cuddling a sleeping baby as much as the next mama. You know what’s great? When an infant curls up on your shoulder and falls asleep and makes those sweet sleeping baby noises and you kiss their forehead and you cry tears of love. You know what’s not great? When you try to transfer a sleeping six month old out of your arms and they scream every time you lay them down and you have to do the hard-to-soft-to-nonexistent back pat while singing progressively quieter and stealthily walking backwards out of the nursery, only to have them cry as soon as the door clicks shut.
A baby that goes to bed awake is a baby that learns to fall asleep on her own. And a baby that falls asleep on her own is a baby that falls back to sleep on her own. This is so key to your child sleeping through the night! If your baby is dependent on you to rock and sing and soothe and pat her to sleep, then she will be dependent on you to do those things to get her back to sleep when she wakes in the night.
This also eliminates the crazy amounts of time and drama typically attached to bedtime. If I had to go through the 20 minute singing/rocking/patting/shushing routine every night with each of my children, I may just call motherhood quits and become, like, an astronaut or something. Bedtime for six kids in our house takes about 10 minutes and is, generally, very happy and peaceful. The big kids have learned since day one that bedtime is a zero drama event, and the toddlers and babies have learned to easily fall asleep on their own.
(The earlier you start scheduling, the less you’ll have to “undo.” If your child has learned to only fall asleep in your arms or that the bedtime routine includes 30 minutes of rocking, they’re going to have to “unlearn” old patterns before you can teach new ones. If you’re starting this with your child much later, everything will probably take a little more time and effort. Stick with it!)
CRY IT OUT
Oh guys, this is where it gets hard. This is where I may lose some of you (if any of you are still with me). In a magical world (and, I might add, with most babies who are scheduled from day one), you would do all this, your baby would follow suit, and it would just “work.” In real life, though, training your child this lesson (just like every other parenting lesson) can be hard.
So, yes, when you lay your baby down awake the first time, she may not just quietly drift into a peaceful sleep. You may need to (wait for it) let her cry to learn to fall asleep on her own. Typically my babies may whine for a few seconds or minutes, but I have let some full out scream and cry for longer periods. I also let my babies cry once it was time to drop the middle of the night feeding. Most of the time, they woke up and cried for short periods and fell back to sleep, but I did let my first daughter (oldest child = most stubborn) cry for a much longer period of time…the amount of which I won’t even write, for fear of scaring you off.
The more children I’ve had, the more times I’ve seen this method wok, and the more confident I’ve become in it. With my first daughter, it killed me to hear her cry. But now I so believe that it’s for my baby’s good and will ultimately help her, that I just rip the bandaid off and do it. I’ve found that the more committed you are to just letting a baby cry until they learn to fall asleep (or fall back to sleep), the much less time it takes for them to actually learn! You may feel like you’re being compassionate by going in every few minutes when they’re crying, but you’re actually prolonging the process! You’re essentially teaching your baby a different method: “You cry for ten minutes, then I come in for ten minutes, then you cry for ten more minutes, then I come in for ten minutes…” on repeat until one of you is so fed up that you give in!
My advice? If you’re only going to flirt with the cry-it-out method, then save yourself the stress and tears (from both you and your baby). If you’re going to marry it, then I am almost sure it will “work.” And in my experience, it doesn’t take long at all for it to work. Usually just a few days of letting your baby cry at nap time and/or bedtime will do the trick! When I was working to get my daughter to sleep through the night, she cried for a very long period of time the first night, half as long the next night, a few minutes the next night, and slept perfectly until morning the next night.
SWADDLE & SOUND
I also rely on a few “tools” for helping my babies sleep soundly. Not only do these tools encourage sound sleep by turning their cribs into little imitations wombs, but they act as sleep cues. Sleep cues are super helpful for helping your baby understand it’s time for bed:
- Noise machine – White noise is the only way any human could sleep through the noise of our home. We turn on our magical little machine, and it cancels the sound of the circus that is our family during the day and lulls everyone into the deepest of REM sleep through the night. Noise machines are the greatest inventions ever.
- Swaddle – Wrap that baby burrito up. Keeping your baby tight and snuggled and tricked-into-thinking-they’re-still-in-the-womb will lull her to sleep and help her stay asleep.
Of course, newborn babies need to eat during the night, but there are a few things you can do to encourage your baby to learn the concept of “nighttime.”:
- Feed your baby right before you go to bed. While my five month old does “sleep through the night,” I wake her before I go to bed around 11pm for a final feeding. I usually drop this late feeding by accident. I forget to do it once and realize the baby made it through the night and then voila: I have a baby who sleeps right through the night.
- Keep the middle of the night feeding quiet and dark. I turn on a nightlight and feed my babies as quietly as possible, then rock them for a minute and lay them right back down. My babies have almost always gone right back to sleep after a middle of the night feeding, but I will let them cry for five minutes or so before picking them up if they don’t. I have only rocked a baby to sleep in the middle of the night a handful of times in my eight years of mothering.
- Only change poop. I do my very best to keep my babies all swaddled and warm and cuddly in the middle of the night. I put them in a larger sized diaper before bed and only change poop through the night.
- When it’s time for your baby to drop her middle of the night feeding, see the above, dreaded cry-it-out section.
- Consider any time before your “start the day” time “nighttime.” I’ve heard of moms whose baby is up for the day at 5am, and I just want to cry for them. If your child wakes up 1-2 hours before your “start of the day time,” handle it the way you would handle a middle of the night feed. Keep it dark and quiet, feed her, then lay her right back down.
You may be reading all this and think “yeah right.” But I promise you, it can work. I’ve applied this method with 10+ children (biological, adopted, & foster, all with different genes and needs and personalities) over the past eight years and watched it do the trick every time. All of my kids go to bed between 6-7pm, after a simple bedtime routine, and sleep 11-13 hours. My babies are up for 1-2 hours and then down for 2-3 hours like clockwork through the day, my two and three year old nap 2-3 hours mid-afternoon, and my big kids switched from nap time to “quiet time.” Right now, my life with six littles kids is crazy and loud and tiring, but it’s also manageable and predictable and enjoyable.
People ask all the time how I’m able to have six young kids and keep my sanity. The answer? Jesus, coffee, and scheduling.
**I can’t take credit for one thought in this post. When I was pregnant, friends recommended the book Baby Wise to me. If you’ve heard of it, chances are the person who you heard about it from either loved it or hated it. If you decide that the method I described is for you, you may want to pick up a copy and study it.**
(Disclaimer: I don’t have the answer, and I am an expert on, literally, nothing. I am not a doctor or psychologist, I’m just a mom who read a book, adopted the method, and wants to pass along what I’ve learned. You can apply all/some/none of this to your life and be doing a great job momming your kids.)