A Seven-Time Mama’s Best Tips for Sleep-Training Babies

Yesterday, I posted this bit of cuteness to my Instagram

theo sleeping

…with this caption:

Apparently, waking up to big sister shaking a stuffed bunny in your face is no big thang.
#sixthchild #overit

Y’all. Can I just take a moment to brag on God and say how grateful I am for His provision and grace in this whole six kid business?
I know by our society’s standards that six kids is a lot, and there are days when it feels that way to me too… But mostly, it’s just awesome. Which is not the same thing as easy but way better.
Praise the Lord that Theo is awesome AND easy. And smiley. And chill. And… Well, you get the idea. I am one blessed mama.
#boastintheLord #HEhasdonegreatthings

Here’s the thing: I think one of the greatest provisions that the Lord granted me, long before I ever had even one child, was a wise Mama of my own–one who had been given sound sleep-training advice for babies when she was a young mama and who was kind enough to pass that information along to her clueless daughter.

And then, by extension, an even greater grace has been children who, after being trained with this method, have slept long stretches from very early ages. Because there’s nothing quite like a decent night’s sleep to convince you that you can, indeed, face another day full of tantrums and diaper blowouts, gloppy-sloppy kisses (that deposit yogurt all over your favorite sweatshirt) and spilled bowls of cereal, math problems and questions like, “But HOW did the baby get in your belly?”

Flip that scenario to one of sleep-deprivation, and, suddenly, the tiniest whimper feels like an ice-pick to your brain, and that soggy mess of Raisin Bran on the floor feels like the “one more thing” that will tip you over the edge into insanity.

I’ve mentioned several times here that I have babies who sleep well, and as a result, I’ve gotten multiple comments/emails/questions about how I manage such a thing.

But here’s the thing: I may have 6 kids, but I don’t feel like a “kid expert.” I’m not “that mom” who has a binder full of activities for boredom-days and a perfectly organized medicine cabinet (but more power to you if you are; you are a-w-e-s-o-m-e). I do, however, feel like I have a really good handle on what works for our family, our kids. It just never really occurs to me to assume that it would be best for anyone else, though. Plus, I don’t ever want to sound like I’m telling hard-working Mamas how to do their thing.

But when a mama with 4 littles under 4-years-old (including a newborn) reached out to ask about my sleep-training routine when her #4 was throwing her for a loop, it occurred to me that, perhaps, my reticence to share might be more selfish than open minded.

Maybe I’m hesitant, not because I don’t have anything to offer, but because I’m afraid of getting yelled at or because I don’t want to appear “bossy,” even if my desire is genuinely to help.

After the mama I mentioned earlier and I talked on the phone, she sent me a text a couple of days later thanking me and saying how much better her baby was sleeping. I was thrilled! Not because of anything I’d done (because I hadn’t done anything but describe our routine; she had done all the work) but because this sweet mama, who had been waking up every hour to feed her baby, was getting some relief.

I asked her if she felt like anything I said had helped particularly, and she pointed out some specific things and said that my encouragement to stay the course had helped her carry through.

So, with great trepidation, knowing full well that sleep-training is kind of sacred Mama ground, and I may get crucified in the comments section, I decided to share what works for us.

But please hear me when I say that if you have something else that works for you, WONDERFUL. I couldn’t be happier for you. I am simply sharing our routine in the hope that, if there’s someone who hasn’t found anything that helps her baby sleep and is at her wit’s end, she might be able to use even one aspect of what we do to start getting more sleep and feeling a little more human again.

Okay, was that enough disclaimers to convince you that I don’t think I have everything figured out? Hope so. :)

So, without further ado, I give you…

  theo sleeping1

Just as a point of reference, here are the ages that my kids have slept through the night (6-8 hours) and continued doing so:

Ezra – 5 days (I know)

Simon – 2 weeks

Della – 5 weeks

Evy/Nola – 11 weeks

Which brings us to Theo, who, at 7 weeks, has been sleeping 7-8 hours all week and pulled a 9 hour stretch between feedings last night.

Edit: Baby #7, whose name is Honor, is here, and he is sleeping 10 hours stretches at 8 weeks!

So, what do I do exactly?

Well, let’s start with what I don’t do. I am not a strictly scheduled person (although, I do believe that a basic routine is key to getting an early/good sleeper). And I don’t wake sleeping babies to feed them so that they will stay on a set schedule.

During the day, when they are very little, I let them set their own sleeping patterns for the most part. Generally, that means a longer sleep (3ish hours) in the morning and afternoon, with a steady regimen of feedings every 2-2 1/2 hours in between. Are there days that it doesn’t look like this? Sure. But I try to make them the exception rather than the rule.

In the evenings, though, I do my best to keep them awake, even from a very young age (about a week old and beyond) from 6 PM until they simply can’t keep their eyelids open any longer. Obviously, when they’re very little, this may only be a 1-2 hours.  By 3-4 weeks, though, they’re usually staying awake for 4-5 hours, starting around 4-5 PM. (Oh, and in case you’re wondering how I keep them awake, I try anything from bathing them to changing their diapers to rubbing their feet to taking all their clothes off and tickling them; whatever seems to stimulate and keep them alert for a while).

I’ve also found that almost all of my babies usually have a fussy period somewhere between 7-9 PM. By “fussy period,” I simply mean that, even though they are fed, changed, and have been held and played with, they simply can’t seem to get happy for a bit. From what I’ve heard from other moms/pediatricians, this is not just my kids and is a pretty sure sign your baby is gearing up for a longer sleep and needs to get his last bits of frustration/energy for the day out.

My response to this is to let them. I will lay them down on our guestroom bed, barricaded with pillows, or in their bassinet and let them kick and cry for a little while (no more than 10-15 minutes). I’m not talking about an all out screaming session either. Just a period where they exercise their lungs intermittently while they learn to self-soothe and calm themselves down a bit.

(I’m certainly no advocate of abandoning your baby or causing them intentional distress, but neither do I believe that you will scar your baby for life by letting her cry for a brief period).

After a round of this, I’ll go get them, change their diaper, put their p.j.s on, and swaddle them (we’re currently using these Aiden and Anaise swaddling blankets, which are fine but too big for my tastes; they do get the job done, though, and, as a bonus, make great nursing covers because the fabric is lightweight and a bit grippy, so it won’t slide off your shoulders like most blankies do).

The other thing I do in the evenings is cluster-feed. Once my babies have their nights and days straight, they tend to be hungrier during the evenings. So, even though I may end up feeding them three times between 7 and 11, I figure it’s worth it if it means that they then sleep from 11-4 instead of waking up 2 hours later.

With Ezra (my first), I was waaaaaaaaay stricter about feeding times, and I was adamant about not using a pacifier, but all that got me was a little boy who sucked his fingers until age four.

I’m considerably chiller about things now, mostly because I know that each kid is different, and every phase he goes through is just that–a tiny ripple in the vast ocean of my mothering years (how’s that for an analogy that backfires and makes you feel like they will never be potty-trained or learn to stop eating apple sauce with their hands?).

So, all that to say, that I’m totally fine with pacifiers now, if my kid seems to need one. (Ezra, the twins, and Theo have all been high-suck need kiddos. Simon and Della, not at all).

I use Theo’s paci to calm him down or to help him go back to sleep if he stirs in the night, but I don’t usually put him down to bed with it. It’s not a big deal. But I prefer for my kids to be able to go to sleep on their own without sucking on anything (if I have any say in it; Ezra and the twins are/were finger-suckers, so have fun with that, Mama!).

Once we’ve established a pattern of staying awake in the evenings and a routine for our last feeding before “bedtime,” I wake up with/feed my kids whenever they wake up until they establish some kind of strong pattern that shows their bodies can handle a longer stretch of time without eating.

For example, once they sleep 3-4 hours a night consistently for 4 days in a row, I will do everything in my power not to regress back to feeding them every two hours (unless it’s obvious that there’s a good reason for it, like a growth spurt). Same goes for 6 hours and 8 hours and so on. If I have to roll the bassinet into the closet and let them fuss for 10 minutes to make sure they really are hungry, so be it.

One thing I’ve discovered through all of this is that most babies would rather sleep than cry (and I don’t just have sedate little mewling babies; they are–ahem–lung-exercisers, for sure). And if they’re not truly hungry, chances are they’ll decide to go back to bed if they find out that they may not be fed the very mili-second that that stir or make a noise.

The last thing in my sleep-training arsenal is, perhaps, a bit strange, but it has worked SO well for us…for a number of reasons.

It a down-filled pillow from Ikea. Although, honestly, any down pillow would work because the down filling is what gives it the ideal level of give/squishiness. We lay it in our bassinet (where our babies sleep for the first several months until they get too big) and roll up a towel under one end to create an incline (with the baby’s head slightly higher than his feet). Then, we sort of “hollow out” the center of the pillow vertically (by smooshing it down with our hands; again, the down keeps its shape) and place our little swaddled burrito baby in that indention, so he’s nice and cozy.

theo sleeping

{Same pic from above, but now you know that he’s lying on “the magic pillow”}

There are tons of specialty foam incline inserts and such that we’ve tried, but they all tended to make flat spots on the back of our babies’ heads because they didn’t give enough. But this pillow? It’s like magic. Seriously, if you have a baby who needs to feel cocooned to sleep, give this a try. It just might be the best $15 you ever spend. (Just make sure to put a smooth pillow cover on it since the one it comes with is grippy and can easily wear bald spots…not that we learned this the hard way or anything :/).

One last note is that, if you watch closely, you’ll start to notice your baby’s “sleep-cues.” There are the obvious ones–like eye rubbing, yawning, and fussiness. Often, though, your own baby will have his/her own cues. Once you learn them, try to pay attention to when they happen. Chances are, if you’ve been sticking to a routine, you’ll find out that they happen just when they “should” and that if you ignore them, you may get a baby whose nerves are so worn that they’re “too tired to sleep.” Getting your baby on a schedule where you can lay them down to sleep before they ever get to the extreme cues can save you a lot of sleep-training headaches. It may be somewhat inconvenient, especially if you’re not a big “schedule” sort, but it’s worth it in the end.

Ha! One last LAST thing. Don’t give up. Seriously. When you’re tired and stressed, it feels like such a good idea to just do the “easy thing.” And that may have to happen one night when nothing is working and you know you’re going to be crazy tomorrow if you don’t just feed him already and get back to sleep. But try to get back into the routine the very next day. It’s hard at first, but it pays big time dividends in the end.

And…there you have it, folks!

All of my sleep-training “secrets” in one post.

I think the best thing is that, once you’ve got your baby trained, even though it may take weeks, chances are–outside of a hiccup here or there–they’ll keep right on doing what you’ve taught them to, even without all of the complicated keeping-them-awake techniques or “magic pillows.” We’ve never had any problem transitioning our kids into their cribs from their bassinets because, by that point, they have learned to love sleep and know when they’re supposed to be doing it. The whereof it doesn’t matter to them at all.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask (I know I’ve already gotten several concerns about sleep-regression and just from posting a teaser on Instagram/FB, so be sure to leave those here). And if you have something that’s worked great for you, I want to hear that too! I’d love for the comments on this post to be a kind of forum where desperate, sleep-deprived mamas can come for wisdom, and I know that you awesome mamas have plenty to offer!

**I’m sure it goes without saying that we should be kind, respectful, and understanding of any advice offered/questions posted here. Thanks! Y’all are the best!

Like what you read? Like M is for Mama on facebook (pretty please?):

33 thoughts on “A Seven-Time Mama’s Best Tips for Sleep-Training Babies

  1. I know this is an old post but I am determined to have a good sleeper with Everett as my first Violet still doesn’t sleep through the night.

  2. Thanks so much for responding! I just wanted to say thank you so much for this advice. I did all that you said from week 1, and my baby is successfully sleeping through the night from 9-4, and I feel so refreshed in the morning and so does she. She’s only 11 weeks old, so its just awesome. The pillow really does work magnificently! Thank you so much! This is my first baby, and so I definitely be using this routine for all my other children. Thank you again!

  3. i have a question…my son is huge, nearly 20lbs at 3 months. so as you can imagine i’m exhausted trying to get him to sleep in the evenings. i am definitely willing to try keeping him up in the evenings but if he’s not happy he’s screaming and i don’t want him waking up our daughter. so then i assume he must be tired and try to get him to sleep but he fights me so hard. no amount of rocking, shushing, swaying, nursing will do it. then after trying everything multiple times over an hour or 3, he finally just passes out. so i guess what you would do is when he gets fussy, lay him in the bed and let him fuss for a while? then what time is “bed time” just from the last nap until they are tired? i guess i don’t fully understand how you do it. plus if they are tired and fussy and crying/screaming, doesn’t that raise their stress hormone so they don’t sleep better? plus, the whole “put them down drowsy but awake” thing doesn’t work for me because it takes all that (above) work to even get him to the drowsy state so then i’d be doing all the work regardless. thanks and let me know if i can explain anything better. my poor arms need a break!!!

    1. Hi Dani!

      I’m sorry that getting your little boy to sleep is such a struggle. That definitely wear on you!

      I’m a little unclear about what you’re asking in a few of your questions, but I will answer the best I can.

      As far as bedtime when he’s fussy…yes, I would lay him down and let him cry for a while. I’m not sure what your options are for not waking up your daughter, but, assuming they’re in separate rooms, you could put a rolled up towel against the crack in her door to help sound proof it or maybe add a white noise machine?

      In answer to your question about your baby’s fussing raising stress hormone so that he doesn’t sleep better, I suppose this could happen, but I’ve never found this to be true with my own children. If they were fussy in the evenings but not willing to actually go to sleep, then the “crying it out period” let them get some energy out, and then I give them their last feeding of the day, and put them down for bedtime. Did they always go to bed perfectly the first time I did this? No. I usually had to give them their pacis (if they took one) multiple times or let them fuss a little more. Or possibly even feed them again if they seemed truly hungry.

      But after multiple days in a row of the same pattern in the evening: wakefulness, cluster feedings, a “fussing period,” one more feeding, then swaddling, and bedtime, mine have all realized that this is “bedtime” and started going to bed more easily.

      Now, every child is different, of course, and your son sounds like he’s a sleep-fighter. I don’t know what time he’s finally passing out, but when my kids are really young, their “bedtime” (when I turn out the light and make sure they’re in their own crib or bassinet) is 10-11. As they get older and get better about being in a routine, I bump bedtime back (gradually) to between 8 and 9.

      Hopefully, this helps clarify some things for you. If not, feel free to ask again.

    1. Hey! Great name! ;)

      We stop using the Ikea pillow either before or not long after we transition them out of the bassinet into their cribs. My babies usually outgrow their bassinets between 4 and 5 months, and, although, we might use the pillow a couple of times in the crib, they’re usually too mobile to stay on it, so the first time I find them in the morning rolled off of it, I take it out.

  4. Hi! You linked to the pillow you use in the bassinet, do you use 1 or 2 in a pillow case? Like laid end to end? Because the pillow is only 22″ long, so I’d think the baby would out grow that pretty quickly? Expecting at the end of July, so I am curious! =)

    1. Just one. We don’t put his entire body on it, just from his mid-back up to his head. That keeps him on an incline (as does the rolled up towel behind his head). His lower body/legs are just resting in the bassinet.

    1. Sorry to be so late in responding, Emily. The answer is that I do both. If they’ve fallen asleep while nursing, then I’ll just lay them down that way, but if they wake back up or never fully fell asleep, I’ll lay them down awake too.

  5. Great post! I put some of these in practice but did not know about keeping them up for the 4-5 hour stretch in the evening. Of course, having a baby who is colicky throws some challenges in. If the Lord blesses us with another, I am eager to try these principles out. Thanks Abbie!

  6. I wish there was an Ikea close to me! The pillow is not sold online and the closest store is 4 hrs away. :-( Amazon has them for $35, more than twice the Ikea price. Struggling on whether or not to buy it anyway! Especially if it would work its magic on my 8wk old, Perry Alice. She sleeps in a pack-n-play on a pillow now but I need a squishier pillow that holds it shape. Hmm, to buy or not to buy!?

    1. Hey Hannah, sorry to be so slow, and I don’t suppose you need my input necessarily or not, since it seemed like you were deciding for yourself, but I just wanted to throw out there that any down pillow would probably work. I just happen to really love the size of this one since its fits perfectly in the bassinet and doesn’t allow him to roll over or anything.

  7. Wondering if you breast feed and how these early long stretches of sleep affect your milk supply? My #4 was an amazing early sleeper (similar to the numbers you mentioned for your children) and I struggled with supply issues, then dried up around 4.5 months. It was really disappointing! (I also can’t make milk and grow a new baby simultaneously, though I know many who can!) Perhaps for some Mommas it’s a trade off? Kind of off topic, but wondering how many others have experienced this *side effect* of early sleep training?

    1. Anne Marie, I was kind of wondering that too. I exclusively pumped for my first daughter and when she turned 6 months I got my period back, then I suddenly went from pumping 8 oz to barely pumping 2 oz. …. Found out I was pregnant. maybe as long as the baby nurses 8 times a day? my daughter had gone down to 4 or 5 bottles (8oz) a day when this happened to me.

      1. Hey Stacy, I definitely had trouble keeping my milk supply up when I got pregnant with my first when he was 9 months old. I do know people that are able to keep nursing, no problem, while pregnant, but that was my only experience since I had already weaned my babies every other time I got pregnant.

    2. Hi Anne Marie! I’m SO sorry to be so late in responding. I’ve gotten behind on my blog responses lately.

      The answer is that, yes, I do breastfeed exclusively when they are little, but I haven’t had any real problems with supply when they start sleeping longer stretches. It fluctuates some, but I never lose it, and then everything evens out and I get a well-regulated supply from then on pretty much.

      One thought would be, perhaps, to pump in the middle of the night. I know that probably sounds silly since it’s like, What’s the point of having a baby who sleeps through the night if I have to wake up and pump? But I know, at least for me, personally, I can pump a lot faster than my babies can eat, usually, and to keep my supply going, I don’t usually have to pump myself completely empty…just some. Also, I find myself much easier to put back to bed than a baby. :) Just a thought…

  8. Great advice here. And are you EVER right about people’s reactions to “sleep training”! I lost my then best friend over it. She was offended by what I did with MY (first) baby, while I didn’t care a bit what she did with hers (sixth), and it resulted in a load of nastiness that ended our friendship 18 years ago! Crazy! I kept on, and like you say, all these years later (with zero baby torture), I have 8 kids that all (still) love to sleep. : )

  9. This post was so helpful :) My daughter is 13 months and we’re still struggling with sleep. My husband and I have always had a hard time agreeing on what to do! Hoping our next baby will have better habits, and that we’ll start earlier in the game like you suggest ;) Thanks for approaching this really tricky topic with your mama-of-six experience!

  10. Great post. Thanks for sharing. My daughter would not nap from day 1. We all thought she would have to fall asleep eventually but nope! and letting her cry wasn’t an option because we live in an apartment. The result is a 22lbs 8 month old who still nurses twice each night! So tomorrow we are switching rooms so she has the more isolated room and we are sleep training! I will definitely be trying your tips come baby #2!

  11. I read Babywise when I was struggling a bit with my first. I know that book has had a lot of negative publicity, but I think the principles in it are sound. And-it works! Sounds a lot like what you do, basically :) And then for all your hard work, you get the ‘nice’ comments about how lucky you are to have easy babies :)

  12. Neat tips! We use a similar strategy and so far it works very well. We move the kiddos into the closet so the little stirrings don’t wake me until it’s a full-fledged hunger-roar. :-) A friend gave us a baby hammock (it’s called a “Rock and Play”), which functions like your magic pillow, I think, because it’s cuddly, inclined, and very snug. Our newest (7 months now!) is going to outgrow it soon, though! Thankfully she sleeps well in her playpen. We have yet to upgrade Axl to the bunk bed and Tev to the crib. We’ll get there eventually…

  13. Love this post! This is exactly what we’ve done for our kids, 7 years and 7 weeks. Our oldest was an excellent sleeper from the beginning but the youngest is definitely having to be taught. She sleeps great at night from about 10-8 only getting up once usually. However, she doesn’t seem to like the idea of a nap schedule during the day. Some days it’s a lot and some days it’s really infrequent. She is of course happier when she’s had two fairly decent naps. Any suggestions on getting her on a better nap routine?

  14. I so wish I would have had this knowledge years ago. Still working on my 2 1/2 year old. Now with the help of a sleep clinic. Turns out I do something that creates babes that don’t self soothe :/ this is my third. Sleep deprivation has been a rough experience.

  15. So I also have a 7 week old, she usually does a 5 hour sleep 7-12ish then she wakes at 4&8 generally it takes an hour at each feeding! Do you think starting that first sleep later could help her sleep through the night? I’m going to try this out tonight!!

    1. And we’ll she only made it two hours before being in full melt down, I usually only keep her up for an hour then back to bed- like all day. Maybe that’s crazy lol

  16. I did the same thing minus the awesome pillow. All of mine were great sleepers! My daughter would have loved that pillow though so darn ikea for not sending me an alert about it’s greatness!

  17. This is awesome!
    Where were you 6 months ago??? I struggled like crazy with sleep training our first, Jasper, and would have given my thumbs to have read this then.
    I’m a big believer in whatever works and love that you say each kid is different.
    Great post!

Leave a Reply to Jerica Cadman Cancel reply