Like many women, I was conditioned to expect a lifetime of sleepless nights after my first baby arrived. “Get your sleep in now while you still can”, well-meaning strangers would say. I’d see internet memes of the tired mom that hadn’t showered or slept in days. Thankfully (blessedly!), I found Gina Ford’s book The New Contented Little Baby (TNCLBB for short) a few months after my daughter was born. Within a few months, we were both getting a good night’s sleep.
Don’t get me wrong here. I definitely went through a period of continuous night waking and midnight nursing sessions with both of my babies. I didn’t have help (like a night nanny) and my husband traveled a lot during those early months, so it was pretty much me and the baby. It was a few months of hard work and getting both kids on the Gina Ford routine. And of course, we still have the occasional wake-up when our kids are sick or have a nightmare.
Today, both of my kids sleep from 7pm-7am consistently thanks to the advice I picked up from reading the TNCLBB. That means I sleep a full eight hours. Every. Single. Night. Judge me all you want, but mama needs her rest.
You can see my blog post here for more background about Gina Ford and the Contented Baby series. In a nutshell, Gina Ford is a British nurse and parent educator. Her book advocates for a daily routine of feeding and sleeping, which helps babies learn to sleep through the night, usually from an early age.
Ready for your baby to sleep longer stretches at night? Following are the ten biggest tips that worked for me and the other parents I’ve coached through implementing the Gina Ford routines.
10 Tips for Getting Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night
1. Read The New Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford
If I could recommend only one baby/parenting book, this one by British parenting educator and nurse, Gina Ford, would absolutely be it. This blog post talks about why I love and trust this book so much, and how it helped me get two babies sleeping through the night – every night – from an early age. Forewarning: this book is a structured daily schedule and the author’s advice is pretty prescriptive. It’s fine if you like routines, or you just want your baby to follow one, but if you like a more flexible/unstructured approach, it may not be for you.
2. Make sure your baby is getting enough milk at each feed
There is a critical link between how much your baby eats and how well/long she will sleep. If your baby isn’t taking in enough nutrition at each feeding, then he will have a harder time sleeping for long stretches. Plus, you won’t know whether his waking is due to true hunger, or some other reason. In my case, my daughter would regularly nod off while during breastfeeding, so would never really empty a breast. In the early days, I’d try half-heartedly to wake her to get her to eat a little more. Since she wasn’t taking enough at every feed, she would wake early from naps and often during the night, genuinely hungry and ready to eat again. It became a vicious cycle until I started making sure that she was fully awake (and stayed awake) during the entire nursing session. To do this, I used all of the tricks in the book: undressing her, opening a window, turning on the TV, laying her on her play mat, using a wet washcloth, etc. Anything to get her to stay awake long enough to get a good meal!
3. Use a swaddle, wrap or Sleep Sack (depending on your baby’s age)
Until about 6 months, babies have a pretty strong Moro, or startle, reflex. Being wrapped in a swaddle holds a baby’s hands and arms securely and provides a feeling of comfort, as they felt in the womb. You can use a muslin blanket to swaddle or an one of the many ready-made swaddles on the market When she starts to roll over in bed, your baby is ready to graduate to a sleep sack.
Sleep sacks are safer than blankets for babies. Always remember, a baby should not have anything loose in the crib under 1 year old. For older toddlers, they work because you don’t have to worry that they’ll kick the covers off during the night. Now, at 2½ years old, my little guy (below) still uses a sleep sack at bedtime. I swear by sleep sacks! My favorites are these travel bags from Grobag because you can use them in the stroller or car seat and buckle the straps through them. I know from experience that not everyone accepts swaddling, though. My German mother told me every day how my baby must hate being “tied down” to sleep, but it worked well for us.
4. Don’t use sleep “props”
Sleep associations, or sleep props, are all of the things and methods we use to help a baby fall asleep. They include pacifiers, noise machines, back rubs, rocking, musical toys, car or stroller rides, swings or special lovies. The problem with these things is that babies become dependent on them and can’t fall asleep without them. Then, when she wakes in the middle of the night, your baby can’t fall asleep without the prop that got her to sleep in the first place. She now needs to be rocked or sung to again. Instead, teach your baby to fall asleep and re-settle herself by following a routine and putting her to bed drowsy, but still awake.
5. Get daytime sleep (naps) right before you can expect your baby to sleep well at night
Ideally, you want your baby to sleep his or her longest stretches at night, and eventually to sleep through the entire night. To achieve this, you have to get his nap schedule right. It’s important that your baby is getting enough, but not too much, sleep during the day. This means getting your baby to nap on time and not allowing him to sleep too long during the day. This is where I found TCLBB so helpful. I could read online that my baby needed 14-16 hours of sleep per day. But when were those hours supposed to happen? How much during the day? At night? I had questions! Gina Ford took all of the guess work out and told me when and for how long my baby should sleep each day, and at each stage of her development.
6. Treat nighttime waking as quickly and quietly as possible
If your baby wakes during the night, you want to respond to his needs tenderly, but without encouraging him to wake further. Don’t make nighttime waking fun – it’s not the time for extra snuggles or a lullaby. Instead, keep the lights low (a dimmable light with a soft glow bulb is a nursery must have). Keep talking, and even eye contact, to a minimum. This last one sounds a little extreme, but the point is to avoid any additional stimulation.
7. Nip early morning waking in the bud as soon as possible
A lot of toddlers and young children routinely wake at 5am, ready to start the day. If that works for your family, great! I wanted to my kids to sleep until closer to 7am, largely because if they’re waking much earlier, they’re not getting enough sleep daily (bedtime is 7pm in our house). Also, selfishly, I like to wake up before them and get a head start on the day and getting up at 4:30am just doesn’t work for me. Gina Ford suggests that early waking is a habit established in a baby’s early months. Check out pages 318-320 of TNCLBB for more tips on preventing or fixing early waking.
8. Discourage “Cat Naps”
When a baby routinely wakes after 30-45 minutes, it’s not because he or she is naturally a “cat-napper”, or just doesn’t need a lot of sleep, as many parents assume. Instead, it is your baby coming into a period of light sleep. Babies, like adults, have inherent sleep cycles of light and deep sleep. During lighter sleep, your baby may stir, make some noises and even open their eyes. This is not a cue that your baby is ready to get up. Don’t rush in at her first peep. Instead, leave her to see if she can re-settle herself to sleep.
9. Don’t let your baby become “overtired”
When babies are overly tired or overstimulated, they have a hard time falling asleep, no matter what you do. It runs completely counter to what you would expect, but the more tired a baby is, the harder she is to put to bed. The best way to counter this is to time sleep for that sweet spot after she’s had some activity (playing, cuddles, time in the bouncy chair, etc.) but before she becomes cranky and tired. Watch for signs of tiredness: rubbing eyes, yawning, clenching fists, pulling at ears. If you see any of these, your window to get them to bed without a lot of fuss is short – move quickly!
10. Follow a consistent bedtime routine, even for the youngest infant
A nighttime routine “cues” your baby for what’s coming next – sleep! You can make up whatever routine works for your family (bath, books, warm milk, prayers, singing, etc.). Just be sure that it’s quiet and calming and not inadvertently winding your child up (this is not the time to have a tickle-fest). Follow the same routine nightly. The mood, noise level and lights in the house should be calm and low. Have older kids? This is a good time for them to do homework, read or play quietly. Once you’ve completed the routine, put your (hopefully) drowsy, but still awake, baby in his crib and say goodnight!
Having a hard time getting your baby to sleep? Drop me a note in the comments and let’s see if we can figure out why.