Before becoming a parent I was most nervous about how I would survive with little sleep as I used to feel like 7 hours per night is an absolute minimum for me to feel somewhat sane and human. For me a natural response was to read tons of baby sleeping guide books even before the baby’s birth and figure out what I could do to promote good sleep habits 🙂
Now that we have survived the baby year, it’s a good time to collect our key learnings and insights about baby sleep hacking.
Babies actually are quite different from another
Part of the equation will always be a gene lottery. Some babies fall asleep and sleep through the night astonishingly well right from the beginning – and without major efforts from the parents. Others are highly sensitive sleepers and might sleep a lot worse both during the day and during the night. So you cannot influence everything and that’s why it’s important to be self-compassionate (as with everything else in parenthood). I had friends, who had read exactly the same books and did exactly the same tricks and yet our babies occasionally slept better or worse compared to each other. I’d say that we were fairly lucky in the gene lottery and our son was a pretty OK sleeper. Still there are many things that you can do as a parent and you can start teaching the newborn good habits pretty much from the beginning.
Differentiating between night and day
The first thing the baby needs to learn is the concept of night and day. In the beginning the baby doesn’t know how to separate these so the parents have to teach them. This means for example that in the night (=when they are supposed to sleep) it’s dark and quiet and you don’t play or socialize with the baby when it wakes up, you simply call them down. If your baby is born in the summer, it’s very relevant that you have good blackout curtains, so that it’s easier for the baby to realize that “now it’s night”.
Learning the daily rhythm
The second thing you can teach is a clear daily rhythm which will make both the days and the nights easier. The daily rhythm can pretty fast be built around loops that always start with eating and follow the E.A.S.Y. (i.e. Eat, Activity, Sleep, You) model from the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. In practice this means that the baby eats approximately every 3 hours, after which you socialize with them and then put them back to sleep so that you enjoy some me-time. The relevant part is that you do not teach your baby that they get food every time they cry. Especially for women who are breastfeeding there is a big temptation to just silence the baby as fast as possible by using the boob, because it will calm them down effectively. However if you hang in there and simply tolerate the crying for a while, the baby will learn a more stable eating rhythm which in turn will make planning your days a lot easier. In addition the nighttime sleep will often also improve because the baby doesn’t learn to eat once an hour. I personally used the Baby Tracker-app to log meal times so I could always easily see when the baby had last eaten. If the previous meal was just an hour ago, I would conclude that the baby is not crying because they’re hungry but they are just otherwise unhappy and I tried to calm him down with other methods. After about six months when you start introducing more solid food too, the daily rhythm becomes a lot clearer and the number of naps goes down from three to two and around one year the baby will typically only take one longer nap per day.
Learning to calm down
The most relevant skill to achieve long nights of sleep and calm evenings is that the baby learns to calm themself down. Babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than adults’ (only 45 minuts) and the baby must learn to combine those cycles like adults so that they can sleep for longer periods in a row. Basically this means that when the baby cries, they must be given the opportunity to practice calming themselves down. If you jump immediately to soothe the baby, you’re stealing them of this opportunity. This may sound easy, but’s it’s actually damn hard.
I remember when I was still pregnant and we read books about babies that said that “you need to wait 30 seconds before you take the baby in your arms” and we were laughing out loud like “come on, who has so little self-control that they can’t manage 30 seconds”. I can tell you now from experience that when you are listening your own baby cry, even 15 seconds feels like an incredibly long time and we actually had to use the iPhone timer to control our instinct to go save the baby immediately. Slowly though the training started working and the baby learned to calm himself down better and also the parents learned to tolerate the crying better. Often we were positively surprised when after waiting for a moment the baby managed to calm himself down before we had to intervene.
Easy go-to-bed routine
One relevant part of sleeping is of course going to bed. For this you want to develop a routine that is as easy and simple as possible so it’s easy to repeat every evening. For us it means for example that the child is taken to bed, we read a short bedtime story, sing a short lullaby, wish him good night and leave him there to fall asleep by himself. This takes about 2 minutes. 95% of the evenings he falls asleep independently, sometimes he might blabber something alone to himself. On some evenings he might fuss a bit, but this you can typically handle by caressing him quickly 1-3 times. Mainly though the evenings are really easy and we can enjoy the rest of the evening in peace. In general you want to avoid routines that are very burdensome for the parents or dependent on certain person, because these will diminish your possibilities to use babysitters. That’s why for example letting the baby fall asleep on your lap or while breastfeeding are not necessarily good long term solutions although they might seem like good options in the short term.
Sleep schooling – what a wonderful invention
When the baby is six months old you can be sure that the baby doesn’t actually need to eat at night but can survive well with the calories they’ve enjoyed during the day – at least according to the Finnish baby health recommendations. Often also consciously stopping the night feeding also teaches the kid to eat more during the day and store food for the night.
Simply put, sleep schooling means that you close the milk bar for the night and teach the kid to sleep through the night at the same time. There are several methods and they differ mainly on how much you let the child cry by themselves vs. how much the parents “soften the blow”. I recommend reading for example Cribsheet for research results related to sleep schooling. Each family can then pick the method that suits their preferences the best 🙂
We chose some kind of in-between model. I went to sleep at my aunt’s place for two nights (I left always in the evening after the last feeding and came back in the morning at 7 a.m. to feed him again) and Tommi stayed at home to sleep with our kid. Tommi calmed him down always in the beginning by simply shooshing and if the cry became more anxious, he would hold him for a while but then put him down to bed immediately after he had calmed down. The first night our kid woke up about 5 times, of which the first time included 45 minutes of crying and really tested dad’s belief in sleep schooling. But already the second night was a lot better with the baby waking up only once and from the third night on he started sleeping through the night most nights. Two of our friend families did sleep schooling exactly the same weekend and we exchanged stats always in the morning on Whatsapp and gave each other peer support. In every family the sleep schooling worked in just 3 nights.
Our most important tip regarding sleep schooling is DO IT. Right after the kid turns 6 months old. I’ve heard so many parents saying things like “I only wish we’d done sleep schooling earlier, I would have suffered a lot less, but we just didn’t get to it.” Sleep is the most important thing for whole family’s welfare. EVERYTHING feels easier and nicer when you have slept well.
Those annoying phases
Just when you thought that you have now taught your kid to be an excellent sleeper, they kid some damn phase, due to which they sleep a bit worse again. These include typically things like 4-month “brain storm” (when they learn a lot of skills), learning how to stand or walk or getting teeth. Don’t get depressed, these usually don’t last too long and the sleeping trend is still positive as kids get older 🙂
Our most important bibles were Secrets of the baby whisperer and a Finnish book Unihiekkaa etsimässä for those of you who understand Finnish, which I recommend warmly to all small kids’ parents. Later on we found also Cribsheet.