By: Zach & Gözde Schwartzbeck
It’s 1 am. Our 2 month old just woke up after a two hour stretch of sleep. After feeding and soothing him back to sleep, our 18 month old wakes up crying. By the time I calm her down our 2 month old wakes up again. I repeat the process and now it's 5 am. Just as I doze off our oldest wakes up for the day at 6 am. This was our life for the past week. My spouse and I were both going crazy. Something had to change. Chronic sleep deprivation was making us both exhausted, quick-tempered and straining our marriage. We needed to figure out a way to help our babies sleep better.
A couple weeks before, a friend recommended a book to us on baby sleep training. She swore by it saying that after implementing the technique, all her kids slept through the night from as early as 2-3 months old. I didn't think much of it at the time, but desperate for anything at this point, we bought the book and read it through. It seriously changed our lives! Within a couple weeks of implementing the principles, our 2 month old was consistently sleeping through the night! The book is called, “On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep” and in this article I’m going to break down the secrets of this book for you as well as share some of our own lessons learned along the way.
The Rhythm: Eat -> Wake -> Sleep
Step 1: Stop nursing your baby to sleep. I know, it's so much easier this way, but the reality is the key to good nighttime sleep is for your baby to learn healthy independent sleep habits. Most mothers will typically follow the routine, Wake -> Eat -> Sleep, by breast feeding their babies to sleep, burping them and then laying them down. The problem with this though is that 1) it trains your baby to be dependent on sleep aids for falling asleep (i.e. nursing), 2) dozing off while feeding prevents babies from getting a full feeding, leading them to wake prematurely from naps and not get good sleep. This ultimately leads to an over-tired, hungry baby that's feeding every hour.
The Eat -> Wake -> Sleep concept, however, is simple: Good feeding leads to good sleeping, good sleeping leads to good wake times, and good wake times lead to good feedings without falling asleep. Each part of the cycle fuels the other.
The Philosophy: Parent-Directed-Feeding
Making sure your baby gets a full feeding is critical to the success of the cycle. But when and how should you feed? Every time your baby cries or based on a set schedule? Different theories have been proposed, but Babywise teaches something called "Parent-Directed-Feeding". Here are the different approaches:
Child Directed Feeding: Feed whenever the baby cries
Schedule Directed Feeding: Feed every 3 hours on a tight schedule
This theory is good in that it leads the baby's feeding pattern in a more structured direction. However, strictly feeding by the clock doesn't account for increased feeding demand caused by growth spurts and other factors, potentially leading to under-feeding your baby.
Parent Directed Feeding (PDF): Clock + Parental Intuition -> Feeding
Early on babies will typically feed every 3 hours. When counting the cycle time, you should measure from the beginning of one feeding to the beginning of the next. Watch for your baby's hunger cues, which usually involve making sucking sounds, bobbing their head on you or putting their hand to their mouth.
Feed Cycle Example Plan
The first weeks of your baby's life will be the hardest since at this stage infants need to feed at least every 3-4 hours. For the first 4 weeks, you shouldn't let your baby sleep longer than 4 hours at night without a feeding. From 5 weeks on, however, babies can begin sleeping longer stretches through the night- roughly one hour extra for each week of the baby's life. For example at 5 weeks old your baby can potentially sleep 5 hours, 6 weeks = 6 hours, 8 weeks = 8 hours and at 12 weeks old your baby is capable of sleeping 12 hours through the night!
These nighttime sleep targets will certainly not be perfect all the time. However, the more you implement a regular Eat-Wake-Sleep rhythm into your baby's life, the more your baby's body will adjust to this rhythm and be able to sleep longer stretches through the night. Consistency is key and keeping your baby's feed-wake-sleep cycle on schedule is crucial to success. However, don't beat yourself up if every day isn't perfect! Especially at the beginning, implementing this rhythm will be difficult, but if you don't give up and strive for a consistent routine, you and your baby will both be happier for it! Below are some example feed cycle plans according to your baby's age. Remember that these plans are simply guidelines, and not a hard set schedule. There is room for flexibility in the schedule based on your baby's needs as you implement the Parent Directed Feeding approach.
1-2 Weeks Old: 9 Feed Cycles
1-2 Weeks: For the first 2 weeks your baby should have about 9 sleep cycles with 2 night feedings around 1:30 and 4 am.
Note that in the schedule, setting the wake time sets the precedent for the rest of the day. Whether it's 6:30, 7 am or another time doesn't matter. But as much as possible, you want to try to keep this wake time consistent. Typically your baby's final sleep time will be about 12 hours after their initial wake time.
Merge 1: 8 Feed Cycles
Merge 1: Between 3 - 6 weeks old, the 2 am and 5 am feeding merge into one 3 am feeding and your baby should be able to sleep for 3.5 - 4 hour stretches.
Merge 2: 7 Feed Cycles
Merge 2: Between 7-10 weeks old, babies can drop their middle of the night feeding and potentially start sleeping through the night. Babies will consume more during the day to compensate for the dropped feeding, especially in the morning feeding.
Tip: During this stage, if your baby is consistently waking up in the middle of the night to feed, say 1:30 am, then try waking up 15-30 minutes before them (1 - 1:15 am) to give them a dream feed before they wake up (dream feed = half feeding / half sleeping). Then every night, slowly back down the hour of the late night feeding: 1 am -> 12:30 am -> 12:00 am -> 11:30 pm -> 11:00 pm until you reach your target end of day feeding.
Merge 3: 6 Feed Cycles (4 Naps)
Merge 3: Between 10-15 weeks old babies can drop the late evening feeding and begin sleeping 10-12 hours through the night. The last feeding should be 10-12 hours before the morning feeding.
Merge 4: 5 Feed Cycles (3 Naps)
Merge 4: Between 16-24 weeks old (4-6 months), introducing solid foods will begin to affect the the feed wake cycle. As they approach the age of eating solid foods, you may find that milk isn't filling them up like it used to. Solid foods will begin to fill their tummies and help them sleep through the night even better.
Merge 5: Nap Drop (2 Naps)
Merge 5: Between 5-7 months old (24-39 weeks) babies drop their 3rd nap and sometimes just do a catnap in the evening. Once they drop their full 3rd nap, however, the feed-wake-sleep cycle ranges between 3.5-4.5 hr.
Merge 6: 4 Feed Cycles
Merge 6: Between 28-40 weeks old, babies switch to 4 feed cycles. Between 46-52 weeks, babies no longer need a liquid feeding before bed time, though could receive a cup of formula, breast milk or liquid snack before bed if they want.
If after laying your baby down, they're crying for longer than 5 minutes, you can try aiding them by patting their bottom, humming or singing. Do this for a few minutes and then leave again, repeating the process until they fall asleep. Without touching them, you can even try humming or "shh-ing" to them from just outside the bedroom door. Eventually, however, you want to get to the point where your baby can lay down and soothe themselves to sleep without aids. This takes diligence, but with time your baby will definitely be able to learn!
When sleeping during the day, if you need to wake your baby from their nap to prevent them from sleeping beyond the 3-3.5 hr cycle window, then do it. This is important for helping your baby get into a regular Eat-Wake-Sleep rhythm. As much as possible try to keep the feed times on schedule until their bodies adjust.