Ah, the sweetness of snuggling your little baby against you in the dark to breastfeed or bottle feed as she drifts off to sleep. There's nothing quite like it.
But as your baby (or toddler) gets bigger and heavier and continues to want those snuggles and nighttime feedings, your arms and your sleep-deprived brain may no longer appreciate those moments quite so much.
Does this sound like you? Do you feel guilty about wishing you could get more uninterrupted sleep?
The guilt is normal. And so is the need for better sleep. Rest assured, your baby needs better sleep, too, once she is out of the newborn period.
For the first six weeks, most pediatric providers recommend your baby have unlimited access to breastmilk or formula. I would add that even in those first weeks, if your baby has recently eaten (less than 90 minutes prior) and you are confident that he had a good feeding -- drank several ounces from the bottle or your breasts are noticeably more empty -- you don't need to offer food again right away if your baby begins to fuss. In that scenario, he is probably tired, not hungry. Try putting him to sleep with other comforts, such as a pacifier, rocking, walking (in the stroller or baby carrier or your arms), white noise, swaddling, or even just laying him in his bed and gently patting and shushing him. It's not too early to teach him self-soothing. It may actually make future sleep training uneccesary!
If he is unable to put himself to sleep without nursing or bottle feeding, that's fine. Keep trying, at least once a day. He'll get it eventually.
After about six weeks adjusted age (from the due date), you can expect that your baby will begin to have a longer stretch of sleep. It usually starts as about a 4-6 hours stretch and is usually at the beginning of the night. Her bedtime will move earlier around the same time. I encourage you to go to bed when she does, to make the most of that longer stretch. After that one longer stretch, she will likely wake every few hours to eat.
By 4 months old, you can expect 0-2 feedings per night. If you are enjoying feeding your baby at night, that's great, no need to change anything! If you want to start cutting back on feedings, that's fine too. I recommend a gentle approach of gradually reducing the feeding volume or time (if breastfeeding) at the earlier feeding first. Only start to eliminate the later feeding when the first one has successfully been eliminated. Once a feeding has been eliminated, try not to offer a feeding at that time again. Try other methods of soothing first. Of course you'll want to confirm with your pediatric healthcare provider before beginning night weaning.
By 9 months old, your baby no longer needs a feeding at night (assuming your healthcare provider doesn't have a concern about her weight). But if you and she are both enjoying a night feeding, there's no reason you need to eliminate it quite yet. I do, however, encourage you to put her down awake at bedtime, at least. If she always nurses or bottle feeds to sleep, she won't know how to put herself back to sleep alone and will need your help every time she wakes up. It's normal for people of all ages to wake momentarily between sleep cyles -- we do this too, but it's so brief we don't remember it -- and we want her to know how to go back to sleep when this happens.
After about a year of age, I recommend that parents night-wean because of the risk of cavities when a toddler has milk on his teeth during the night. Seeing a two-year-old get multiple fillings in his teeth would be traumatizing for any parent. I think it's easier to save the nursing or the bottle for the morning. It's fine to offer a sip of water if your baby wakes up during the night, though.
Please also make sure you don't put your baby in the crib with a bottle of milk as this is a risk for cavities, too, as well as a risk for ear infections.
It's wonderful to continue nursing or having a cup or bottle of milk at bedtime after the first birthday, though! Just make sure to brush those tiny teeth before bed. By this age, I recommend you incorporate a story and a song, or some other consistent screen-free ritual, to help your child learn to anticipate bedtime. By doing the same thing every night, your child is able to prepare for the upcoming separation from you and is less anxious. (Some separation anxiety at this age is normal but when we do things like this, we lessen it.)
If your child is past one and is still bottle or breast feeding to sleep, don't panic. Just work on moving the feeding earlier in the evening and putting your baby in bed awake.
It's normal for little ones to protest a change like this in the routine. Parents often worry about their little ones crying at a time like this. But it's perfectly natural for her to dislike the change... and it is very healthy for her to express her feelings.
An important part of parenting is sympathetically supporting children while they express their feelings about our consistent boundaries. Just like insisting on car seats and tooth brushing, sometimes we do things that children don't like. It's part of being a parent. Our children will not be traumatized by loving, clear limits. And the good news is that if you are consistent, your child will quickly adjust to the new routine and her protests will end. It's when we are inconsistent that things are much more confusing and challenging for children.
Night weaning sounds simple but the emotional aspect of it can be challenging for parents. I am here to help. Set up a free consultation and look forward to great sleep for the entire family.
"Oh, my baby just started sleeping through the night at six weeks old. We didn't really do anything." Nonchalant shrug.
Don't you just hate people like that?
Okay, maybe hate is a strong word. But resent their smug satisfaction just a tiny bit?
The truth is that the awfulness of sleep deprivation, rather like childbirth, is hard to remember once you're safely out of it. Rest assured, you'll be there one day soon.
Everyone has been there. There's no way to have a newborn and not be exhuasted. It's part of the journey.
But once the early stages of the newborn period are over -- roughly the first six weeks, by adjusted age -- there are things you can do to tweak your baby's sleep to help yourself -- and your baby -- get better and longer rest. Even during the first six weeks, when you will likely need to feed your baby at least every 3-4 hours during the night, there are things you can do to help make the feedings go quickly so you can get back to sleep as soon as possible.
But when you are in the trenches of sleep deprivation, it can be hard to have the time and energy to figure out just how to do that. And if you have twin babies or older children -- or both! -- it is darn near impossible.
Enter sleep consultants.
It may seem crazy to pay someone to help you teach your child to sleep. After all, sleep is natural, right? Just like breastfeeding. And we've all seen how easy (not!) that is!
Getting help with sleep isn't cheating. It isn't lazy. It's knowing that you can't figure out everything by yourself when you are exhausted. It's accepting help in one of the most vulnerable times in your life. With great sleep on your side, you will be able to achieve so much more in your life. You'll be able to be the parent, partner, friend, employee and self-actualizing person you want to be. No one can be her best when she is exhausted.
Think about it this way: what would you pay to have one single night of great sleep? What if you could pay just a bit more to know that you could have a great night [nearly] every night? Isn't your health and sanity worth that investment? What is more important to your life than feeling rested? What can't you achieve when you are well-rested?
Even more importantly, your baby is suffering when he is sleep deprived. He may enjoy nursing every hour or two throughout the night, but after those first 6-12 weeks or so, it isn't serving him, either. He's probably wired and fussy and unable to focus well on his play -- the way he learns about the world -- when he's not getting the sleep he needs.
(And this is all true whether your baby is a young infant or a boisterous preschooler! You still need rest and so does your child.)
I see so much conflicting advice on Facebook and other parenting groups. This is so confusing to a tired parent. It's hard to know who to trust. And it's easy to feel guilty for wishing it would end. And it's normal to feel miserable when you read that it's normal for a child to wake up multiple times at night for years to come. (This is not true, by the way.)
Sleep consultants -- at least those trained and certified by the Family Sleep Institute -- have months of training in evidence-based approaches to sleep training. There is no fear mongering about how your child will be harmed in learning to self-soothe. Indeed, we discuss studies that show there is zero harm in short-term crying with sleep training older babies and children.
There is a strong emphasis, however, on how much your child needs great sleep to thrive. We talk about the many benefits to both parent and child in getting great sleep. FSI sleep consultants are taught how to coach families with a variety of parenting styles, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep training. Safety is always paramount. We know tired, vulnerable parents need lots of reassurance and positive reinforcement of their hard work to change their lives for the better.
If you and your child are struggling to get the sleep you need, please get help so that you can thrive.
I have years of experience as a pediatric nurse practitioner and now am working as a pediatric sleep consultant. I'd love the opportunity to bring the joy of great sleep to your family. Let's set up a free chat to get you all the rest you deserve so you can get back to enjoying your time together.
Now that we’ve all theoretically survived the transition back to Standard Time — I know some of you are still struggling! — the next challenge many of us face is traveling with small children for the holidays.
Travel is never easy with little ones, who are thrown off kilter by any change in the routine. Most of us can expect extra sugar and processed carbs, extra screen time, limited opportunities for exercise and structure, and as a result, extra tantrums. (To those who are able to avoid those “necessary” evils of travel: I applaud you!)
The first thing I suggest to any parent who is traveling with a small child, especially over the holidays, is lots of kindness and forgiveness for yourself. Please don’t start sleep training or do anything else challenging while you are traveling.
That said, if you have already established good sleep habits for your child, trying to maintain them as best you can — while not making yourself too crazy — will really help the whole family survive this challenging time AND the ensuing aftermath when you get home.
Here are some ideas:
1. Try to maintain as early of a bedtime as you can. Explain to your relatives that if Johnny goes to bed late, he wakes up extra early… and the rest of the extended family will be up extra early as a result, too! If you make an exception and let him stay up late one night, try to get him to bed early the next night. Little ones can handle one exception a lot better than night after night of them.
2. Consider feeding Alicia an early dinner at your temporary new "home" before you go out to a meal with relatives. She will eat better if you offer familiar foods in a less stimulating environment. If she’s starving when you arrive at a restaurant, it’ll be stressful for everyone and she’ll end up filling up on less healthy food. Better to give her chicken and green beans, for example, at home and then the buttered roll when you arrive at the restaurant.
3. If your little one is used to sleeping by herself in her own room, try to maintain that while traveling… even if it means setting up her Pack n Play in a closet (leave a door open a bit for ventilation) or bathroom. These spaces are great, too, for keeping her sleep environment dark and quiet.
4. Consider bringing his car seat on the plane if you think it may make him more likely to sleep there. Some children do better in that familiar cocoon. Others prefer to curl up on the airplane seat. (Of course it’s always safest for a child to travel in a car seat on an airplane… but many families are intimidated by the thought of lugging a car seat onto a plane. If your car seat at home is heavy, consider a lightweight travel car seat like this one -- I use it myself for travel with my preschooler).
5. Bring your white noise from home. If you don’t have one you love, or if yours is bulky, I love this one by Homemedics. It’s lightweight and can be powered by batteries if the power goes out.
6. Pack light — I’ve learned the hard way that my kids never play with the toys I bring when they are in a new environment — but bring along a few favorites. Make sure to pack any loveys and pacifiers your child uses at home. I keep a couple of nightlights in my travel toiletries kit so that I can instantly transform any “too dark and scary” bedrooms and bathrooms. I also bring along my kids’ owl nightlights — they are battery powered and turn off within a few minutes, so I know the nightlight won’t keep them awake. But being able to carry the nightlight to the bathroom makes my little ones feel a lot more secure.
7. Get your little one outside for fresh air and daylight every single day. Even if it's just in an empty parking lot. This will help him adjust more quickly to a different time zone. Fresh air and exercise also tire kids out, helping them nap better and sleep better at night.
8. Limit screen time. With the caveat that all bets are off with on travel days. Whatever keeps them quiet is great. But once you arrive at our new destination, turn off the screen and encourage exploration and movement. Screen time tends to make children's brains wired, even while it keeps them quiet. And screen time in the hour before sleep can make it harder for children to fall asleep. Let them play and run and interact with Great Grampa Joe instead. Save the screen for when you really need it.
9. If you have the opportunity to do so, stay in a hotel with a pool. Pools are amazing for wearing little ones out. And with a pool around, you really don’t need toys.
10. Be prepared to “abort mission” if your little one is falling apart at the family dinner. Children act out as a way to communicate that their needs aren’t being adequately met. It's not their fault. It’s not your fault. It’s just hard for little ones to accommodate the needs of their older friends and relations. They will be more flexible as they get older.
11. And when you get back home, revert back to the old routine immediately. You may experience some protest crying, especially if you indulged in some less than ideal sleep behaviors while you were traveling — like sharing a hotel bed — but if you revert back to the old ways as soon as you get home, your little one should be back on track within a few days. Until the next trip, anyway!
Need some help getting back on track after the time change or recent travel? Totally understandable -- it's not easy! Let’s schedule a free chat and get your family back on track.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.