If you’ve read my philosophy of parenting, you know that I believe sleep is one of the most important things that a parent and a child need. This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone: sleep is the Holy Grail of parenting debates. So much ink has been spilled and so many electrons displaced in the discussion of how to obtain it that I scarcely feel like I could add anything to it.
Why, then, are you reading this post? Well, my children have always been amazing sleepers. I attribute much of this to the Baby Wise method of feeding/sleeping coordination. But I hesitate to recommend the book to other people, just as my cousin hesitated to recommend it to me in spite of the fact that it worked astoundingly well for her.
If you’ve ever read Baby Wise, then you can probably guess why. I’m sure that Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam are lovely people, but they write a book like a college freshman, and one majoring in business at that. It’s literally painful to read to anyone with an ounce of literary sense. The writing is condescending and repetitive and contains a lot of sentences which, if spoken out loud to another parent as advice, would probably ruin your friendship forever. I hesitate to recommend it to others because I don’t know if they can see past the dramatic flaws in the book to the core of its advice, which is rather sound as many parents can attest. I’d hate for my friends to think I espouse some of the pedantic sentiments in the book, because I don’t.
So I’m writing this post to explain the simple principles of how I applied the Baby Wise method to my children so that I can point friends here instead. (It’ll also be a good reference for me the next time I need it, since how to get a newborn to sleep is stored deep in some obscure, difficult to find corner of my memory, and I’d like to avoid having to read the book again.)
For me, the basic premise of Baby Wise is this: sleeping and eating are interconnected. If you can organize a baby’s eating patterns, this does much to organize their sleeping patterns. Another key is that you can’t control when a baby will fall asleep, only when they will wake up. By both managing their eating and waking, you can create a virtuous cycle in which these patterns reinforce themselves: good eating leads to good sleeping, and vice versa.
In terms of concrete actions, establishing sleeping patterns looks different depending on the age of the baby. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
- Birth – 2 weeks: Do what it takes to get your baby fed. Get help from your spouse to get some sleep. Don’t worry about anything else.
- 2 weeks – 6 weeks: Focus on getting your baby to feed until full at every feeding. For nursing, this usually means at least 30 minutes for each feeding (or so I am told). If you’re a formula feeder like me, find a chart or ask your pediatrician about average intake. The goal of these “full feedings” is to begin eliminating “snacking” feedings and comfort feedings. Getting used to a cycle of being full and being hungry (instead of constantly half-full) is vital to being able to sleep for longer periods.
- 6 weeks – 4 months: Not until this point do you really begin on the dreaded “cycles” that so many anti-Baby-Wise parents rail on. Starting these before your baby’s health is stable and feeding established will lead to failure and health problems, so don’t do it. If you’ve successfully moved to longer feedings with longer periods of time between, start the Baby Wise cycle on 2-2.5 hour intervals: when baby wakes up, change and feed him or her until full (30 minutes), then a short playtime (30-45 minutes, or until baby acts crabby), then put baby to sleep by whatever methods work for you (bouncing, rocking, singing, swaddling, etc.) except nursing or feeding (1-1.5 hours). Feeding a baby to sleep creates an association that means he can’t get to sleep without you there to feed him. For the first few weeks, let the baby sleep until he wakes up hungry, but probably a minimum of 1 hour. After a few weeks, you’ll see how long your baby’s natural cycle is. Once you’ve figured that out, you can wake him if he’s oversleeping his usual feeding time by more than 15 minutes or so. This prevents overnapping after a tough night, which means your baby will be more tired at night and more likely to sleep. Eventually at some point during this phase, your baby will probably start sleeping through the night. (Definitely if you’re on formula–one of the perks of a steady food supply.)
- 4 months – on: Your baby’s cycle length has probably increased to 2.5-3.5 hours per feeding. This is when I train my children to fall asleep on their own. It’s worked well for me, and it really can’t hurt to give it a try. I focus on sleep training at bed time first, then when that’s established, move on to sleep training for naps. Basically, it’s the standard “bed time routine, wrap ’em up, kiss ’em, and let ’em cry” routine you can read about elsewhere. For us, the crying lasted 1.5 hours the first night, 45 minutes the second, 25 the third, and 10-15 after that, then 5. I check every 30 minutes or so to make sure the baby hasn’t gotten a limb twisted in the crib. Just pop in a movie and get it over with.
- Early Nap Waking: If a baby wakes from a nap early, it’s your call on how to handle it. Usually, if the wake up is more than 30 minutes from feeding time, I rock the baby back to sleep. If it’s closer than that, I just start the next cycle early and extend later cycles wake times by 5-10 minutes to compensate so that bedtime remains the same.
And that’s basically it. Just continue adjusting the cycle times as your child gets older. When you drop one of the naps, it results in an extended cycle of “eat, long play, eat, shorter play, sleep.” Also, the cycle lengths don’t need to be identical throughout the day. I’ve found that the cycles closer to bedtime are shorter. You can also gradually adjust cycles by up to 30 minutes either way to create a routine that works with what the rest of the family and children are doing. Just a little nudge makes a big difference. There are a lot of useful charts in the back of Baby Wise that illustrate how to mesh these baby routines with an acceptable adult schedule.
If it sounds like a lot to keep track of on a baby-mom brain, it is. I highly recommend a baby tracking program like Trixie Tracker. If you go back to the right dates, you can view my data on Monkey by going here.