Week 4: Gentle Sleep Training
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
Now that I’ve used the words “sleep training,” let me disappoint you.
I’m not in favor of trying to “train” your newborn to sleep.
I don’t think newborns are “trainable.”
Newborns are gonna do what newborns are gonna do.
However, the words “sleep training” are the words that everyone uses when trying to figure out how to get their babies to sleep longer.
So what exactly am I in favor of?
Training yourself to recognize and follow your newborn’s sleep patterns.
When our first child was about one month old, I found an amazing book that forever shaped our decisions about how we structured our days with a baby.
I don’t rave about many baby products.
But let me RAVE about this book.
This book removed the mystery about how babies decide when to fall asleep and how their sleep patterns change as they grow throughout the first year.
It’s not a book based on a parenting style or a fancy technique.
It’s based on science. It’s based on human biology.
The Overall Takeaway: If you soothe your newborn to sleep after he/she has been awake for 90 minutes, he’ll fall asleep and stay asleep for a nap.
Dr. Polly Moore, a sleep researcher and scientist, based her advice in this book on the “basic rest and activity cycle,” which states that human bodies function on 90-minute periods of rest or activity. For example, our attention, alertness, and sleep cycles follow these patterns.
At roughly three weeks old, newborn babies start to establish 90-minute periods of wakefullness. As long as the baby is getting enough to eat and isn’t suffering from other physical ailments, you should be able to see these patterns emerge as early as three weeks.
You can’t train your newborn to stay awake for 90-minutes or to nap for long periods of time. However, you can pay attention and learn how your newborn wants to structure his sleeping patterns. By learning your child’s tired signals and making sure he gets all the naps that he needs during the daytime, you are helping him to reach the Holy Grail of baby-dom: sleeping through the night.
You can do this by taking a few days to log your child’s sleep. Like this:
Many of these periods of wakefullness last for 90 minutes. However, some don’t. The night feedings usually only last 30 minutes to one hour. Long enough to eat, burp, have a diaper change, and fall back asleep.
What’s important to see in this list of times is that this three-week-old’s naps are already beginning to follow the body’s rhythms. (Note: Forty-five minute naps = Half of a 90-minute increment and three-hour naps = Two 90-minute increments)
Of course, sometimes naps are cut short because the baby didn’t get enough to eat and wakes up to be fed. Or sometimes, he has a huge poop and wants to be changed. But the older the baby gets and the more established his sleeping habits become, the less likely the baby will cut his naps short in order to eat or be changed.
Last Saturday, we realized that our baby was starting to establish these 90-minute periods of wakefullness.
I remember reading years ago when we were caring for our first child that the first few weeks of a baby’s sleeping habits are unpredictable. I learned that babies sleep a lot in the first few weeks and that they can pretty much fall asleep anywhere. And stay asleep no matter what is happening around them.
Until last Saturday, I didn’t realize that we had drifted into the zone of 90-minute periods of wakefullness.
I didn’t realize that our baby had started to become unable to block out the noise and stimulation around him.
While our friends came over for breakfast, he remained awake. And awake. And awake. Until about 11:30.
Then, he lost his shit.
We took him out in the stroller and he gave us the thousand-mile stare. At a fork in the road, my husband turned back to go home while I continued on for a longer walk.
Henry started downright wailing. He screamed so hard his face turned crimson and went completely silent as he tried to scream without taking in oxygen. He coughed and choked to bring more air into his lungs.
They were the saddest screams I’ve ever heard.
I rushed home, but it was the longest quarter mile ever.
Because we deprived him of sleep that morning, he was completely out of whack for the rest of the day. He couldn’t stay asleep. He screamed and nothing helped. By 10:00 p.m., even my husband had written him off and pronounced that there’s nothing we could do to help him.
I took our son and sat in the glider. Then, I placed him on the ottoman in front of me. I let his hands clutch my fingers while he screamed and screamed.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes.
I tried all the usual soothing techniques as he sputtered and gasped for more air to continue his wailing.
Then I returned him to the ottoman and rocked him again. This time, his screaming slowed and his eyes rolled back in his head, the way that newborns do.
He had passed out.
That night, I reread Polly Moore’s book and realized that we had crossed into new sleeping territory now that Henry is a month old. Now, he’s having trouble blocking out sound and light and stimulation. Now, he needs quiet. He needs a lack of sensation to stay asleep.
We followed the 90-minute wakefullness cycles the next day.
Wow. What a difference it makes when your baby has those needed naps.
What I learned from this book is how to determine the best windows to put my baby to sleep. I learned how to recognize emerging sleeping patterns. I learned how to best accommodate my baby’s needs for sleep, including the importance of napping rituals throughout the day that will help a baby establish solid sleeping patterns later.
For us, this means that we don’t take our baby out during his nap times.
Which basically means, he stays at home 90% of the time until his awake periods extend to three hours (around 6-8 months). If we go out, we’ll keep him in the car seat and put on a white noise maker so his naps don’t suffer too much.
It’s a restrictive life, for sure. But he’s not going to be this young forever. I’m willing to make changes in my life for a few months.
For us, establishing good sleeping patterns early on–as we did with our daughter–rewarded us exponentially later on. Our daughter slept through the night regularly (with the exception of teething and sick days) at three and a half months. When she started daycare at five months, it only took her a week to adjust to the new environment and resume her champion napping abilities amidst other crying infants.
Every rule has an exception. Here are two cases when the 90-minute wakefullness rule doesn’t pan out as predictably into regular napping patterns.
Babies who are suffering from medical conditions: like acid reflux, food allergies/intolerances, etc.
Babies who are in the midst of a growth spurt: All babies go through growth spurts and they are notorious for throwing all routines into chaos. Naps suffer. Babies wake up from naps early and have trouble falling asleep. They eat too much or too little. They cry. Nay, they wail. They turn into monsters for several days. In fact, we’re going through one right now. From 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. last night, he was awake, asleep, awake, asleep, hungry, pissed off, asleep, awake, screaming. You get the point.
But when this growth spurt is over, he’ll be pleasant again. And he’ll show us his newly learned moves.
There’s a lot more that I can say about how babies change in their sleep needs from birth to the end of the first year, but I’ll let Polly Moore do that for you.
As I said before, there are not many baby products that I am willing to rave about to the point of spending my valuable time actually writing about them…
But this is one of the rare few.
If you’ve got a baby at home, check it out. Seriously.