A note before we start:
Mac began sleeping through the night at 14 weeks thanks to the Moms On Call program. At about 17 weeks, I had a major drop in my milk supply which caused us to have to start waking him up in the middle of the night for a feeding. For about three weeks, his schedule was blown to smitherines as we worked to get my supply back up. All of that TMI about my lactation (you’re welcome) is in service of saying - my now-6-month-old is sleeping through the night AGAIN. We have now used the Moms On Call principles of sleep training twice, and have seen incredible results both times. So, while I originally drafted this post in April, I believe in it even more now.
On with the show!
Almost every time someone finds out that Jordan and I are new parents, they wrinkle their brows and sympathetically ask, “Are you getting any sleep?”
He and I exchange glances and say, “You know, we’re very lucky. Mac is a good sleeper and he hasn’t been too hard on us!”
But the truth is, while he may have good sleep tendencies, we worked really hard to turn those tendencies into good full-blown habits. His predispositions + our effort = the baby was sleeping from 7 PM to 7 AM at 14 weeks.
How did we do it? It may surprise you to find that we are far from alone achieving those results. (I’d also like to add a caveat here that Jordan and I simply following the wisdom of folks who’ve come before us. We’re not super parents and we didn’t come up with any of this on our own.)
As I’ve talked to new mamas about sleep training, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how we chose to go about it.
What is sleep training?
Almost all our peers have used a sleep training system, whether it’s Babywise, Moms On Call (MOC), or another book. They’re all basically the same idea - with each developmental stage your baby goes through, he or she needs a certain amount of sleep and a certain amount of calories. These books help you ensure your baby is healthy and thriving, working with what your baby is naturally already doing, in order to give you and your baby structure. It also helps you avoid that moment when you come home from the hospital and think, “NOW what?!” These systems give you an anchor and serve as a guidebook so that you are confident in knowing how to care for that sweet little squishy newborn.
“Sleep training” is actually kind of a misnomer, as it’s not just sleep that you’re helping your child with, but the routine of daily life - eating, burping, diaper changes, play time, and sleeping.
For example - newborns need much more sleep than older babies, naturally sleeping in three-hour stretches and waking up for about 30 minutes at a time to eat, burp, get changed, and go right back down. Sleep training takes that information and sets you up with a schedule that is the same every day. Our newborn schedule looked like this:
Now that he’s older, it looks like this:
When I was thinking about writing this post (because I wish that I had had one to read myself as a new mom), I asked Instagram if it had any questions about how we used MOC. Below you’ll find the questions and the answers!
Are you exclusively breastfeeding or using/supplementing with formula? Does that make a difference with how well Mac is sleeping?
I was exclusively breast feeding until Mac was 5 months, then started supplementing with formula (using Dr. Brown’s Slow Flow bottles), and started solids at 6 months. In my experience, how well he’s fed has a huge affect on how well he sleeps. Hungry babies are not going to sleep well, which is why following the feedings part of “sleep training” (remember that misnomer?) is just as essential (if not moreso) than following the nap schedule.
Did you follow the protocol ridigly or did you make it work for you?
First of all, we’re certainly not experts OR pediatricians. Everything we did, we ran by Mac’s doctor. But we did see results very quickly, and I think it’s because we trusted the system. Consistency is KEY. I hear lots of parents on social media saying, “This just didn’t work for MY baby. My baby isn’t a good sleeper.” Or, “I don’t want to be so rigid - they’re just babies! Let them be babies!”
Here’s what I’d say to that:
Just like adults, babies and children crave consistency. They like and respond to structure - to knowing what’s going to happen next, even if it’s something as simple as, “When we’re done feeding, we’re going to change your diaper. Every time, every day.” By sleep training, you’re not punishing your baby or mistreating them, restricting their freedom or fun - quite the opposite! You’re actually helping your sweet little one to settle down, learn how to function in this big ol’ world, and to know what to expect. How comforting and wonderful is that? But in order to achieve that, you really do have to drill down into your most dedicated self and stick with the program. It can be challenging at times, but it is so, so worth it. If it says to put that baby down for a nap at 10 AM, put the baby down for a nap at 10 AM. Not 10:30, not 9:30, not, “He doesn’t seem sleepy right now,” or, “People have come over to see him so I’m going to keep him up for a little longer.” That’s where the discipline comes in. Babies are relying on YOU to be their advocate - so put that baby to bed!
(Spoken as someone who has broken all of the rules I just said not to do and learned the lessons the hard way.)
What do you do when everything blows up in your face and you want to quit/die/drink heavily?
I’ll be honest and say there were some days that sticking to the schedule was tough. But I knew so many people who saw results using sleep training that it inspired me to stick with it and not give up. That said, one of the most important things I read in early on in MOC was a little section about how “bad nights” and “crazy days” are inevitable. No one, not even the authors of these books, think that parents are capable of sticking to schedule every minute. I mean come on, we’re dealing with tiny people who poop their pants (and sometimes also YOUR pants) with no notice. Ya dig? And on those days, Jordan and I both took a deep breath, rolled with the punches (and sometimes also rolled with a couple of glasses of wine because PARENTING IS HARD), and started fresh the next day. Because there is always a next day. We both committed to each other and ourselves that we wouldn’t throw out the sleep training system at the first sign of trouble - as my mom says, “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.” Don’t let the stone days rock your world, even if the stone days last for a week straight. Hang in. Wake up every day and decide, “We’re going to keep trying this.” Worth it, I promise.
What does bedtime look like?
The actual, physical routine of bedtime is so huge for us and is another product of MOC. Every single night, Mac gets a bath, has some sweet talking and cuddling time with Jordan and me while I put some lotion on his very dry Scotch-Irish skin. Then we dim the lights and he starts a feeding. When he finishes, I turn on his white noise machine, put him in his Sleep Suit (more on that below), turn off the lights, put him in his crib, and leave the room. This happens at about 7:15 PM, and Mac sleeps until 7 AM the next day.
We have followed that exact routine since he was 3 weeks old (except for the nights during month 4 when he would scream at us for like 30 minutes in between bath time and bedtime. Just mentally add “endure screaming” in between “feeding” and “turning on white noise.” Just trying to keep it real, here, folks. This is the part where you have to decide to persevere). Mac now knows what’s coming next and associates all the bedtime-things with sleep.
How did you teach him to self-soothe? How long did you let him “cry it out?”
Our personal philosophy when he was very little was that if he cried more than three times in the night, I went back up to feed him. Some sleep training systems advocate that you should let your child cry longer than 5 minutes to ensure they aren’t hungry - whatever floats your boat is awesome. I felt like I knew his cries well enough to know that if he was crying that often, it’s because he was still hungry.
These days, now that he’s older, if he cries within 30 minutes or so of being put down, then one of us will go back up and put his paci back in. But if he starts crying outside that window of time, we let him cry it out. It’s tough, but it’s worth it to be building good sleep habits of self-soothing!
The MOC system has you slowly drop those middle of the night feedings, so you aren't going from "feeding on demand" to cutting them off cold turkey.
Crying it out is tough, but it serves a purpose. Continuing to run back in and replace a pacifier for your crying child every ten minutes doesn’t serve your baby (and it certainly doesn’t serve you). When you decide that you’re ready to train your baby to sleep through the night (MOC recommends doing this sometime around 4 months), try to think of it as giving your baby tools to learn to settle him/herself down. At 4 months, it’s perfectly okay for your baby to go long stretches (up to 8 hours/beyond)* without being fed, so you aren’t depriving them of nutrition.
*A note here: keep an eye on your lactation if you’re a breastfeeding mom. Everyone’s body is different, and it may be that if you stop feeding your baby for 12 straight hours, from 7 to 7, your body will interpret that as you weaning your baby, and your supply will drop off. When we were training Mac initially, I pumped at 9:30 and at 5 AM to ensure that my body was still producing enough. Always run these choices by a lactation consultant/pediatrician if you feel nervous or want clarity.
If “crying it out” it feels cruel (and it can - Jordan cannot bear to listen to Mac cry, where I don’t have as hard a time with it), then remember these things: your baby is safe. Your baby is loved. Your baby has a dry, clean diaper. Your baby is fed. Your baby is bathed. As MOC says, “Are they abandoned? No!” Sometimes, you have to just go sit on the porch, watch the monitor (with the sound off, of course), and give yourself a break. You aren’t torturing your child. You’re helping them. And that “crying it out” time will get shorter and shorter each night if you can stick to your guns and stay OUT OF THEIR ROOM. That’s the key!
Do you use a pacifier?
Sure do! This was one of those things I swore I wouldn’t do because I didn’t want to have to wean him off it. I now look back and think, “Oh, pre-mom version of Mary Catherine. Bless your simple little heart. You were so dumb.”
We love a paci and started him at about 2 weeks. He likes falling asleep with it, but eventually falls into a deep enough sleep that he spits it out in his sleep and doesn’t care.
As far as weaning him from it, I haven’t decided when that’s happening. That’s for another blog post.
What does his crib environment look like?
Crib sheet, no bumper, no toys, no mobile. I am now realizing the importance of the “no stimulus” crib environment as I have a very active six-month-old who now performs an acrobatic act when he’s in his crib. If he had toys or a mobile in there? Forget it. He’d be absolutely lit every naptime.
The point of a no-stimulus crib environment is pretty easy to guess - no stimulus = nothing to distract/prevent your baby from falling asleep.
When did you start putting Mac on a schedule?
We started early at 2 weeks old. The first two weeks of his life, we decided that we were just going to keep our heads above water - sleeping when he slept (although I have never been very good at that), and me feeding him on demand. For those 2 weeks, he slept in a Rock-n-Play at our bedside.
At 2 weeks, we started putting him on a schedule. This was not different at all from what he was already doing (which is why sleep training is so effective - babies are already doing a lot of these things on their own!); all the schedule did was tighten up the times a bit. Mac was swaddled for every nap time and unswaddled for every feeding.
At 3 weeks, we moved Mac upstairs to his nursery and he’s spent every night since in his crib (apart from nights we’ve been out of town). At that point, I was still recovering from a C-section (and our nursery is upstairs, master downstairs), so I had him napping downstairs in the Rock-n-Play. But we still followed the rules - he was swaddled, had white noise turned on, and low lighting for every nap. That routine is so important so that babies start to associate white noise, swaddling, and quiet time with napping.
So you’re saying he’s in his crib for every nap , every day?? Do you have a life, lady?!
No way! When we’re home, he naps in his crib to solidify those bedtime routines. But sometimes we’re not at home and we have to improvise. A car seat nap, a nap on a neighbor’s bed, etc. - make it work for you! What we try to keep consistent is the white noise, the sleep suit (more on that below), and the low lighting. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not, it does. Make every time your baby goes down as similar to his/her bedtime surroundings as you can.
What about traveling?
Yeah, traveling is a curveball. It’s always hard to keep a consistent environment when you’re, you know, in a different environment. :) I’ve found that the key is to get as close as possible (we actually travel with our DOHM white noise machine), then to get back on track immediately when you get home. I mean, c’est la vie, y’all. You can’t control everything. We use a Dock-a-Tot to help make him feel nice and cozy in any Pack and Play we might use, in addition to the white noise machine that goes with us everywhere.
Did you swaddle/what swaddle did you use?
We DEFINITELY swaddled and actually swear by it. There’s tons of research that shows newborns are comforted by a super-tight, snuggly swaddle that mimics the environment of the womb. Even if a baby fusses and cries for 30 seconds-1 minute after being swaddled, chances are, they’re going to calm down and absolutely love it.
Although MOC advocates for large flannel cloth swaddles, we went with the Halo Velcro Sleepsacks. These are the kinds with the Velcro “wings” on either side, allowing you to get that awesome, snuggly swaddle in seconds flat. It also zips from bottom-to-top, which means that you can change a diaper without unswaddling! Game changer!!
Somewhere around 14/15 weeks, Mac started jail-breaking out of his swaddle on a consistent basis. We tried the Miracle Blanket Swaddle, which has an extra layer inside to ensure baby’s arms stay down, but he was even able to bust out of that. We’d heard great things about Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit, so we ordered it, and absolutely love it. He’s been in that ever since, and once he outgrows it (we ordered it a little too big on purpose), we probably won’t replace it.
Okay, you’ve sold me. But my baby is 3 months old now. Is it too late?
I don’t know the science behind when babies develop habits, but my guess is, no way. Never too late. And you can do it!!
All this is, really, is giving yourself and your baby predictable days. Wherever you are, start there. Do a little research to determine the best way to comfortably help your baby physically sleep (ie, if he/she is 5 months old, it’s probably better not to swaddle and to start with the Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit) and see what makes the most sense for you and your family. A well-rested baby is more likely to sleep through the night. As long as your baby is gaining weight, healthy, and thriving, sleep training can be such a helpful tool in making sure you retain your sanity and get your OWN sleep back, which will help you be an even better parent.
Go forth and catch those z’s!