Sleep training is controversial I know, but we reached breaking point a couple of weeks ago in terms of sleep. Coincidentally, so had a friend with a baby of a similar age. She recommended The Blissful Baby Expert book by Lisa Clegg and after an impulsive Kindle download we started to implement the plan. The book advocates quite a strict routine. This was a bit of a departure for us. We’d been breastfeeding on demand as recommended by the NHS, and we didn’t have a nap schedule at all. In fact, Jacob would hardly nap during the day. Needless to say, I was pretty apprehensive but willing to give it a go.
**If you don’t have a non-sleeping baby, it’s unlikely this very long post will be of interest to you!**
Tackling daytime sleep
Rather than going straight into the full routine, I thought it would be best to ease into it by focusing on the day-time first. For a baby of Jacob’s age (5.5 months), it was recommended that he should have a short morning nap, a long (around 2-hour) lunchtime nap, and another short afternoon nap. The morning and lunchtime naps should ideally be in the cot and the afternoon nap in a pram according to the book. Initially, this amount of napping sounded impossible. Jacob fights sleep, so I was expecting it to be a huge challenge.
A key part of getting Jacob to sleep more involved encouraging him to self settle. Previously, I’d usually been getting him to sleep by breastfeeding him until he dropped off, then putting him in the crib and hoping he stayed asleep. Apparently that’s not ideal because once babies wake up in the night they need more boob to fall back to sleep. This was definitely the case with Jacob. He was waking up every 2 hours for a 5-minute feed before falling asleep on me. I was confident he wasn’t hungry, otherwise he’d want bigger feeds.
The book recommends timed comforting as a method to teach self-soothing. Timed comforting is basically a form of controlled crying. I know that’s not for everyone, but I was seriously desperate to get this sorted. You put the baby down in the cot awake and pat their bottom and shush for 30 seconds or so, then leave. Jacob inevitably cries as soon as I leave. You wait for 2 minutes, then if the crying is still going on, you go back in and repeat the bottom patting and shushing for another 30 seconds. When you leave that time you wait 4 minutes before going back in. You repeat the cycle but extend the interval you leave them by 2 minutes each time, until you reach 10 minutes. You never leave them for longer than 10 minutes before going back in to comfort them.
I was so apprehensive about the timed comforting, but I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised. We tried it for the first time with a lunch time nap. I put Jacob in the cot, patted and shushed and walked out. He started crying. After 2 minutes I went back in, shushed and patted and left again. I couldn’t believe it, but before the 4 minutes were up he was silent. I checked the monitor—he was asleep! He slept for an hour and a half. Magic.
Sometimes it takes longer for him to settle, but in general he’s asleep within about 4-5 minutes of being put down.
Again, I know this is controversial. Health visitors don’t recommend feeding schedules. Particularly for breastfed babies. I wouldn’t advocate this approach for everyone, but in our case it felt right. Breastfeeding is well established for us. Jacob is on the 91st centile, so we have no growth concerns. I’d noticed that he had started ‘snacking’ a lot during the day because he was so distracted by everything. He’d want a feed every hour or two, but for literally a minute or two. The book says that this snack feeding isn’t ideal because they only get the fore milk, rather than the fattier hind milk.
I started the suggested day time schedule of feeding at 7am, 11am, 2pm and 6pm (ish). The schedule is really working for us. Jacob is having full feeds now, as opposed to a mouthful here and there. The author says that if you know they are getting enough during the day you can be confident that they aren’t actually hungry when they wake in the night, so you can reduce night feeds.
Implementing the night-time routine
After about 4 days of testing the new daytime routine and practicing the timed comforting, we decided to try sleep training at night. This coincided with moving Jacob to his own room. I was unsure about doing it all at once, but I figured it was better to get all the disruption out of the way in one go. I’d started to think some of the night waking was because we were waking him up.
We had to change our bedtime routine round a little to avoid feeding to sleep. We now:
- Have a bath at about 5.45pm
- Have a feed at about 6.15pm
- Go upstairs and get into a sleeping bag at about 6.45-7pm and have a quick story and cuddle before putting him in the cot awake.
We use Ewan the Dream Sheep and Jacob has a muslin to hold as a comforter. The book recommends using a muslin as a comfort object rather than a teddy for several reasons. One, it’s easy to replace a muslin, but if a teddy gets lost all hell will break loose. Two, you can wash it and put a clean one in every day. Three, they are breathable so if baby shoves it into their face they won’t suffocate.
At 10.30pm the author recommends waking the baby for a feed to help them go through the night. I was apprehensive about this as well. Surely the phrase “never wake a sleeping baby” exists for a reason? But I thought I might as well try it. The author recommends that this feed is done with a bottle (of formula or breast milk). That’s a no-go with Jacob so at first I just breastfed him.
If the baby needs a night feed then this should be at 4am. At Jacob’s age he apparently shouldn’t need the night feed, but it felt too mean to be too strict when we’d previously been feeding on demand.
The first night
Nervous isn’t the word! I was petrified but determined. We followed the new routine and at 7pm he was asleep in his own room. So far, so good! At 10.30pm I woke him for a feed. That was tricky. He was so sleepy. I had to keep blowing on him to keep him feeding, but eventually we got there and he had a good long feed. He went back down easily.
At 1am he woke up crying. I started the timed comforting. He cried for a good half an hour then seemed to settle. I got back in bed, but two minutes later he was crying again. I started the timer again and he went to sleep after another 20 minutes of crying. During this time I seriously considered giving up. Hearing your baby cry in the middle of the night is awful. I’m so glad I persevered though. It’s not taken anywhere near as long to settle since.
He woke up again at 3.45am, so I fed him. He settled really easily after the feed. At 6am he woke again. I fed him again and let him sleep next to me until 7.15am.
Overall, I was pretty pleased with how the first night went. I still woke up a lot, but it was manageable and I was hopeful it would get better.
The next few nights
Over the next few nights we settled into the new routine. Annoyingly, he started waking around 9.45pm, so I had to settle him to sleep before waking him up again for a feed at 10.30pm. The idea is to avoid feeding when they wake up crying, otherwise they associate crying with getting fed. He was waking a few times a night, but settling back down with less than 15 minutes of timed comforting. It was usually less than 5 minutes. I was getting away with only one night feed, which was a massive improvement and confirmed that he wasn’t actually hungry when he wanted to feed every couple of hours.
On day 4 we had a massive breakthrough. I did a feed at 10pm and he was asleep by 10.20pm. He didn’t wake again until 4.20am! That’s a 6-hour stretch. The longest sleep I’ve had in 6 months. He had a 10 minute feed and went back to sleep in his cot until 6am.
Since then we haven’t consistently been getting a 6-hour stretch, but the number of wake ups has reduced. I feel like it’s definitely working. For the past two nights I’ve also managed to make the 10.30pm feed a bottle, which is an achievement. It seems that when he’s really sleepy he doesn’t have the energy to refuse!
It’s too early to say whether this will work long-term, but I’m really hopeful. I now know that he doesn’t need to be feed every time he wakes up in the night, which means others can help! That reduces the pressure on me massively. He is also self-soothing much faster. Who knows, maybe we’ll one day get to the point where we put him down in his cot and he drifts off happily to sleep. He’s also made the transition to his own room really well.
In a few weeks time I’ll try to phase out the 4am feed, but for now I’m fine with it. It’s a vast improvement on 4+ feeds a night!
Did you sleep train your baby? Did it work?
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