8 Sleep Training Mistakes You’re Probably Making

I recently looked at the analytics for my blog and it turns out, the sleep training post I did a few weeks ago was the most popular. What does that tell me? That there’s a whole lotta mommas out there not getting any sleep.

I have obsessed over my son’s sleep for a long time. I’m not kidding you when I say obsessed. (First stage of healing is acceptance, right? Hi, my name is Michelle and I’m addicted to sleep training my baby…). I don’t do well on minimal sleep. In fact, I turn into a monster. Maybe that’s why I was so focused on my son’s sleeping habits from day one (and maybe that’s why sleep was the one area he struggled the most. Seems God’s trying to teach me something here).

I read every book I could get my hands on and perused every online forum and blog I could track down. I’ll admit, I was on information overload. I would call my husband in the middle of the day just to tell him about a new sleep tactic I discovered (yeah, he loved that). I lived and breathed sleep – just not my own.

In fact, the obsession over my son’s sleep actually caused me to lose significant amounts of sleep (ironic, right?). I would lie awake and Google ways to make your baby sleep until my son woke up for his next feeding. I could never get back to sleep because I craved information. I thought if I could just read one more blog or get one more question answered, I’d be all set.

Boy was I wrong. See, what I failed to realize is that I’m dealing with a baby here. Babies don’t do what we want them to. They’re inconsistent at best. Now that my son is nearly six months old (!) and things are starting to get a little easier (read: a little), I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve learned and spread the knowledge. Hopefully other moms struggling with sleep will get some good ideas out of this post. Even if you don’t take away anything, at least you can have comfort in knowing we’re all in this together.

DISCLAIMER #1: I am NOT a sleep expert. Seriously. Sleep has been one of the biggest struggles I’ve encountered since becoming a mom. I’ve read a lot of things and tried a lot of things (while driving myself crazy in the process). So now I want to pass my knowledge along to you, in case it’s helpful in any way (and if it’s not, well, wine helps).

DISCLAIMER #2: As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of moms exaggerate about their child’s sleep. Here’s the thing: everyone’s definition of sleeping through the night is different. Many of us think that when a mom says her baby slept through the night, that the baby actually slept 10-12 hours straight. Usually this isn’t the case. Most likely that baby slept 5-6 hours, woke for a feeding, and then went back to sleep (especially if the baby is under six months). Check out this baby sleep guide for more details on how long your baby should be sleeping at night (we often expect more from our babies than they can actually give us).

DISCLAIMER #3: Most of you will probably hit a sleep regression at some point (4 month sleep regression, anyone?). In my opinion, just do whatever you need to in order to get through the regression. All bets are off at that point. But if your baby still needs to be rocked or fed a month into the regression, then you’ve got yourself a habit that needs to be broken.

Sleep training mistake #1 – no bedtime routine.

What happens at bedtime can have a huge impact on the rest of the night. The key to successfully sleep training your baby is to have a consistent bedtime routine. I was unaware of this for the first three months of my son’s life. Some nights I fed him first, other nights I fed him last. Some nights I gave him a bath, other nights I skipped it entirely. I was all over the place. And my son was a hot mess.

Now I know the truth. The bedtime routine matters. Like, a lot. Babies get used to it. They start to expect it. And it sets the tone for sleep. They know – oh, ok, mommy and daddy are giving me a bath so it must be time for sleep. The order of the routine also matters. If you feed them too close to bed, they’ll start to expect food every time they wake up. It’s called a sleep association (and those are often a big problem too).

Sleep training mistake #2 – irregular bedtime.

Does it surprise you that if my son’s bedtime routine was inconsistent, so was his bedtime? It shouldn’t. In the early days we were putting him to bed the same time as us – which was often 10:30/11. Then I read an article that said early bedtimes would make your kid sleep through the night (yeah, right) and so I started putting him to bed at 6/6:30. Yikes. Once I read Dr. Richard Ferber’s book about sleep cycles (if you haven’t checked it out, you should), I realized that a consistent bedtime is critical for helping set a baby’s circadian rhythm. I mean, think about it: you’re used to going to bed at the same time every night, right? What happens when you go to bed later? Your sleep sucks and you wake up tired. Why do we expect babies to be any different?

Sleep training mistake #3 – not waking up at the same time every morning.

The first three months of my son’s life were dark days. He was up 6-10 times a night crying. And I was a zombie. Literally. I would walk around the house with dark circles under my eyes, counting down the hours until the next nap. I hardly changed out of my bathrobe during maternity leave (not even to go get mail. Gross, I know). Then I realized that I could take him back to bed after his last feeding around 5/6am and go back to sleep until 9 am. Great, right? Wrong. His sleep was totally fragmented and as a result, his naps were virtually nonexistent. Not to mention some mornings we’d wake up around 7am, which threw off his entire day.

Moms – do yourselves a favor and wake your kids up at the same time every day. Yes, even if it’s 5:30/6am. You can always adjust their bedtime/wake times later. Waking them up at the same time each day ensures that they start sticking to a schedule (as best they can in the early days) and that they’ll go to bed at the same time too. It makes the night go a lot more smoothly – trust me.

Sleep training mistake #4 – using a timed noise machine.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my Sleep Sheep. And so does my son. His favorite sound was the whales and I would crank that up until he fell into a deep slumber. But then a funny thing started happening. The noise would stop at the 45 minute mark – the length of the first full sleep cycle. Instead of making the transition to the next sleep cycle, my son would wake up. I attributed the wakings to him struggling to fall asleep on his own. This was partly true. Once I started using an app on my iPad that played white noise continuously throughout the night, I noticed the wakings started to decrease.

I’m not saying timed noise machines are evil. But here’s the deal: when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night (which he/she will), everything must be as you left it when they went to bed. Otherwise they’re going to cry. A lot. So if they fall asleep to a specific sound and wake up and the sound is no longer playing, what do you think they’re going to do? Yeah, you know.

Sleep training mistake #5 – using a pacifier.

Ahh, the controversial pacifier. This is usually one of the last things to go during sleep training, mainly because, well, it’s a godsend. Before having my son, I swore up and down that I wouldn’t give my baby a pacifier in the first six months because I didn’t want it to interfere with breastfeeding. Well, that vow went out the window the first night home. We went to the pediatrician the next day and his advice was simple: use the pacifier. So we did. And I loved it.

But the love relationship turned to hate pretty quickly. You see, every time the pacifier fell out his mouth, my son woke up. I’d watch him through the video monitor and just when I thought he was about to drift off, boom, the pacifier would fall out of his mouth. I’d pray that he wouldn’t wake up but he always did. Then we’d have to start the process all over again. I seriously would climb the stairs over ten times a night just to replace that stupid thing. Finally, I declared no more.

Moms, don’t do this to yourselves. There is a better way. It’s not an easier way, because let’s face it, babies love their pacifiers and don’t want to give them up. But trust me – a few nights of tears are WAY better than putting the pacifier back in all night (unless you’re looking for a great quad workout). If you’ve tried all the sleep training tactics and they’re not working, then lose the pacifier. Immediately. Some babies have no trouble sleeping, even when the pacifier falls out, but a lot of them don’t. Losing the pacifier was a game changer for me. (Sidenote: I still use the pacifier for naps. Naps and nighttime sleep are different and given that naps don’t start to get better around six months or later, I need the extra help).

Sleep training mistake #6 – keeping baby awake too long (or not long enough) before bed.

Wake times are critical to getting your baby to sleep better. But they’re also the most frustrating (and elusive). Keep your baby awake too long and they’ll be overtired and won’t sleep (you know how people say overtired babies sleep better? Yeah, that’s a lie). If the wake time between the last nap of the day and bedtime is too short, then you have a baby that’s not tired enough. Both result in the same thing: tears before bed. I’ve found that if my son is overtired, he will wake up every three hours for the whole night. Not fun.

What are the appropriate wake times? I thought you’d never ask. Here’s a great chart that lays it all out for you.

Sleep training mistake #7 – too much time spent in naps.

My son still takes crap naps and it drives me crazy. We’re getting better, but it’s a work in progress. Naps are a whole other ball game, so I don’t advocate starting to sleep train with naps until you’ve mastered nighttime sleep. It’ll just frustrate you and leave you in a ball of tears questioning if your baby will ever sleep again. Don’t put yourself through that.

However, it is important to understand the connection between naps and nighttime sleep. Babies are only supposed to get a certain amount of sleep per day. Usually this ranges between 11-15 hours total, depending on the age (see chart). That means if your baby takes six hours worth of naps, he or she is only going to be able to sleep for eight hours at night (or less). If your baby’s bedtime is normally 7 pm, that means he or she is waking up at 3 am. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So you have to monitor naps. In some cases, this means waking your baby up so he/she doesn’t nap too long. I know, you probably think I’m crazy for telling you to wake a sleeping baby, but if you don’t, you’ll pay for it later.

Same thing goes for nighttime sleep. If your baby sleeps 12 hours a night, he/she is only going to take 2-3 hours worth of naps (or they’ll take a bunch of 30-40 minute crap naps, which is just a waste of time).

Many parents advocate for putting babies to bed around 6:30/7pm. This works well for older babies/toddlers, but if your baby is 2-4 months old, you’re just asking them to wake up several times in the middle of the night. A baby’s bedtime starts later and gets earlier the older they are. It’s completely appropriate for a newborn to go to sleep around 9:30/10pm and for a 3-4 month old to go to bed around 8/8:30pm. Remember when I was putting my son to bed at 6/6:30? Once I pushed his bedtime back to 8:30, he started sleeping for longer stretches. His naps got a little better too.

If I have you totally confused, don’t worry. Ferber covers all of this in chapter 12 of his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.

Sleep training mistake #8 – giving in to the crying.

(If you’re not okay with letting your baby cry it out, then skip this section. I used the interval crying method in Ferber’s book and it worked for me. But I realize some parents aren’t okay with crying it out and that’s fine too. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with. Just be consistent. I should also clarify that crying it out doesn’t mean locking your kid in a room and not checking on them until morning.)

This is probably the hardest mistake to break. I mean, who wants to listen to your child scream bloody murder? It’s heartbreaking. I cried the first few nights we started doing sleep training. I was convinced I was the world’s worst mother and that my son was going to grow up to hate me. But then he started sleeping better. He was happier, I was happier, the whole family was happier.

The first week my husband and I did sleep training, we weren’t 100% committed. I’ll admit that. We sort of danced around what we were supposed to be doing, which was let my son cry so he could learn to self soothe. We’d go in and check on him, but the length between the checks didn’t increase (this is key) and we would eventually just give in and pick him up or feed him. It was especially hard because my son hated his crib at first. He would cry and cry until we moved him back to the rock and play next to our bed. One night we just left him in the rock and play so we could actually get some sleep and he slept seven hours straight.

That’s when I knew he was messing with us. He was completely capable of sleeping longer than four hours and so back to the crib he went. This time we were consistent. We increased the time between checks each night. We went in to check on him for no more than 30 seconds and didn’t lift him out of his crib. It made for a lot of sleepless nights (we took shifts, which I highly recommend), but in the end my son learned to self soothe. After two weeks of sleep training, he was down to two feedings a night. Now, he’s down to one. (Night weaning is a whole other topic that I’ll cover in a future post).

The point? Don’t give in to the crying. You’ll want to, because you’re a fantastic mom and you love your child. Just remember why you’re sleep training in the first place. It’s so everyone can get better sleep, including (and most importantly) you. You can’t be at your best if you’re exhausted. I know when I’m exhausted I have no patience for my son and I snap at my husband constantly. That’s not good for anyone.

Ready to start sleep training? Have a plan of action laid out before you begin. Make sure you have a glass of wine and earplugs (or turn the TV up loud). I highly recommend investing in a video monitor. That way you can turn off the volume but still watch your baby. A win-win.

Most of all? Go easy on yourself during this time. Sleep training isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You’ll be exhausted for awhile, so don’t worry about whether the dishes are put away or the laundry is done. Let the housework slide for awhile in favor of getting some rest. Enlist help from the outside. Don’t try to go it alone. It takes a village and at the end of the day, us moms need support too.

If all else fails, remember, this too shall pass. It’s just a season in life and it won’t go on forever (even if it feels like it right now). Hang in there – you got this.

Moms – any other sleep training tips to share? Leave a comment below or send me a note at newmomconfessions@gmail.com. I’ll include the top sleep training tips in a future post!

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