One Simple Trick to Help Your Baby Sleep Better (Gentle Night Weaning)
I dragged myself out of bed for the third time. I could hear my son’s cries down the hall. He couldn’t be hungry again.
My first baby woke through the night for most of his first year. When he was a year old, I resorted to crying as a sleep-training method.
But why did it have to be that way? Was crying the only way to get a baby to sleep through the night?
As a first-time mom, I had constant anxiety about my baby’s sleep. Most of which centered around his hunger.
I had an imaginary clock that would count down after every feeding. Cutting down my sleep. The more I fed him, the longer I’d get to sleep. Or so I thought. That clock made me dread the night.
I later learned that my methods had caused disruptions in my baby’s sleep. And I found a better way to help my baby sleep through the night with a gentle night-weaning method. No crying, no hassle, just easy steps you can take to help your baby sleep through the night without letting him cry.
One Simple Trick to Help Your Baby Sleep Better (Gentle Night Weaning)
Ditch the Dream Feed
My ticking clock was agitated by a “dream feed.”
A dream feed is when you always feed your baby right before you go to bed. Say you put your baby to bed at 8 pm and you go to bed at 10 pm. You would go in and feed your baby at 10. The idea is that this will extend his sleep so he doesn’t wake 10 minutes after you fall asleep.
The problem is a dream feed teaches your baby that he needs to be full to sleep. It also reinforces that he needs to eat every 2-3 hours.
With my second baby, I had less anxiety. Plus, I was exhausted by the end of the night and didn’t want to sit up breastfeeding before going to bed.
My thought process at this point was: if he woke up in 10 minutes, I got to sleep for 10 minutes.
Amazingly, my baby always seemed to sleep for hours longer than I expected him to. I soon discovered that this was always his longest stretch of sleep at night. After that first stretch of sleep, he’d wake every 3 hours no matter what.
This is consistent with what science says about sleep.
“Most deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night. As the night progresses, periods of REM sleep get longer and alternate with stage N2 sleep [non-REM sleep].”(Harvard Health, 2022)
The first half of the night is going to be when your baby sleeps the best. Don’t disrupt it by doing a dream feed.
Sleeping Through the Night (the Easy Way)
Because of this discovery, I never resorted to crying as a method with my second baby and instead used this gentle night weaning method. I never disrupted his sleep and his first stretches of night sleep naturally lengthened as he got older.
At 4 months old, he started sleeping until 5 am (8-9 hours). At 5 AM, I’d feed him and he’d sleep until 7 – 8 AM for a full night’s sleep of 11-12 hours.
By 6 months, he didn’t wake to eat at all.
Some would say my second was a “good baby” or a “good sleeper.” But I noticed the same tendencies in my first baby around the same time. And I believe he would have followed the same pattern if I hadn’t been so quick to feed him at every cry.
So What Can You Do?
Does that mean your baby is doomed to wake up through the night if you’ve done a dream feed? Or that your baby is a “bad sleeper” because he wakes at night?
You can do a few things to urge your baby to sleep better without resorting to some crazy tactic – like putting in earplugs and letting him scream.
When Should Your Baby Sleep Through the Night?
Sleep training is often suggested at 3 or 4 months. But, pediatric sleep expert, Dr. Richard Ferber (who is most attributed with the idea of the gradual cry-it-out method), says most babies are capable of sleeping through the night at 5 months.
When you read books or articles that argue babies should be sleeping through the night at 12 weeks, know two things. First, that’s not a realistic timeline. And second, often what is considered “sleeping through the night” is 6 or more hours of sleep. With that standard, my second baby was “sleeping through the night” by 12 weeks.
Babies, especially newborns, wake through the night. Start with that expectation.
By teaching your baby good sleep habits, he will wake less and sleep through the night sooner. And you’ll never have to think about sleep training.
Good Sleep Habits to Start: The Rules
- Set a bed time
- Follow a bedtime routine
- Lay your baby down to sleep in his own space (read this article for a step-by-step guide for co-sleeping to crib)
- NEVER wake your baby at night
- Soothe before feeding
Beginning the Night
Start by setting a bedtime for your baby. This seems odd with a newborn (first 3 months) because they sleep all day, but have a specific time that you get them ready and lay them down in their own space for bed.
Try to aim for about the same time every night, within the hour (within 30 minutes as Baby gets older).
Pay attention to your baby and not your schedule when choosing this hour. You should find an hour when your baby will go to sleep and sleep for at least 3 hours.
For example, say you try putting your baby down at 7, but your baby is fussy at this time every night and once you get him down, he wakes within the hour. Your baby doesn’t like that hour. Try the next one.
I always found that my babies had certain hours that worked for them and ones that didn’t. (I don’t buy into the one-size-fits-all approach for bedtimes that some “sleep experts” push.)
The All-Important Routine
You don’t have to complicate the bedtime routine, but this is your opportunity to create positive sleep associations. Positive sleep associations are essential to good sleep and gentle night weaning.
Positive Sleep Associations
- A warm bath
- Putting on pajamas
- A swaddle or sleep sack (I love the Burts Bees Wearable Blanket)
- White Noise (Both of my boys still use the Fisher Price Deluxe Soother)
- Reading Books
Related: The Best Books for Infants 0-12 Months
Then lay your baby down in his sleep space. This signifies going to bed more than anything. The earlier you can start this, the better it will be. (When your baby is about 3 months old, start laying him down drowsy instead of fully asleep whenever possible.)
If you put all of these in place when your baby is a newborn, sleep is going to be so much easier later on.
Responding During the Night
NEVER wake your baby up during the night (unless your doctor has advised you to do this). Teach your baby to use a pacifier and when your baby wakes, reinsert the pacifier before getting them up to feed.
This helps teach your baby to self-soothe and provides him/her a way to soothe without eating if he isn’t hungry.
If it’s been less than 2-3 hours, and your baby won’t soothe with the pacifier, try rocking and addressing other issues before feeding.
If your baby won’t settle or shows hunger cues, don’t hesitate to feed your baby.
A Note on Pacifiers
I’m pro-pacifiers. They’re recommended to prevent SIDS (Hauck, Omojokun, & Siadaty, 2005). Plus, I gave up on a pacifier with my oldest, which led to a problematic thumb-sucking habit. If you aren’t, no worries. Use whichever soothing method works for your baby (e.g. rocking, shushing, walking around, etc.).
Good Habits, Create Good Sleepers
If you follow these procedures, your baby should start sleeping for longer stretches at night over time.
This will be more effective when your baby is a newborn. As your baby gets older, he becomes more habitual. If you haven’t created good habits early on, it will be harder to retrain your baby with good habits. And this is why you see the suggestion to intervene with sleep-training methods.
If you create good habits around sleep from the beginning (first 3-4 months), your baby will be a good sleeper with this gentle night-weaning method and you won’t have to resort to sleep training.
Hit Snooze On the Baby Monitor
If your baby is 6+ months old, you can begin to create good habits. Introduce one at a time and let it stick before introducing another.
If you’re desperate for more sleep, you can use some of this gentle night weaning method to help get them back on track. Start with NEVER waking your baby up at night. And getting your baby into his/her own sleep space (if you haven’t already). This should eliminate some of the night wakings and may be enough to give you both more rest.
Then begin to create good sleep habits using the better sleep rules.
If your baby still wakes multiple times, he may be conditioned to eat through the night. To address this, cut back the amount of milk you feed your baby when he wakes.
For example, if you feed your baby for 8 minutes (or 4 ounces), cut down the time or ounces every few nights. Do this until your baby no longer wakes to eat.
If that doesn’t work, and you’ve tried all the rules, you can either accept that your baby wakes up. Or you can try the following method, which may result in some crying.
Choose not to respond to your baby for a set amount of time. Scientific data show “no harmful effects on children’s behavior, sleep, or the parent-child relationship” from letting your baby cry at night (Doucleff, 2019).
With my first baby, I waited 5 minutes before I responded. So any time he woke up, I forced myself to wait 5 minutes before I went in. Later, I lengthened the time to 15, then 30 minutes. (As time went on, he cried less during this wait time.)
This helped delay the feedings and gave him the opportunity to settle himself— like hitting snooze on my baby monitor. If he needed to eat, he’d persist past the time. If not, he’d fall back asleep. After a few weeks, he started to drop feedings.
As an alternative, you can go in and soothe (this may not work if you’re breastfeeding) or send Dad in during this time to soothe.
Keeping Good Habits
Things will always come up to disrupt your baby’s good sleep habits. You have to guard against letting these disruptions become habits.
Sickness, travel, and a new tooth cutting through those gums can overhaul all of your best gentle night-weaning efforts.
Don’t ignore your sick baby. But be realistic about only responding when you know you can help. Keep up as much of the routine as possible. And go back to following the rules as soon as it’s over.
Forget About the Clock
So, if you’re like me and the clock has you on edge, relax and forget about the clock. You and your baby will get more sleep without it. Use gentle night weaning. Remember these two things: newborns don’t sleep through the night and good habits are the foundation for good sleep. You don’t have to sleep-train. And you don’t have to wake up three times a night for a year with your baby.
If you need more help, I found Dr. Ferber’s book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, and the Huckleberry App to be helpful with my babies’ sleep habits. Both are tailored to your specific child and provide tips to address your issues.
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Doucleff, M. (2019, July 15). Sleep Training Truths: What Science Can (And Can’t) Tell Us About Crying It Out. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/07/15/730339536/sleep-training-truths-what-science-can-and-cant-tell-us-about-crying-it-out.
Hauck, F. R., Omojokun, O. O., & Siadaty, M. S. (2005). Do Pacifiers Reduce the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 116(5), e716–e723. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2004-2631.
Harvard Health. (2022, December 6). The Science of Sleep. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/biology-of-sleep-circadian-rhythms-sleep-stages.htm.
Nanit. (2017, April 5). Sleep Associations: Negative VS. Positive Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep. https://www.nanit.com/blogs/parent-confidently/negative-vs-positive-sleep-associations.