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Sleep. It’s the only thought on a new parent’s mind as you roam through your zombie days and stub your toe on the baseboard during your fifth overnight trip to the nursery. Aside from the well-being of a precious little newborn, it’s the only thing you care about. You would give up every other luxury in life just to sleep for eight hours straight and the idea of ever getting your baby to sleep through the night seems like an impossible and defeatist task.
Sleep deprivation effects your mind and body in serious and substantial ways. It’s no joke. And if your baby is fighting it at every waking turn it is enough to drive you mad.
I’ve been there.
We realized the second night in the hospital that our adorable new little baby wouldn’t fall asleep unless she was being held. We spent the first three weeks back at home laying her on our chests or cradling her in our arms to nap and sleep at night. If we tried to calm her to the point of even laying her in a swing at night it took more than half an hour to achieve (after every feeding!). It was an existence that we couldn’t maintain.
I am no sleep expert and I have no magical cure to present, but these are the tips that worked for us when we had reached our last straw in the overnight torment. Implementing these strategies helped us to turn our sleep resistant baby into one who slept 11+ hours through the night from 4 months of age (and almost 9 hours through the night from 3 months of age). We hit phases after she reached that point where she would regress or have trouble for awhile, but she always landed back on track and the primary trend of her sleeping through the night continued. Many of the strategies below are ones that we discovered as I read through the book On Becoming Baby Wise while nursing through the wee hours of the night. It’s sometimes controversial and won’t be a fit for every family, but it worked wonders to transform our sleep battles and I highly recommend it to any other struggling parents.
Every baby is different, but if you are a new parent muddling through your days on only a few hours of shut-eye in between it’s my hope that these tips might offer a little piece of hope that your baby can in fact one day sleep through the night.
Bedtime doesn’t have to be a dreaded catastrophe!
(Note: At too young of an age it may not be appropriate or healthy for your baby to sleep the whole way through the night. Be sure to adhere to your doctor’s recommendations for how long your baby can go between feedings overnight.)
Here are the tips that helped us get our baby to sleep through the night without feeding:
1. We had to let her cry sometimes.
This was torture for me as a mom the first several nights that we implemented it. However, after 3 days the decision to not immediately run to her every cry was the most transformational adjustment that we made to help our daughter Ellie to sleep. As new parents we did everything we could in those first several weeks to keep our newborn from crying, thinking that we maintaining our sanity and allowing ourselves to rest with a silent happy baby. However, the constant effort to keep Ellie from crying meant that we weren’t getting any rest as we laid her on our chests and rocked her for all hours of the night in a futile attempt to maintain the restful silence.
When I became desperate for real rest (without a baby on my chest) 3 weeks after bringing our daughter home, we realized that if we were ever going to achieve refreshing sleep for her and for ourselves we were going to have to let her cry sometimes. After I hungrily read through the On Becoming Baby Wise book while awake with her one night, we started to lay her down to sleep and let her cry until she settled. We checked on her as she cried and remained very close, but we resisted the (very strong!) urge to go and soothe her as she fought the transition. Those first few days she cried for long periods each time she was set down. It was miserable and difficult but after 3 days of sticking to the transition she suddenly began to settle very quickly – no rocking or laying her on our chests required! We were in shock at how quickly the transition worked to allow us to sleep unencumbered.
A small piece of sanity was returned.
2. We put her to sleep in the crib.
In our efforts to avoid crying for the first few weeks after Ellie’s birth, we didn’t go anywhere near the crib. Placing her on such a hard flat surface was a sure recipe for torrents of tears. Instead we laid her in the bassinet piece of our Pack ‘n Play for naps downstairs and most of the night laid her on our own chests to keep her peaceful and content. I naively undertook motherhood with a goal to teach my child to sleep through noise and distraction by placing her naps in a lively environment. However, after realizing how her lack of a consistent bed may have been affecting her ability to sleep we started to put Ellie to down directly in her crib. We started with her overnight sleep and eventually moved her naps as well.
She of course cried quite piercingly the first several nights that we made the adjustment, but after about three nights she began to settle quickly and easily. It was refreshing to have her finally asleep in her own room and bed and we were free from endless nights of slowly trying to set her into the swing without waking her and days of tiptoeing around in the living room to protect her fragile naps.
3. We didn’t rock or nurse her to sleep.
In addition to transitioning Ellie to sleep in the crib at night and letting her cry to settle, we firmly decided that we would not rock or nurse her to sleep as a part of her bed or nap time routine. We read that if she was going to learn to remain sleeping through the many transitions in a baby’s overnight sleep cycle that she needed to learn to settle herself without these common sleep aids.
We started to implement an eat, wake, sleep routine for Ellie during the day so that she learned to settle for naps that weren’t directly after her nursing times. We also sought to place her in her crib still awake at night despite the fact that bedtime fell directly after a feeding time. As Ellie navigated developmental leaps and hit rough spots in her nighttime sleep in later months we ended up flexing on this when necessary. There were some really rough nights of overstimulation where nursing her to sleep was the only way to finally calm her, but as a general rule we stopped allowing her to nurse to sleep and sought to put her in the crib still awake.
4. We implemented a sleep schedule for her.
Ellie’s sleep was also transformed by implementing a schedule to guide her days and nights. Our initial schedule for her followed a basic eat, wake, sleep pattern throughout the day where she would nurse, play or just be awake (depending on the age) for a period of time, and then nap until the next feeding. You can read about her detailed initial schedule in my post 1-4 Month Baby Sleeping & Eating Schedule. Overnight we started implementing a firm bedtime and wake time. We tried to stay as consistent with these as we possibly could. If Ellie woke in the morning prior to the wake time we had settled on I would feed her and lay her back down in the crib, even if it was only a half hour until she would need to get up. If she was still asleep when it was time to wake I would wake her up. By doing this she gradually adjusted to consistently wake at that time. (We allowed about 15 min of wiggle room on either side of the time.)
Ellie is now over a year old and still wakes like clockwork at 7:15-7:30am unless she is in a different environment or we are away and sleeping in the same room with her. It was tedious to implement at first, but sticking to firm bed and morning wake times has paid off with biological expectations in her to sleep at her bedtime each night and wake consistently each morning.
5. We swaddled her.
We had no understanding of swaddling or its importance before our sweet baby daughter entered the world. Even in the hospital I understood that swaddling was keeping Ellie warm, but I didn’t realize the role it could play in prolonging her coveted bursts of sleep. Despite our lack of understanding it, we tried to swaddle Ellie after she was born. However, I think we may have been the world’s worst swaddlers. We gave up within a day or so on using receiving blankets. Instead we used a velcro one that we had on hand – one that our daughter seemed to pull her arm out of every single time. When her arm was free she would jolt in her sleep, waking herself prematurely. Naive new parents as we were, we didn’t realize that velcro swaddles came in various sizes. When good friends of ours came over and lent us a small swaddle to try, Ellie finally kept all limbs inside like a little pea in a pod and our swaddling was finally effective. (We had been trying to keep her snug inside a large!) Our favorite swaddles were these made by SwaddleMe since they wrapped tight, weren’t too heavy, and had a wide velcro area that made them really easy to use.
I don’t know if we even fully realized the role that the swaddle was playing in Ellie’s improving sleep habits (after 3 weeks old) until I tried to have her sleep overnight without it around 2 months of age. She had been fussing more frequently than normal overnight and seemed to be straining with her arms, so I thought perhaps she was already ready to sleep without the restraint. But that night was one of the worst since the weeks before we implemented these tips! I think she woke every two hours crying. As soon as I returned her to the swaddle several days later the terrible phase was concluded. She ended up sleeping soundly with the swaddle until it became clear to depart from it around 4 months of age. After that we transitioned her to sleep sacks which she used through the rest of her first year.
6. We invested in a white noise machine.
Since it was a small adjustment and easy to implement we bought a white noise machine for Ellie’s nursery when she was about 3 weeks old. It was our hope that the constant sound would drown out other distracting noises and remind her of the womb that she had so shockingly recently departed from. Although we sought to eliminate sleep aids, this was one we kept. It’s easy enough to transport that it can go with us if we travel and it helps me feel less conscience of noise I make around the house while Ellie’s sleeping. There are even free white noise apps that make it very easy to always have on hand. I know the white noise signaled sleep for Ellie because she would often wake if we turned it off.
7. We minimized overnight diaper changes.
When Ellie was a newborn we changed her diaper after every feeding throughout the day. As naive new parents we just assumed that’s what also required overnight. What we didn’t realize was that changing her diaper every three hours (or less!) overnight was jolting her awake and unnecessarily disrupting her sleep. I invested in some 12 hour overnight diapers and, unless there was a notable smell or mess, I stopped changing them every time she woke to feed and kept her swaddled to put right back down. I think this made the transition back to the crib after each feeding easier – and it was certainly less work for mommy to manage overnight! There are times when we paid for it with a blowout the following morning, but it was worth it to establish Ellie’s sleep and take the load off of us to change her repeatedly overnight. If you are a zombie new parent trying to get your baby to sleep through the night, take heart that it can be done and it does get better with time! When we implemented all of these tips to help our baby sleep we saw very fast results. Within a month Ellie settled easily at night and primarily only woke when hungry. She slept about 9 hours consistently through the night from about 3 months of age and slept 11 hours through the night when she turned 4 months old. At 4 months old the doctor gave us the go-ahead to introduce solids into her diet and that night was the first she slept from her bedtime right through to her morning wake time 11 hours later! Apparently the single serving of pureed sweet potato was just the little extra that she needed to make it the whole way through the night.
I hope these tips help you to regain a piece of sanity, or that just hearing our journey with Ellie gives you hope that there are better days ahead. Hang in there tired momma! You’re pouring love over your baby as you wake for each overnight cry.
It will get better!
Having trouble getting your baby to sleep through the night? Or looking for sample baby schedules? Sign up for my free ebook, Sample Schedules & Sleep Tips!
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Read more about Ellie’s schedules and first year transitions here: