9 Surprising Things We Did When Our Baby Quit Sleeping

dealing with baby sleep problems and sleep regressions. CanDoKiddo.com

Have you heard of or experienced the (dreaded, infamous, cursed) "4 month baby sleep regression?" Apparently our baby got confused and thought that this meant he should sleep terribly for four months! He went from predictably waking 2 times a night to nurse to waking every 45-60 minutes ALL.NIGHT.LONG. This went beyond sleep regression - it was sleep torture.

Frantic Googling for the miracle baby sleep fix reassured me of two things - (1) we were not alone in our suffering, and (2) [SPOILER  ALERT] there is no miracle fix.  We had begun a four month sleep saga that would rattle our sanity, our physical endurance, our patience and our confidence as parents. 

The topics of sleep and helping your baby do it well have a tendency to elicit an army of parents perched high on soapboxes screaming at each other about how others are doing it wrong and screwing up their children forever.  That's not what this is about at all. I've chosen to share our sleep nightmare and the less-than-traditional ways that we survived it because:

  • Reading about how other babies also sleep horrendously made me feel better. Misery loves company and as sleep-deprived-zombie parents, we're all in this thing together.

  • Other people's stories of finding things that helped their baby sleep gave us hope. And hope is one thing we really, really needed!

  • In a sea of "quick fixes", plans and programs to CURE your baby of sleep issues (or make you feel guilty that you did it "wrong" from day 1), it can be reassuring to know that there isn't one right way for all babies.

Here are the surprising steps we took to get our baby to nap better, sleep longer at night and let his parents resume normal mental functioning. 

Baby Waking Every Hour.jpg

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We Read Sleep Books We Didn't Agree With

Full disclaimer - when I say "read", I mean super-skimmed and skipped to the parts that were relevant to our situation. I read 5 sleep books in a month (I'll share the titles in this post), several advocating for sleep training methods that I wasn't comfortable with.

But, every single book I read offered some nugget of better understanding, some suggestion or tip that made sense, or some perspective that broadened my view of my baby's sleep struggles. The most interesting thing? ALL the books shared some common assertions and common suggestions that helped us (daily rhythms, pre-sleep routines, sleep associations, etc.).

We Talked to Other Parents Without Judgement

This was tough.  It was way easier to talk about sleep issues with an iron grip around my philosophy and my beliefs (despite the fact that they clearly weren't working for us). But there was much more value in letting my defenses down and listening, really listening, to what other parents did, how their babies slept, and how they felt as parents. That last part is key - in every parent's story was a solution that they found that WORKED and that FELT RIGHT TO THEM. There was huge value in having a rich range of experiences to reflect on. And by withholding my judgement, I was able to feel more connected to other parents who had sleep struggles, regardless of how we were choosing to address them. 

I Let Myself Cry It Out

Sometimes (daily), I just told my closest friends, family or my husband, "I don't want solutions or more things to try, I just want to cry over how hard this is and how tired I am."

and 8 other surprising ways we dealt with baby sleep problems. CanDo Kiddo

We Used Mantras

"How is he sleeping?" is the baby small talk equivalent of "what do you do for work?" When you haven't slept more than 60 consecutive minutes in months, this innocent question can unleash a torrent of rage, a tearful meltdown or utter frustration. We came up with two stock responses - our "mantras" and I also repeated them to myself in the lonely, dark, screaming hours of the night.  My two mantras were:

  • "He's really so good at a lot of things. Sleep is just not one of them."

  • "We're working on it and things are getting better."

We Tackled Naps First

This was a tip from my older brother (who, as much as I hate to admit it, gives the best advice around). His point was that during the daylight hours, you'll have far more patience and better be able to stick to any "plan" you decide on. Things don't feel like a crisis when the sun is up.  The bar is also lower for a nap - more than an hour is a huge victory (whereas our hopes for nighttime sleep were 4+ hour stretches). Since napping was a complete disaster for us, we had plenty to work on!

The book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child {affiliate} totally opened my eyes to the causes of and symptoms of over-tiredness and revolutionized napping in our home. I used sleep and feeding logs from The Dream Sleeper {affiliate}, which helped me see patterns. These books and our sleep/feeding logs helped me realize that 6:30pm was Rowan's ideal bedtime, that he still needed a third nap long after most babies drop that one, and that his first nap of the day needed to start no more than 1 - 1.5 hours after he woke up for the day.  These were our baby's own unique sleep quirks and before I started really tracking his patterns, I was totally missing his cues.

When naptimes started improving, my mental health started improving. I regained some confidence, caught some daytime shut-eye myself, and started feeling really proud of my baby for learning to settle himself down to sleep and stay asleep for up to 2 hours! I was feeling more confident and ready to tackle nighttime sleep. 

We Consulted A Sleep Guru

I spilled our sleep struggles to a sleep consultant who offered free initial consultations over the phone. The biggest thing the consultation did was reassure us that we were indeed facing problematic sleep - not a phase, not teething, not a growth spurt. There was a strange comforting validation in this sad fact and reassured me that we were right to make big changes.

My husband and I discussed hiring her if things didn't get better in 6 weeks (a.k.a. a lifetime when you're not sleeping). The mere thought of writing a big check to a sleep guru brought some things into perspective and we started to think a little bit more objectively and set some concrete goals.

We Made Up Our Own (Detailed) Plan

One of the themes in every single book I read was that consistency is key. Most sleep books offer some sort of a detailed plan or program with defined steps to follow. I couldn't find a program that felt completely right to my "mommy gut" so we made one up.

My reading had taught me that any good sleep plan doesn't just address what you do when your baby wakes up at night. Together, we agreed on a comprehensive plan that included shifting feeding times to after naps instead of nursing to sleep, adhering to a set-in-stone pre-sleep routine (same for naps and nights), established one and only one sleeping spot (the crib), outlined the conditions under which we would go to him when he woke up and defined key words and touches we'd use to comfort when we went to our crying child.

I printed out our plan (there were a lot of bolded letters and underlines) and taped it on Rowan's bedroom door. We held each other accountable and stuck to it. Just having a plan gave me hope. The fact that it started actually working was amazing!

Curious to know more about the Gentle Sleep Teaching plan that felt right for us (and worked!)? I share the details in this Facebook Live broadcast.

NOTE: Since originally publishing this post, I have discovered a baby sleep training plan that includes a plan VERY similar to ours. The ABC’s of Sleep course from Taking Cara Babies is far more comprehensive in its instructions and explanations than I will be and is written by sleep experts (and it includes a section on how to drop nighttime feedings without leaving you with a hungry crying baby). If you're thinking of commenting or emailing me to ask for my Gentle Sleep Teaching plan, just take The ABC’s of Sleep instead. You will NOT regret it!

We Shifted Our Parenting Approach

We never, ever wanted our baby to cry alone in a room. For months, we attended to his every peep. I felt that Cry It Out would traumatize me so I tried every gentle/no cry sleep approach I could find (and read The No-Cry Sleep Solution. But at some point, I realized that he WAS crying - all night long! And my gentleness was LONG gone at 3am when I would (brutal honesty here) shout, "ROWAN, just go to SLEEP!" 

And so we shifted. We changed our approach because it just wasn't working for our particular baby (fingers crossed it'll work with future babies, though!). We wound up letting him cry for short, predetermined amounts of time. Again, I'm not saying this is the right way or the only way, but ultimately, it was the way that our child was showing us worked for him. 

Reading Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems {affiliate}, which is the guide to the Ferber method, helped me realize that sleep teaching doesn't have to mean shutting the door on my crying baby all night long.  I wasn't comfortable with the durations prescribed in his book, so we set our own (shorter) crying increments and wrote them into our plan. 

We Ditched The Goal of Sleeping Through The Night

At 9 months our baby still wakes twice a night to nurse. And I'm okay with it. There, I said it. Does he actually need those calories? Shouldn't he be able to sleep 12 hours? Is he just waking up because he wants the connection with me? Ultimately, I don't know the answers to those questions because no one does.

I just know that we've arrived at a sleep situation we're all happy with. He goes down like a world-class sleeper for naps and stays down 1-2 hours, twice a day. Bedtimes are a breeze! He still has a habitual "10:30 wakeup" (which he's had since he was 4 months old) but most of the time re-settles himself within 2-3 minutes. Occasionally we go in and quickly soothe him. Nights are 12 hours long like clock-work.  Twice a night he calls out to me for milk, chows down and easily puts himself back to sleep. Would I love to sleep through the night? Of course. But I that's not my #1 goal right now. 

The Takeaway

If you've read this far, I'm guessing you have a baby in your home unintentionally inflicting sleep torture on you - first and foremost - I am so sorry. I wish I could reach through the screen and give you a hug, a tissue and a double espresso shot. You are likely in survival mode right now and searching for a quick fix. I'm also sorry I couldn't give you that.  Just remember that you're doing your best, and just because a plan or program doesn't work doesn't mean you are a failure or that your baby is broken. If I wrote a book about our plan, it would be called, "The Slow & Steady Way To Get Your Baby To Sleep More Than They Are Now But Not Quite As Much As You'd Like." Sometimes, that's reality. Not an easy, quick fix with a money-back guarantee. 

Open your mind to a variety of perspectives and approaches. Be a careful observer of your baby's patterns.  Find what works for your family - even if what works isn't what you thought or hoped would work. Trust your parenting gut. Hold onto hope that one day, somehow, you will wake up after 4+ consecutive hours of sleep and feel like a new person. 

**NOTE: As first-time parents, we chose to do a combination of room-sharing and co-sleeping/bed-sharing for babies first months of life. I've since become much more aware of the risks of co-sleeping and do not recommend it, nor did I repeat it with my second-born (although I did "floor-share" a few times during and after nursing sessions when I felt it was inevitable that I was going to fall asleep nursing in the rocking chair and I didn't want to drop her). I recommend that all parents (first-timers and veterans) review the Safe To Sleep / Back To Sleep guidelines for SIDS reduction so that you can make informed decisions about your child's sleep environment.

One of my favorite baby sleep posts:

Is Baby Sleep Training Selfish from A Mother Far From Home

Our Sleep Routine

Dohm White Noise Machine on
Diaper change in a dim room
Halo Sleep Sack
Cuddle Mr. Woofers
Storytime in the rocker
Placed awake in crib
Kiss & forehead rubs
Key words: "Shhh, night night" or "Shhh, happy nappy"


The Science of New Parent Sleep Deprivation

Some good friends who are scientists and filmmakers made this great video about new parent sleep deprivation on their Curious Parent YouTube Channel. 

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