When I was healing from endometriosis I had to do a major check in on sleep. As in, I wasn't doing it very well. Waking up at 3 am, sleeping lightly, sleeping maybe 9 hours as still not feeling rested. Sleep, it turns out, is absolutely vital to healing from anything! It's the time when your body's proverbial night janitors come out, sooth your inflammation, repair your damage, detoxify your stuffs, and this is the reason you should wake up feeling rested. Because you are.
I worked hard at this and won the sleep game. I slept hard, deep slumbers if a bear kind of hard, and started feeling a-perfecto upon waking. Then I had a baby.
Do Babies Ever Sleep??
Long story short: yes. Yes they do. But when you've just come to out of your post-birth stupor ("did I really just do that?") it suddenly becomes a reality that you don't get to sleep it off. Not for a while.
I didn’t fully understand about newborns sleeping, so for those of you without kids here’s the deal: newborns are inefficient at breastfeeding so they latch on for about 30-45 minutes. Then, they feed about every 2 hours … from the start of the last feeding, not the end of the last feeding. 2 hrs - 45 min = 1hr 15min. Yup, about 1hr 15 min between each feeding to a) sleep, b) eat, or c) curse the world for how tired you are. This is legit sleep-deprivation torture.
One day, at about 2 weeks post-partum, a high school acquaintance sent me unsolicited advice about how to help my baby sleep because the sleepless nights were very hard on her and she wanted to pass on what she had learned. I almost cried - not because she sent unsolicited advice but because people who are tired cry easily. Also because I really needed some straightforward advice and here it was! Now, 4 months later, my baby sleeps through the whole night, every night. There is hope ladies, I promise.
Let me note that the information below is the most non-indiginous or ancestral information I have on my entire site. Most all indiginous cultures nurse on demand for at least 2 years, with anthropological observations showing "on-demand" means every 15 minutes. Then baby shares a sleeping mat with Mom and feeds all night as needed. My biomechanics guru Katy Bowman even suggests continual breastfeeding like this helps jaws correctly form and develop ... sorry Katy!
I'm sure this is the way it's supposed to be! But, we're also supposed to be supported by a close knit group of women just a few steps away, lots of relaxation time, strong cultural connections, no screens, and no going back to work. Ahhhh yes, sounds lovely. However, I do not have an indigenous tribe of women to help me get through sleepless nights, I did have to go back to work, so I had to make due where I could. I knew we had to find a balanced place in our own family so that I could be a happy, rested mother.
Making it Count so you can stay Healthy
As a Nutritional Therapist who understands just how important sleep is, I believe it's really important to help both you and your baby get back to expert sleeping. You, obviously, because we want you to keep on restoring that fabulous body back to health. And baby so s/he can be rested too, since if you didn't know at least 25 percent of U.S. children 5 and younger have some sort of sleep issue (here). Yikes!! The last thing we want is a 5 year old with terrible sleep patterns meaning no sleep for us either. At least, that's the last thing I want ;)
Baby sleep experts emphasize that - just like walking and potty training - babies need to be helped to learn how to sleep. This was news to me, but as I stared tiredly at my own very "awake" baby that somehow hated to sleep with all his tiny baby heart I realized there may be some merit in this. Truly, newborns are born without any clue how to sleep for long stretches, or even when it's night or day, so it’s up to you to help them learn. I was intrigued, and really did my best to help baby boy get there so he learned to love sleeping just as much as mom and dad.
Now we all enjoy sleeping soundly through the night, together :) #bestfamilyactivityeverrrrrr
How To Help Your Baby Learn to Love Sleep
Here's the lowdown, every baby is different so the details in my own baby won't really matter. But here are the main points that may help you - sweet tired woman who I have so much empathy for - start getting a better night sleep.
1) Get these books
The two books I highly recommend if you want to help nudge your baby in this direction from the start without any cry-it-out sort of techniques I found in Bringing up Bebe, and 12 Hours by 12 Weeks. I didn’t follow either one exactly - I thought some of the advice was a bit cold and some of it awesome - and instead did more of a pick-and-chose via my own little guys personality. But they're great reads while you're stuck on the couch breastfeeding that first month :)
2) Diet and Exercise (for the baby)
Diet and exercise for a baby?? Yup, of course! Diet being your breastmilk, exercise being all the fun activities I post about in my natural-baby-movement blog coming up. Quick synopsis:
- Newborns have energy too, believe it or not, but they need help moving. If you don't help them move during the day they can't properly get their energy out.
- The fat in your breastmilk is directly correlated to the fat you eat in your mama-diet (no, not the fat on your frame). So throw the low-fat foods away and immediately hop off that calorie-restriction pre-baby body diet, and instead start eating a lot more fat. Good fats of course. Just like you'll feel satiated for much longer if you eat a ribeye, baby will feel satiated longer if his/her tummy is full of "buttermilk".
- Things you eat, your baby can react to. Most all colicky babies are a result of just that! When Elias was a month old I thought maybe he was allergic to my raw milk consumption, but my doctor assured me this was very rare. My instincts told the doctor to shush, so I cut out my precious raw milk and, low and behold, Elias was a new man. A new very tiny man, but still much happier. So follow your instincts if baby seems overly fussy or unhappy, try playing around with your diet to see if that can help. The biggest aggravators are dairy, cruciferous veggies, and spicy foods.
- **Please do not feed your infant rice formula to help sleep through the night! I saw this was a baby sleep hack some people recommended and nearly fell off my breastfeeding couch. Infants (or even babies before 1 year) do not have the digestive capacity for starches like this, and it is not good for them. Ever. Nuff said. No arguments.
3) The Tricks
Ok, you're feeling better educated about newborn sleep patterns, your own body is nourished with delicious ancestral fats and you're feeling ready to tackle the sleeping game! Here are the 3 tips that helped me most in nudging our baby giant into sleeping through the night.
**I've heard these tips may only work if you start before 4 months old. After that I believe children may get into patterns they learned through their infancy, and you'll have to figure out a different way to help them learn to sleep. This is just what helped us from the getgo.
- The Pause - newborns are so loud! Did you know that? And us as new mothers are jumpy, so the second baby coos or yells or gurgles we’re there to save the day. The thing is, sometimes the baby is just making noises in their sleep, and when we grab them we’re actually wake them up. The Pause is a method that allows you to hear a noise, watch your baby for a minute or two to see if they actually need you, then either pick them up them OR be really excited when you see they’re back asleep. Seriously, wait at least one or two full minutes, not just 10 seconds. They need that time to nestle themselves back asleep.
What this does is helps them learn to connect their sleep cycles, which are 2 hours long. And the more cycles they learn to connect, the less they wake up. It also trains the baby that, when he wakes up you won't immediately grab him and soothe him, so s/he'll learn to calmly fall back asleep by themselves. This is what you want them to learn so they're not screaming for you the second they wake up after 1, 2, or 5 years old...
For me this took more self control than I realized, because knowing I could just grab my stirring baby and quickly feed him back to sound sleep was very enticing at 3 am rather than waittttingggg to see if he was awake, but stick with it! It's worth a little less sleep in the beginning so a week later you can have a lot more sleep overall.When I started doing this, baby boy immediately (that very night) connected one sleep cycle, and from then on out I was getting a 5 hour stretch. After a few months, he naturally connected all of them.
- Elongate your day feedings - this takes a while because new babies eat every 2-3 hours on the regular, depending on your kiddo. However, if you slowly nudge them as they get a big bigger to feed between longer intervals, you help their stomach to get bigger too. 12 Hours by 12 Weeks had the goal of feeding every 4 hours at 3 months, which seemed wayyyyy too long of spacing for my own tiny baby, so listen to your instincts no matter what!
We finally nudged Elias to eat at 3 hour intervals by maybe 3.5 months. Not only does this help them sleep, but it also helped me feel less like a human milk machine since I can go out for longer periods and not worry about nursing him all the time. Now I'm only half milk machine, and starting to feel more rested ;) **I would only consider this if your breastmilk supply is well established and baby is healthy as can be.
- Take them outside during the day - just like you need to be outside during the day, so does baby. Sunlight and fresh air signal to them that it's awake time (remember they're born confused), and then at night make their room very very dark to signal "sleep time". Seems simple, but not enough children are getting outside. If you're sore or healing, simply sit on the porch with baby and have your partner bring you delicious foods while you read your books :)
Cold, rainy, or snowy out? Sit by a window and let the natural light filter in onto baby's face. Yours too.
- Get into a routine - as I mentioned, my baby was not born a sleeper. He could go 6-8 hours as a newborn without a nap!! Maybe he was too excited to play with such an awesome mom ;)? I don't know, but I really had to instill sleep into his routine. I heard put them down the second you see a yawn, a face rub, any sign of exhaustion. Good advice... for others, but baby Elias would simply not have it.
To help such a tiny little guy learn to love sleep as much as mom, I made a very, very consistent bed time and routine, so that his circadian rhythm caught on. Ours was at 6:30pm on. the. dot. Even if it took me the dreaded hour to actually coax him to sleep, he still got a bath, a rubbed belly with the most BEAUTIFUL calming scents (per the picture), and went into the dark bedroom at this time - night after night. As he got older (about 3 months) we added a very consistent morning nap around 9 am. Slowly, he realized what happens when we go into the dark room, play ocean wave music, and cuddle. Sleep, that's what happens.
For a baby who used to fight bed and naps with all his baby Tarzan might, I can now put Elias down well-fed but awake at night, and he'll coo himself to sleep. Sometimes he'll even be asleep when I put him in his crib but wake up to do push ups for 10-15 minutes (no joke) until he's finally tired enough to sleep on his own - without calling me back into the room to help him. This is called self-soothing, and it may seen as elusive to you as a genie-in-a-bottle right now, but if Elias can do it, so too can yours.
Although it takes patience in laying the groundwork for this to happen (especially if your baby is overactive), be patient but diligent and watch things unfold. You're a wonderful, competent mother doing her very best, so be kind to yourself, patient, and watch your baby follow your lead ;)
Again, every baby is different, so play around with what formula works for you. And read the two suggested books if you want some extra ideas!
I am a Nutritional Therapist, certified though the Nutritional Therapy Association, but I am not a dietitian, doctor, or medical professional, and this site is solely for guidance and information to give people more information to make an informed decision about their own bodies best treatment plan. Please check with your doctor, pediatrician, or care provider before making changes in your life.