Here in France, almost immediately following the warm congratulations for your new baby, is the question: "Does he sleep through the night?" (Il fait ses nuits?) Just like in the USA! I don't know about the rest of the world, but it seems the French are about as dependent on their sleep as us Americans! Sleepless nights (nuits blanches) lurk precariously on the edge of the blissful cloud of newborn parenting as much for the Frenchies as for us!
Now granted, some babies just seem to naturally sleep through the night at a very young age while others take months and even years. Is there really anything a parent can do?
Being a new mom to my firstborn Alex was filled with that joyful, blissful cloud but was gradually darkened by sleep deprivation and an awful sense of doom everytime he cried because that had to mean he wanted to nurse again, didn't it? He would sleep all day and be awake all night (or so it seemed). To counterbalance his "baby jetlag", we'd try to keep him awake late in the evening hoping he would get tired and then sleep at night. Didn't work. In my mind, there had to be a better way!
When I was pregnant with Elena, I was introduced to a book called Babywise. Then when Elena was born, she became my Babywise guinea pig! I learned how to better read my baby's cues, she nursed more efficiently and slept through the night at exactly 9 weeks old! I was a calmer and better rested mommy! I loved the method so much I used it again for Gabriela, who also slept through the night at exactly 9 weeks old! So when I found out I was expecting another baby, I knew I'd be babywising again. Rémy is taking a bit longer, but his night-time stretches between feedings have gone from 7 to 9 to 10 hours in a week's time! (He'll be 10 weeks old tomorrow.)
The underlying principle of Babywise is that by organizing your baby's feeding, alert and sleep times, you not only help your baby to be calm, healthy and happy, but you also help him to learn to sleep through the night! Using a combination of your baby's cues + intervals of time, mommy and baby learn to establish healthy patterns.
Here's how it's worked for me and my babies. (I breastfed my babies, but the same basic principles apply for formula-fed babies.) The first week, I feed on demand. When my baby is hungry, I let him nurse no matter how often. This is important for establishing milk supply. I also weigh my baby regularly to make sure he is thriving. A thriving baby is one who is gaining weight and content and this is the essential and primary goal. A baby who is thriving is far more important than a baby who sleeps through the night at this point. Once I know my baby is thriving, we start to organize his feeding, alert and sleep times.
- Feeding time: Your newborn may want to nurse every 1-2 hours in the beginning and that's okay. He may also become sleepy at the breast. Rouse him by tickling his side or his feet, gently tapping on his bottom, undressing him down to his diaper, or squeezing your breast so he gets a squirt of milk in his mouth. Help him nurse until he empties your breast and put him on the second breast if necessary. If your baby feeds well at each feeding, he's much more likely to hold out longer until the next feeding. As you see that your baby is thriving, you can begin stretching his feeding times out to two hours, then two and a half, three and so on. (The final goal is about every four hours.) If he gets hungry too quickly, help him wait a bit by letting him suck on your pinky or swaddling him snuggly or rocking him gently. This is a progressive process, so don't try to stretch out his feeding times too quickly or drastically. At night, let baby wake on his own to feed.
- Alert time: Once your baby has nursed, rather than letting him fall asleep at the breast, put him in front of you, gently talk to him, try to make eye contact and keep him awake even if it's only for a few seconds! This will help your baby learn that it's daytime and this is when we interact with each other. As your baby gets older and thrives, his alert times will gradually increase. At night, there shouldn't be an alert period. Speak to your baby in hushed tones and help him fall asleep as soon as he is done nursing.
- Sleep time: When your baby sleeps during the day, never let him go longer than three hours between two feedings. Wake your baby if necessary and stimulate him so that he nurses properly. This sounds counter-intuitive? I know, but helping your baby nurse regularly during the day will help him understand the difference between day feedings and night feedings. Above all, his little tummy will get used to having milk at regular intervals. But it does take time, so be patient. Also, avoid the temptation to let your baby sleep for more than necessary during the day just so you can get things done! It's a sacrifice, but it will pay off! I promise!
And that's it! Those are the basic principles! When your baby gets closer to two months of age, his feeding intervals should be about once every four hours. And then magically, you'll notice that he will start to sleep for longer and longer stretches of time at night until one morning you'll wake up and realize he has slept through the night! (Unless you're like me and you still wake up in the middle of the night just to make sure your baby is okay!)
What I love about Babywise is the confidence that it has given me as a mommy! Whereas with Alex every cry was instantly calmed by nursing him (resulting in a very fatigued and stressed out mom), I have now learned to better understand my babies' cries! Because I don't automatically put baby on the breast every time he cries, I am forced to stop and observe my baby's cues and I've learned that a baby has different cries and that they all mean something different! For example, as I've stretched out feeding times, I've often observed that baby wasn't really hungry, but just needed help falling asleep. On the other hand, when my baby is truly hungry, it's easier for me to know because I've learned to read his cry and body language. On the same token, I love that this method leads to a healthy pattern of feeding and sleeping by the parent gently leading the baby while using the baby's cues.
Ironically, in France, a calm baby is a wise baby.
Il est sage.
Il est sage.
How about you?
How do you help your baby sleep through the night?
Sweet dreams, mommas!
-the Paris Busy Bee