Updated: Nov 26, 2020
As a creative, the nighttime is often when inspiration hits (although, in my case, it’s more accurate to say early morning—it seems whether I've done an evening family photo shoot or a morning newborn portrait session, I end up with images that beg to be worked on at 3 a.m.). It’s ironic, then, that I have children who sleep so peacefully and have since almost the beginning of their young lives. It could be a matter of design—maybe some bodies are built for sleep and some are not. It could be seasonal—maybe they will inherit my weakness and struggle with sleep in the future. That remains to be seen. But regardless of their future, their foundation in sleep habits was an intentional effort on our part as parents.
I am by no means a sleep expert (obviously), but I thought I would share our experience with sleep training our babies. There are many opinions out there on the topic (maybe as many methods as there are mamas), but we can learn from one another, taking what’s useful and leaving what’s not. So I offer my experience here for those who want to read it, only because nothing reminds us more of the importance of sleep than having a newborn in the house.
These tips came from a sister-in-law who adopted a newborn and six months later adopted another newborn, a strong woman with a beautiful heart who hadn’t slept in months and hired a sleep coach because she was desperate. I sought her advice because my first baby was six months old and had previously been nursing to sleep beautifully and sleeping through the night but had recently begun waking up every couple of hours wanting to nurse and would wake up every time I tried to lay her down. I myself was becoming desperate.
Here’s what I learned:
1) Help your newborn learn routine:
This is a really tough part of being a new parent—altering your life in major ways to accommodate this new life you have been gifted. Many new parents want the baby to just fit in with the life they were leading before—and this works for some families and some babies. But I was told and found it to be true for us, the more we stuck to a routine, the better our baby slept and really, the easier our life was.
We found a 7 o’clock bedtime was best. We didn’t include a bath in the routine—some families do, but I think in this Colorado climate, you risk drying out their brand new, beautiful skin. The routine that worked for us? Low lights, change into pajamas and a fresh diaper, a book (even for an infant), a special song, lay them in their crib awake with a cheerful “Good night!” and then leave. Bedtime is meant to be happy, full of love and tenderness, even as the wailing begins when you leave the room…
2) Cry it out (with compassion)
Our six month old baby was not pleased with this new routine, to say the least. Here is the “cry it out” method I learned: When you’ve closed the door with a happy, “Good night!” count to ten seconds and then pop your head back in and say, “Good night!” again. Double the time you count and pop your head back in. Continue to double the time you count and then pop back in until your baby has fallen asleep. Do not hold, stroke or snuggle, just visually support your baby through this transition. The baby knows you are there, knows that you love and care, but you are giving him or her a chance to learn to self soothe. What do you do when the baby wakes up for a midnight feeding? Depending on their age, either keep them awake through a feeding and go through the routine again, or skip the feeding and just go through the routine again.
It took 45-60 minutes of crying the first night, but by the third night, she knew the routine and only cried ten minutes or so. I remember this great feeling of accomplishment—I had helped my baby learn a new skill and the whole family benefited from it.
3) Get a nap routine
Maybe this tip is just an extension of tip #1, but it’s worth mentioning that an established nap routine during the day seemed to help with consistent sleep through the night as well. Our first baby was ready at 6 months for a two-nap-a-day routine, and was ready for that first nap much sooner than my adult brain expected. Based on the expert’s advice, my sister-in-law advised a first nap only an hour and a half after the baby had woken up in the morning, and this seemed to work great for my first and my second baby. They both took two naps a day until about 12 or 18 months when they only needed one nap after lunch. This is the season I lovingly refer to as baby-jail, because there seems to be so much to accomplish as a mama who needs to run errands and so little time to do it when there is all that sleeping going on. But, again, the commitment to a solid routine seemed to make a significant difference for my babies.
Again, I am no sleep expert, and if your experience was or is different, or if you want to challenge my assumptions, please leave a comment below. We can only grow and learn from each other by sharing our stories, and we’re so limited these days to virtual communication (let’s be honest, virtual communication has so many shortcomings, but we’re doing our best, right?).
My hope is that my story of sleep training will find you in your parenthood journey when you happen to need it most, and if nothing else, you can just enjoy these images from a recent newborn portrait session I was so honored to help capture and reflect on how far your own family has come.
A thousand blessings on your parenthood journey, in whatever phase you are!
Update: It has come to my attention that pairing this information on sleep training with pictures of newborns could create the unrealistic expectation that newborns should sleep through the night right away. This was not my intention. My baby was six months old when we sleep trained and, as I am not an expert nor a medical professional, I cannot say the perfect age to help a baby sleep through the night. I can only share my story here in hopes of inspiring someone who may be feeling desperate or just plain exhausted.
Holly Freeman is an in-home lifestyle newborn photographer. Her newborn portrait sessions capture babies in their most natural environment: their family's arms. Please reach out if you need newborn images of your own, or if you just want to chat about the challenges of raising littles!