When you have a job, the usual rules for getting infants to sleep through the night don’t cut it.
When my formerly good sleeper started waking up as often as six times per night at around the 7-month mark, I started to feel desperate. It’s so hard to go to work on such little sleep. But I didn’t want to do cry it out again. I failed miserably with my firstborn. And I read so many internet comments about what a horrible mom I was for trying cry it out that I felt awful for even entertaining the idea again.
It turned out I had made so many mistakes with the “extinction” technique, despite diligently following online advice, that of course it didn’t work. After I spoke with family, educational and corporate sleep specialist Whitney Roban, Ph.D., founder of SLEEP-EEZ KIDZ and Sleep Well/Work Well, which offers corporate sleep programs for all employees, including working parents, and author of Devin & Evan Sleep From 8-7 and Devin & Evan Play Fortnite Until 11, I was convinced to give it another go. For me, the extinction method made more sense than the progressive/Ferber/check and re-check method. The former tends to take a few days. The latter tends to take upwards of a week. Working moms don’t have upwards of a week. Spoiler alert: The extinction method worked, and if I have a third child, I’ll name her Whitney after the magical woman who brought sleep back to our restless family. Stick with me, and you can be a well-rested working mom again.
Step 1: Ignore the haters. Sanctimommies love populating the internet with guilt-inducing drivel about why cry it out is evil and how even doctors who once supported the practice have turned their backs on it. Don’t take their word for it; hell, don’t take mine. Google “cry it out studies” and you’ll see science is mostly on the side of giving it a shot. If your baby doesn’t get 11 to 12 hours of sleep a night, and three hours of napping during the day, he’s probably not getting enough rest. Why wouldn’t a loving parent do what she can to help him fulfill that biological need? It usually takes two or three nights of crying until he can sleep through. Yes, babies cry when they need something, but they also cry when they want something and when they’re overtired. Staying put when your infant’s wailing in his crib goes against every mommy instinct. Do it anyway. I never thought I’d write those three words, and I’m already anticipating commenters telling me I’m an unfit mother. After meeting me and my sweet, well-rested boy, they’d probably feel differently.
Step 2: Get your pediatrician’s OK. Your baby should be at least 4-months-old and 14 pounds before you stop feeding him overnight. He also shouldn’t be sick when you start or have serious digestive issues. But don’t let a case of the sniffles hold you back—because daycare babies would never get sleep-trained then. Talk to your practitioner to be sure you’re good to go.
Step 3: Designate two weeks as your sleep-training weeks. No, that doesn’t mean your kid is going to cry for 14 days straight. Pick a fortnight during which your routine will be, well, routine. You’ll leave for and return from work at regular hours, your child will be in the care of the regular person or center while you’re working, he’ll be sleeping in the crib or cribs and room or rooms in which he usually sleeps (read: don’t try to sleep-train while on vacation, when you have to travel long distances or during some life upheaval).
Step 4: Start those two weeks on a Friday. The first night is going to suck for everyone in your home (unless you have an older child or partner who is a super sound sleeper). You would not be able to function at work the morning after an early-sleep-training night so don’t try. Since it can take a few nights for your child to get it, it’s best to take Monday off, but if you can’t schedule this for a long weekend (I couldn’t), you’ll survive; the sleep deprivation won’t be any worse than it is when you repeatedly soothe your poor sleeper.
Step 5: Prep the crib. Keep the crib free of everything, save for a mattress and a tight-fitting sheet. Mobiles might help a child fall asleep, but they can become a crutch, meaning that your baby can’t drift off without its hypnotic force.
Step 6: Plan to have your baby in his crib by 7 p.m. Really, Dr. Roban suggested 6 p.m., but I don’t even walk in the door until 6:30. 7 p.m. also seemed impossible, but we make it happen because sleep is a priority. (Baths on the other hand …) And keep things mellow in the interim.
Step 7: Gather everything you need for bedtime and put it in your child’s room. When you walk over the threshold of their room, don’t leave again until they’re in their crib. Have your baby witness you prepare the room for sleep, dimming the lights, putting on white noise, closing the door and blinds. “If kids are active participants in their sleep, they will accept it more than if it were being done to them,” Dr. Roban says.
Step 8: Do a quick routine in your baby’s room. I nurse my baby first. The only reasons not to feed your child as part of the routine is if he falls asleep while sucking or digestion makes him uncomfortable. When his belly’s full, I read a book, sing a song and give a verbal cue, “something you say right before you leave the room,” Dr. Roban explains. “The verbal cue can be ‘I love you, I’ll see you in the morning.’ It can be a line of a prayer. Whatever feels comfortable.” Everyone who puts your baby to bed should follow the same routine, but everyone’s verbal cue can be different. Just don’t let the routine go longer than 15 minutes. “You’re risking a child becoming overtired, which makes it physically more difficult for them to fall asleep,” says Dr. Roban. And only one caregiver should do the routine at a time. It’s too stimulating with two. “When you have a consistent bedtime routine and everything’s the same every night, even though the baby isn’t deciding what the routine is, they feel that they are in control because they know what’s going to happen. It’s very comforting for them.”
Step 9: Put your baby in the crib. Don’t rock him first; you want to put him down while he’s still awake, but drowsy. If he can roll from belly to back and back again, put him on his tummy. They’re usually comfier that way, but get your ped’s OK.
Step 10: Shut the light, close the door, walk out, and don’t go back in until 6 a.m.. Your baby will likely be crying. Keep walking. I know it’s hard. You’ve got this. “If one night you stay there and you rub their back, another night you yell because you’re exhausted, another night you bring them into your room, they don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re just going to keep pulling all the stops because they’re not sure and something they’re going to do will get them what they want,” says Dr. Roban. Even opening the door to check on them can set back the process. “Once they learn, this is how it’s going to be every single night, they love it. It lowers the anxiety because they know what’s coming next.”
Step 11: Turn on the monitor. Got a video one? Good. Make the volume low and watch your baby. The only reasons to go in are if he looks sick or hurt. Peeing or pooping doesn’t count, so be generous with the diaper cream. Crying hard doesn’t either. “He’s crying because he’s frustrated with what we’re teaching him, to learn a self-soothing skill,” Dr. Roban assured me. Binge-watch some Netflix because it’s going to be a long night (sorry). He will stop crying and fall asleep eventually. And then he’ll wake up in the middle of the night. Don’t go in then either. This is how he’ll learn to put himself back to sleep. You’ll also notice as sleep-training goes on that he’ll do something to soothe himself right before he nods off, such as rubbing his pajamas or twirling his hair. My baby kicks one leg. Every. Time.
Step 12: Go in at 6 a.m., or whenever he wakes up if it’s after then. Even if he’s too tired to crack a smile when you retrieve him, rest assured, he still loves you. It’s important not to go in before 6, though, even if you’re awake enough to start the day sooner. “If he wakes up and it’s still dark out and he knows somebody’s coming in, he’s not going to go back to sleep. That 5 a.m. wake-up will end up being 4:45, then it’ll be 4:30 and then the next thing you know he’ll be waking up again in the middle of the night. The most difficult sleep issue to fix and takes the longest is early rising.”
You’ll do the same thing every night now. The only things that’ll change? How long he’ll cry before he falls asleep (if he cries at all!) and how often you’ll hear him get up in the middle of the night. You’ll need to deviate when you sleep out of the house or have otherwise-unordinary schedules. A day or two that’s different here and there won’t wreak havoc. Three days in a row could, but you can get things back to normal in a week or less.
Unfortunately, though, your job isn’t done. “It’s important for families that can’t adhere to a super early bedtime to do a good job focusing on naps. The better napper he is, the later his bedtime can be,” Dr. Roban explains.
A few guidelines to help with naps: Avoid using motion to put your baby to sleep, and tell daytime caregivers to do the same. That means no swings, no pushing a stroller back and forth to induce sleep and no car rides during naptime, when possible. The reason: You don’t want your baby to require motion to fall asleep.
Nothing should happen in your baby’s crib besides sleep. Don’t put him there for playing or even for keeping him safe for a minute while you pee. Use a different safe spot, say, a play yard, for those moments.
If possible, put your baby down in a quiet, dark room. At daycare, you can request a quiet(er), dark(er) corner. They might not be able to accommodate; can’t hurt to ask.
Dr. Roban put my baby on a three-nap-a-day schedule, which is pretty typical for 7-month-olds (around 8/9 months they might drop a nap):
8 a.m. to 9 a.m
11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
“But he goes to daycare” or “We have a nanny,” you say. “I can’t control his naps!” You can’t entirely, but you can share this schedule and the below steps with your child’s caregiver(s). I told our daycare center director I worked with a sleep doctor and shared what we’re going to be doing at home. “Ask them, ‘What can you do the same?’” It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Just request that they be consistent with the routine. Dr. Roban kindly spoke to the head teacher at my son’s daycare and noted how following these rules ultimately would make her job easier. Naps aren’t perfect at school every day, but he seems to be getting enough restorative sleep most days because he’s not usually overtired for bedtime.
Does my baby actually sleep for an hour every two hours? Of course not. With that as your goal, here are some more steps to follow.
Step 1: Look for sleepy cues. If it’s 7:30 a.m. and your baby is already rubbing his eyes, it’s naptime, even though he’s not technically due to go down for another half hour.
Step 2: Follow steps 7 to 9 above. Yes, you’re really going to read a book, sing a song and give a verbal cue every time you do naptime. Ask your caregiver to do the same, but understand that daycare providers have a few other babies to worry about so their routine might just be a verbal cue.
Step 3: Walk out and don’t go back in for an hour. Nap-training doesn’t work as quickly as sleep-training. Although your baby might be sleeping through the night by day 3, naps might suck for a while longer. So yeah, you might have to let your baby cry for that whole hour the first try or two. A daycare might not be willing to do the same. Try to convince them anyway. “Babies get confused when they get picked up before they go to sleep,” says Dr. Roban.
Step 4: Retrieve your baby if he’s awake. But give him a few minutes to hang out before you go in. If your baby didn’t sleep for at least a half-hour, try doing your pre-nap routine again in 20 minutes and putting him down again. Naps less than half an hour long aren’t helpful to a baby's body or mind. If your child is still sleeping at the hour mark, let him sleep.
Step 5: Pay attention to how long he naps. His next nap should take place X time from when he wakes up, where X is the amount he slept (if more than half an hour) + an hour. So if he snoozed for half an hour, his next nap is an hour-and-a-half from his wake-up time. If he slept for 45 minutes, his next nap is an hour-and-45-minutes from his-wake-up time. An hour is the ideal nap length for a baby sleeping three times a day, so he should go down again two hours later. No need to wake him if he sleeps for more than an hour; simply adjust the schedule according to the formula above—or try for another nap when he shows cues that he’s tired. The only reason to wake him would be if he sleeps past 4:30 p.m. As such, don’t put him down for a nap past 3:30.
So what does this all look like in real life? The first night, the baby cried for just over an hour—Dr. Roban said the average protest is 45 minutes long. And then he slept for nearly five hours straight. He woke up and cried again for an hour and 40 minutes. I was a teary mess. He woke up for the day at 10 to 6. Naps were equally shitshowy.
The second night, the baby cried for 50 minutes before falling asleep. He slept for nearly seven uninterrupted hours. It was heaven. He then cried for 25 minutes and fell back asleep until 20 to 6.
The third night, he cried for 27 minutes before falling asleep for the night. He woke up coughing just 20 minutes later, but got himself back to sleep quickly after that. He slept for seven-and-a-half hours. But he spent an hour and 15 minutes crying before he got himself back to sleep once more.
By night four, Monday night, we were in a good place. He cried for just two minutes when I initially put him in his crib! He slept for just shy of 10 hours without waking. The pattern continued from there. He’s supposed to get between 11 and 12 hours of sleep a night, and he usually gets about 10 ½, which is a win since we can’t control his napping during the week.
Naps were still a mess at that point, so Dr. Roban emailed with me every day for about a month, giving me support and guidance that really helped.
Now, at 11 months, my baby naps for about two hours a day at daycare, and usually the full three hours when he’s home on the weekends.
When we sleep at my mom’s or my in-laws', the night is more unpredictable. And when he’s sick or teething, there might be a wake-up. But he’s able to get himself back to sleep, except when he’s feeling extra rotten. I mostly stick to his napping schedule on the weekends. Luckily, when we can’t swing it, it doesn’t seem to have a totally awful effect on his overnight sleep. Being on the other side of things now, I wish I hadn’t waited so long to sleep-train. I recommend the extinction method to anyone. My baby is a happy guy and goes to bed without crying most nights.
Full disclosure: Dr. Roban offered her services to me without a fee, but if her help didn’t work, I wouldn’t have written about it.
Written by Meredith Bodgas for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.