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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

The Sleep Schedule From Outer Space

By Amalah

Amy,

I never thought I’d be writing an email like this, but here goes. Our third child is will be 8 months old around Christmas. He seems like a healthy, happy, normal human baby in almost all respects. However, I think he may be from another planet with a faster rotation, because his day does NOT add up to 24 hours.

Some background: I have two other children, ages almost-9 and 4, I homeschool my eldest and my middle child goes to preschool 4-5 mornings a week, we have food allergies that mean I make pretty much all our food from scratch from local ingredients (though I don’t always eat that way… I’m not allergic), I have low milk supply and feed the baby with a combination of nursing and formula (probably about half and half) and don’t want to lose my remaining supply, so I would like to keep one nursing in the middle of the night as long as the baby wants it. (I don’t give bottles in the night unless I’m desperate.) I want to keep nursing till he’s a year old.

Now here is what the baby is doing. He takes two naps of variable lengths around 9 and 1 (also variable times… more on that in a bit). An hour and a half is pretty standard, 45 minutes is usually the minimum, occasionally 2+ hours. He usually wakes up happy from them. He goes to bed around 6:30 or 7. He can and does often go to sleep on his own, for naps and nighttime, but often he also nurses or bottles to sleep just because he’s that tired. Sometimes he cries a little, but not longer than 10 minutes, and that’s unusual. Occasionally he’ll talk to himself for a while before he goes to sleep. But after he goes to bed … who knows what will happen.

I’ve started saying he doesn’t have a sleep schedule, he has a repertoire. He has been known to sleep 10 hours straight (did that twice, not in a row). Sometimes he just wakes up once. He’ll wake up at the same time a few nights in a row maybe (say, 2 am). Or not. Other times he wakes up twice; usually not more, unless he is sick. And then… sometime around 3:15, or 4:15, or 5, or (name your ungodly hour), he’ll wake up, and just … be awake. Talking to himself in his crib. He’ll usually nurse if I offer but he’s also happy to just chatter for half an hour or so. After that he starts to get upset. He’s lonely! It’s dark! Won’t someone come play with him? And then we start trying to put him back to sleep. (No, we don’t play with him or turn on the light.) But no matter what we do (nurse, bottle, pat, rock, change him if he’s wet…) he is awake for a minimum of an hour, more often 2, or if it’s late enough he’s just up for the day. Then of course he has a lot of trouble trying to stay awake till his naptime, which throws the whole schedule off… especially if I have to take my middle child to preschool, because then he falls asleep in the car and doesn’t get a good nap. (I generally only have to take her 2 or 3 days a week. The other days are covered.) When he does go back to sleep at night he might sleep for half an hour or 2 hours. We never know. Once in a while he doesn’t do his middle-of-the-night playtime and he does sleep till something reasonable like 5:30 or 6, but that is vanishingly rare.

I’ve tried a third nap sometimes (say, around 3 or 4) but I almost always have to wake him up from it. He seems to think it is bedtime and is always tired and crabby till I do put him back to bed. I think bedtime would, in fact, creep earlier and earlier if we let it. Is he from Neptune, maybe? I’ve tried feeding him more during the day (nope, he eats what he eats and that’s it), solids (he’s a voracious solids eater as of 6 months, which is odd for me… my other two didn’t want to eat till they could do it themselves) but it doesn’t seem to make a difference either way and anyhow the problem dates back to when he was 3-4 months old.

I have been tracking his sleep for a while and haven’t found any patterns. He averages around 13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period but it can be up to 14+ (rare) or as low as 11 (more common).

We were (are) desperate enough that we sent my eldest to my parents’ house for four nights so we could do cry-it-out without disturbing him. We successfully got the baby down to one nursing around 2, but the early playtime didn’t budge… he just cried up until the 2-hour mark (after he got bored by himself) and finally fell asleep by himself. Nothing changed from night to night. So that was agonizing and unhelpful. And now that my eldest is back, the baby has re-started the occasional extra night nursing.

We are so tired. I’m losing my patience. My husband has been incredibly helpful and supportive, going along with my suggestions or suggesting things when I’m out of ideas, getting up with the baby, helping to pat him back to sleep, letting me sleep in when he can, etc. But I am pretty much absolutely out of ideas. My only hope right now is Christmas break, where we won’t have to go places and so he won’t fall asleep in the car. But at this point I have no idea what schedule I should even be aiming for. It doesn’t seem to make a difference no matter what I do. What in the world am I doing wrong??? I need to sleep so I don’t fail the rest of my family (see homeschooling, cooking from scratch, general mothering necessities). Naps for me are not usually an option (see ditto). I don’t think I can hold out much longer.

-Not From Neptune, Pretty Sure Husband’s Not Either

Oh look! Another baby with absolutely incomprehensible and bonkers unpredictable sleeping patterns! MY FAVORITE AND YOURS.

When sleep is all over the place like this, the root of the problem tends to either be:

  1. A scheduling issue
  2. Unavoidable developmental factors like teething, growth spurts, brain spurts, physical milestone, etc.

I’m guessing your son has a little bit of ALL OF THE ABOVE.

Some days the night sleep is thrown of by an issue with #1 (falling asleep in the car, getting naps moved around to accommodate a sibling’s schedule, some other inevitable change in routine that comes with being the third baby). Other days you’re probably dealing with something from #2, which can be LEGION. And THEN there’s the stuff like illness! Colds, ear infections, tummy issues! Stack all that stuff together and yeah, this is what life looks like. My life with baby #3 was eerily similar for about the first 8 months as well, which was agonizingly frustrating, because shouldn’t I have gotten the hang of this sleep stuff by now? Didn’t I get PAID to WRITE about sleep stuff on the Internet? Why can’t I figure this out??

And yeah, my youngest’s sleep schedule took a long time to crack. Some of it was scheduling, then rescheduling as needed (because what worked at 6 months stopped by 8 months), and a lot of it was just the fall-out of him being the youngest and his sleep/nap schedule just couldn’t always be the top priority in our lives every day. And then: teething and colds and separation anxiety and night weaning and learning to roll over/pull up/crawl.

I doubt I can really tell you anything you don’t already know here, or haven’t already tried, but I’ll put on my best tech support hat and try to troubleshoot your particular model of baby.

Has he been checked for food allergies? Is he ever gassy or have unusual bowel movements after eating certain foods? Sometimes, when a sleep diary fails to reveal any discernible patterns, a food diary can. A particular food, or even the timing of his last meal or snack of the day might be the culprit.

You mentioned the third nap and not being super pleased with it. I’m wondering how long that nap lasted before you woke him up. If you only let him sleep for say, 30 minutes, was he still just super cranky until bedtime or did you wait longer than that to intervene? Because it KIND OF seems like that bedtime might just be too early for the sleeping-through-the-night schedule you’re hoping for. Here’s a sample schedule for an 8-month-old (both food and sleep) that includes an optional third “catnap” around four to take the edge off and help your baby make it until a slightly later bedtime. (And thus a more convenient wake time in the morning.)

Going to bed at 6:30 means by the time he’s doing those WIDE AWAKE early wakings at 3:30/4:30, he’s honestly already slept something like 9-10 hours. Even with the “sleep begets sleep” adage in mind, 5 am is the LATEST I would expect a baby this age, going to bed that early and taking two naps per day, to sleep. Eleven hours is about the maximum you can expect him to sleep at night, but in my experience a still-nursing-at-night baby just isn’t going to hit that mark, and waking around the 9/10 hour range really isn’t all that unusual.

If you start looking at those ungodly early wakings not as a sleep disturbance but his actual waking time, the rest of his day might start making more sense. You write that he stays awake for two hours and then drops back off — that’s the beginning of the 2/3/4 sleep schedule, right there.

So here’s what I would do, though of course this advice carries zero guarantees: Take a look at the schedule I linked to above. See if his meals and naps are more or less in line with that structure. Then try the 4 pm catnap again, but wake him up after 30/45 minutes. Wake him up gently and then move him quickly to something fun and distracting. Then try to move his bedtime back. If he’s consistently cranky in the evenings, move it slowly, like 15 minutes a night. You obviously don’t want to mess up the ONE THING you do have going for you (he falls asleep on his own at night most of the time), so don’t push it too quickly and risk him being super overtired.

Note that the schedule linked to says a 7 pm bedtime equals a 7 am waking. Disregard that for your particular baby, at this particular time. I don’t think he’s ready for 12 hours of sleep at night. Push bedtime back so that early morning WIDE AWAKE thing (9-10 hours, maybe 11 if you’re lucky) at a hour that you find reasonable to actually get up and start his day. First nap two hours after that, if possible. Second nap three hours after he wakes up, then ditch the 2/3/4 schedule for a bonus catnap to make up for his shorter-than-average night schedule.

And you know what? Get some help, sweet lady. Ask for help, and not just from your husband. It’s OKAY to admit that right now, you’re exhausted and SOMETHING has to give in the short term. There are a TON of weekly meal and food delivery options out there, including ones that cater to food allergies and restricted diets. Find one, use one. Hire a high school or college kid to come help tutor your homeschooled child in one subject, or even just once a week. Get a cleaning service for the house. Do at least one of these things, even if it means pinching the budget tighter elsewhere. You are not letting your family down by being a human being, a human being who is not getting enough sleep to function properly. You need to temporarily outsource something, and that’s okay. Everyone will be okay.

Your son WILL figure his sleep stuff out, either with or without your help. You can tweak the schedule but still have the developmental/growth/teething stuff mess things up, and PLEASE don’t compare everything you did or didn’t do with your older children to what is going on with your third. Because you weren’t dealing with two other kids (with allergies! and homeschooling!) when you were dealing the baby sleep stuff before. Hang up the Supermom cape and do what you need to survive in the meantime.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Meaghan

    Oh, you poor thing. You must be so very tired and frustrated. My kids were good sleepers from pretty early on. I think we were just lucky, but I was pretty rigid about bedtime, naps were more fluid, especially with my son who is younger. But unless they were sick, they slept 6-6 pretty regularly, usually napping 2x/day to a varying length. I disagree a little with Amy here that 5 is the latest time you could expect with your current bedtime. Our bedtime was religiously at 6, sometimes closer to 5:30 (which was totally annoying, but necessary). And we would fetch them in the morning around 6:15 – sometimes they were awake, sometimes we had to wake them. I wonder if you tried letting him go during that third nap once or twice (and getting yourself to bed as early as you can, to deal with potential fallout), you could see if it might help. One of mine was a bad napper until about 15 months and I struggled to help her, so I know how frustrating it is – especially being tired and having to take care of and teach 2 other kiddos! Good luck! Thinking of you.

  • Jodie

    Oh OP, I’m so sorry.  It really sounds like you’re doing everything you possible can do right.  You’ve got a supportive spouse, you’re tracking…everything.

    Just want to chime in as a mother of three that sleep was hardest with our third and as a result the most frustrating because I thought I had it in the bag.  I even took a longer maternity leave because I was certain by 12 weeks I’d have a schedule leaving me to enjoy some lovely bonding time the last 4.  Cue universe laughing.

    Sleep was just harder with #3 because life was more complex with her.  Like you we had a larger age gap in our oldest and a shorter between our youngest.  That meant that I couldn’t prioritize naptimes the way I had in the past and it just took a long time for the schedule to shake down.  We got there though – between 10-11 months it was clock work. 

    Also, do get more help.  Even with your husband, you’re bearing A LOT of responsibilities for human beings in your car.

    Good luck!

  • Anon

    Just chiming in that a later bedtime (7:30 vs 6:30) helped with our multiple wake up eight month old.

    That plus Ferber-style check-ins done by my husband. I finally also flat out slept in the guest room a few nights, leaving a bottle for DH. It turns out I started to break…and I’m now on zoloft. Hang in there, and keep an eye on yourself too.

  • Felicity Marie

    We are just recovering from a very similar schedule. Baby is in the process of switching from 3 naps to 2 naps each day, and is very good at napping between one and two hours each time. We were putting her to bed at 6:30, and she’d be up at 3 or 4am to play, giggle, stand in her crib, etc. It was maddening. We pushed her bedtime to 7/7:15 (depending on naps that day and how cranky she is), and now she sleeps until at least 5:30, sometimes until 6:15. So that’s two naps a day, and a 10.5 to 11 hour stretch at night.

    I really, truly do not understand why sleep “experts”, sleep books, pediatricians, etc. talk about babies sleeping for 12-hour stretches at night. My 4-year-old still only sleeps 10, maybe 11, hours in a row. I think it’s an unfair expectation to set up for parents. (Steps off of soap box.)

    Good luck! Wishing you lots of sleep.

  • Annemarie

    Another one whose third baby was the one with the most difficult sleep here. It started to improve at 9 months, and then I laid a final Ferber smackdown at 12 months and now it’s lovely. But that first year – especially at 8 months – was so, so, so hard. 

  • Becky

    No advice here, I think what any hS said is spot on. I just wanted to chime in with some sympathy “Oy, the early wake up” s. Seriously though. Those guys SUCK. You sound like you are doing amazingly. Xx

    For what it is worth, ours got through t (after about 4 months of hideously early starts?) and now we’ve fixed things, she is still an early riser (5:30-6). Some kids are and sleep less. Totally agree with amy and the pp re night sleep requirements.

  • Becky

    “Any Hs” = Amy. Sorry, night nursing a newborn!

  • autumn

    I would like to make a case for shifting baby’s bed time Later!

    My 6 month old goes down for the night around 10 and sleeps till 8 or so.  Her big sister had a similar pattern.  The biggest plus:  baby is awake and sociable in the evenings so Daddy gets to hang out with mostly happy baby.  I would add that 3rd nap for a week, and push bed time back and see what happens.  I feel like society has us conditioned that babies must go to bed early, but they don’t have to.  (as long as naps happen)

    • Ann

      I agree, another vote for a later bedtime. My son needs less sleep than average, which was really hard to accept when friends would remark how their babies slept for 12 hours at night. A later bedtime (8:30pm) made his wake up time shift later too (6:30am vs 5am). 

  • Traci

    You may just have an early riser. It’s not a fun club. Sleep training did help, but required training in the night and early morning too. It’s not easy and has its limits. Diapers might be an issue too. He does better when we get bambo nature diapers for night. (Buy on Amazon). Sleep psychologists said he might just always wake at 5 and we should adjust our sleep to match-you can’t really fight against a kid’s biological programming and win.

  • Marisa

    I have always preferred this lady’s schedules:

    http://www.weebeedreaming.com/my-blog/8/10-month-sleep-regression

    She doesn’t have as much info as the other sleep site, but time and time again the info I find on her blog is spot on and her bedtime and schedule recommendations save our butts.

    Sincerely, a fellow mom in arms (I have a 9 month old space alien too).

  • CeeBee

    Later bedtime! Some babies will go for a glorious 12 hours, but some will not. My kids were are both 10-hours a night sleepers and after the first few months, were champion nappers and still are at the preschool age. And still sleep 10 hours at night. Good luck!

  • Lisa R

    My baby did the same party in the morning thing! I couldn’t tell where your baby was sleeping, but for us it helped to move her into our closet (There was room, promise) so she couldn’t just look over and see Mom and Dad sleeping there. “Hey! Hey, guys! Play with MEEEE!”

    I hope this is already fixed for you!