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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

The Sleep Schedule From Outer Space

By Amalah


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.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 [email protected].

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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