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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

Baby Sleep Deadlines

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

I am a first time mom to a very happy baby girl who is almost four months old. I get her up at the same time every day, even on weekends, and we have had a bath-boob-book bedtime routine at roughly the same time every night since she was just a few weeks old. Like so many other moms, I never planned on co-sleeping but OMG did it improve my sleep once I learned how to nurse lying down (when she was about 2 weeks old), plus after I went back to work full time I loved having all those extra hours to be close to her. She has never been a great sleeper – short napper, wakes the second you lay her down despite trying EVERYTHING, and all attempts at putting her down drowsy but awake have been unsuccessful. So, at nights I usually rock her (swaddled) and she fusses a few minutes and then goes to sleep in my arms. I get in bed and hold her 10-15 minutes then lay her down next to me. If she wakes immediately I bounce or rock her back to sleep, otherwise I nurse her when she wakes during the night and she goes back to sleep easily. She takes breast milk and some formula in a bottle from our babysitter every day but at night I only nurse.

My husband is super supportive of whatever sleeping arrangement I deem best for her, but neither one of us looked at co-sleeping as a long term solution. We have started to try and get her to nap in her crib on the weekends and would prefer to gradually transition her out of her bed and avoid any CIO unless absolutely necessary. My goal was to breastfeed for a minimum of six months. I don’t mind the nighttime nursing, but I do know it’s a habit she and I need to break at some point and it would be nice to have my husband get up with her every once in a while.

SO. Here’s the thing, we kind of have a deadline. My husband and I are supposed to go to Japan for a week in June, when baby girl will be just barely 8 months. She will stay at our house the whole time, part of the week with my mom and part of the week with my mother-in-law. I feel like I understand most of the changes we need to make before we leave her, but I am having a difficult time formulating a plan…so basically I just go back and forth between panicking and hoping that one day she will just sleep! in her crib! all random like and out of the blue!

Do you have any suggestions on how to prepare for being apart? Feel free to just tell me I’m insane for leaving an 8 month old for a week while I’m halfway around the world….

No, you’re not insane for leaving your 8-month-old baby for a week. Please. Japan! That is totally awesome and I hope you have a completely awesome time.

You MIGHT be a little…well, let’s just go with high-strung, if you really think you can plan to plan out every last sleeping detail on a timeline. Your trip is not a “deadline.” Your trip is when it is, and your baby girl’s sleep schedule will be what it will be.

Here’s the thing: baby sleep is not linear. It’s not like, “Oh, he/she finally slept through the night! Hooray! We’re all done with THAT and never have to worry about it again!” I think the number of sleep-related questions this column has gotten over the years should be testament that BABIES LIKE MESSING WITH US. Babies of all ages and developmental stripes. Everything is awful until it isn’t. Everything is great until it suddenly goes haywire.

Let’s say you hit upon the perfect transition plan for her within the next couple months. Naps in the crib, steady routine at night, maybe some controlled bouts of fussing-it-out, getting her down to one or two feedings/wakings. Then maybe eliminating one or both of those feedings once you introduce solids and/or decide to wean.

Then you go away at eight months, right when she’s due for a major sleep regression. Also teething. Maybe she’ll get a cold right at the same time, because why not. BOOM. Best-laid sleep plans, blown to bits.

I’m not saying to not pursue an ever-increasingly larger chunk of sleep between now and your trip, but just to please, for all of your sakes, remove the whole “I HAVE A DEADLINE” pressure from it. This is a hard enough process as it is. And honestly, your daughter sounds 100% perfectly normal for a 4 month old.

I’ve gone away — both for work and (GASP!) pleasure — when my babies were still babies. (And when they were no longer babies. It’s good for them! And me. Maybe mostly me.) And here’s another thing: Your mom and mother-in-law are fully aware that they’ve agreed to watch a BABY. They may be full of wildly misremembered stories about how their own babies slept through the night at seven minutes old and potty-trained at six months, but trust me, they also know that some babies wake up a lot at night. Show them how to work the baby monitor, then flee the country.

(PRO-TIP: If your mom or MIL are of the judge-y, why-isn’t-your-baby-sleeping-perfectly persuasion, lie through your teeth and tell her that your baby totally sleeps through the night FOR YOU. Give her your preferred instructions in case she DOESN’T [no CIO/yes FIO, bottle/no bottle, rocking/back patting/musical soother, whatever]. Then act totally shocked and surprised when you get reports of night wakings, like wow! So weird! Must be teething or confusion over where mama and dada are, sorry about that! Here’s a fancy gift basket and spa gift certificate.)

Again, there’s nothing in your email that’s sticking out as a huge red flag or indication that your daughter is just inherently a crappy, terrible sleeper and you are all doooooomed. She sounds…four months old. So yeah. This is usually the age where parents start moving beyond the “do whatever it takes to just get a couple hours of sleep in a row” survival phase and start being more mindful of less-than-ideal habits and arrangements, and put more pressure on themselves to maybe get this sleep thing figured out. You’re not alone, you haven’t messed anything up, you’re all more or less right on schedule.

But you can’t make a baby sleep, travel plans or otherwise. Best practices for you guys would be to focus on getting her out of your arms and into her crib at the slightly-awake-and-fussing stage so she’ll learn to fall asleep on her own. (This — in theory — should help curb the night wakings when she realizes she’s not still in your arms or being rocked and thus has no idea what to do beyond demanding that you come back.) I KNOW you said that you’ve tried “everything,” but the reality is you might have just tried “everything” too soon, too early, or just didn’t remain consistent enough with one approach for long enough. This is basically the horrible truth about infant sleep: Things rarely work the first or dozenth time you try them, so you either have to keep trying them or just…sorta hope for things to just eventually work out. But ping-ponging around and trying something new every other night or so won’t usually get your anywhere.

(My first baby was one of those babies who figured most of the sleep stuff out on his own. Clearly I was a genius parent! You just put them in the crib and walk away! I don’t know what everybody else is complaining about! My second and third babies did not. AT ALL. And we had to actively suffer through resisting the bad habits for months despite seeing no real progress. The good news is that cutting out the coddling DID pay off, as they are now two of the most independent, predictable sleepers in the world.)

So yeah. She’s going to freak out when you try to put her in the crib drowsy. That’s what babies like to do. Your basic choices involve: 1) Picking her back up and trying again, attempt after attempt and night after night, until it finally clicks. 2) Introducing something else in her room or crib that soothes her the rest of the way, like a musical aquarium or white noise machine or pacifier, etc. Have that thing also be your first go-to effort when she wakes up at night (even if you do end up nursing her afterwards) so she’ll eventually associate it with falling back to sleep. Or finally, 3) A healthy sleep training program.

Hardly revolutionary options there, I know. And not a single magic bullet among them. But alas, they really are what most of us have to work with, because EVENTUALLY, one of them kind of starts working. But probably not the first night, or the night after that. Consistency is key, as is recognizing your own breaking point (i.e. when you deem a little crying/fussing actually has become “absolutely necessary,” because life has devolved into a walking haze of exhaustion and irritability.)

She might just need a few more weeks or months of growing before she’s really ready to make a big advancement in her nighttime sleep. Waking up to nurse is perfectly normal and should be accommodated, because it’s still about an empty tummy and not so much of a “I just want comfort and lack the ability to go back to sleep without the boob.” (That CAN develop, of course. Hence the focus on not letting older babies fall completely asleep on the breast, and at least trying to get them back to sleep without it.)

But trying to prepare a 4-month-old for her own 8-month-old sleep habits is an exercise in futility. It’s just too different of a thing, and there are still sooooo many wildcards, like regressions and teething and separation anxiety and God knows what else. In my experience, babies know they can get away with more when they’re with mom and dad, and other caretakers get it much, MUCH easier. It’s practically science, I swear. So even if you see zero sleep improvement by the time your trip rolls around, you can still always hold out the perfectly reasonable hope that she’ll just behave differently for her grandmas, simply because they are not you, the lady with the active duty boobs.

Take it one night at a time, and instead focus your planning energies on the REALLY important parts about your trip: Where you will go, and what you will wear.

(Oh, and I was totally serious about the fancy gift baskets and spa gift certificates. Get them some.)

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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