Teaching your baby to sleep like an angel: a sleep program with no controlled crying

Poppy was a pretty good sleeper from day dot (having generally only woken once or twice overnight). Strangely enough, she loved to sleep in her car seat and slept much longer there than anywhere else including lying flat in a cot or a bed, so we went with it. But, at around 5 months, when the car seat was no longer so comfortable, she regressed and began to wake every few hours. Just a month or so of that burnt me and my husband right out (we are, and always have been, big sleepers so it didn’t take long before it was a serious drain!).

Enter my children’s health visitor in St Andrews, Scotland. Joanne came to our house for her monthly visit and I shared my lack of sleep grievances with her and asked her if she could refer us to a night nurse to assist. She laughed and said, ‘You’re in St Andrews Rachel, we don’t have “night nurses” here or anyone that will sit with you overnight while your baby wakes and help you get her back to sleep for that matter’. My heart sank. However, Joanne then went on to tell me that she used to be a children’s sleep consultant and offered to talk me through a sleep program to try that…wait for it…did not involve ‘controlled crying’! I was SO excited to hear this, not to mention enormously relieved to hear that it didn’t involve controlled crying, because in my heart of hearts, I knew that that method was not for me.

For the next few hours I sat up straighter than ever before, literally hung onto every word Joanne said, took meticulous notes and asked every question under the sun. We were off to France the next day, so Joanne suggested that we try the new regime on our return. She said it would be chaos for a week or so settling into a new routine. My instant thought was no, we’re already up all night, living in chaos, so we might as well start straight away. Tonight!

Needless to say, 3 days later (having sat out 1 night at home in St Andrews and the first 2 nights in France in our hotel room) Poppy began to sleep 12 hours straight. It was a sheer miracle and in fact, it changed our lives completely. Poppy was happier, my husband and I were happier and therefore the quality of our care and attention I’m sure improved immeasurably.

7 months on (at the age of 13 months), she now sleeps between 11- 13 hours straight overnight (from 8pm until 7-9am) and has one daytime nap of between 2 – 3 hours in the middle of the day (having only just recently dropped from 2 x 1-2 hour naps during the day).

I have spoken to friends back home who have spent literally $1000s of dollars on sleep clinics and sleep consultants, in a desperate attempt to learn how to get their babies to sleep better.  You’re incredibly vulnerable when you’re sleep deprived and I can completely understand why – I would have forked out the big bucks too given the opportunity! I have also met many parents here in Scotland who are up at all hours of the night, with babies as old as Poppy and younger. It’s a constant topic at all mother’s groups and baby classes I go to. When I’m asked about Poppy’s sleep routine, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that she’s a fabulous sleeper, because I know that they probably want to kill me at that moment.

Given the chance or asked the question “How did you do it?”, I immediately take the opportunity to share my “Joanne story”, in the hope that it may help others. During telling the story today however, I couldn’t recall all the nuances off the top of my head and so offered to get back to this mother with any further tips when they came to me. In that same moment, it occurred to me that it was not helpful to provide only half a routine and also, that if I am slowly forgetting the tips now, by the time I have a second child I might have completely forgotten (which would be a total disaster)! Therefore, I decided to go home and write it all down once and for all! In my mind, the “Joanne sleep routine” is foolproof, magic, gentle, logical and should be available to anyone that wants it and feels comfortable trying it, so here I go about recounting it.

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SLEEP PROGRAM: HERE IT IS!

I should say that babies need to be around 6 months old and a healthy weight to make this program feasible.

MAKE SURE YOUR COT/SLEEPING ENVIRONMENT IS RIGHT FOR YOUR BABY’S NEEDS: I purchased a top of the range cot for around $700 (350 pounds) and it turned out that it was way too small for Poppy by that stage. She wanted to move around in her sleep and this cot was funky, a space saver and mobile on wheels, but it didn’t allow her to make 180 degree turns because it was too narrow. Ironically, we then purchased a 29 pound cot from Mothercare (a travel cot in fact) and she slept like a dream in it (and still does 7 months down the track – we haven’t replaced it because we were travelling for 3 of those 7 months and are due to return to Australia shortly)!

I recall Joanne telling me that babies should be able to sleep anywhere if they have enough space and the tools to self settle. On that basis, we didn’t take our travel cot through Europe – instead we used the hotel/bnb cots. This was perfectly fine until one hotel didn’t have a mattress on the cot (and no amount of towels and linen stacked up on top of each other was going to cut it!). My advice for travelling is to take your own unless you’re only going to one/two spots where you know the quality of the cot (and hopefully is accompanying mattress!) will be good.

PUT YOUR BABY TO SLEEP IN A DARK, DIMLY LIT ROOM, WITH LITTLE TO NO TALKING: Keep the room nice and dark at all times, when you’re dealing with your baby overnight (i.e, don’t turn on any lights when they wake, if you can avoid it). Try to have as minimal communication in the form of talking to your baby also- if you need to speak it should be a whisper. Your physical presence should be enough, talking just stimulates them, so avoid it altogether if you can. Basically, you want to keep your baby’s environment as low key, relaxed (and frankly boring!) as possible, so that there’s little to no incentive to falling asleep and also to waking & needing you around during the night.

As part of Poppy’s nightly bedtime routine, we read her 2/3 short books in her room, then turn off the lights and stop talking while putting her to sleep.

PUT YOUR BABY INTO THIER COT WHEN THEIR EYES ARE STARTING TO DROP OFF TO SLEEP BUT NOT WHEN THEY ARE ASLEEP: This is really important. If you put them down when they’re asleep they are likely to wake, either instantly (and then you need to hold them again!), or later, in which case they’ll feel disorientated (in the same way that you would if you, for example, feel asleep on the couch and woke up in your bed!).

STOP FEEDING MILK OVERNIGHT: It’s calories they don’t need and is probably more of a habit and comfort factor than anything else. It’s like adults, if we were up eating overnight, our bodies get used to it and we’d expect to wake during the night feeling hungry. If necessary, feed them water from a sippy cup (as opposed to a bottle, which gets them out of the habit of suckling for comfort). Water has no calories and there is no comfort in drinking from a sippy cup, in fact it’s boring and not worth waking up for, so this phase quickly passes.

I remember telling Joanne that I couldn’t justify not feeding Poppy overnight, because she wasn’t getting her recommended daily amount of milk during the day. At this stage, she was still taking a full bottle of around 240ml a night. Joanne said to me that if I stopped feeding her overnight, she would take more milk during the day, which is in fact just what happened.

We also introduced giving Poppy a small pot of yogurt before putting her to sleep, just to get a few extra calories into her stomach before bedtime.

DO NOT REMOVE YOUR BABY FROM THEIR COT UNLESS THEY ARE HYSTERICAL: Instead, when you hear them cry, hop to it before they get hysterical and sit beside their cot, offering long, SLOW, calming strokes up and down their back to let them know that you’re there. Keep going for as long as it takes (sometimes longer than an hour – fear not because over time this gets quicker and quicker!), and resist the urge to remove them from their cot, unless they are really hysterical which is not productive for anyone and will, in fact, take longer because they are too whooped to settle quickly.

Importantly, however, there is a fine balance between running to your baby the second you hear them cry out and waiting to see if they are in fact awake and/or needing you. Babies will often cry out in their sleep and/or when they wake momentarily, but they are often fleeting moments that don’t require your assistance, rather they’re still half asleep and will settle themselves relatively quickly. If you run to their side every time you hear them cry out and they are in fact asleep, you’ll likely wake them and then you’ve got a real battle on your hands trying to help them back to sleep. I guess this method requires you to listen carefully to the type of cry before you bolt into the room and disturb them for no reason. However, if you hear them crying and it sounds like they’re awake and it’s sounding more distressed by the second, get in quick and don’t wait until they’re hysterical to get to them. Once they’re hysterical, it takes much longer to settle them back to sleep.

If you do take them out of the cot, only hold them until they are settled (i.e., stopped crying and seem peaceful), but not asleep! About 30 seconds after they’ve settled, put them back in the cot and stroke them from there if need be. You can also try just holding your hand on their back (and then once they’re more advanced in self settling, you might find that just sitting next to them without touching them is enough) – really anything to let them know you’re there and that they are safe.

If your baby is at the age where they are able to stand up in their cot and they are used to being picked up, they might really give you a run for your money in terms of making it difficult to keep them in their cot. Rest assured Joanne advised, if you gently push them back down into the lying position, and proceed with the massage described above, you should get the right results. As I say, unless they are literally hysterical then carry on with this method no matter how long it takes (sometimes hours, but it does get better!).

This technique is really at the heart of teaching your baby to self settle, without needing you to get them back to sleep. It’s invaluable – babies will wake often overnight, however if they have the tools to self settle, they won’t require your assistance each and every time they do so (which is no good for you or them!).

DON’T CHANGE YOUR BABY’S NAPPY OVERNIGHT, UNLESS YOU KNOW THAT THEY’VE DONE A NUMBER 2: Changing nappies stimulates them and makes it difficult to get them back to sleep, so unless you’re certain that the nappy needs to be changed (i.e., a number 2 is not negotiable), don’t change it.

AIM FOR 10-12 HOURS OF SLEEP A NIGHT: As a general rule of thumb, babies from 6 months onwards need around 10 – 13 hours of sleep overnight (that’s not including their daytime nap(s). This means that if you put your baby to sleep at 8pm, waking anywhere between 6 – 8am is suitable. If they wake any earlier, say 4am for instance, then treat it as an overnight wake and employ all the above techniques to get them back to sleep.

Importantly, Joanne told me to choose our 12 hour slot wisely – if you’re not an early morning riser then don’t put your baby to bed at 6pm, because if they wake between 4am – 6am the next morning it’s fair game! We found that 8pm works well for us, as we’re not early risers. This means that she eats dinner with us, has a bath, story time, then bed.

When we were travelling, we had the luxury of putting her to bed at different hours each night, depending on what we were doing/where we were, and she would sleep for 12 hours from that point onwards. So if we had dinner with friends and didn’t get home until 10pm, she’d sleep from 10pm to 10am. If it was later or earlier, so be it, she’d sleep her 12 hours like clockwork. Joanne encouraged us to include her in our dinners/social engagements and said she’d sleep when she needed to, as long as we offered her that window of 12 hours. This worked a treat and meant that she was engaged and included in all our travel activities, which we all thoroughly enjoyed.

ALLOW 1-2 WEEKS FOR THIS TO WORK: It doesn’t work overnight. And it may be extreme chaos for a good week or two, but it does get better. So much better. Think of it as short term pain for long term gain.

Also, the older your baby is, the more ingrained in their habits they will be and so the longer this method will take. The earlier you get onto it, the better and quicker it is. As I say, Poppy was only around 6 months old which meant that it only took 3 days…babies over 1 and toddlers can be much more tricky and take longer.

BE CONSISTENT: Don’t give up. The second that you retreat from the program, or take the easy way out (i.e., by either having your baby sleep in your arms, bed and/or taking them out of their cot during the night), you simply undo all your hard work. If your partner is sharing the load, she/he will need to be on the same page and applying the same techniques to the book.

At the tail end of our travels through Europe and after having had a bad cot with no mattress experience, we took the easy option and had her in bed with us and/or dabbled in feeding her overnight. To be honest, it wasn’t worth it. We came back from travelling and had to reinvigorate the program virtually from scratch. Because she was that bit older, it meant that we had to deal with the new fact that she was able to stand up in her cot and so required much more physical effort keeping her in her cot etc.

THE SAME METHOD APPLIES TO DAYTIME NAPS: Create a space for them to have a nap (whether it’s while you’re out walking with the pram, or at home) and keep the nap times/duration as regular as possible. Poppy has just dropped from 2 naps a day to one nap at lunch time for around 2-3 hours. Previously, while we were travelling, she would have one nap mid-morning (for around 1 hour) and then another nap in the afternoon (for around 2-3 hours).

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  • Nadia Pantano

    Thank you for this great article Rachel! We are currently going through something very similar with our almost 6 month old who also doesn’t feed as much as he should during the day. I am going to try this out tonight! X

    • rachelmounsey@hotmail.com

      Oh Nadia thank you for this lovely feedback – I’m so thrilled that it’s reached you at this difficult time and I wish you all the best for sleeping success very soon! 🙂 x