In Australia, we have something called sleep school. It’s par for the course for new mums to head to sleep school when their first born baby is around 3 months old or weighs 12 pounds, which is generally considered the age/weight when a baby is ready to sleep through the night. It’s actually covered under the public health system if your doctor writes you a prescription explaining that you and your baby need to see a sleep specialist.
With sleep school, you can check in for a 5- or 7- night stay, for you and your baby (which is generally what my Australian mum friends have done), or you can check in for an intensive two day visit. For this, you don’t actually stay overnight but you arrive at 8am and leave at 6pm for two consecutive days.
The sleep school my 8 week old son Archie and I attended was called the Masada Mother Baby Unit, and is part of a private hospital in Melbourne. A sleep specialist headed the unit up and each patient/baby was assigned their own specially trained nurse. I was in the school with about 6 other mums and their babies. We were all on the same schedule and the sleep specialist gave us sleep lectures or lessons while our babies were in the height of their naps. My nurse, Anna, became my shadow for the two days.
The main idea is that sleep is a habit that must be learned. For some babies, it’s more intuitive than others but for the trickier ones, we as parents need to set the conditions to more easily help our baby learn the habit of sleeping. And it all begins with our baby learning to soothe himself to sleep without mum or dad rocking them. As adults, we have multiple sleep cycles throughout the night and we wake about every hour. Mostly, we just roll over and fall back to sleep (apparently our parents taught us well). Babies only have 45 minute sleep cycles. So initially, not only do they need to learn to fall asleep at the beginning of the night, but also between sleep cycles during the night and during naps.
At 8 weeks, they told me that Archie needed two solid 90 minute naps a day (so two sleep cycles for each nap) , plus one 45 minute “cat nap” towards the end of the day (I was a bit horrified when they told me that all of Archie’s 45 minute naps that he had been taking in the past month weren’t really naps per se, just cat naps and they don’t really count much).
So apparently sleep begets sleep and we needed to first establish the good day time naps so Archie had a chance of sleeping through the night. And here’s the zinger, all naps (and at a minimum at least the first two naps) should be inside the home in a crib – no strollers or car seats. Most of us pointed out that it wasn’t realistic, but the sleep specialist told us to do the best we could and at least until we established a solid napping schedule, after which we could cut a few corners. Anna told me confidently that we would have Archie sleeping from 7pm to 7am in no time at all.
Archie’s first nap was scheduled for no later than 9am (1 to 2 hours after he first woke up). Anna explained the first nap of the day is always the easiest because he’s the most well rested at that point — the crankier the baby, the harder the whole self-soothing thing. So it was also important to put him down before he got overtired and we needed to look carefully for any cues – rubbing eyes is typical. At the first, sign, Anna showed me how to swaddle him with gusto, I said night night and walked out.
Surprisingly, Anna was right. Archie fell asleep easily that first morning – I don’t think I had ever put him down for such an early nap. He slept for the next 45 minutes and then like clockwork, he woke up. Anna held onto me for a second and explained that we should wait two minutes before going into his room to see if he could settle himself back into another sleep cycle. No such luck. After 2 minutes, we walked back in and she showed me some settling strategies. Basically it consisted of a lot of shhing noise, rhythmic pat pat patting, and absolutely no talking or eye contact. And under absolutely no circumstances could I pick him up because that was like telling him that if he cried, I would pick him up when really what I needed to communicate with my shhing and patting is ‘you are in your crib, and it is time to sleep.’ As Anna put it, we were attempting to bore Archie back to sleep.
Once he was quiet, we snuck out of the room. If he cried again, we would let him go for 2 minutes, and then go back in with more “boring” settling strategies, sneak out, wait 2 minutes, and so on. There are a lot of parallels with Ferber but it just seems easier when you have Anna confidently directing every single move. And it actually worked after a while — we got him into his second sleep cycle which would get us our 90 required minute nap. Anna explained that we needed to use this settling approach before all naps, at bed time and also when Archie woke up in the night.
Another trick was the rollover feed at night which entailed putting Archie to bed at 7pm, but then sneaking in at 11pm to give him an extra feed — again no talking, eye contact or lights – just pick him up, give him a feed, swaddle, and put him down again. He basically slept his way through it feeding on auto pilot and settling him at that time was fine. With the roll over feed, the idea was that if he woke up at 2.30 am, I knew he had a full tummy. So apparently I could simply apply my settling strategies without fretting that maybe he was hungry. Shhh, shhh, shh, pat, pat, pat, no picking up was again always the mantra.
Anyway, I have to say that our two day sleep school experience paid off. Once we got the day time naps under hand, the rollover feed in place, and did a lot of mind-numbing shhhing and patting over a few weeks, Archie got the hang of it and we slept like babies.
Photo Erik Ekroth