The Sleep Chronicles: Sara’s Story

Today I’ve got another edition of the Sleep Chronicles for you!  Sara is one of the sweetest girls out there.  She’s so genuine on her blog, and it really comes through in her writing.  She’s one of my favorites, and mom to adorable little Mac…those big brown eyes of his get me every time!  Here’s her story.

Hello everyone!  I’m Sara from Running From the Law.  I’m a full-time working lawyer and mama to 18 month old Mac.  I’m so honored to be here guest-posting for all of Jess’s amazing readers.  I love this Sleep Chronicles series and I really think it’ll help out a lot of new mamas struggling with their baby’s sleep.  I really do think the lack of sleep is probably the most difficult part of having a baby – it’s what everyone warns you about, but you can never prepare for it.  My child was a horrible sleeper, so I am all too familiar with the exhaustion and feeling like it’ll never end.  But, trust me, it gets easier.  It won’t last forever, I promise (don’t you just hate it when people say that?).  Unfortunately, I’m not here to tell you how to “fix” your baby’s sleeping problems.  I really wish I had all the answers (because I’d make a fortune!), but every child is different and every parent is different.  If there was a magic answer, I would have paid in blood to get it.  Instead, I’m here to share our story with you in the hopes that maybe it’ll help you – either with suggestions about what you can do with your little one or with just making you feel a little less alone.   It’s a long one – so go fill your coffee cup now!

From the beginning, our little baby Mac was never a great sleeper.  At first, like all newborns, he had day and night confused – sleep all day, party all night was the motto at our house.  It sucked, but those first few days you just get by on adrenaline and love (and terror).  Once he got over that, he still didn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time at night.  Months and months went by and his sleep went from an hour to two to sometimes three.  But that was about the limit.  This child was hungry and active and sleep was not going to hold him back! As much as my husband and I think our child hung the moon, we both agreed that there was ONE thing he could do to become the world’s best baby…SLEEP.  We were so tired!  I’m pretty sure I fell asleep standing up in the shower at one point.  I felt like every other baby his age was sleeping through the night and my child was broken.  WHY WON’T HE SLEEP?!!  At Mac’s 6 month well-visit, our pediatrician told us that babies his age have the ability to sleep anywhere from 8 – 12 hours at a time.  I remember thinking, “OHMYGOD, 8 hours of sleep would be freaking fantastic!”  I couldn’t even imagine how wonderful that would be – I don’t think I’d slept more than 5 hours at a time since he was born.  I was a zombie.  We were getting up with him at least twice and sometimes 4-5 times a night – it was time for a change.

6 Months

I started researching sleep training methods (well, I’d actually started months before, but was so tired I couldn’t get through more than a couple paragraphs at a time).  But because every baby (and every parent) is different, there are a million different theories and versions of sleep training out there and I was completely overwhelmed by all the options.  I liked parts of some, parts of others, but couldn’t find one that really felt right for our baby.  So, I made the decision to combine certain parts of a few different versions and make up our own based on what was best for us and Mac.  My husband and I parent very differently and we used that to our advantage.  I knew I couldn’t handle “cry it out” (but my husband could) and he wasn’t a fan of the “hold the baby and rock him all night long to keep him from crying” method that I wanted to do (I’m a softie), so we used a little of both.  I think our method of picking and choosing different aspects of versions worked for us because we knew our kid so well and knew why he was waking up and what he could handle.

Basically our goal of sleep training was to get him to be able to go 8 hours without a bottle or waking up.  Our doctor said at his age he should be able to go anywhere from 8-12 hours, so we started at the low end with 8.  At the time, Mac would always wake up at least twice a night to eat, sometimes three or four times.  I felt like his nightly wake-ups were purely food-driven.  He wasn’t waking up to cuddle or play – he wanted to eat!  My theory was that he was eating so much at night to make up for not eating much during the day.  He was so active, alert and busy during the day that he wasn’t eating much because he’d get so distracted by the dogs or anything that moved or made noise.  The more he ate at night, the less he ate during the day, so we needed to switch this around.  Most of the advice I received about this issue was to put him on a feeding schedule (and not feeding on demand) during the day, but I didn’t want to do that.  If he was hungry during the day, I wanted him to be able to eat no matter what time it was.  I know lots of moms that swear by schedules, but I’m just not that type of mom.  I like routine, but rigid schedules stress me out.

Anyway, we wanted to cut all this nighttime eating down to 1 night feeding.  We wanted to establish a good bedtime routine that would work for him as he grew.  And hardest of all, we wanted him to learn how to self-soothe and put himself back to sleep.  However, we had a few obstacles, the biggest being that I still wanted to be able to rock him to sleep every night.  Now maybe this sounds a little selfish (and maybe it was), but I don’t care.  I’m a full-time working mama that misses her baby all day long – my favorite part of the day was (and still is) the time Mac and I spend, just the two of us, in that rocking chair every night snuggling, reading, singing and cuddling.  I’m a sucker for baby snuggles and I didn’t want to give that up.

Our bedtime routine was bath, bundle, books, bottle, bed (at 7:00 p.m.).   We gave him a warm bath, followed by bundling him in his sleep sack, then I’d read him a book while feeding him and rock him until he falls asleep in my arms.   Easy peasy!  He didn’t have any problems falling asleep right away, so this wasn’t the hard part for us.  However, since I rocked him to sleep (instead of letting him fall asleep on his own in the crib), the first sleep training trick I started doing was the “wake and sleep” drop off.  As I put the baby in his crib, I’d jostle him (just a little bit) so he would just barely wake up and realize that he’s being moved.  I read in “Happiest Baby on the Block Guide to Sleep” (I love Dr. Karp) that this wake-up move was important to do so that babies realized they were in their cribs before falling asleep (otherwise, when they woke up in the middle of the night they’d be surprised that they were no longer in your arms, where they fell asleep and freak out).  Sometimes Mac would open his eyes for a second as I laid him in his crib, but then he’d settle into a comfy position and easily fall back to sleep.  Sometimes he’d wake up completely and I’d have to rock him back to sleep or I’d just get in the crib with him and snuggle with him until he fell asleep (yes, I’m that mom).  I hated this “wake up” move, but did it because this was the only method I found that allowed me to rock him to sleep and that was so important to me.

Our next move was to give him a “dream feed” bottle sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., right before I went to bed.  This meant that he’d sleep 4 hours, then get a bottle and then go back to sleep for another 8 hours before he got fed again (when he woke up for the day).  With the dream feed, I’d very carefully pick him up, give him the bottle, change his diaper in the dark while he’s eating, let him finish the bottle in the glider snuggling, rock him to sleep, and put him back in his crib.  The first couple weeks were clumsy and awkward, ending with a screaming wide-awake baby, but I got much better.  After a week or two, he wouldn’t even open his eyes during the whole process.  He’d take 8 ounces and it took about 25 minutes from start to back in bed.  The dream feed gave him a night feeding so he could make it through the rest of the night, but since I was choosing when to feed him, he didn’t learn to wake up, cry and automatically get fed.  Next step was the hardest: eliminate the other night wakings/feedings.

The first night we did this new routine, Mac he woke up around 2:00 a.m. wanting another bottle.  At this point we knew he wasn’t starving (he had 8 oz only 3 hours ago), he wasn’t wet, he wasn’t wanting to be snuggled or anything, he just wanted a bottle.  Time to let him cry it out a little bit (aka “daddy’s turn”).  My husband went in his room, patted his butt and told him good night and then we let him cry.  I know it sounds terrible, but within 5 minutes he was back asleep (20 minutes was our agreed upon cut-off time).  He woke up again around 3:30 and we did the same thing.  After 5 minutes of crying this time, we knew he was not going to go back to sleep on his own, he was just getting more and more worked up.  So I got up and spent the next few hours rocking, bouncing and singing to him.  Anything I could do to keep from giving him a bottle.  I would rather he cried in my arms than in his crib alone, so that’s what we did.  He alternated between sleep and fussing, until about 6:00 a.m. when he decided he was SO pissed off and started screaming.  My husband and I took turns comforting him (to no avail) and at 6:30 we gave him a bottle.  He barely ate anything!  Which tells me he wasn’t even all that hungry, he just wanted the bottle.  Also, the next  day we noticed that he had his first tooth, so, I have no idea how much of his fussing was bottle-related or tooth-related.

Night 2 he went down at 7:00 p.m. as usual. Then he woke up at 9:30 p.m. crying hysterically (too worked up to let him cry it out).  I did not give him a bottle.  I rocked him back to sleep and put him in his crib (with the slight jostle move).  Then at 11:00 p.m. I did the dream feed (he ate a full 8 oz) and he went right back down.  He woke up again at 2:00 and we let him cry it out and he fell back asleep on his own in less than 10 minutes.  He slept until 6:30 a.m. when he woke up for the day.  Night 3 he went down at 7:00 p.m., dream feed at 11:00 p.m. and slept until 7:00 a.m.!  Hallelujah!  Our first 8 hour stretch ever!  And yes, we noticed that he was eating more during the day (just like we hoped).  We stuck to this routine for the next three-four months and it worked pretty well.  I’m more of a night-owl and my husband can handle mornings, so I stayed up and did the dream feed and Ryan went to bed early and rose early with the baby.  It wasn’t ideal, but it worked for us.

10 Months

Around 9-10 months, Mac was eating more solid foods during the day and taking a big bottle right before bedtime, so we wanted to eliminated the 11:00 p.m. feeding.  We tried not giving him a dream feed (unless he woke up hysterical and couldn’t calm down otherwise) for a few nights and lo and behold, 12 hour stretches of sleep!  OMG.  But then, just as quickly as things had improved, everything changed again…for the worse.  Let me just say, this period was HELL (causing me to write this post basically begging for help).  I’m not sure if it was the transition off the dream feed or if it was because it was during the winter and Mac was constantly fighting off some cold or virus or if it was a growth spurt, or teething, or nightmares, or learning to walk or just normal sleep regression, but it was awful.  If he woke up horribly upset, we’d do a bottle.  Otherwise, we’d just rock him back to sleep.  Some nights he slept straight through 12 straight hours, followed by two weeks of waking up 5 times a night.  Sometimes he’d be up for 5 minutes, the next night he’d be up for 5 hours.  Cry it out stopped working and he’d cry so hard he’d throw up in bed.  It was a tough period, for so many reasons and nothing seemed consistent or to work from day to day.  We were kind of all over the place at this time and just doing what we could to get by.  We tried everything, from adding another nap during the day (didn’t happen), to changing his bedtime, to trying to get him to take a pacifier, had him checked for ear infections, added the bottle back, tried putting him down awake.  Did it work?  Nope.  But guess what, it passed…

1 Year 

Right around the time Mac turned a year old, his sleep dramatically improved.  Maybe it was because he was no longer sick, it was finally nice outside and he was really active and getting lots of exercise and fresh air during the day or because we moved his bedtime back an hour (due to an East coast vacation), but honestly, I doubt it was anything we did.  (See, I told you I had zero answers!)  I think all kids probably just get to a point where they figure it out, if you let them.  He also chose a lovey (a little black and white puppy), that he started sleeping with every night.  We tried introducing a lovey multiple times before this, but it never took.  Once he started sleeping so much better, at 13 months we eliminated all bottles and formula completely and made the switch to whole milk and sippy cups.  This meant no more bedtime bottles, which was a pretty easy transition for him that only took a day or two.  For the first couple days, I’d take the bottle with me when I rocked him to sleep, but didn’t let him see it.  If he cried because he wanted a bottle (which happened once), I’d give him a sippy cup with milk first, then give him the bottle if he still insisted.  Otherwise, it was “out of sight, out of mind.”  By the third night he didn’t want the sippy cup or a bottle.  If he woke up in the middle of the night, we’d either let him cry for a few minutes and put himself back to sleep or go in and rock him (if it was obvious he wasn’t going to do it on his own).  Finally, no more bottles!

18 Months

Now, at 18 months, I feel we’re in a decent place for sleep (of course, as soon as I say this everything will change).  I still rock Mac every night and snuggle him like crazy at bedtime, but he goes into his crib awake and situates himself (and his puppy) and falls asleep on his own.  Occasionally he wakes up in the middle of the night (maybe 1 or 2 nights a week) and sometimes I have to go in and rock him for a few minutes to calm him down, but can usually put him back in his crib awake after just a couple minutes and he falls asleep on his own.  Bedtime is now 8:00 p.m. (or a little later) and he sleeps until 7:00 – 7:30 a.m. the next day.

So, that’s our story.  If you read all the way down here to the end of this ridiculously long post, you are a rock star.  You are also probably a sleep-deprived zombie mama that’s now totally pissed at me for not having the answers to your baby’s sleep issues.  I’m SORRY!  Just know that it does get better…everything’s a phase…your baby will figure it out eventually.  I know it’s hard to be patient (especially when you’re SO damn tired), but it goes quickly and someday you’ll look back on this time lovingly and wish you were rocking that tiny baby to sleep just one more time (or so I’ve been told).  Hang in there, mama, you’ll figure it out.  You know your baby best – just trust yourself to do what’s best for you and your little one.   In the meantime, have a glass of wine and try to relax…hell, have the whole bottle, you deserve it!

If you’re a mom who’s interested in sharing her child’s sleep story, please let me know!  I’m currently looking for more stories!


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About Jess

Jess Beer is a full-time working mom of two girls who writes about motherhood, wellness, easy meals and style.

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3 Responses

  1. Love Sara and Baby Mac! Thanks so much for sharing your story, I’m learning there is no “normal” when it comes to baby sleep and every baby is different! I’m struggling with moving to the crib from the rock n play right now and it’s torture!

  2. Oh sara I had no idea you had such a hard time with Mac (I didn’t start following you until he was over a year but oh my!). You gave the best advice ever – know your child. There is no one way gosh if there was there wouldn’t be so many books! I’m sure your story will help someone as sharing our stories is all what motherhood is about! Great series Jess! Glad I stopped by!

  3. It really is way harder than anyone ever warned me about. Luckily, it truly is just another phase they will grow out of and get better at. Just keep reminding yourself that and picture the days when they are teenagers and we’ll have to drag them out of bed!

I’m Jess! I’m a working mama of two sweet sisters living in the DC area. This is my space to share inspiration, real stories of working motherhood, recipes, style, and more! I can’t start my day without coffee and always try to show the real side of motherhood – the good and the challenging. I’m so glad you’re here – thanks for following along on my journey!

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