This post is part of a series with each section addressing different sleep tips based on your baby’s age. Part 1 provided tips for babies 0-4 months, if this is your baby, start here.
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Sleep is about to change A LOT, and it seems it is about to take a turn for the worst as the first sleep milestone is here at 4 months. Your baby will no longer be able to sleep anywhere or at any time. However, understanding how their sleep is changing and what you can do to help them is key for having baby take quality naps. Good naps equal a happy baby and a better night’s sleep.
All babies undergo a sleep milestone at 4 months. At this stage, baby’s sleep is starting to change. Babies have more adult-like sleep and can’t just fall asleep anywhere. Noises may start to wake them at this point. The biggest concern here for naps is that naps are now only one sleep cycle (40-45 min) and instead of connecting their sleep cycles, baby wakes up. I have two pieces of advice that together should really improve this regression. The first is to use a Magic Merlin Sleepsuit because babies can’t be safely swaddled once they are starting to roll and the Magic Merlin Sleepsuit is the perfect transition. It is best used with the ABCs of sleep (Alone, on the Back, and in the Crib).
Related Post: 4 Month Sleep Regression? There’s a product for that
My second piece of advice is that at this point, baby has discovered the world around them. They are constantly getting distracted by sights and noises, especially during nursing. A baby who isn’t taking in full feedings throughout their awake times isn’t going to sleep well during naps or during the night. It is very possible that baby is hungry and is waking up from naps early because they didn’t feed enough due to getting distracted. Breastmilk digests in 60-90 minutes, and even faster if they didn’t get a full feeding and instead got mostly foremilk (the watery milk, not the fatty milk). An indication that this might be what is happening is green poops. While this isn’t always the case, if you are seeing green and frothy poop it is likely an indicator that they are not getting to the hind milk. You should try to help them nurse for longer periods of time, or not switch sides too soon. You may also want to offer the same side twice if they take a short break between nursing sessions to help them get to the hindmilk. I highly recommend the Bebe au lait Nursing Cover. This cover will allow you to see baby to latch baby, and keep baby latched, but will block out the rest of the world for baby and allow him or her to focus on nursing. Getting in quality feedings is a must for great naps.
While it is mentioned in 0-4 months old, this is where sleeping environment really starts to matter. As I have already mentioned, baby can’t sleep anywhere and really needs a good sleeping environment. Hence, a lot of parents switch to a crib if they haven’t already at this point. Baby has discovered the world and needs to be able to be in an environment conducive to sleep, an environment, which isn’t overstimulating or scary.
If you get nervous when putting baby to sleep about whether or not they will actually sleep and this leads to you inwardly panicking, then you are creating a problem. Baby will pick up on this very quickly and start to associate the crib with fear. Instead, make sure you smile and talk to baby happily. Don’t whisper instead talk in a soft happy voice. After a nap when baby wakes crying, try not to come in with a worried look and voice. Again, greet baby with smile and warmth in your voice.
Some parents also find it helpful to have some happy awake time in the crib before making the transition to sleeping in that space. This helps your baby associate the crib with safety and comfort. You can work this into your schedule at any point during that day. Another idea is to use the same sheets from their previous sleep space, or sheets that smell like mom and dad.
Related post: The Perfect Baby Sleep Environment
At around 6 months, most babies are very ready for a schedule. Around this age is an excellent time to start charting your baby’s sleep, especially for naps, to watch for a pattern to emerge. At 6 months most babies actually do better on a sleep schedule. Predictability is key for little ones as they approach toddler age. I talk more about this and routines in Part 3.
Related Post: How I Set a Nap Schedule Based on Baby's Individualized Sleeping Needs
Sometimes the easiest way to break short naps is to help baby lengthen them by actually waking baby before they would typically wake from the sleep cycle. Now, when I say waken, I mean barely stir. Their eyes shouldn’t open, they should stir. I did this and was able to turn L’s 40 min naps into 3 hours. The basic idea is that 15 minutes before they are supposed to wake, you gently stir them. Again, this does not mean to fully wake them. If they just stir, it should reset their sleep cycle and continue for another 40-45 minutes. This method is known as “wake to sleep”. I used both this method and also a revised version on days where I couldn’t get L to focus on nursing. On these days, I actually nursed L 30 minutes into her nap. I pick her up while she is still sleeping and nurse her. Basically, a dream feed to help with nap length. She would then sleep for much longer. It was so much easier to nurse my sleeping baby in a dimly lit room than having a short nap. I could wait until L woke up and then nurse her and see if she would fall back asleep, but then I had to try to get L to go back to sleep after fully waking up. I also then stocked her up on lots of milk in the day by getting in these extra feedings during her naps which led to better sleep at night. If you are worried about creating a sleep crutch or want to know when/how to remove one, see Part 3: 6-12 Months.
As baby reaches 6 months, most babies at this age are ready to follow a schedule. In fact, if sleep isn’t going well and baby is taking short naps, a schedule will most likely fix this. In particular, most babies follow a 2,3,4 nap schedule (wake up – 2 hours awake – nap – 3 hours awake – nap – 4 hours awake – bedtime). However, it is important to follow your baby’s own individualized sleep needs so we have put together a sleep worksheet to determine the perfect nap times for your baby, which you can get by subscribing using one of the forms on this post. No one loves routines or predictability more than a toddler. As the year continues, you will find that as your baby gets closer to the 12 month mark, they too will start to love predictability.
Better naps will start to emerge after creating a schedule. A schedule allows the body to start producing “sleepy hormones” at the same times every day, making it even easier to get your little one down for a nap. Additionally, once baby is on a schedule, you can better plan your day so you’re home for nap times. This might seem more restrictive, but really it isn’t because your baby will be sleeping so much better.
I put this one in here because this is one thing I didn’t do. L started to play with my hair during nursing sessions around 6 months. I thought it was cute and it didn’t hurt so I couldn’t see the problem. As in the picture you can see L asleep and holding my hair. As a first time mom, I couldn’t have predicted the problem because I had no idea that this age is a sensitive period for attaching to a lovey. If you don’t provide a lovey, then they will pick one, like your hair. To make a long story short, at some point, L couldn’t fall asleep without twirling my hair in her fingers. I eventually got her to switch from my hair to twirling her own hair while falling asleep by just continually putting her hand in her hair and keeping my hair out of reach. But still to this day as a toddler, she LOVES my hair and now that she is big, she can really pull and it can hurt. So learn from me, don’t let you baby play with your hair. Best is to keep it pulled up especially when nursing. If baby is looking for something to do with their hands while nursing, you need to always be nursing with a lovey.
6-12 months is a sensitive period where babies will attach to a lovey if presented with one that appeals to them. I highly recommend introducing a lovey not only to avoid hair pulling, but also because a lovey can help baby put themselves back to sleep, if they haven’t already learned how to do so. A lovey creates independence because a baby can rely on the lovey for soothing during naps and at night. To introduce a lovey, choose three very different options, all of which you can easily nurse with. I suggest getting a super soft small blanket, a small stuffed animal (particularly ones with long limbs or ears that baby can hold and run between their fingers, and trying a blanket with tags on it.
Now, here is the key step. Whenever you nurse baby before naps or bedtime, include the lovey. You can have it snuggle with you. You can use it to stroke baby’s cheek. Allow baby to look at it. You can try to put it in their hands. Continue to try, it will take a while. If one isn’t seeming to work, try another. Don’t give up, seriously, if you keep at it baby will take to one and by nursing with it right before sleepy times, you are creating positive associations with the lovey. Baby associates you and nursing with warmth, security, and comfort. By nursing with the lovey, baby will also associate the lovey with these things. Once baby attaches to the lovey or even before, place the lovey in the crib with baby. Of course, these should all be crib safe and make sure baby is old enough for the particular lovey you pick.
As I have mentioned throughout this section, bedtime routines and a shortened version for naps fit right into your baby’s love for predictability. Bedtime routines should be able to be done anywhere, be under 20 minutes and consistent.
Our bedtime routine:
Our nap time routine:
*I do not include a bath in a bedtime routine and highly recommend that you don’t either because research shows it can damage baby’s skin. Over bathing can lead to dry skin and skin conditions such as eczema and even cradle cap. New research is showing evidence that the development of eczema is based on environmental factors such as excessive bathing of infants. The condition can be treated by topicals but has no cure and can sometimes last through adolescence and adulthood. Additionally, starting at birth and for the first three years of life, a layer of good bacteria is trying to become established on the skin to not only protect the skin from bad bacteria (pathogens) by not letting the bad bacteria attach onto the skin but also the bacteria actually breaks down oils from your skin and turns them into moisturizers. The by-products from this process then help to regulate both the pH of the skin and the oil production. American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1-2 baths a week. If you absolutely must bathe your child every night, do not use soap and shampoo every time. I have included references at bottom of the post. The University of Utah does amazing research on the amazing benefits of good bacteria such as the ones I point to here. Their interactive link allows you to explore bacteria and the body.
Related post: Baby Bedtime Routine: First Step to Nurturing a Good Sleeper
I include this in the 6-12 month category because you need to have really worked on a lot of things before being able to effectively remove bedtime crutches and not feel like you are constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. First, it is okay to have a crutch for as long as you need it, until you and your baby are ready to omit it. I have a rule of ‘try for three nights’, if it isn’t working wait a few weeks and try again. Babies not only change quickly but also teething, sickness, growth spurts and wonder weeks all could make a sleep change look like a failure when really you just need to try again in a few weeks.
When I say sleep crutch, I am talking about “only falls asleep” items. This could be on me, bouncing on a yoga ball, in the rocking chair, nursing, or if I am in the room. To start this process, you first need to ensure you have taken these prep steps.
Here is an example of what your bedtime would look like if your crutch was rocking in a chair:
A note on nursing: if your crutch is that your baby only falls asleep nursing, then it is hard to have baby on and off the boob that much. If you try the above steps and it isn’t working, another option is to create another crutch to replace the nursing crutch. The other crutch needs to be something that is easier to remove, such as rocking or bouncing. Additionally, after nursing baby, you can hand baby to dad and have him rock baby to sleep. Once that becomes baby’s norm, dad can slowly follow the above steps. If you think your partner is up for it, I recommend that method because dad won’t smell like milk.
While this is a post that is focused on naps. The same method can be used to remove crutches from wake-ups in the night. Essentially, give less and less of the crutch and it should remove itself. Once you have removed the crutch to where it only takes a back pat or rub, keep lowering your presence. The addition of the lovey will be key here because baby can count on the lovey to fall back asleep. If your crutch is nursing, again follow the same steps where you keep decreasing the time it's given until baby falls asleep. If baby falls asleep and gets up 15-20 minutes later, then baby is most likely hungry. You might have to do this in stages because baby is used to eating at certain times. In addition to doing it in stages where the first night you try going 1-2 hours longer than the usual first nursing, etc. My other suggestion is to do a dream feed at 10 pm so baby clocks their longest sleep time while you are also sleeping.
Alli and I have written a ton about sleep so check out our sleeping section, and if your baby is younger than 4 months make sure you check out Part 1 of this series. If you're having issues with breastfeeding, check out this post about everything I learned from my year plus of breastfeeding. Finally, if your baby is fussy or colicky, read this guide.