Gentle sleep, is it possible?

I’m writing this sat in a dark room while R sleeps soundly on my chest. It’s been the same drill every night for six months.

We didn’t always intend for it to be this way. Before R was born I read books on establishing a routine – feed, play, nap. Never let your baby fall asleep feeding, let them learn to self settle. It all seemed so simple.

But when R was born I quickly learnt there was no way I could simply put her down and walk away. She needed me. And as I researched breastfeeding I discovered that feeding to sleep is not a negative association or a sleep crutch. It’s a survival instinct developed over millennia. It gives babies comfort and the security that it is safe to sleep.

So while I wanted to establish a rock solid routine to allow R to sleep on her own when she was ready I was fairly relaxed about how we got there. We fell into a rhythm – bathtime, feed and then let R sleep on one of us until we were ready for bed. We’d eat dinner upstairs. I’d do a workout while N held her. She slept and in turn we also got enough sleep.

But as she approached six months I knew it was time to transition her to her own sleep space and get our evenings back. We finally bought a mattress for the cot (which had been masquerading as a storage area) and invested in a baby monitor. We were ready to go.

I’d read enough about cry it out and controlled crying methods to know that they weren’t for us. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving R in a room on her own to cry. The problem was every time we tried to put her down in her cot she would instantly wake up and start crying and I’d have to feed her back to sleep. And the constant cycle of feeding, attempting to put down, crying and feeding again was wearing me down.

I searched online for reassurance – was I doing the right thing? Along with discovering Facebook groups dedicated to gentle sleep I found Kerry Secker who runs Care It Out sleep consultancy on Instagram. Her approach made sense, in particular always giving support when your little one needs it. When I saw that she had an offer on for her bedtime basics and bedtime boundaries e-courses I bought both – there must be an answer.

The courses were everything I’d hoped for – practical advice, but gentle, with limited tears. We immediately followed the advice on nap-gaps to get R into a consistent nap routine. This coincided with us starting weaning so we rearranged our day to create family meal times that worked for naps.

Making small changes

R was contact napping and I decided not to try to put her in her cot for naps initially. By not changing everything all at once I hoped we could avoid R becoming over-tired. I was feeding R to sleep so we instigated a break between feeding and sleep. At the point I could see R falling asleep I would pick her up and put her in her sleeping bag. She would then fall asleep in my arms rather than on the boob.

But then we would have the dreaded transfer. I would wait until R was in a deep sleep before attempting to put her down. Sometimes she would go down and I could make an escape. But more often than not she would wake up crying and I would have to pick her up and then hold her until I felt she was in a deep enough sleep to attempt to put her down again. After the 4th or 5th attempt I’d be at breaking point. I knew that if I got stressed she was more likely to wake but I felt frustrated and more often than not hungry as I hadn’t eaten my dinner.

After a couple weeks of this I knew something had to change. So we decided to change our approach. Rather than let R fall asleep in my arms I would put her in her cot and then not pick her back up. Instead I would try to calm her by stroking her head and singing a lullaby. Every time she woke, I would go back to stroking her head to try to settle her back to sleep. The only time I would pick her up is in the unlikely event she needed a nappy change.

I’m not going to lie, the first night we tried this there were a lot of tears. R probably didn’t sleep more than a few minutes. But it got better, and quickly. Within a few days I could put R down awake in her cot, leave the room and she would fall asleep without any tears.

Now, it’s not perfect. I’m not going to pretend that she sleeps for the whole stretch to when we go to bed at 10pm. But it’s better. So much better. N and I can eat dinner downstairs together. We can watch TV or a film. And it’s made nap times easier as well. For R’s main nap I can put her down in her cot and leave the room, usually getting at least an hour to myself. That time to myself is so important and I really value it. R still doesn’t sleep through the night, and I’ll normally bring her into bed after she wakes in the night. But being able to put her in her cot, confident that she will fall asleep has made such a difference to us.

Our naptime routine

Our nap routine at 7 months is roughly:

  • 7am wake up (who am I kidding, R regularly wakes at 6am). N then takes R downstairs for her breakfast
  • 8.30/9am – 10/10.30am morning nap
  • 12.30pm lunch
  • 1pm – 3pm nap
  • 5.30pm dinner
  • 6pm bedtime routine – bath, story, feed
  • 10pm nappy change to night nappy and feed

We keep things flexible and if things change they change. Over the last few weeks R was really struggling to stay asleep during her lunchtime nap and at bedtime as a result of discovering how to crawl and getting her first tooth. These things happen and I just try to remind myself that she will go back to sleeping well once the phase has passed.

Our bedtime routine

It was important to me to set up a good bedtime routine from early on so we’ve been following this since R was old enough to have a proper bath. I’ve set out below our bedtime routine – it’s not a magic formula but it is working for us right now:

  • We start with a bath, normally about 10 minutes. N and I normally do bathtime together. Once R is washed and dried I’ll put a clean nappy on her and dress her for bed.
  • N then takes her into the bedroom for story time (giving me a few minutes to myself). I’ll then go upstairs and put the blackout blinds to make the room dark.
  • I’ll feed R sat in the chair in the nursery area (R sleeps in our bedroom but we have a nursery area within the bedroom).
  • Once R is almost asleep I’ll unlatch her and give her a cuddle. We then say goodnight to five of her toys – we do this in the same order every night.
  • I’ll then lay R in the cot and put her in her sleeping bag. I give her a goodnight kiss and stroke her head. I’ll then turn the white noise machine on (we have an Ewan the Sheep) and leave the room.

Sometimes R will be awake when I lay her down and will wriggle and make a bit of noise (since she’s learnt to crawl this has definitely increased), sometimes she just closes her eyes and is gone. But I’m confident that she will fall asleep when I leave the room. Only on a few occasions have I had to go in and sing a lullaby to get her to sleep.

And if she’s really losing it I still put her back on the boob – there’s a reason she’s crying and giving her a cuddle and a feed isn’t giving in. Often when I do this she drops off straight away and I can put her back in her cot without any fuss.

How can I get my baby to sleep?

I know that when you are in the thick of it I can feel like you’ll never get to a point where you can leave your little one to sleep in the cot. We by no means have sleep absolutely sussed – I know that our routine will probably change over time and we’re likely to have rough patches, especially when we have a leap. But here’s a few things that helped me figure out how to get to where we are now:

Stay calm – this is by far the hardest thing, I’ve been close to tears, I’ve wanted to scream “just go to sleep”. But I know that the more tense and stressed I am the less likely R is to sleep. It’s instinctual for her to take her cue from me so if I’m stressed, she’s going to struggle to fall asleep. I normally take a deep breath and remind myself that she wants to sleep, she just needs my support.

The support scale – Kerry Secker has a brilliant support scale (1 is calm and happy, 10 is completely losing it). The scale serves as a way to recognise when your little one is asking for support. I know when I leave the room, R doesn’t need my support even if she’s wriggling and chatting away. But when the cries start that’s my cue to go in and give her a little help.

Be consistent – we do the same thing in the same way every night. When we say goodnight to R’s toys I can feel her falling asleep in my arms, ready for bed.

Avoid the transfer – this was really a game-changer for us. As soon as I stopped trying to transfer R to the cot when she was asleep and got her to fall asleep laying in the cot we made real progress. As difficult as it is, keeping little one in the cot (but still being there and giving cuddles, strokes and reassurance) does make a big difference.

So that’s where we are at right now with sleep. I hope that sharing our experience might help give you some reassurance that you’re doing the right thing. You will get there.

R x.

Published by Rebecca

Photographer, explorer, travel and lifestyle blogger

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