My third and final baby is almost six months old. She’s my best sleeper so far, but that’s not saying much. My boys are seven and four, and both of them still wake up at least once a lot of nights. They go back to bed on their own now, but I just don’t breed good sleepers, I guess.
My daughter sleeps four or five hours in a row some nights, which is great because my boys never did. That occasional long stretch is how she won the title “least crappy sleeper.”
But it doesn’t do much for my new mom exhaustion, because a lot of nights I’m still up five or six times.
On top of that, she’s a weird napper, a light sleeper, and honestly, I’ve just resigned myself to being really freaking tired.
My older relatives hear about my sleepless life, and it’s always the same exact advice: “Give her solid food. It will help her sleep.”
Some of them swear by cereal in a bottle (hello, choking hazard.) A few veteran moms have suggested bananas or oatmeal right before bed. Others have told me that the more solids she eats throughout the day, the better she will sleep at night because she isn’t relying on me to nurse her back to sleep.
The idea that feeding my babies solids earlier and more often could lead to better sleep is pretty pervasive. I know a lot of moms who swear it actually works. I even tried oatmeal before bed for my first baby to see if it worked.
It didn’t. I was up and down all night with him and all that helped was letting him get older.
One study a couple years ago seemed to uphold the theory that starting solids earlier in a baby’s life might increase the amount of sleep they were getting by six months old. Unfortunately for exhausted parents everywhere, when you look at it closely, this study doesn’t really make a case for early introduction of solids to increase a baby’s sleep.
The study was designed to determine the best time to introduce solids in relation to food allergies, but the researchers also seemed to find that the babies in the study who ate solids earlier–between three and four months old, rather than closer to six months—slept, on average, about two hours more per week than kids who were exclusively breastfed.
While a two-hour nap sounds glorious to me, two hours per week is roughly 17 more minutes a day.
Yeah. It’s not a lot.
As it turns it, the sleep portion of the study was self-reported by parents, which is a notoriously inaccurate way of collecting data.
As desperate as every new parent is to get more sleep, there’s no really solid scientific data to support that feeding your young infant solid food early is the most likely way to make that happen. One study says you might get a few extra minutes each night, but most other studies say even that is not likely.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the NHS in the UK both recommend around six months of exclusive breastfeeding or formula feeding before introducing solids. This ensures that a baby gets all the nutrition they need from an adequate amount of milk. It also reduces the risk of choking or aspirating solids.
Of course, it’s important to make sure your baby is eating enough! Your baby obviously needs to be adequately fed. Work with your pediatrician to determine when your four- to six-month-old is ready to introduce solids.
You just need to know that introducing food before the recommended age will not lead to more sleep for your baby. It’s best to stick to recommendations on this one.
So, what’s a desperate parent to do? If getting your baby used to a bowl of oatmeal or a few bites of banana before bed isn’t the answer, how can we help our young babies sleep more soundly so we can get some rest?
Bonnie McGee is mom of two who worked for five years as an infant sleep consultant with The Baby Sleep Site. She agreed to sit down and give Scary Mommy a few practical tips for encouraging better infant sleep patterns.
Recognize that some babies just might not sleep through the night.
Some babies just won’t sleep from night until morning until they are over a year old. This isn’t necessarily an indication that they are not sleeping properly.
“Waking between sleep cycles is normal for people of all ages,” explains McGee. “A baby under a year old might legitimately need a night feeding, especially if you’re breastfeeding, but even if they don’t, waking up is a normal part of sleep.”
Bonnie explains that, as long as your baby is eating enough all day long, and you are tending to their legitimate nighttime hunger, adding extra food to their diet before they’re ready won’t help them sleep longer. “It might even upset their tummy, making sleep more difficult,” she adds.
Make sure daytime sleep is on a good schedule.
“An overtired baby will not sleep better at night,” McGee explains. “The drive to sleep at bedtime is strong, so you might notice that your baby ‘passes out’ quickly after a sleepless day, but they’re unlikely to sleep better throughout the night as their naturally-occurring melatonin starts to wear off.”
McGee says your baby needs two or three naps every single day, depending on their age. Skipping a nap is not likely to lead to more night time sleep.
“Make sure your little one is getting enough rest all day long,” she urges.
Make sure to gradually wean from sleep associations that depend on a parent.
You absolutely don’t have to decide between your own sleep and letting your baby cry it out with no comfort from you. There is a middle ground.
“If you currently rock and pat and sing to get your baby to sleep, don’t take those things away from your baby all at once. Wean off of each association gradually. Rock more slowly for a few nights, until you are not rocking at all. Pat your baby more and more softly each evening until you are not patting at all. Eventually, you will be able to lay them down awake, say goodnight, and walk away, but it might not happen overnight,” McGee says.
Create a bedtime routine with a distinct end.
Bonnie recommends giving your bedtime routine the same distinct end every night, so that your baby will associate that with sleep.
“At bedtime, I would complete our routine, lay my daughter down and say, ‘It’s sleepy time baby. I love you. Goodnight.’ She began to associate that phrase with the end of the bedtime routine; the signal that sleep is the next step,” McGee explains. “Choose a distinct end, and after you’ve established a good bedtime routine, you can repeat the end of your routine during night wakings, hopefully allowing your baby to return to sleep without a lot of help.”
Remember, this is not forever.
The exhaustion of early parenthood is unparalleled. It can feel like you will never sleep again. Luckily, that’s highly unlikely.
“Most parents can establish a routine with their babies,” Bonnies encourages. “There is always hope. If you are struggling, people like me can help your baby- and thereby you—sleep more soundly.”
Every new parent understands the value of a good night’s sleep. Feeding your baby solid food early won’t help them sleep better, but there are lots of other things you can try to help your baby find a schedule that allows you to rest.