Our experience with gentle sleep coaching

Our baby is 11 months old and he now sleeps through the night. I don't nurse him to sleep anymore, I don't nurse in the middle of the night anymore. What did we do? How did we coach him? And what is our new bedtime routine? Here's our experience with gentle sleep coaching.

A bit of background

My son Sven just turned 11 months. He is breastfed, I always nursed him to sleep, and he used to wake up twice a night (or more) since he was about six months old (between three and six months he actually only woke up only once per night). I always nursed him back to sleep. He slept mostly in his own bed but did end up in our bed a lot too. I actually liked it that way. Nursing the baby to sleep, falling asleep with the baby close to me, nursing at night, and waking up together in the big bed. One happy family in one not-so-big-bed.

But then he started waking up more. Instead of getting closer to sleeping through the night, he woke up more often and woke up early, at around 5.15 or 5.30. He does go to bed early (between 6.30 and 7 PM), but still. I blamed it on teeth, busy days, all the developments, and many other things. There was always a reason why he didn't sleep so well.

I was tired. I didn't have the energy to be a fun mom for my baby, I was moody, easily overwhelmed by the smallest things, and tense, and every day, I needed at least one cup of coffee. My husband noticed and brought up the idea of sleep coaching again. We had talked about it before, but it just felt wrong to me. I always felt that if the baby woke up at night, he was probably very hungry or thirsty, and needed milk. Until last month, I didn't even want to consider sleep coaching. Two weeks ago, it changed and we decided to give it a gentle try. We would stop if it didn't feel right, but we would try. First, by changing our evening routine, and after that by cutting out the nightly milk feeds. This is how we did it.

Our bedtime routine

I knew that the first thing we had to change, was the bedtime routine. Here's our old routine:

  1. Dinner
  2. Bath or shower (every other day)
  3. Milk feed in the bedroom until he fell asleep
  4. Carefully transferring the sleeping baby to the crib 
  5. Leave the room
  6. Mommy cleans up the mess in the kitchen and living room.

This worked really well when he was a tiny baby, but didn't work that well anymore once he got older. He had never learned to fall asleep on his own, woke up many times during the evenng and the night, and always needed a nursing session to fall asleep again.

Reading books on sleep, lots of Googling and long conversations with my dear friend Meylin, helped us come up with a new routine. This is our current bedtime routine to help our baby sleep through the night.

  1. Dinner
  2. Mom cleans up the kitchen and dinner mess, dad and baby clean up the toys in the leaving room
  3. Nursing in the living room. I talk to him about our day and share words of gratitude
  4. Bath time (bath every day. no more showers in the evening)
  5. Dad reads two books to him in the bedroom
  6. Puts the baby in the crib, awake
  7. No more talking to baby other than saying that he can go to sleep now
  8. Stays with the baby until he is asleep
  9. Out for the night. Bliss.

Was changing the bedtime routine that easy?

Yes and no. The first evening was hard. For the past 11 months, our baby had been nursed or bottle fed to sleep, and now we suddenly changed everything. He woke up many times that first evening. Yes, he cried. Everything he woke up, my husband would go in to tell him that he could go back to sleep, he would stroke his back and forehead, or he would pick him up if he was very sad. He woke up twice that night, too, and I nursed him. 

The next evening we used the same routine, he shared a few tears but went to sleep without a fuzz. The third evening, we didn't see any tears, he didn't wake up until the middle of the night. That was that. New routine. All good. I truly believe that changing the routine helped him learn how to fall asleep by himself.

We were ready for the next step.

No more nursing at night

So we had a beautiful new routine, that was actually a lot of fun for all three of us and it felt like something we were really doing together. Now, it was time for the next step: cutting out the nightly milk feeds. We were a little afraid of this step and were worried that he would cry all night. We decided that my husband would play a big role. I followed the advice of my friend Meylin and would stay at a friend's place. 

How gentle sleep coaching led to sleeping through the night

What was our plan? Every time Sven would wake up, my husband would first tell him softly that he could go back to sleep (we use the same phrases for that every day "you can go back to sleep" or "you can sleep now" in Dutch). He would sometimes stroke his back, or his forehead, but only to calm him down but not to let him fall asleep. It was very important that he would fall back asleep by himself. If he was very upset, my husband would pick him up, cuddle him and put him back in his bed when he was calm again. He would repeat this until the baby would be asleep. 

When I left that evening, I felt sad and guilty. I was leaving my baby alone, without milk, and just with a bottle of water next to his bed for emergency situations. Mom guilt hit me hard.

The next morning, I came home at 6 AM. The apartment was quiet. No sounds of sobbing or crying. Nothing. My husband smiled and told me that Sven woke up twice, at 11 PM and 3 AM, but went back to sleep after a cuddle. When the baby woke up that morning, he laughed and waved at me, and nursed like he normally did. Not much longer than he did before. Just a normal morning feed.

Next evening, same routine: I left, the husband took care of the baby. He woke up only once, at 4.30 and stayed awake until 5.30. No crying though, just playing in his crib. The following evening, he woke up at 11 PM, went back to sleep, and slept until 7 AM.

The next day, magic happened.

He was out for the night at 7 PM and woke up at 7 AM. Just like that. He slept through the night. 

Key things for a good night's sleep for our baby

These are the things that I believe are so important for a good night for our baby. Some of these will probably change over time but for now, this works so well.

  • Bedtime routine - So cliché but so true: the bedtime routine is key. I truly believe that by doing the same things every evening, helps him understand that it's time to sleep.
  • Own bed, own room - We realized that the baby actually sleeps a lot better, when he's in his own room, in his own bed. He sleeps deeper and doesn't wake up from our sounds and movements anymore.
  • Lavender oil - Lavender oil is the oil we use for sleep. It's so soft and calming, and it's an oil I use a lot for myself, too. I put some diluted lavender oil on his sheets or diffuse it in the room to create a peaceful environment.
  • Using different strategies to help him feel safe - Telling him to go to sleep, stroking his back, touching his forehead: all of these things help him, but we alternate so he doesn't need one specific technique to fall asleep. For example, we never stroke his back until he is asleep. We stroke, then stop, then tell him to go to sleep, etc.  
  • Staying with him until he is asleep - We stay with him until he is asleep. We sit next to his bed, on the floor or a chair, to help him feel safe and connected. Many of the books I read recommend moving away further and further, so he learns to fall asleep alone too, but we haven't tried that yet. 
  • An important role for dad - Removing me (and my breasts filled with milk) from the bedroom was a very important change. I feel that he now doesn't associate milk with the bedroom anymore and that is a big change.

A note on other things we've tried

Before doing the things I described in this article, we tried a few other things:

  • Giving formula instead of breastmilk at night - We thought he might still be hungry after drinking my milk, so we thought formula could be a good option. It didn't work too well. He didn't like it and even threw up a couple of times. 
  • Giving breastmilk + rice porridge in a bottle - Same idea: a more filling last feed. It didn't change anything though.
  • Husband bottle-feeds with pumped milk in bed - It didn't really bring anything amazing. The baby did get used to not falling asleep on the breast, but pumping took a long time and he still needed milk to fall asleep. 

Books I read on sleep coaching

I read LOTS of books on sleep, but I won't go into too much detail here about the ones I didn't like very much. I did like these books on sleep coaching:

Yes, these are the only two books I really liked and felt okay with. 

A few final thoughts

Am I now an expert on baby sleep? Oh no. I'm just a mother, who read a few books, talked to her dear friends and Googled a lot. I just followed what felt good, while always keeping an eye on the signals that our baby sent out to us.

So was our approach to gentle sleep coaching right? Is this the solution to everything?

The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s hungry or thirsty at night or if he is sad or lonely. But I do know that he wakes up smiling and talking, every morning, with lots of energy. I know that he eats and drinks well during the day, he has plenty of wet diapers and he poops at least once a day. He still takes long naps. He still hugs me all the time and gives me wet kisses. I’m pretty sure he still loves me, even though I don’t nurse him in the middle of the night.   

I also know that I'm a better mother for him now. I have a lot more energy, I'm less cranky and have more patience. 

Should you do the same?

I don't know. For a long time, I didn't even want to think about ending our nightly nursing sessions. But then, suddenly, it was time. Maybe you feel the same, maybe you're ready too. Feel free to ask me any questions, here or over email. I'm here for you.

I got a lot of questions on Instagram about sleep coaching and will share my answers in a next article.