My Experience with Baby Wise: A Controversial Sleep Method Explained

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Guest author Ashley Thomas became a mother in December of 2011. Prior to mommy duty, she worked in childcare for five years and has helped raise children from infants to nine years of age. 

Babies have very basic needs: hunger, hygiene, love and attention, and sleep. Sleep is arguably most important (outside of feeding, of course) because, like adults, babies need adequate sleep to function and develop. But, like any life skill, babies do not come prepackaged with good sleep habits; they must learn the tricks of the trade. After reading On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep and testing it with my family, I realized there don’t have to be sleepless nights. We quickly strayed from the traditional sleep methods we were using, like feeding our baby to sleep, rocking him to sleep, and “co-sleeping” (bringing baby into parents’ bed at night). My family is now well rested and happy, and my son’s needs are entirely predictable. It was the best $10 I ever spent.

Baby Wise is a method that teaches you to better recognize your baby’s cues by combining three main ideas: Parent-Directed Feeding (PDF), an eat-wake (play)-sleep cycle, and eliminating sleep props.  When we started to implement this method we saw immediate results. For the past two months, my now four-month-old son has been sleeping ten to twelve hours at night, with one- to three-hour naps during the day. Despite ours and other’s success, the method remains highly controversial among the parenting community, but I feel there is a misunderstanding. For example, some claim the method’s rigidity is unsafe for children, but the book recommends flexibility in shaping the method to yours and your baby’s needs. To hopefully clear the air, here’s a breakdown of the components and how I successfully incorporated them into my parenting style.

PDF: Tradition says to offer food every time your baby cries, but babies cry for a multitude of reasons: tiredness, boredom, new diaper, etc. Instead, PDF promotes recognizing your baby’s hunger cues and using the clock to determine when to feed. This means feeding your baby every two to three hours and on demand. This provides better clues to what your baby needs, because if they just had a good feeding 30 minutes ago, chances are they are not crying for food, and thus other needs must be checked. PDF encourages flexibility with the schedule, though. For example, if your child truly is hungry shortly after a feeding, pay attention to specific indicators and offer food until full. Such indicators can include increased alertness, rooting, mouthing, etc.

At first, my son was a snacker—he was hungry every 15 to 30 minutes. He would never get a full feeding before falling asleep, and the restless cycle would continue. I wasn’t happy with this system, because my son was consistently fussy. Rather than ignore the clock and feed every time he made a peep, I wanted to establish a routine so my child and I would know what to expect from each other on a daily basis. I wasn’t a fan of implementing a rigid schedule, though, like only feeding him every three hours. But with PDF, the routine we created helped me understand the variation in my baby’s cries and how to rectify the situation. This ultimately helped me meet all of his needs more efficiently. Babies can be difficult to read, though. Try keeping notes of your baby’s cues after each need is successfully met, then compare the consistencies.

Eat-Wake (Play)-Sleep Cycle: Keeping your baby awake during feedings teaches him/her that the breast or bottle is not a tool to help them fall asleep. It also allows them to consume a full nourishing meal instead of falling asleep midway through. Keeping them awake to play for a short period after their feeding provides stimulation to help them burn off enough energy to sleep well rather than falling asleep because they are full.

Every time my son wakes up, we provide a full tummy and a means to expel that energy, and shortly after he’s ready to nap or sleep through the night. Next morning, the cycle continues. Using Baby Wise, he’s slept for increasingly larger chunks of time, especially as he’s gotten older. We soon realized that his whimpers after play were not for more food, but were because he was tired. Since he became accustomed to eating after he awoke, he learned how to go to bed without the breast or bottle and has been able to get the nutrition he needs during the day to sleep through the night. Baby Wise promotes full, frequent feedings during the day to help babies distinguish day from night, which helps teach them to fall asleep on their own.

Sleep Props: Some babies may fall asleep and stay asleep easier with these tools. They’re not to be confused with sleep association, which is something you provide for your child before they go to sleep (dark room, soothing sounds, swaddling). A sleep prop can be anything from nursing, rocking and swings, to driving around in the car and co-sleeping. In order to be successful at teaching your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own, sleep props need to be eliminated.

The first three weeks took hard work and consistency, but once we eliminated sleep props and implemented the other components, we saw a wonderful change in our son. Initially, he wanted to snack all day, nurse to sleep, and sleep being held, but because my husband and I understood the importance of adequate sleep—of which our son was not getting—we chose to teach him how to sleep. This meant some crying.

When people hear about the cry-it-out method, they think of putting a baby in a room and ignoring it until morning. This is not what Baby Wise recommends. We allowed our baby to cry a little (five to ten minutes only) when we were sleep training because all of his needs were met other than his need to sleep well. We would stay close by and watch him as he fell asleep. Every few minutes we checked to make sure he had a dry diaper and he wasn’t hungry, and we’d rub his hair and speak softly to him until he fell asleep. Along with close attention, we provided a pacifier and white noise machine when he wanted them. Within a couple weeks, crying was a thing of the past.

Contrary to critics’ beliefs, our four-month-old son is thriving—he’s nearly 16 pounds, over two feet tall, takes four good naps per day, and sleeps all night. Baby Wise has been crucial to our success as a family. That said, parenting is all about trial and error, and Baby Wise recommends shaping suggestions to meet the needs of your family—if something doesn’t work, don’t force it into the mix. Even use other methods as needed. My husband and I also blended The Happiest Baby on the Block’s five S’s (swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing sounds, swinging, sucking) into our style. The result was a well-rested family without a sleepless night in months.

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