Wake Train Your Baby
Parents-to-be are often advised, “Rest up now, because you’re not going to sleep for a long time once the baby arrives!”
That’s not advice. It’s a warning.
And it doesn’t have to be true.
As the parent of an infant, you will be sleep deprived in order to take care of your little one. But how long you will be sleep deprived is under your control.
If you’re reading this as a sleep deprived parent with an infant, I see you. Those early days feel lonely, like the whole world is moving forward while you’re in this haze of repetitive sleepless nights. You’re doing great (it’s okay to cry!) and you will get through this phase.
I’m no expert. I’m just a mom who got both my kids sleeping 11 hours a night by 6 months old.
And I didn’t do it by sleep training.
Sleep training your baby is often synonymous with the cry-it-out method, which is when you leave your child alone in her crib, shut the door, and let her cry until she falls asleep. It’s typically not enforced until 4 months old.
So what are you supposed to do for the first four months? Just let the baby dictate her and your schedule?? For FOUR months?! Then when she turns 4 months old, just leave her screaming in her crib while you listen outside the door?
Based on that definition, I did not sleep train my babies. What I did was wake train them.
Wake training is when you create a consistent feeding schedule in a 24-hour period. It brings order and routine into your and your baby’s life and slowly helps her ease into longer sleep stretches during the night.
And the sooner you start, the sooner you and your partner will no longer want to kill each other.
A friend asked how my 4-month-old was sleeping. When I told her she was sleeping eight hours a night she asked my secret.
I said, “I wake her up for feedings.”
My friend gasped, “My doctor said you should never wake a sleeping baby.”
I understood her surprise. It was difficult to imagine waking my peaceful, slumbering baby until I became a sleep deprived parent.
Wake training is not for everyone. Some parents go to the opposite side of the spectrum and choose co-sleeping. This is when the baby sleeps in the same bed as you and your partner. Co-sleeping has many physical and emotional benefits, and you don’t even have to get out of bed to attend to your crying baby.
It also guarantees you sleepless nights for years to come and less intimacy with your partner. You will deprive yourself of a good night’s sleep and potentially, a healthy, romantic marriage. Hopefully your child has no problem transitioning to their own bed in their own room, someday, or maybe it’s best to not think about it. Regardless, I’m sure those nighttime family snuggles are totally worth it.
My neighbor was co-sleeping with her infant. I asked this mom how she was sleeping. She told me, “I don’t really sleep. I doze.”
“Dozing” reminded me of what I used to do in history class until the teacher’s monotone voice suddenly announced my name and spiked my adrenaline for just a moment before I quickly returned to my lulled, tired state and could think only of my comfortable bed.
I didn’t want to doze. I wanted to sleep. REM sleep and deep sleep and eight hours of it. Uninterrupted, if possible.
If snuggling with your baby at 4am and not knowing the next time she’s going to feed or sleep doesn’t make you feel unhinged, then wake training might not be important to you. But if you’re like me, a Type A personality who desperately needs eight hours of sleep AND needs to know when she’s on baby duty vs. when she’s got a free window of time to herself, wake training is essential.
Here’s the promise of a sleep training book: If you do what we say exactly as we say it, sleep training works!
This is bullshit. Sleep training books make so much sense hypothetically. But nothing resonates until you can apply it to your own situation in real time. I had to cycle through three books before I discovered a method that worked for us, and even then it wasn’t perfect.
First I read the falsely optimistic Cherish The First Six Weeks and considered myself ready and armed for the newborn stage. Weeks 1 through 4 I was like, Wow, this is amazing, this is exactly what’s happening! Then I got to Week 5 and the first line of the chapter was, “Congratulations! Your baby is sleeping through the night!”
Uhh, huh?? Did I skip a chapter? My baby was most definitely NOT sleeping through the night. Then I shut my husband’s kindle as forcefully as one can shut a kindle, and never used it again.
What did it mean to sleep through the night, anyway?
Technically, a 5-hour stretch is considered sleeping through the night. And a “5-hour stretch” looks like this: baby eats at 11pm, goes to sleep at 12am, sleeps until 4am.
This means you hopefully get to sleep from 12:15-4am. Does just under four hours of sleep really feel like something to celebrate? Actually, yea, the first time our babies made a 5-hour stretch we celebrated. And because my husband and I were so sleep deprived, a “celebration” looked like me and Sam smiling at each other saying, “Great job, Mama. Great job, Papa. Great job, baby. Go us.”
As a general rule of thumb, however many weeks old your baby is (between weeks 4-12) is how many consecutive hours they can sleep. So if your baby is 5 weeks old a 5-hour stretch is okay, but you shouldn’t let her sleep more than 5 hours. That doesn’t mean she will necessarily sleep five hours at 5-weeks-old, it just means she might be capable of it. My daughter was 7 weeks old when she had her first 5-hour stretch. She was 9 weeks old when she had her first 6-hour stretch.
Next, a friend recommended Twelve Hours Sleep By Twelve Weeks Old. That’s some promise, Book Title! Twelve hours of sleep a night by 3 months old is intense. For those parents who are down to measure exact ounces and break out a whiteboard to keep a daily log, this option can certainly help you reclaim your time and sanity. For a breastfeeding mom, it didn’t resonate with me.
My son was born during COVID. No one was allowed in our house, so it was just me, Sam, and our baby George. We had no idea what we were doing. When Sam wondered out loud if George was colicky I snapped at him, “He’s not colicky! He’s just a baby! This is how babies are!”
He was colicky. He spent the better part of the days and nights crying, and Sam and I took turns trying our best to soothe him. We were exhausted. When George was 2 weeks old I stood on our front lawn with him in my arms, rocking and shushing him, hoping the fresh air would stop his screams. That’s when another neighbor, a mom of four, walked over and put the third book in my hands.
It was On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep. This book explained,
“Babies do not have the ability to organize their own days and nights into predictable rhythms, but they have the biological need to do so. That is why parents must take the lead and create structure and routine for their babies and for themselves.”
The sleep training in this book felt realistic and doable with its detailed explanation of how the feeding schedule changed from week to week. As my husband and I started to implement the Babywise way, we focused on three things:
1. His feeding schedule.
2. How much he was eating.
3. Putting him down in his crib tired but still awake.
But there was still a missing piece in this book. It didn’t address the length of time a baby should be awake during the day. When I told a girlfriend George was wired at 10pm and she asked how much awake time he was getting, I had no idea. I wasn’t keeping track of that!!
And even though we liked this method, there were still setbacks, indecisions, and frustration as we moved forward.
Sleep training books can have helpful tips, but they don’t always paint a full picture. A more modern approach can be found online at Taking Cara Babies. There are classes and eBooks or you can just read the simple and practical free content, like this detailed post of a 1-month-old’s sleep schedule. Whenever I was stuck on my baby’s schedule or unsure what to do in the next stage, I found help from Cara.
Wake training and sleep training are similar in that both end with your baby sleeping through the night. But wake training puts you in control of your and your baby’s schedule as soon as you get home from the hospital, rather than straight up chaos until they’re 4 months old.
When I gave birth at the hospital the nurses instructed me to feed my baby every 2.5-3 hours. That meant if I started feeding my son at 10am I would have to start feeding him again by 1pm. And if he was sleeping at 1pm, I should wake him up.
This is a big piece of wake training. You create a consistent feeding schedule as soon as possible and make sure they’re getting enough awake time (age dependent) during the day. This helps them to start sleeping through the night sooner rather than later.
A consistent feeding schedule lays the groundwork for future nighttime feeds, when you will begin to stretch the time in between feeds to more than three hours during the night, but keep the daytime feeds to 2.5-3 hours.
No matter how many hours your baby sleeps through the night, all babies require the same amount of nutrition in a 24-hour period. That means if your 4-month-old is sleeping 8 hours a night he needs to eat every 2.5 hours during the day. So his feeding schedule might look like this: 7am, 9:30am, 12pm, 2:30pm, 5pm, 7:30pm, 10pm.
If you wait for the baby to wake up, you let the baby dictate his and your schedule. Also, if your baby is crying, that means he’s upset and possibly past the point of hunger. Would you rather attend a baby who is hungry and upset, or one who is pleasant and happy to see you?
Instead of rushing into my son’s cries when he woke up, I was the one to wake him up, see a smile on his face, and be in control of our schedule.
Yes. You’ll know it’s time to change when the schedule that once felt perfect no longer feels feasible.
For example, your baby consistently goes down for a nap at 12:30pm, then you wake her up to feed at 1:30pm. Suddenly she’s no longer tired at 12:30pm, and doesn’t go down for her nap until 1:30pm, when previously that’s when you’d wake her up to feed her.
It’s time to change the schedule. You can wake your baby up to keep her on a feeding schedule, but you can’t force your baby to take a nap. By paying attention to her awake time you can see when the schedule needs to adjust.
Adjusting the schedule sometimes just means moving some of the feeding times around. Eventually, it means dropping a nap and dropping a feed. For me, it sometimes meant changing a breastfeed to a bottle feed.
Just before my daughter turned 6 months old, we moved from five feeds to four, from one bottle to two. The only way to move from five feedings (with four breastfeeds and one bottle feed for the last feed) to four feedings was to add in another bottle feed (breast, bottle, breast, bottle).
The nice thing about feeding from a bottle was that someone else could feed my baby besides me. It also let me know exactly how much the baby was consuming, and for my neurotic brain, that was comforting.
Look, if your baby is hungry it’s simple. You feed her. Always! But if there’s another reason she’s crying besides hunger, you hold her, shush her, calm her down, change her diaper. You try and hold her off until it’s time to eat at 10am.
If you feed your baby every 2.5-3 hours, she shouldn’t be hungry between feeds. And the way to ensure she’s not hungry between feeds is to encourage a full feeding.
Babies often fall asleep when they’re eating. From Babywise:
“Babies (and especially newborns) are prone to doze off while feeding, thereby taking only a partial meal. When that happens, especially with breastfed babies, the child is not taking enough to satisfy his nutritional needs.”
It’s important to wake them up if they fall asleep during a feeding. There are tricks, like tickling their feet, a cold washcloth on their skin, or my go-to — changing her diaper. By encouraging a full feeding, you can be (mostly) sure that when they are crying one hour later, there’s a solid chance they are not hungry and it’s okay to hold them off until it’s time for the next feeding.
You might be wondering, what’s a full feeding? For me, in the beginning days, a full breastfeeding was an average of 15 minutes on each side. As my babies grew and became more efficient eaters, a full feeding might only last 8-10 minutes on each side.
No matter what, if you only feed for a few minutes before they zonk out, they will absolutely be hungry much sooner and you will not be able to follow the schedule.
The final piece of wake training is to put your baby down before he falls asleep in your arms.
Don’t hold your breath as you do it. Don’t gingerly step away and avoid the creaky floorboards. Just put him down. If his eyes open that’s a good thing. He will wake up, and then go back to sleep. This is how he learns to self-soothe and then fall asleep on his own.
Or he’ll cry. When he does, you pick him back up, settle him, and place him back down when his eyelids start fluttering again.
I stood in front of a mirror and watched my son over my shoulder to see when he was starting to drift. As I laid him down, his eyes would open. Sometimes he would just lay there. Most times he would cry and I’d have to pick him back up. I did this process multiple times until finally there were no tears when I put him down and he fell asleep on his own. Sometimes he would be so tired and fall asleep in my arms before I put him down. And that’s okay! Sometimes you will put him down before he falls asleep and sometimes you won’t.
And let’s be serious. When it’s the middle of the night and it’s dark and all I want to do is sleep, there’s no chance I’m putting my baby down before he falls asleep in my arms. I’m too tired. I save this practice for daytime naps when I have more patience and energy. As long as I do it some of the time, he learns.
This process of putting the baby down before he falls asleep is about long-term vs. short term benefits. It feels lovely and cozy when a baby falls asleep in your arms. But if you let them do it all the time, you pay for it later.
My sister did not wake train her daughter and at 1 year old, no matter how tired she was, my niece clung to my sister’s neck as soon as she tried to lay her in her crib. My 1-year-old, on the other hand, welcomed his crib and sometimes even reached for it at bedtime.
Which would you prefer?
Wake training is anything but straightforward.
You might think, Hooray! Baby had a 6-hour stretch last night! That means she’s going to have a 6-hour stretch tonight. And pretty soon, that will stretch to seven hours! And soon after that, I will be invincible!
This is unlikely. When my daughter, Layla, was 10 weeks old she had her first 7-hour stretch. There were lots of exclamation points in my notes. “Best night yet! 7-hour stretch! AMAZING!”
The day after that blissful 7-hour stretch, Layla woke up crying at 1:30am and I couldn’t settle her. According to all my notes and everything I thought I knew, she shouldn’t have been hungry. But she was.
Layla was cluster feeding, which is when the baby wants lots of short feeds over a few hours. When it happens you’re like, Why is this happeninggg?? It doesn’t make any sense!
The next two nights Layla was up constantly, and I began to wonder if I had imagined that 7-hour stretch.
This is the process of wake training.
A 7-hour stretch should be celebrated. It means your baby is capable of sleeping seven hours. But one good night is not a promise for the nights to come, it’s a promise of what’s possible.
My parents came to visit when George was 1 month old. My husband and I were feeling our way through wake training. My Dad made the comment like it was gospel: “You should never wake a sleeping baby.”
It was difficult to explain our reasoning when we hadn’t seen any results yet, so Sam and I kept the wake training details to ourselves.
When my parents returned for a visit when George was 6 months old, George was sleeping 7pm-7am. Dad couldn’t believe it. “You guys are really lucky.”
I told him we weren’t lucky. We, in fact, facilitated this. But Dad waved me off.
“Yea yea yea, sure. But still, you’re lucky he’s such a good sleeper.”
Maybe Dad’s right. We were lucky. We were lucky we wake trained.
Someone recently asked me which stage of parenting has been the most difficult so far. Without hesitation I said infancy. From 0-3 months was BRUTAL. Especially with our first baby because as new parents we worried he would stop breathing in his sleep. So even when he was peaceful and quiet I STILL got out of bed to make sure he was alive.
Infants require the most attention and care, which made it difficult to focus on anything else in my life. When my son was born I was publishing an essay each week. My mom came to visit and I shared some of my stress with her around writing. She told me there was nothing else for me to do during this time except be with my baby.
At the time, it made me angry. I was not “just” a mom. I was a writer. And even though the only person putting pressure on me to publish was me, my weekly deadline was sacred.
Then came baby #2 and I let go of the weekly essay cadence and allowed myself more time with her. If I have a third baby, I imagine I’ll give myself even more time and grace during those first three months.
Without wake training, though, those three sleepless months could turn into six or nine or 12 sleepless months. And if I did nothing for the first four months except follow my baby’s cues I would feel like an on-call ER doctor.
I am not an ER doctor.
When my son started sleeping 11 hours a night is exactly when I started to feel normal again. And by normal I mean well-rested, healthy, and able to look at my husband as my loving partner again, instead of just my co-parent.
The most important thing to remind myself if we have a third baby is that wake training is not a straight line. There will be cluster feeding, sleep regressions, and witching hours. But there will also be a feeding schedule, full feedings, putting the baby down before she falls asleep in my arms, and finally, a baby sleeping 11 hours a night by 6 months old.
While editing this essay, my 11-month-old had a double ear infection and was waking up in the middle of the night for two weeks. And my 2-year-old suddenly started rising at 4:45am because he wanted breakfast.
I felt like a fraud. Here I was proclaiming both my kids were sleeping 11 hours a night. And they weren’t.
But this process doesn't end when your baby turns 6 months old. There will always be setbacks. There will be illnesses and growth spurts and bad dreams and on and on.
Every day is a new day to get back on the schedule and ride the wake train.
THE FEEDING SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN
1st month: Daytime every 2.5 hours, nighttime every 3 hours.
2nd month: Daytime every 2.5 hours, nighttime extends to two 4-hour stretches.
3rd month: Daytime 2.5 hours, nighttime gradually extends to a 5, 6, and then 7-hour stretch.
4th month: Daytime every 2.5 hours, nighttime extends to an 8-hour stretch.
5th month: 6 feeds a day. Sample schedule: 6:30am, 9:30am, 12:30pm, 3pm, 5:15pm, 8:30pm. Also down from 4 to 3 naps. Bedtime by 9pm and sleeping 10 hours a night.
6th month: Moved from five feeds (breast at 6:30am, 10:30am, 1:30pm, 4:30pm; bottle 6:30pm) to four feeds (6:30 breast, 11am 6oz bottle, 3pm breast, 6:30 8oz bottle). Bedtime at 7pm. Sleeping 11 hours a night.
LAYLA’S WEEKLY BREAKDOWN
Week 1: Welcome to the world, Layla! No strict schedule yet but still focused on the three steps and fed her every 2.5-3 hours, encouraged full feedings, and put her down while she was still awake (sometimes).
Week 2/3: Feeding schedule: 7am, 9:30am, 12pm, 2:30pm, 5pm, 7:30pm, 10pm, 1am, 4am, 7am.
2.5 hours between feedings during the day and stretched to 3+ hours during night feeds.
Week 4: Started to try and stretch the sleep between the 10pm and 7am feed. Should hope for one 3.5 hour stretch for a couple nights, and then one 4-hour stretch. When that happens, the schedule needs to adjust. For example, if she sleeps from 10pm-2am, and then again until 5am, you could either wake her up at 7am to get her back on the schedule, or let her go until 8am, then feed again at 10am, 12pm, and then you’re back on the schedule.
Week 5/6: This is when she moved from 9-8 feedings.
New feeding schedule: 7am, 10am, 12:30pm, 3pm, 5:30pm, 8pm, 11pm, 3am.
It wasn’t always easy to get her to make it from 11pm - 3am - 7am. My daughter often woke up at 2am. When she did, I knew I should try to soothe her back to sleep and put her back down, but many times, as soon as I got back in bed she started crying again. So instead, I kept her swaddled and laid her on my chest in the nursery chair and we slept together until 3am. (Are you supposed to fall asleep with your baby on you? No. Did I care? No.) Then I woke her up, changed her diaper, and fed her. This way she at least made it a 4-hour stretch without eating. She needed my help to do it, but she got used to going for a longer time at night without feeding.
Week 7/8: This is when she started to make it for both 4-hour stretches on her own, so I fed at 11pm, put her down to sleep, and she slept until 3am. Then fed her, put her down to sleep, and she slept until 7am. This gave me two big chunks during the night to get some sleep!
Week 8/9: This is when she made a 5-hour stretch from 11pm-4am. Then she went three more hours until 7am.
Week 9/10: This is when she moved from 8-7 feedings. I essentially dropped the 3am feed when she made a 6-hour stretch from 11pm-5am. Then I changed the new morning schedule to 8am, 10:30am, and then got back on the regular schedule at 12:30pm. Notice the feedings during the day never change. She was still sometimes going only 2.5 hours between feedings. That is because she needed to reach a certain number of ounces in a 24-hour period, and because she dropped a feed during the night, she needed to make up for it during the day.
Week 10/11: This is when she made a 7-hour stretch from 11pm-6am.
Week 11/12: This is when she made an 8-hour stretch from 11pm-7am.
Week 13/14: This is when she made a 9-hour stretch from 10pm-7am and moved from 7-6 feedings: 6am, 9:30am, 12:30pm, 3:30pm, 6pm, 8:30pm. This is also where I stopped taking meticulous notes because we were all sleeping more. :)
There comes a point where you have to let your piece go and just publish it already. If you don’t release it at the right time — and the right time is when you get sick of looking at it — you start to lose the excitement you had for the thing you desperately needed to write in the first place.
Usually I’m pretty good about letting pieces go, but this is the first time I held on tight for a little too long. I couldn’t get the compression right and couldn’t nail the ending. And while those two minor details were working themselves out, I decided the entire essay sucked.
If you’re reading these words, it means I have finally published the thing. I had something to say, and after a year of obsessing over this topic, I said it.
I’m lucky to have parent friends in my little writer's world. I sent a draft to Bryce Longton, Scott Krouse, and Adam Tank when I had reached the depths of despair. They ripped it apart with love, wisdom, and encouragement. Their collective feedback gave me the kick in the ass I needed to re-write the piece with newfound invigoration and urgency.
Michael Dean was there through the idea’s inception all the way through to the final draft. I was kind of all over the place when Michael pointed out my shiny dime: the consistent feeding schedule. During the editing phase I met Michael in person (after two years of Zoom calls!) and he told me about Lexica, which he uses for all his visuals for his newsletter. I told him I wanted a picture of a train that read, “Wake Train Express.” Michael found the awesome header image for this piece. It didn’t read “Wake Train Express,” so I added that myself (in Procreate, if you’re wondering!).
Polina Pompliano and Amanda Natividad were the badass moms I reached out to with a long list of questions about their experiences with sleep training. Both sent back detailed and supportive responses that gave me a good sense of how to move forward. In one exchange, Polina sent a rant that had me laughing out loud. It was so entertaining, I asked if I could use it as the header of the piece. Unfortunately, text in header images are a bitch. I do not recommend it.
It was Jeremy Finch who created said text image that I fell in love with. When he sent me the drawing of Polina's quote I gasped. The chicken scratch writing made it seem like a crazy, sleep deprived mom had written it. It was perfect.
I can’t tell you how Jeremy and I met but I know it was through some serendipity magic online. You know how it goes. We probably found each other through Twitter, subscribed to each other’s newsletters, and the back and forth exchanges started there. Jeremy is a talented illustrator, so when he asked if I ever wanted to collaborate on a piece I jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve never collaborated with anyone like this before, and learned how much my draft changes from the initial ideas to the final piece. What I wanted changed constantly, and Jeremy was always game. An initial drawing he sent sparked the idea for the subheaders to feel like an exchange between friends.
Jeremy worked with me for six months, right up until the birth of his second child. (Congratulations, Jeremy! You’re in the thick of the newborn phase and I’m thinking of you!)
Nate Kadlac is the genius behind my website. (He created it from scratch!) Whenever I don’t know how to do something on my website, which is like, all the time, I ask Nate for help. This guy will stop what he’s doing and send me a freaking Loom video to walk me through it.
Coincidentally, I started his drawing course while writing this essay. His guidance through Procreate allowed me to add my own text to the header image. Pretty cool, right?!
And finally, to my husband Sam. All my best ideas are his ideas.
There were two things that came up every time I mentioned sleep training to any parent: 4 months old, and cry it out. I kept getting fired up. “No! That’s not what sleep training is!”
It was Sam who finally said, “Stop trying to convince everyone of your version of sleep training and just come up with your own term.”
And so wake training was born.