A couple of weeks ago, I read about an experiment that showed that 100% of breastfed babies could learn to sleep through the night by eight weeks. I was skeptical, but also intrigued. My baby was eight weeks old then, and definitely not sleeping through the night. In case you are not familiar with baby sleep jargon: “sleeping through the night” usually means that a baby sleeps from before midnight till after 5AM. I think that midnight till 5AM is a very short night, but, hey, for a two-month old this is still pretty cool!
I decided to look up the original paper that described the experiment. Here is the link to the paper in case you want to read it too. The experiment was quite simple. The researchers recruited 26 first-time parents to participate in a baby sleep study. All of them were planning to exclusively breastfeed the baby until at least eight weeks. 13 families were put (at random) in the control group and 13 were put in the experimental group.
Simple instructions for the experimental group
Both groups of parents were asked to keep detailed 72 hour diaries once a week for eight weeks, in which they recorded when their baby slept, when it nursed and how much milk it consumed at each feed*.
In addition, the parents in the experimental group were told to do the following:
1. Always feed the baby between 10PM and midnight (focal feed).
2. Try not to hold, rock or nurse the baby to sleep.
3. Accentuate the difference between day and night.
4. Make sure the baby is really crying before picking them up (and do not pick them up when they only whimper).
At three weeks, if the baby was growing well, the following instruction was added:
5. If the baby wakes up and cries between midnight and 5AM, try reswaddling, patting, diapering and walking. Only if after trying these things the baby is still crying, offer a feed.
It worked for the babies in the study!
The results were very clear. The babies in the experimental group learned to sleep through the night. When they were eight weeks old, all 13 babies in the experimental group (100%) slept through the night at least two nights of the three nights that the sleep diaries covered. This was true for only three out of 13 babies in the control group (23%). The researchers found no differences in total milk intake or weight gain between the two groups.
What I did
I was inspired by the clear results and the simple protocol that was used in the study. Other sleep-through-the-night plans I had previously read about included very strict day-time routines, which I didn’t want to stick to. So I decided to try to follow the protocol for a few weeks. I already didn’t hold or nurse the baby to sleep and the day-night difference was clear – so I made no changes there. I now added the focal feed between 10PM and midnight and if the baby woke up, I tried reswaddling, a new diaper and a bit of walking before I offered the little one a feed. I also tried to wait until the baby was really crying before picking her up, but I found this very hard, and I wasn’t very consistent with it. Also, some nights I was very tired, and I gave in quickly, and simply nursed the baby so that I could get back to sleep**.
And it worked for my baby too!
I started just before our baby was eight weeks old. After a week, I noticed that she was sleeping longer stretches and after three weeks, she started sleeping through the night consistently. She has done several nights of eight hours already (she gets her night feed at 10PM and sleeps till 6AM). I am stoked! I had no idea that this was possible, and it wasn’t even hard!
Thank you Dr Teresa Pinilla and Dr Leann L. Birch for writing that paper 23 years ago! If I manage to write a paper this semester, it will be thanks to you!
*To find out how much milk a breastfed baby drinks, the baby can be weighed before and after the feeding.
** This may sound like I was doing everything by myself, and that was only true at night. During the day my husband did the laundry, the cooking, the grocery shopping and most of the care for our toddler.