Q&A: new bedtime routine after weaning

Kim-Anh writes:

"I have a 8.5-month old son who, in general, I feel is a good sleeper. My question pertains more to establishing a more consistent routine and how to get him to sleep on his own.

From the start, my son would nurse to sleep. This has been our routine for nap time and bedtime. He doesn't ever seem to hit that drowsy, droopy-eyelid phase. Most nights, he literally goes from happily playing, sometimes getting a bit fussy, and then one last feed and BAM - asleep.

Starting at 4 months, he'd sleep from 11pm/midnight until 7am. Lately his bedtime has been moving back to about 9am, but he usually sleeps through until 7-8am with one night-time feeding anywhere from 3am to as late as 5am. For naps, I will often nurse him and he falls asleep, or if we're out and about, he will fall asleep in the stroller or often in the car in his carseat. His nap schedule has not been very consistent in the last few months - sometimes he refuses to nap and only naps once a day, though he usually ends up being really cranky so I'm still try to get him to nap twice a day. It seems like his nap schedule is never really the same two days in a row, which means he never really gets to bed at the same time, nor wakes up at the same time. I feel like a bad parent for not having a better or more consistent routine, but I also feel like it's common sense to push back bedtime if he really only woke up from a nap two hours earlier...

We try to establish a consistent routine - mealtimes at the same time, bathtime, playtime, etc. I have tried to watch for the sleepiness cues and put him in his crib when I feel he's tired, but he tends to wake up as soon as he hits the crib mattress, because for him - that crib is a jumping gym! He starts crawling, playing, and whatever sleepy vibe he had going in seems to evaporate. Most of the time, he doesn't even cry, he just plays and throws himself around in his crib without seeming the least bit tired. I haven't tried leaving him there longer than half an hour (while I'm in the room). I usually am too tired to let it go longer, because at that point, it's close to 10pm and I'm wiped. I'll just put him on the boob and it's game over.

I'm going to be weaning very soon, and I'm dreading the process because nursing is such an engrained part of our sleep routine. My plan is to substitute the daytime nursing sessions with a bottle of formula (assuming he takes it) and hope that it will replace the nursing-to-sleep nap routine.

However, I would really love to have a child that goes to sleep on his own after I put him in the crib, but I just don't know how to get there.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can work towards getting my son to fall asleep on his own? I feel like if I could get him to sleep more consistently, we could keep a better schedule which would be better for both mom and baby.

p.s. I will also mention that he has been going through a terrible bout of teething lately so I don't know whether all the inconsistencies in his sleeping/napping are attributable to that. He's gone from having 2 teeth 2 months ago to having 8 now..."

Yes, I definitely think the teething has had a big impact on his sleeping. He's also probably working on the 37-week developmental spurt right now. So you've been caught between two of the most sleep-disturbing forces in a baby's life.

I, personally, don't think it's worth it to try to get your son to go to sleep without nursing until he's through the 37-week spurt. Short of CIO or drugging him I don't know what would make it possible for him to go down awake easily until his body and mind are through the spurt. Unless you have a hard weaning deadline, I'd wait another month or 6 weeks, and then start working on getting him to go down drowsy.

Once he's past the teething and developmental spurt, all his sleep, naptime included, should settle down. You might even be surprised at how much more smoothly everything goes, from his sleep to his behavior to his eating.

If you do have a hard weaning deadline, you might have to switch the bedtime routine entirely and get your partner to do it, assuming you have a partner. Some kids stop falling asleep by nursing of their own accord around 10 or 11 months, but will fall asleep by being rocked by the other parent. You could try doing this now and getting your partner to rock your son to sleep, or give him a bottle of formula before bed. Even if he won't accept that in lieu of nursing from you, your son might accept it from your partner. Then once he's through the developmental spurt and takes a break from teething you can work on getting him to go down awake.

The other thing to know is that there are plenty of kids who can't go down awake without some other assistance until they're well past a year. This doesn't mean that they need to be rocked, but it does mean that they might need someone to stay in the room with them, sitting in a chair or on the floor, until they fall asleep. Some experts will tell you not to do this because it'll never end, but I think it's just part of the process of learning to fall asleep on their own for some kids. The kids who really need it are also the kids who will be able to let go easily once they've learned to go to bed by themselves. But again, you have to do the cost benefit analysis for yourself. If sitting in a chair gets your kid to sleep in 5 or 10 minutes, but fighting to get him to fall asleep with you out of the room takes 30 minutes, sitting in the chair doesn't sound like such a bad deal (especially since you know you won't be sitting in the chair when he's off at college).

I do wonder what would happen if you just established a regular bedtime for your son, no matter when he naps. It might make it easier for him to fall asleep because his body would be used to going to bed at the same time every night. Maybe you could try it for a couple of weeks and see if that stabilizes the nap times. It might, or it might not, but it's worth a try just to see what happens.

The 8-12 month stretch seems to be so tough for many babies and parents, and your situation has even more tension because you have the added pressure of weaning. The good news is that thing will start to fall into place in a few months and get easier before you know it. Just try to hang in there until then, and work with the immediate situation. Good luck.