Wednesday, 20 May 2015

How to Sleep Like a French Baby

These days, I mostly hear how lucky I am that Patapon is such a great sleeper. And yes, he does sleep between 11 and 12 hours every night, and slept at least 8 hour stretches from the age of about 2 months. So, basically, we struck parenting gold, right?

Well, I am not so sure. He is not that great a sleeper by French standards.

And I also remember the first two weeks of his life very vividly. Clutching the screaming infant who would. not. sleep. Ever. Calling in despair various people, who would all offer commiserations but little hope for the next few months.

Yes, I will have a think about that "sleeping" idea of yours, Mother, but I don't like the sound of it.

I was following all the advice I had been given by the midwife and health visitor: 

  • Patapon's Moses basket was next to my side of the bed (although it was mostly for tripping over, as he refused to stay in it). 
  • As soon as he made feeding noises or gestures ("clues") I would feed him, and not wait for him to get all worked up.
  • "You can't spoil a two-week old."
Patapon would only agree to sleep in someone's arms, so Simon and I took turn having cat-naps, but then, after about 5 minutes, Patapon would express a "clue" and Simon would have to wake me up. Jude would fall asleep almost as soon as I started feeding him, yet would wake up the second I gestured towards putting him down, even next to me on the bed. But DON'T FALL ASLEEP WITH THE BABY IN YOUR ARMS! was the advice.

All the fun, all the time.

Then my Mum came over, and took matters into her own hands. And it worked. 

So, I give you:

The French Method

Tested and approved by most of the the French babies I know, and most certainly by the 11 babies my grand-mother, mother and I have had between us so far.

(Catchy, hey!)

This is my baby Mum, approving.

Basically, there are two ideas:

1. Don't pick up the baby straight away.
2. Feed at regular intervals, not on demand.

There is also a general spirit of not over-thinking the decisions, not imagining dreadful implications or believing the scare-mongering. It is more: 

Right now, your child needs food and sleep: here is what I know works so you can actually provide these things, rather than a general "philosophy" you like and to which you cling with whitening knuckles as your sanity slowly oozes out of your sleep-deprived brain.
You love him, you feed him, he sleeps? He's fine. 

But here is the nitty-gritty of the method (please imagine that this is my Mum and my Grandmother talking to you, not me, they have a lot more credibility):

Don't pick up the baby straight away

The idea is to wait a few minutes when you hear your baby cry. But that means ACTUAL minutes, not I-swear-it's-been-ages hormonal minutes. (Not that I have been there or anything...)
This is to help your baby connect sleep-cycles without fully waking up, and therefore gradually sleep longer. If you check on him straight away, you will wake him up fully (or so I hear... erm... moving on...), whereas if you wait a bit he may just fall back to sleep, into the next cycle. If he is fully awake, you go pick him up after those five minutes and check what is wrong. 

Such sleeping.


- You need to start this straight away if possible, and before the baby is 3-4 months old anyway. After that, it's not going to work.

- I am not sure how well that works with co-sleeping as this practice is extremely uncommon in France and I personally didn't particularly want to try it. 

Patapon only slept in our bedroom for a couple of weeks, because we would wake each other up constantly. When my Mum arrived she declared the NHS advice officially failing and we started putting him down in his own room. (Worry not, our house is tiny, we could hear him very well still.) 

- In Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman gives this as the one and only thing you need to do for your baby to sleep through the night. It wasn't enough for me, I had to also follow Piece of Advice number 2. But this may be because of the whole sleeping-in-arms thing Patapon had going.

For us, we first had to make him accept to actually fall asleep in the Moses basket, so for the first two weeks, the Pause wasn't really an option for us. 

With this problem, my Mum was all for letting him cry until he accepted the fact that this was his bed, not our arms. I don't have a problem with that, and we would have done it if all else had failed. Instead, I ended up spending a lot of time trying to soothe him to sleep in his basket, which did eventually work (nursing him to sleep didn't). It took a couple of days, but once he'd done it a few times, he was fine sleeping there without needing cajoling most of the time.

Bonus: to this day, the songs I used to sing him then make him all drowsy!

Feed at regular intervals, not on demand

The other thing my mum insisted I do is stop looking for clues and start simply spacing out feeds by three hours. We would try and distract Patapon if he woke up or started fussing in-between (that meant a LOT of walking him around in the baby-carrier), but mostly held out. I did occasionally feed him earlier if I knew he had not fed very well the last time (falling asleep in the middle for example).

Before that J. was asking to be fed constantly, but only nursed for a couple of minutes at a time. With the interval method, he was hungrier when I did feed him, therefore he nursed much better and then could hold out much longer. 

It made a huge difference almost overnight. Simon and I had a three nights when we took turns to go and comfort Patapon when he woke up crying before the "interval" was over, and that was it. After that, he slept at least the required interval, and gradually more. At one month we moved him to four-hour intervals during the day, but he was already sleeping at least 4-hour stretches at night. 

According to my Mum, that's pretty standard (apparently, I started doing 6-hour stretches at three weeks when my Mum begged me to - my big brother and I are nearly Irish twins, she was exhausted) . 

This is my clever face

The only case of regression she had was my little brother, he was about 8-weeks old, and sleeping 8-hour stretches, when we all went on holidays to the south of France, and the heat made him thirsty. But he got used to it after a few days and stopped needing middle-of-the-night nursing again.

Much snooze


- My grand-mother says not to start doing this straight away, unlike the Pause, but to wait until the milk has come in.

- For those using NFP, the long stretches at night may cause early return of fertility, despite exclusive breastfeeding. It didn't for me, but I can't guarantee it!

- Some have suggested that spacing out like this will affect milk supply if you do it before the 12 week "established breastfeeding" mark. Breastfeeding is not as prevalent in France so I am not sure about that one in general terms, all I can say is that  it didn't at all prevent my grand-mother, my mother and I to exclusively breastfeed our babies for as long as we wanted.

- I have also heard people say that babies need to be fed more often than that because they only have tiny stomachs, to which I can say many things, including:
  • a tiny stomach, yes, but in proportion to a tiny body 
  • they also have a gut
  • it's actually good for the stomach to be empty every now and again
  • my grandmother and mother still managed to have absolutely enormous babies, so I don't think we were under-fed
Me, looking under-fed

Here you go. I hope this may be helpful for some people. Obviously, I don't claim expert scientific knowledge, nor do I think everybody MUST do the same thing as us. 

You do you, Internet. 

This is just what we did, following my mother's advice who had followed her mother's advice before, and it helped Jude sleep through the night pretty quickly, despite the fact that he traveled to Liverpool, London, Paris, Lyon, Paris again, the Atlantic coast of France, Paris once more, London again and then finally home, in the first month of his life.


  1. All is true! Tu dois la traduction de ce post à ta Gran Mother au moins!

    1. Elle a pas besoin, elle sait déja tout ca! :-D

  2. I have a vague, sleep-deprived recollection of sending Bringing Up Bebe to my brother before his daughter arrived, telling him that I would have given my child's weight in gold to have had that information when my babies were still young enough for it to do some good. I think I forgot about it before the last one arrived. My oldest is turning 11 this Fall, and I don't think I've slept solidly through the night more than a half-dozen times since I was pregnant with him. How do the French go about weaning?

    1. I think it is also a question of parenting choices. The French are extremely relaxed about breastfeeding (which is a polite way to say, they don't do it much), they don't do co-sleeping or attachment parenting either, and someone very commited to these ideas (and not as lucky as my family when it comes to milk supply and NFP) may have to make a choice I didn't have to make, regarding what to prioritise.

      Regarding weaning, they typically do it early (6 months generally, I am a bit of a freak for them ;-) ), gradually replacing each feed with a meal (which is easy when the baby is already on a pretty regular schedule, thanks to the intervals). Some babies will refuse the bottle for a day or so, (my big brother), but that's about it!

      I think my favourite thing about the French method is the lack of guilt-tripping over parenting choices (they are not as good over pregnancy weight-gain though!). It's very refreshing when I go home. (It also works with epidurals, but I am not going down that route! At least not yet...).
      And thanks, as always, I really enjoy your input!

    2. I was wondering, too, if Le Pause requires the baby to be in a separate room? I feel that it would be difficult to ignore my babies for five full minutes while they cried in the middle of the night, because I'm right there and they can see me. This is partially by choice, but also because we've never lived in a house with enough space to put them in their own room. So I was wondering if a separate nursery room is the norm for French families?

      I have heard that the French are much more strict about pregnancy weight gain! I have gained a full 50 pounds, at least, for all my pregnancies, and that is despite having nursed through the last three. Or maybe because of it; when I cut back on my food intake, the first result is my milk dries up, so that makes trimming down my portions difficult. Fortunately, I've always lost it all by the end of the first year, but still, it doesn't really make me happy to have so much left to lose after the baby arrives.

    3. It is much harder with the baby in the same room, absolutely! Putting the cot at the foot of the bed makes it a bit easier, but still! I have some friends who have managed it, but we had to exile Jude. Which is the norm in France, yes, but not necessarily a separate nursery for the baby, just not sharing with the parents. My parents had three-under-four in a one-bedroom flat for a while, so my brother and I would sleep in the bedroom, my parents had a fold-up bed in the living room, and Sophie (the baby) was put elsewhere (bathroom, kitchen, depending!) until she could sleep through the night, then it was all children together.

      Yes, I saw the family ob/gyn a couple of times when I was pregnant with Jude, and he was pretty merciless with weight gain! My Mum and grandmother would also repeat "you're only supposed to put on 9 kilos!" so I liked being back in England, where my 30 extra pounds were well within the norm! :-)

    4. I am doing the 3 hour interval feedings. So when you say French babies sleep through night at 2 months- is this still feeding them every 3 hours or they are straight sleeping through the night. For example your 6 hour stretches at 3 weeks- is this 6 straight sleep hours? I guess my question is- you start out feeding every 3 hours- at what point do you stop doing every 3 hours and wait for them to wake up on their own to feed?

    5. I should add to that- the docs say you need to get 8-10 feedings in a day. When is it ok to let them wake up on own at night if it means you're not giving 8-10 feedings a day?

    6. I do mean straight through. Jude slept through for 8 hours (10pm to 6am) at 7-8 weeks, and Gabriel slept from 8pm to 6am at two months. I would never wake a sleeping baby during the night (and only do it during the day if they are getting closer to 5 hours) and I found that they start by reproducing the 3h spaced feeds at night on their own, then the 4h spaces, then without doing anymore, they gradually slept a longer and longer stretch at night until they slept straight though.
      I think the doctor's advice you were given has more to do with supply when breastfeeding (some women do need to actively feed often to keep their supplies up until about 12 weeks, it wasn't the case for my family at all, but there is much less of an emphasis on breastfeeding in France), otherwise, the 3 hour spaces are fine (it's what they do in the NICU for example).
      I personally found that if I spaced the feeds, my babies just ate more when they fed, and it made no difference to their weight or my supply.
      Hope that helps!

  3. Ha! I always fell asleep with Ireneu in my arms, in fact I still do (he is 17 months old now) as it is just the most delicious thing in the world and we both love it. He has slept in his own bed since he was 2 months old, did 10-hour nights like a clock, and after a few months of waking up quite often, he's back to sleeping most of the night. I always fed him on demand and still do. I think we mums are too worried about using the right strategy when babies our small but then they all turn out fine... I think it's more (or should be more) of a do-exactly-what-suits-you-and-your-baby thing. And enjoy every bit of it!

    1. I hope I never give the impression that I think there is only one way to do things! This is merely a method that worked well for us and about which I have been asked a ton of questions. But I am delighted for you that you never felt like there was any issue with your baby's sleep!

  4. I was curious if you remember how many ounces your baby ate at each feeding? My wife and I have studied the French approach and are trying to implement it with our son who is now 3 weeks old but I rarely see people share amounts at feedings. We exercise the "pause" and had his feedings at 3 and half hours at the 3 week mark but in this last week he has become inconsolable at 2 and a half hours. He was sleeping 4 hours and has now regressed back to 3. Thank you for the blog, it is phenomenal

    1. Oh, I'm so sorry, I have no idea! My babies were breastfed and I didn't need to express until later on, when Jude was already on solids as well. In your case I'd try longer feeds maybe, or my mum would occasionally feed her babies again if they seem to want more quite soon after (say within half an hour or so of a feed). I'm sorry I can't offer anything more precise than that.
      Thanks for the feedback, it's very kind of you!

    2. Thank you so much for your response. We used it combined with everything you shared in this post and our son is officially sleeping through the night at 7 weeks! He's happy, healthy and everything worked amazingly Thank yo uagain for all your help.

  5. Hi! I was wondering, would it be too late to start this at 2 or 3 months old?

    1. I have no direct experience, but the few things I read about it seem to suggest that it can still work until your baby is about 4 months old. Worth a try!

  6. Loved this, thank you! I was doing the pause but not long enough. Glad to have the 5 minutes or so tip. It has helped my 5 week old sleep more on his own and the night stretches to be 3-4 hours. Any advice on waking early from naps? The baby wakes up at 45 minutes but then falls back asleep when held. Should I do as you did and soothe him in his bassinet?

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