Tips on Sleep Training Twins: Surviving the First Years

Parents often wonder what they used to do with their free time before having kids, and some can’t answer the question. For me, there is never any wondering. My answer is always the same: SLEEP! Sleeping was always one of my favorite activities before having children. There was nothing like a good nap on a lazy Sunday, a snowy day, after a boozy brunch. Really, anytime was ideal for a nap, and I always slept in whenever I could. At work, I used to daydream about laying a mat under my desk when that afternoon slump started to hit. More than anything else I have had to sacrifice as a parent, (excessive) sleep is what I miss the most.

If you are as fortunate as I was to bring home two healthy babies from the hospital within days after their birth, you should be prepared to teach your newborns a number of basic but crucial skills, like how to recognize the difference between daytime and nighttime. If you have any hopes of keeping your sanity, training your infant twins to sleep should be a top priority, one that will follow naturally from their feeding schedule.

Not sure where to start? I have gathered my top tips for sleep training twins and preparing for the inevitable challenge, in hopes that I can help cushion you (even just a little) from the shock that is new-baby-twins-induced sleep deprivation. Short on time? Read this post created with dads in mind.

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1. Sleep deprivation is no joke; do not take it too lightly.

Sleep Training

Quick nap before next feeding
-C.H. 2012

I once believed that sleep came naturally to infants, that they wouldn’t do much else besides sleep and eat. I wasn’t too worried about it. Just before becoming pregnant, I happened to see an interview about a new dad’s response to what it was like having a new baby at home. He equated it to having a drunk friend who calls you at midnight and hangs up, then proceeds to call you and hang up every two hours, and in between each call, you wonder if your friend is still alive.

Not knowing any better, I chuckled a little and ended up retelling the joke to a few of my mom friends. None of them seemed to like the joke! This should have been a big clue that the joke was a little off, but I did not bother to investigate further.

As a parent years later, I came to realize the new dad’s little joke left out the part about having to get out of bed to feed, burp, change, soothe your “drunken friend” and all the unpredictable hiccups (unintentional pun) that could delay your efforts to avoid being awake when the next “phone call” rings.

2. Learn from your trusted parent friends.

After I became pregnant with twins, I started asking my mom friends just how difficult living with the lack of sleep was, and many of them surprised me with glowing reviews about their chosen sleep training methods. One friend in particular, a former colleague I trusted, assured me her daughter was a great sleeper because she had used the methods from Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, which also happened to come in a twin-specific version, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins. This was the first twin-related book I ordered from Amazon, and I shared it with my mother when it arrived. This was a very important step, as she was going to be a vital part of my twinning team.

3. Enlist some help.

Everyone will respond differently to sleep deprivation, and with more than one baby to care for, I do not recommend trying to take on those sleepless days and nights alone. I am not suggesting that caring for newborn twins is impossible for one person to do, and I am sure there are some super humans who have lived to tell about it, but there are a number of factors that can quickly deflate your super human intentions. If breastfeeding has come slowly, if you have babies who will not take a bottle, have reflux or colic or any multitude of potential setbacks, the time typically used for resting between each expected feeding could be burned up trying to address these obstacles, leaving you with no rest (= no bueno).

Instead of learning the hard way, like I did, I suggest hiring an experienced night nurse or nanny to help you and your partner get more sleep at night. If you cannot add the expense of a hired hand, try to find family members or close friends who will be willing to shift their daytime schedules to be with you at night. After a somewhat disastrous first week in which I ended up back in the hospital with pre-eclampsia, we began my twins’ second week of life with this new strategy.

We hosted relatives and friends overnight, just one at a time because of our small Brooklyn apartment. My husband and I would work out the number of expected feedings and decide who would sleep or work through each shift, leaving the baby to adult ratio at an even 2:2 for each feeding. Each of the three adults would get a larger block of sleep this way. When my mother would arrive in the morning, she would alleviate the schedule, coordinating the daytime feedings with us so we could get in some naps. This system worked fairly well until my husband had to return to work.

Sleep Training

Poor nappers? You may have to get creative…
-C.H. 2012

Once my husband and I came to see how difficult it was for us to do the overnight shift by ourselves, we decided his return to work was the time to look for a nanny to assist me in the wee hours of the morning. We started our search on Care.com and found countless qualified women who were happy to work our strange 10pm to 6am shift.

Although I was still on the hook for every feeding, having the extra help overnight alleviated me from preparing formula, cleaning and sanitizing bottles, my breast pump and related equipment. It also released me from baby monitor duties (a piece of gear we did eventually purchase). Reassigning these seemingly small tasks added greatly to my sleeping time, which was priceless. I actually started enjoying the late nights/early mornings with my little ones!   

4. Synchronize your babies’ feeding schedule.

No matter which sleep training method you choose, the key to getting some sleep as a parent with multiples, even if it is just an hour or so between feedings at first, is to get your babies synchronized so that they eat together and, hopefully, sleep together. This means that if the first baby wakes up to be fed, you must also wake the sleeping baby to join the feeding so that s/he does not wake up just after you’re done feeding the first, which is very likely to happen until they reach a certain weight that helps them stave off hunger through the night.

Waking a baby to eat is not always pretty and seems counterintuitive, but when you have twins, it is the best way to ensure you get some sleep too. Do not be surprised if this method is harder on one baby. When my “picky eater” was the one that had to be roused from sleep, she did not eat as much as she normally would when she decided the feeding time. It was often difficult to wake her, but we used techniques the nurses shared with me in the hospital to make sure she had eaten even a small amount.

Fortunately, my “picky eater” was also the smaller twin, so she was rarely the twin caught sleeping during feeding times, and her slightly bigger sister was always happy to wake up for milk. It felt like an imperfect system at times, but my underweight and slightly premature twins quickly caught up to their full-term peers on their growth charts. They thrived!

Sleep training

-A.S. 2012

5. Prepare early for sleep training.

With our healthy, days-old twins at home, we operated on an on-demand feeding schedule about every two hours, but also began preparing them for sleep training, using different stimuli to help them begin to distinguish daytime from nighttime. Starting in week two, my mother and I implemented some of the daytime cues discussed in Dr. Weissbluth’s book. By week four, I was teaching our new nanny how to implement the nighttime cues. As you might imagine, the sleep cues during the bright, busier days differed from the dim, calming sleep environment we created at night.

During the day, we practiced a shorter routine before setting them down for a nap, and their sleep environment was less conducive to deep sleep. Once we started to see signs of drowsiness, like eye rubbing and fussiness, we would wrap them up in a blanket, give them a pacifier (something my mother-in-law first introduced), snuggle with them in the nursery rocking chair, and lay them down before they were asleep. The nursery had already been set up with sounds at a lower volume (e.g. radio or classical music CD), and the curtain was allowed to remain partially open leaving some sunlight in the room. (Once they began to recognize daytime activities, we did allow them to nap in a more peaceful sleep environment!)

Our bedtime routine was consistent and markedly different from our daytime nap routine. After their “last” feeding, we would bathe them, dress them in a long-sleeve onesie (as opposed to a short-sleeve onesie they had worn throughout the day) before reading them a short bedtime story (yes, even at just a few weeks old) in the rocking chair. We would then turn out the lights, give them a pacifier, and sing them a song before putting them down. This time, their nursery was dark with the curtains closed and quiet with no background noise. The older they got, the shorter this routine became, but in the beginning, it could take almost two hours from the start of their feeding to the time we put them to bed!

6. Stick to what is working for you.

Following the sleep training techniques discussed in Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins, we never rocked or soothed our babies to sleep. Instead, we lulled them to a state of drowsiness before setting them down in their crib. In this way, they could lay somewhat awake in their nursery without needing our constant presence. To my amazement, there was not much crying! Because their immediate needs had been met – they were full, comfortably warm, and dry – and because they were growing accustomed to the daily eat/sleep routines, at bedtime they could lay alone comfortably, look around the room (activities we used to watch from the monitor), and fall asleep unassisted.

One of my mom friends with two toddlers of her own stopped by to visit us during that second month, and from the monitor, she watched my 8-week-old twins fall asleep (now in their separate mini cribs) quietly on their own. She said we were doing really great, that as infants neither of her boys would ever lay quietly and fall asleep on his own. Although my infant twins were never great daytime nappers, they were getting very good at nighttime sleep. It felt wonderful to have some validation of my twinning team’s sleep training efforts!

After three months of consistent sleep training, it was time for me to go back to my full-time job. By month three, our girls were waking up to feed only once (if at all) before 6am, so we switched our nanny to a part-time schedule during the day. She was now able to support my mother in her role as primary daytime caregiver, leaving the adult to baby ratio at 1:1. This left my husband and I to cover the bedtime routine alone.

Although my husband was somewhat familiar with our chosen sleep training technique, which required setting a baby down before she fell asleep, he found it more difficult to recognize the differences between a drowsy baby and an already sleeping baby. He never bothered to read our sleep training guide, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins! This small change, along with a few other unavoidable interruptions during this third month, caused us a much more difficult round of sleep training in their fourth month that involved lots of crying – myself and babies included.

7. Expect things to interrupt your plan.

No matter how dedicated you and your twinning team are to sleep training your twins, life will inevitably present challenges to any well-orchestrated schedule. Traveling away from home, time changes, illness, teething, rolling over, and plenty of other baby milestones may threaten to derail the sleep training you have worked so hard for. The key to battling these changes is to allow the interruption to pass, then start a new round of sleep training using the same method that worked for you before.

Any time our twin daughters were off-track with their sleeping, we would use one of the three methods described in Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins, depending on their age and what worked best the last time. Because they were no longer eating every three hours, we knew they were not hungry if they cried out, so our goal was to help them learn to self-soothe again. The book outlines three approaches with increasing degrees of separation between parent and baby:

  • The first method involves immediately consoling the crying baby doing what you can (e.g. massaging, reswaddling, shushing, replacing a pacifier, etc.) without picking baby up.
  • The second approach is recommended after your twins are six weeks old (based on original due date, not date of birth) and involves waiting five minutes before soothing. With this approach, you can do whatever it takes to calm them down back to a drowsy state, including picking them up. If there is crying after you put the baby down, you would have to wait ten minutes before returning to soothe. This pattern of adding minutes would continue to make the amount of time between each soothing longer. We used three-minute increments instead because five minutes of crying was too much for me to bear!
  • The third approach is recommended for twins that are past the three or four-month-mark after original due date. This method requires letting the baby cry it out. Because you know it is not time to feed, as a parent you have to toughen up (I had to toughen up) and allow the baby to cry until s/he falls asleep. When you stick to this method without modification, you will notice the crying does shorten each subsequent evening until the baby learns to fall asleep quietly on their own again.

Because we had two very different babies, we found that one responded better to the second approach; she tended to only need one or two periods of crying and soothing before falling asleep on her own. This graduated approach, however, only seemed to upset our other baby more. This made sleep training a bit more difficult when both of them were crying because they shared a room. We could not ignore one baby if we went in to soothe the other, so we often had to choose between soothing both or allowing both to cry themselves to sleep.

8. Keep track of your progress.

Figure 1. Sleep Log Example. From: Weissbluth, M. (2009) Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins, 83.

When you are trying to figure out your twins’ sleep patterns, it is a good idea to keep a log of their sleep times. We used an Excel spreadsheet I created with one week’s worth of information per page. Following the suggested example from Dr. Weissbluth’s book, at the top of each page were 14 columns alternately labeled with each baby’s name (i.e. Baby A | Baby B | Baby A | Baby B…), with each day labeled across the top of a column pair. Along the Y axis to the left, the chart listed the times of day. Mine covered a full 24 hours with each cell in the spreadsheet representing 30 minutes (e.g. 12:00, 12:30, 13:00, 13:30…).

Using a color coding system with four crayons (e.g. purple for sleep, yellow for awake, blue for eating, red for crying), my twinning team and I would fill the cells in, so everyone could easily see when they napped, how long they napped, if they cried before falling asleep, how long it took them to fall asleep at bedtime, and how soundly they slept in the overnight hours.

Keeping track of their individual patterns with this matrix allowed us to analyze the best ways to get them closer to a synchronized sleep schedule. We could determine how to achieve a shared naptime, which often meant keeping one up a little bit longer. When we could see the times each one tended to get tired each day, we could also anticipate the signs of drowsiness before they got overtired.

Regardless of their individual tendencies to fall asleep at bedtime, we would put them down at the same time. There was typically not a lot of fussing once we left the room because we were teaching them early to self-soothe.  However, whenever a baby did cry, the other one was able to tune it out.

This log was an effective way to see progress, which was a motivator to stay the course. The older our daughters got, the more their individual schedules reflected one another. It was much easier to detect improvements in color blocks!   

9. Be open to trying new things as they get older.

Sleep training

Another successful (and rare) daytime nap
-C.H. 2012

My daughters were never (and are still not) the best sleepers. Although we were able to successfully train them to fall asleep on their own in their shared bedroom, in that first year there were only a handful of nights where my alarm – as opposed to a crying baby – woke me before sunrise. The sleep training helped them go back to sleep on their own quickly, but the nightly interruptions during my REM sleep cycles were taxing.

The combination of living with bad sleepers while managing to hold a full-time job often left me feeling almost as exhausted as I was when they were newborns! By the time they turned one, we had added three new sleeping aids that, surprisingly, started leading to less interruptions overnight: a white noise machine, a night light, and a special Jellycat doll for each of them, all of which travel with us and remain in their bedroom today. (A special thanks to NYC Sleep Doctor, Dr. Janet Kennedy for the tip on the Jellycat dolls – my daughters could not sleep without their “Peter” and “Kitty.”)

Remember that you will gather a lot of advice on this subject and, ultimately, you have to decide what will work best for you and your family. Without more space to work with, we had to train our twins to sleep with minimal flexibility. They slept in the same room and learned to tune each other out. They could not sleep anywhere other than their small nursery because I could not fit a bassinet or co-sleeper in my bedroom, and for safety reasons, my husband and I never felt comfortable with them in our bed. Under these somewhat restrictive conditions, we still managed to sleep train our twins successfully. No matter where you are in the sleep training process, know it can be done with some flexibility, a lot of persistence and consistency. Happy, healthy twinning!

♥     ♥     ♥

Your turn: Have you been getting enough sleep with your multiples? What sleep training methods and tips have worked for you?



  4 comments for “Tips on Sleep Training Twins: Surviving the First Years

  1. Mylu
    October 29, 2015 at 5:32 am

    Good tips about training your twins, or kids, in general, to sleep.

    I am a parent of four, and what has worked for me was to keep them awake during the day. During their infancy stage (first 8 weeks), when all they do really are feed and sleep, doing this may be difficult. But as they start interacting at about 2-4 months, you can slowly start regulating their sleep so they start sleeping at 12am. That will at least give you a longer sleep as they start getting longer sleeps from 4 – 6 hours.

    • Fit4Twins
      October 29, 2015 at 5:47 am

      Hi! Thanks for your comment. I cannot imagine having four children – amazing job, mom! You make your sleep training method sound so easy. My daughters liked to take cat naps throughout the day and could hardly stay awake for their final feeding at 6PM, so I cannot imagine what it would have been like to keep them up all day! An interesting approach indeed!

  2. Jezza
    December 11, 2015 at 7:59 am

    I am trying to put myself in your shoes as a mother of twins and really felt your emotions here in your blog. Actually I just had a baby and he is 4 months old now. I can’t imagine having two at the same time after what I have been through, especially the first two weeks so hats off to you! And I’m glad you found ways to cope and are lucky to have the support you need. My family is away from home so I guess it’s just me and my husband and some friends, but they are also busy working so it was very hard to depend on them. And yeah I am a first time mom too! And you are so right in the part that excessive sleeping days are over. I haven’t had long sleep ever since then. I find your tips on sleeping helpful and definitely will try that on my own son especially now that he is still up at 12-2am! So thanks and wish me luck! 🙂

    • December 11, 2015 at 10:18 pm

      Hi Jezza, thank you for your comment. Congratulations on your new addition! Any newborn baby brings a major change to parental sleep, and I cannot imagine caring for a little one without the support of family nearby. Cheers to you, supermom. It sounds like you have been through the worst of it – all I can say is it will get better! Right around when mine were four months old, I remember one of them in particular still liked to wake to nurse a partial feeding. My pediatrician recommended eliminating that feeding at that time, and it only took a few nights before she became used to doing without it. Hopefully, your little boy will soon reach the weight needed to get through the night. Hang in there and much luck! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at carmen@fit4twins.com. Even if I don’t have the answer, I will help you find it. Happy, healthy sleeping!

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