elevating child care

How To Help Your Baby To Sleep (Without Rocking)

Hi Janet,
I am an ardent follower of your blog and always look forward to your posts!  My name is Mandy and I am a stay-at-home-mom to an 11 month old son who is extremely intelligent and aware.  He is able to play by himself for long periods of time and is generally a very happy little man.  Unfortunately, we have had some major sleep issues since he was 3 or 4 months old.  He typically needs 3 – 4 naps per day, each nap only lasting about 1/2 an hour, and about 12 hours of sleep per night.  But, the only way to get him to sleep is by rocking him to sleep (it can take anywhere from 15 -90 minutes each time), and he wakes up at least 3 times per night.  He loves to be held and if I hold him he sleeps much better.  My question is this: how can I help him become a better sleeper?  Should I let him cry it out (even though last time we tried he ended up crying on and off for hours)? I have tried everything, what should I do next?
Thanks so much for your help and insight!
Sincerely, 
Mandy

Hi Mandy,

Your boy sounds like a great guy. Let’s try to help him find sleep a little more independently.

For the first several months most babies sleep the way you describe (waking in the night for feedings, short naps, etc.). It sounds like you might have tried to make sleep happen a little more quickly and easily by rocking your boy, which created a habit. Most of us do some version of this with our babies, especially firstborns. We feel like it’s our job to make our babies sleep, when actually our job is to create an environment conducive to sleep, then patiently allow it to happen.

You can definitely help him break this rocking habit without leaving him to cry alone, but as with any change in routine, there will probably be some crying and struggle involved. Here are some things you might try…

The basic plan
Make a commitment to do a little less than you are doing and allow him to do a little more. Start with naps, and after a couple of days, transition to the new routine at nighttime, too.

Helpful ingredients
Fresh air, unrestricted free movement and play (those long periods of play are wonderful and even better when they happen outdoors), predictable, peaceful, slow-paced days, taking care to protect against overstimulation — all contribute to healthy sleep. Try to sensitively watch for early signs of tiredness (for some children it’s a dazed expression), because over-tiredness can cause resistance to sleep.

Prepare
First, tell him what you will do and acknowledge the changes. “Today for nap I will stay next to you until you fall asleep. Usually I hold and rock you, but now I’m going to let you relax while I stay next to you. It’s going to feel a little different.” Keep the rest of his bedtime routine exactly the same. For example: a bath, nursing or bottle-feeding, a story, a song, closing the shades or curtains, turning on a music box, etc.

At bedtime
Instead of rocking, just touch if he seems to want that.  Lie next to him if he’s in your bed, or sit next to his crib and be there supporting him, speaking to him soothingly while he settles into sleep. It may be rough the first few times you try this. Calm yourself so that he can be assured that all is well. The first minutes of crying are usually self-regulation, discharging excess energy. If his crying escalates, acknowledge his feelings. “You’re having a hard time calming down.” Some children find it easier to let go and relax if you leave the room, but if your instinct tells you otherwise (or the baby’s cries escalate), stay. If you do leave, be sure to tell him, “Have a good rest, I love you, I’ll be back if you need me.”

Remember to think of this as a very positive journey you are having together, because it is! You are helping him learn something really important — the skill of falling asleep independently. And that means when he stirs at night and wakes a little (as all young children do), he will soon have the confidence and the ability to find sleep again, rather than becoming fully awake and needing your help as he has been doing.  The key is to trust your boy to learn this skill and refrain from interference that conveys to him that he can’t. Project confidence.

“Remember, nobody can make another person fall asleep. How to relax and let sleep come is a skill your child, like everybody else, must learn all by herself.”Magda Gerber

Results
Once you’ve found a rhythm he will sleep better, and you will sleep better. I’ve seen this happen with families in my classes many, many times. It’s like a miracle. The baby comes to class a different person, plays for longer periods, copes better, and is far more relaxed and focused. The parents are ecstatic and a little stunned, finally remembering what it was like to function with a decent amount of sleep again.

Please let me know what you decide to do and how it works out…

Thank you for your kind words about the blog!

Warmly,
Janet

Please look here for more responses to parents’ questions about sleep. Most were contributed by sleep specialist and RIE Associate Eileen Henry.

(Photo by Stacy Lynn Photography on Flickr.)

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86 Responses to “How To Help Your Baby To Sleep (Without Rocking)”

  1. avatar Rachel says:

    I really want to do this to help transition by almost 7 month old from being walked to sleep during day and fed to sleep at night.

    I just can’t handle the crying, I get so upset seeing my baby upset that I fond it impossible to start from a place of calm. I have no idea how to get on top of this and stop walking him to sleep during the day, it’s almost winter and I have a 3 yr old who it is not fair on either!

    • avatar Amber says:

      In the exact same boat

    • avatar Fatima says:

      Hi Rachel!
      My little boy was just like that. What I did was just what is stated in this post, plus I lie down next to him until he is almost asleep. Then I leave. But it was a process, I never let him cry, I always explained what I was doing and made sure sleep was something nice for him. He is almost 2 now and he actually asks for his nap and bed time is just as smooth. Some nights he sleeps all night and most nights wakes once for a sip of water and goes back to sleep with me next to him. I leave and we all rest.

  2. avatar Bridget says:

    Hi Janet
    So I also have an 11 month old ams I feel like I am doing all the right things to help him sleep independently. He slept through the night for a month but won’t anymore.
    He goes to sleep for naps and bedtime completely on his own with no fuss but wakes once to twice a night and will not go to sleep unless I give him a some formula. I try just talking to him or giving him water instead but he just stays awake for hours until I give him his milk. I slowly reduced the amount of milk in his night feeds in the hope that he would not wake for them anymore but he still does and is happy with only 60ml and will stay awake until he gets it.
    What can I do?

    • avatar Fatima says:

      It’s just a phase… my little boy went through it too. Could he be teething? Or maybe just needs some comfort from mommy.
      They all sleep eventually. My son is almost 2 and we have gone through stages of good, great and not so good sleep. Be patient. It gets easier

  3. avatar Dee says:

    To get my son to sleep I had been walking around the room and singing/listening to music EVERY night (and at nap time) to get my son to sleep. Literally, EVERY TIME. He always needed to be held and couldnt fall asleep any other way. Additionally, my son would wake up 1-3 times throughout the night and cry out, “Upppp!!!!” If I didnt get up promptly with him and walk around to settle him back down he would start screaming and crying and be so mad. I have been reading your blog Janet, for maybe 6 months now and have really benifited from your guidance but sleeping was still horrible. Then one day I read one of your articles and realized I wasnt setting any limits around bedtime. I knew something had to change so I finally decided I was going to do what I do during the day with limits, and like Janet recommends, stick with it and be there to support him when he cried. Of course the first night I let him know that we werent going to be getting up anymore after we had read our story he was so mad. I just let him release his feelings and staid firm. Literally that night he didnt yell at me, “Uppp!!” to help settle him back down. (He nursed once in the night but again, didnt need help settling back down). This happened maybe 3-5 nights in a row and one night I almost caved in because I truly felt that he couldnt go to sleep without me walking around for 20-30min (or longer) and that I was being mean. But I was able to stay consistent. It’s been probably over a month now and we stay in bed after the story is over and the light is turned off. He also hasnt woken up and demanded for me to get up anymore either. He’ll ask once in a while after the lights are off for me to get up and carry/walk with him to sleep but I just tell him we don’t get up anymore and that’s enough for him! It is crazy. And my sleep has improved!!! Seriously just unbelieveable.

  4. avatar Summer boyd says:

    Did you get an update on how this went for this lady?

  5. Hi Janet, I just want to add that I followed your advice about not rocking baby to sleep, and it is very effective. What happened in my situation is I ended up staying at my grandchildren’s home to care for my 12 year old and 17 mo. old. I noticed the baby liked to lay atop a cushy blanket to get comfortable. It was clear to me how much he enjoyed the cushiness of the blanket, and if I touched him, it disturbed his “flow” of feeling comfortable and drifting off to sleep. So I remained near, allowing him to take control and he drifted off. Then I’d pick him up and put him into his bed. I did eventually put him in his bed prior to him falling asleep. Once I noticed his routine of laying onto the blanket, getting comfy, and closing his eyes, I’d pick him up and put him to bed. He sometimes opened his eyes when I put him in his bed. I’d pat him and tell him it was time to sleep. It became our routine. If he awoke during the night, I went to him, and assessed his needs (diaper change?), and if all was okay, I’d tell him, “I’m here.” He’d go back to sleep most of the time. Your blogs give us the insight to care for our children in the best manner. Thank you!

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