elevating child care

How I Helped My Baby Learn to Sleep (Guest Post by Alice Callahan, PhD)

Sleep topics tend to be a hotbed for firmly held opinions and blanket judgments. Even experts make pronouncements like: “Babies can’t ____,” “All infants need ___,” “Parents should always ___ and must never, ever ___.”
The problem with these staunch views is that they dismiss the one expert who can truly show us the way, the person we need to tune in to and learn from… our uniquely capable baby. It’s quite difficult for our babies to demonstrate their true needs, interests, and capabilities if we aren’t open to offering them the opportunities to do so. But these opportunities aren’t easy for us to provide (particularly when sleep deprived), because being open and attuned requires patience and the willingness to relinquish control over our infant’s sleep.
In 4 Eye-Opening Things Science Tells Us About Infant Sleep, scientist and author Alice Callahan, PhD shares scientific findings that validate the benefits of supporting infants to learn to self-settle. In this follow-up post, Alice shares her personal experience encouraging her infant son’s healthy sleep process.

How I Helped My Baby Learn to Sleep

by Alice Callahan, PhD

In my first post, I wrote about how science has influenced my beliefs about infant sleep. When my second baby, M, was born, I knew that I wanted to give him manageable opportunities to practice falling asleep independently from an early age. As with most of my parenting experiences, this was easier said than done, but it ultimately worked well for us.

First Days: Curiosity and Observation

Alice's newborn

From the first day home, we started from a place of curiosity and observation. We watched how M showed us that he was tired and how he worked on getting his hands to his mouth to soothe himself. He fought to get out of the swaddle from a few weeks of age, so we switched to cozy sleep sacks, leaving his hands free for self-soothing. He did sometimes startle himself in his sleep, but he also learned to soothe himself by sucking on his hands from an early age.

During the first month of his life, M mostly drifted off to sleep while feeding or just after. There was no need to interrupt those sweet moments or the biology that makes sleep after warm milk almost inevitable.

In this video, M fell asleep in my arms. I loved watching expressions flicker across his face as he transitioned to sleep.

When there was an opportunity, we put him down awake in a bassinet in the living room, and after looking around for a while and sucking on his hand, he would often drift off to sleep peacefully.

Sometimes he would squirm and fuss for a few minutes before falling to sleep. Sometimes his cries would escalate, and one of us would pick him up and help him calm down. M also often fell asleep in the car seat when we dropped Cee off for preschool or a front carrier when we went out for walks. We were flexible. The goal was for him to be able to practice going to sleep in a few different ways. (For more tips on supporting good newborn sleep, see this post.)

One Month: Fussy and Unpredictable

After about a month, M suddenly seemed to struggle more with going to sleep. When I put him down awake in his bassinet, he immediately began to cry. This wasn’t just a little fuss, but a red-faced cry so passionate that beads of sweat would appear on his forehead. This seemed like a physiological response, one that told me that he clearly needed help. He was immediately soothed by being picked up and nursed. However, nursing didn’t always put him to sleep, and when it did, it seemed to be a light sleep. Even when I tried holding him for the entire nap, he often woke after just 15 minutes. He was tired and needed to rest, but he was having a harder time doing it.

I didn’t mind soothing M to sleep. He was especially fussy in the evenings, and it was gratifying to support him through that time. I would turn on soft music and give him a bath in the kitchen sink, and then we’d dance around the kitchen together. He would usually have a good cry, and then eventually relax into my shoulder and drift off to sleep. Those nights are some of my favorite memories with him.

However, I still wondered how I could support M in learning to sleep more independently. It seemed like we needed an intermediate step – something between nursing or dancing to sleep and falling asleep by himself.

Learning to Sleep: Gradual, Supported, and Flexible 

4 eye-opening things ho hum

After trying a few things, I found a routine that seemed to work well for us. I sat in my glider and laid a firm, flat pillow across my lap. I nursed M but gently removed the nipple from his mouth once he started that shallow, fluttery suck that meant he was he was getting sleepy. Then I let him lay on the pillow on his back. I talked to him and sang to him and rubbed his belly for a while. If he cried, a little rocking in the glider helped to calm him, but once he was calm, I stopped rocking.

Once he was asleep, I could gently transfer him to his bed. Interestingly, he seemed to sleep more soundly when he fell asleep on his own (compared with nursing to sleep), and it was no problem to transfer him. When he fell to sleep on his own, he was also more likely to connect sleep cycles and take a longer nap.

One of the benefits of this process for me was having the chance to observe him in his transition to sleep. Sometimes I got to witness a sweet smile as he drifted off to sleep, and I was glad that he was learning just how good it feels to rest. He also often fussed before going to sleep, and I was there to listen and reassure him. I learned about his different cries. Some were tired cries. Some seemed to mean frustration. Some just felt like a gentle off-load of emotion.

I noticed that often just before he went to sleep, he would turn his face away from me and cry a few really big cries, and then just as suddenly, he fell off to sleep. Other times, just when I thought he was asleep, his eyelids would pop open and he would have a couple big cries for a few seconds before falling back to sleep. I thought about how sometimes the process of falling to sleep is uncomfortable to me, too, how I sometimes jerk awake as if catching myself in a fall. It might have been challenging for him sometimes, but he knew I was right there with him.

Then, a funny thing happened. He started fussing more before falling to sleep, but he also started trying to roll his body away from me more. It was as if he was ready for a little more space, as if my presence right next to him was just a little too stimulating. And so, I started putting him down in his bassinet, right next to my glider, close enough that I could offer a pat or word of reassurance if needed. After a week or so, I started laying on my bed, just out of his sight but within earshot so he knew I was still close. And after another week or so, I started putting him down for sleep and leaving the room. He handled each transition wonderfully. To be honest, once I started leaving the room, he seemed to go to sleep more quickly with little to no fussing, as if it was easier without me. He was ready.

Reflecting on the Process

This whole process evolved slowly between about 6 and 12 weeks of age. I want to emphasize that we weren’t militant about it, and it was important to me that this sleep learning process shouldn’t create more stress or anxiety for anyone in the family, M included. In the beginning, we just tried the independent sleep routine once or twice per day, finding that the first nap of the day was usually the best time to practice.

One thing I noticed was that M’s sleep development wasn’t linear, and that observation helped me relax when it felt like we weren’t making progress. Some days and weeks he struggled more, and other days things just seemed to click into place. It seemed like there were these little windows of opportunity for learning to sleep, and I just wanted to be sure he had a chance to practice during that time.

If all of this seems sort of unconventional and maybe a little crazy, I hear you. But when you think about it, it’s no crazier than bouncing on a ball (or pacing the floor, or driving in the car, or pushing in a stroller), often for hours of the day, to get a baby to sleep. When I tried actively soothing M to sleep, he still struggled and cried, and it usually resulted in a frustratingly short nap during which I couldn’t put him down. With our routine, M had the chance to practice going to sleep on his own, a skill that he’d use for the rest of his life, and he ended up with the best naps. During his nap, I had a chance to take care of myself or reconnect with my older daughter without a baby attached to me.

I also think M’s sleep autonomy allowed his sleep to develop more organically over the first year. He wasn’t a perfect sleeper by any means. He wasn’t one of those amazing babies that sleeps through the night at 2 months old. Instead, I think his sleep patterns were pretty average. He often woke in the night for food or comfort, and he went through periods when he struggled more with sleep. Still, his sleep gradually consolidated without much intervention. We didn’t experience a noticeable sleep “regression” around 4 months. When we needed to make sleep changes later (for example, gradually dropping some excessive night feeds that developed during a rough period of travel and illness), those felt like small learning opportunities rather than traumatic changes. We were confident in his ability to sleep, and I believe that reaffirmed his confidence in himself.

By 11 months, M was sharing a room with his older sister (which they both love), sleeping about 12 hours through the night (most of the time, anyway), and blowing kisses to us from his crib at bedtime. Last week, he started crawling to his room when he’s tired, signing to us that he’d like help getting ready.

This was just one baby’s path towards independent sleep. The timeline and the intermediate steps might look very different from one baby to the next, and I don’t think that’s necessarily important. What was most important to me was finding that delicate balance between giving M space to learn yet also giving him support when he needed it. It was humbling to go through this newborn sleep stage again, but the key was observing my baby each step of the way and trusting in his ability to sleep.

Alice Callahan is the author of The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. You can find more of her work on her blog, Science of Mom, and her Facebook page.

(Photos and video are by Alice Callahan. Thank you so much, Alice!)

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24 Responses to “How I Helped My Baby Learn to Sleep (Guest Post by Alice Callahan, PhD)”

  1. avatar shimmer says:

    I’ve been waiting for the second part of the sleep story to come since yesterday evening while, you guessed it, bouncing on a yoga ball with my 7-week-old daughter in Ergo carrier :/

    I read all the previous articles on the topic of sleep and I liked them immensely, especially the parts where you address the mother’s needs being answered while soothing the baby to sleep. Guilty as charged. Sometimes I catch myself wanting an independent sleeper but doing little things that prevent just that.

    I was wondering what you would do differently concerning your daughter’s case? As I unterstand, your son didn’t have any negative sleep associations like bouncing or rocking, maybe just breastfeeding so his response to changing the routine was less pronounced. My daughter was breastfed to sleep until she was one month old when she started to wake up when I took the nipple out of her mouth which resulted in me laying next to her for hours, day and night, until she would fall into deep sleep so I could move away from her. Then I tried the shhh/pat technique form The Baby Whisperer book which resulted in very little shhing and patting in her crib and mostly carrying her around to stop screaming. We ended up on a yoga ball 🙁
    Whatever I do concerning her sleep I think how it would affect us in the future and if we would be able to correct it. It’s exhausting both physically and psychologically.

    My second question is how did you address night wakings in this new arrangement and routine. My daughter wakes 2-3 times per night for feedings but these wakings last for up to two hours because she struggles to fall asleep after that, especially if we have to change her diaper. Then it’s yoga ball at 3AM like you described 😀 :/

    I apologise for the long reply but this is the first time I have a chance to talk about my concerns with someone who won’t tell me “oh that’s what babies do, she’ll grow out of it”, or “let her cry it out”.

    Thank you 🙂

    • 7 weeks is still very young, and there are so many ways things can develop from here. At this age, my son was still often falling asleep in the Ergo. That was my go-to for many naps when we needed to get out of the house for a walk. He was also sometimes falling asleep in the car or while nursing. I was determined to not use the ball, just because it is such an unsustainable sleep association, but my husband used it occasionally. Flexibility is good:)

      If I had a do-over with my daughter, I think I would have tried an approach like I describe here. I know I tried something like this but probably got discouraged too quickly and was not consistent enough. I think it is worth a try with your daughter.

      I also wouldn’t let concern over the future and your daughter’s sleep worry you too much. I have that impulse too, but I tried to avoid that kind of thinking. There are enough challenges at this stage – we don’t need to add to them by trying to predict tomorrow’s problems! If you find something that works well for you now, it’s fine to go with it. Your baby will be able to handle changes later if needed. One of the things I liked about the approach that I describe in this post was that it really did help M get better rest and give me a chance to recharge, so it was a win all around.

      For your second question: 2-3 feedings per night at 7 weeks is totally normal, but being up for two hours in the middle of the night is rough! I would avoid changing her diaper unless there is poop, as that can really be disruptive. If necessary, try nighttime diapers. Also, keep all of the lights as low as possible and be boring – just feed and put back down. You might also try increasing light exposure in the afternoon to help solidify that circadian rhythm. It may take a little time, but hopefully this helps. I personally banned the yoga ball from our bedroom because I really didn’t want to fall into that habit again, especially in the middle of the night!

      I hope this helps! Best wishes for a restful night of sleep.

  2. avatar Melanie says:

    Thank you for sharing your sleep journey, Alice. I feel like I have not given my son the space that he needs to learn to fall asleep on his own. As a young baby, he was picked up pretty much immediately upon crying at night for our (probably needless) fear of waking his older sister. Then later on, it just seemed like there was always something that was keeping us from establishing good sleep habits…travel, illness, teething, developmental leaps, you name it. He has woken 1-3 times most nights for months and months now. He sleeps in his own room in his own crib, but that is where the independence stops. At bedtime, I read a story, nurse, and then I try to unlatch him before he falls asleep, stand up with him and walk to his crib, and sing a song to him in his crib. It usually goes well and he just falls asleep in those few minutes, but if he isn’t tired enough, he will just cry and cry if I leave the room. Then we don’t know what to do from there. He is 13 months old now, so not a tiny baby anymore. We have so many habits and props we have taught him at this point, and I don’t know how to start from a more mindful and confident approach to sleep with him at this point. Any thoughts for an older baby that isn’t falling asleep independently? We have tried the “sleepy but awake” thing many many times and end up cuddling him or singing him to sleep in the end each time, whether after a few minutes or a few hours of crying/checking/reassuring.

    • Hi Melanie – I think you will find that he will wake less during the night if you put him down fully awake at night. That means you’ll probably want to separate the feeding more from the transition to bed, so feed, then brush teeth, then book, or something like that. He likely will protest this change (yes, cry), so from there, you’ll want to think about how you can be most supportive and consistent with him. The upside to being 13 months is that he can understand a lot, so you can tell him about the changes to prepare him, and you can show empathy if he’s upset. The key really is consistency and confidence so that he understands what your new plan is and he can count on that being predictable. Even if he doesn’t like the change at first, he will like knowing what to expect at bedtime, he will adapt, and he (and you) will benefit from better rest. I highly encourage getting your partner’s help with this if you can. For us, sleep changes are always easier when dad helps! Sending good sleep vibes your way!

  3. avatar Littleboat says:

    Thanks Alice! Lots of great ideas and reassurances. Fortunately the Yoga ball habit never developed in my household beyond my mother falling off it with our 2 day old babe in arms (the way she held him while landing on her tailbone, the ball crashing into a chair which knocked into a bookshelf, a few things from which fell and landed onto the chair, was amazing and our baby just burped and went straight to sleep but a few drops of Reacue Remedy were needed by the adults and the ball was removed fairly soon after)…
    What is a glider?

    • Ahh, a glider is like a rocking chair but it glides back and forth instead of rocking, and it takes a little bit less effort:) And oh my, I’m glad that everyone was okay after your yoga ball accident! As a side note, I do not know why we call it a yoga ball, as I find those balls aren’t traditional yoga props but used more often in pilates or other fitness classes. But somehow, everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say “yoga ball!”

  4. avatar andrea says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I am struggling with my 10 month old. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since he was born. He fights sleep, wakes up to the tiniest sound, and has never slept in his own crib. This makes me want to attempt to transition him to his own space… maybe we would all get more sleep.

    • Sending wishes for a good transition and better sleep for your family! So many nights of interrupted sleep can really take a toll, and it takes courage to make a change, but I think your baby is likely capable of more independence at this stage. Good luck!

  5. avatar Alanna says:

    Thanks Alice I’ve devoured these posts and other sleep posts on your blog. To separate feeding from sleep associations, when do you recommend feeding babies before putting them to bed at night? I also try to feed her anytime she wakes up before I go to bed to tank her up for the night but maybe this isn’t the best tactic? She’s also getting very tired during the day as she only does 40 min naps that are get getting really disrupted by my 3 year old’s kindy drop offs and pick ups… Thanks again

  6. avatar Alanna says:

    Should have said she’s almost 5 months old 🙂

  7. avatar Jordan says:

    Thanks for sharing these tips! Getting your child to sleep when they need to is one of the biggest challenges a lot of new parents face – and even some experienced parents with a child that might be different from their other children. It’s good to hear success stories and methods that worked.

  8. avatar Roy P. Jones says:

    Thank you very much. Your sharing is really helpful for us . We had a tough time when our baby always stayed up late . We learned to observe his emotions and then we realized a lot of things. We decided sing some songs for him before bedtime. He gets used to it and follows that habit.

  9. avatar Evelyn says:

    Thanks for sharing these tips! I remember facing similar issues with my first kid! Will definitely be revisiting this post from time to time 🙂

  10. avatar Hilary says:

    Thanks so much for this! I read this article a few weeks ago after my daughter was born. She is now 9 weeks and tonight I tried your technique and we were successful! The last few nights I’ve been spending a long time trying to settle her down for bed, having to go back to resettle her in her crib multiple times. Tonight I let her fall asleep on her own, while she lay on a pillow across my lap, i transferred her successfully to her crib and she’s stayed asleep on her own. I’m going to try to stick with this technique and hope that we can try it for nap time as well. One question I had, how long did it usually take your son to fall asleep?

  11. avatar marlie van vuuren van vuuren says:

    Hey Everyone, our girl is now 15 months. She is very happy to go to sleep night or day, but using her dummy. We are getting a little concerned about the dummy because she doesn’t really suck it, it’s more a chew… Just concerned about speech or something like that… Any advice?

  12. avatar K says:

    Dear Alice,

    Thank you for sharing your story and for your nonjudgmental approach to how different families make sleep work- what a relief! I now approach articles about parenting with trepidation as I am afraid I will feel bad after reading them (see the Darcia Narvaez article) – as if there’s not enough anxiety and guilt around mothering! It is a huge relief to know that it’s ok if my baby cries – thank you for reminding me of that.

    Speaking of sleep, I am on information overload between articles and books and advice and feel so confused. My baby, E, is 3.75 months old and does that red faced sweaty scream cry you mention in your post above that seems like a physiological response – when I try to put her down, when she is in the car seat, when she is in the carrier. I nurse her to sleep for naps, bedtime and night awakenings. If that doesn’t work, my husband and I take to the yoga ball. She often wakes when I transfer her to her crib at night (we tried co-sleeping, but she’s so squirmy, no one can sleep) and I end up putting her down many times over a 2 -hour period. For her naps, she wakes up after short times and sometimes will go a whole day with only two 10 minute naps (and I will have spent the whole day trying to get her to nap as she makes signs that she is tired). I worry that she is not getting enough sleep. I also worry that if I/we don’t figure out her sleep right now, we are looking at years of long bedtime struggles, non-restorative sleep, and frequent awakenings, which stresses ME out as I don’t know I can survive that.

    I really love the idea of letting her self-soothe, but I don’t see how to do that. If I do not respond to her fussing after about 2 minutes, it becomes the cry mentioned above- the one that made you respond immediately. How do I let her/give her time to self-soothe and learn to sleep when she immediately goes into that red-faced sweaty scream cry, where she is so worked up – and that doesn’t stop until I nurse or bounce her? Is self-soothing a possibility in that state? I feel like I get a mixed message about helping her sleep: Let her learn how to self-soothe/fall asleep/put her down “drowsy but awake” – but respond to her if she cries that very distressed cry. I can’t do both. And if I let her scream-cry for 10 minutes and see what happens and she doesn’t stop, does my going in to comfort her at 10 minutes ultimately make it harder for her to ever fall asleep on her own because the message I will have just given her is if you cry hard and long enough, mommy will respond?

    I was considering doing some form of CIO at some point- as gentle a version as I can figure out, but I am anxious that we have not set her up well for success. We try a bedtime routine every night, but our options are to read her books etc while she is screaming or while she is sleeping. We have tried changing the times of the bedtime routine- maybe she’s overtired? Same result. OR we get through the bedtime routine and then put her down, she screams, and 2 hours later she ends up going to sleep…..I doubt that she even remembers the bedtime routine at that point. I also got anxious when I read your 6 sleep tips that mentions 4-6 months might not be the best time to do this….which means I have a week to figure this out or I need to wait two months and then my baby won’t be crying-it-out, I will!! 🙂 Apologies for this lengthy message, I’m desperate to figure this out- to make sure she is getting rest AND to get sleep myself. Help!

    Lastly, I observe E and I cannot figure out what is going on for her most of the time- but for the obvious ones like yawning and rubbing her eyes, I am not able to read her cues. I feel bad – I can’t help her b/c I don’t know why she is crying except if she is tired or hungry.

    Thank you so much for your authenticity, generosity and kindness – we are all in this together and all doing the best we can! And I can’t believe how hard I find it!

    Thank you, Alice.

  13. avatar Marie Gistinger says:

    I wish I had seen this when my son was younger! He is now 8 months old and sleeps wonderfully at night (we cosleep) but naps have recently become a nightmare. The only way I can get him to fall asleep is by nursing and even then it is practically impossible to put him down without waking him up. He does self soothe at night, so I know he knows how, he just doesn’t do it at naptime. I don’t think cosleeping is the problem, either. He has slept in our bed at night since he was 2 weeks old and thos is a much more recent issue. Do you have any tips or ideas on how I can help him to fall asleep on his own or at least take a decent length nap?

  14. These tips really work for my children. Thank you for sharing with us your experience

  15. avatar Shauna says:

    I wish I had read this article earlier. Any tip on how to do this with a 2 year old exclusively breastfed toddler? I am in need of some serious rest. Husband is usually away for work for long periods of time (weeks to 1.5 months). Any advice would be great!

  16. avatar Amber says:

    Hi Alice,
    Thank you so much for your story. This sounds very similar to my daughter. She is 3 months old now, and we have coslept since she was a newborn. It’s just what worked for us in those early weeks — we all got so much more sleep.
    We’re going to start by attempting to sidecar her crib to the bed so she has her own sleep space, then eventually move it farther away. The problem is she likes to pacify on me after being fed to sleep, which makes it hard to put her down (this happens for both naps and night sleep, though at night she is usually more tired and detaches on her own more quickly), and if I leave the room, she’s awake in 15 minutes.

    I like your pillow idea. Did you keep him on his pillow in his bed after he fell asleep? Is that why the transition was easier?

    I like nursing her to sleep. I have no problem with this — it’s such a natural feeling thing and I know this time is short. I’m asking more about how to transition her to her own space, and having a little more freedom to
    leave the room once she’s gone to sleep. Unless, of course, the nursing to sleep is the issue.

    Thank you!

  17. avatar Amelia says:

    Hi Alice,

    My son is 7 months old and a pretty god independent sleeper. We do very little to get him down at night but he will fall asleep by himself in the crib. We probably do two big no-nos, we give him a pacifier (only at nap or bed-time) and a security blanket ( it’s like a little lamb not an actual blanket). He also has a white noise machine. He does great falling asleep by himself and he mostly sleeps from 7pm-7am. However, he often wakes up in the middle of the night and we have to give him his pacifier and lay him on his back since he is usually rolled over and seems distressed to be on his tummy. This may happen once in a night or up to 6-7 times. Is this normal? Is the pacifier what is causing this? How we give him time to figure out how to turn over himself before going to help him? I don’t mind going in to help him, but its hard to know if we are creating bad habits or if this is just a stage he is going through. Any thoughts are helpful!

    Thanks

  18. avatar jane says:

    Great thank you

  19. avatar Liz says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have had a rough week transitioning from my baby boy ( 4 months ) sleeping on me to in his crib for naps. Night times were just as bad as I nursed to him to sleep, tried to put him in his crib, he’d wake up, I’d nurse him on my bed then Id end up co-sleeping ( which I totally don’t want to do). I tried sleep training , Id put him down as he we tired, sang to him, and left the room for 3 minutes increments. I’ve tried this for the past 3 days and some times are harder than others. This last nap today, I nursed him, took him off as he was drifting away, he fussed a little then stopped, I then put him down in his crib, gave him a kiss on the forehead and stepped away. He fussed a bit but then put himself to sleep in a matter of seconds. He moved a bit after that with his eyes close as if trying to get back to sleep. I wonder if this is a good way… seems similar to your gilder approach.Am going to try this tonight for his bedtime routine. Am just at a lost because I can’t bear hear him cry to be held and he’s so tired, it took him 4 hours to fall asleep this morning. Any suggestions?

  20. avatar Mohika Malhotra says:

    Hi
    My lo is 2 months old. She sleeps almost autonomously through the day but at night we struggle to help her sleep. We try to let her play and then sleep on her own after that but it doesn’t work. I make sure that she is not hungry and i do nurse her well so that food is not an obstacle to sleep. We try not to rock her but soothe her using words and physical touch. But it fails as she sleeps almost towards the morning. And as working parents we find it tough because we get really exhausted with her during the night.
    Please suggest what we can do better and help our child to learn autonomous sleeping.

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