Back to Sleep (Part II of Sleep on This)

Our ultimate goal is that our child not only falls asleep, but stays asleep, and since young children will awaken several times in the night, we want them to eventually be able to comfort themselves back to sleep independently.

A child’s ability to return to sleep after waking is essential to a night of restorative sleep for all. Waking at night is a pervasive concern among parents for the obvious reason that parents need sleep to be able to expend the enormous energy it takes to care for a child. It is sometimes difficult for the parent who may feel selfish for wanting a decent night’s rest, to realize that waking in the night is not serving the child well either. When parents commit to helping a child have uninterrupted sleep, the child will come to my parent/infant class a new person with energy and confidence. The child, who has spent weeks sitting with her parent and watching, will suddenly separate from mom or dad and play. Everything can overwhelm us when we are deprived of a good night’s sleep!

When we are ready to help ourselves and our child by breaking a night-waking habit, there are a few ideas to keep in mind.

First, make parental interventions in the night a dull time for the infant: no overhead lights, no talking, no changing the diaper unless absolutely necessary, and a gradual reduction of the amount of the amount of time at the breast (or bottle).

Then, when we are advised that our infant is old enough to no longer need night nourishment, we might wish to make a unified plan. Complete conviction by both parents will make the changes easier for parents and child. A child senses when a parent is wavering, and thus a parent’s sense of uncertainty is transmitted directly to the child. This incertitude can have the effect of prolonging the transition and create more tears.

Next, tell the child a few days beforehand that you will soon not be feeding him in the night, but that you will always check on him if needed. Remind the child each day about the new, imminent night-time plan and then on the day you will make the change, tell him once again as you put him to bed. By including the baby in the plan and allowing him to anticipate the changes in his routine, the parents are respecting the child and also fortifying their own resolve for the challenge they face.

Finally, if a child wakes up and cries more than a few minutes and the parent needs to check on the baby, then it is usually best to keep activity to the minimum possible. Instead of rushing in to scoop up a crying infant, the first step should be observation. Then, if necessary, a parent might speak to the baby in a calming but confident voice: “I hear you and I want you to go back to sleep.” A child’s complaints in the night do not always mean he is asking for intervention.

A couple from my Parent/Infant Class shared an instructive experience. Having grown weary of their eight-month-old daughter’s night-time cries, they decided to purchase a video monitor to observe their daughter in bed. That night the parents awoke to their daughter’s crying. But when they looked on the monitor they saw that while Emma cried she was also diligently working to find a comfortable sleep position. After a few minutes of tossing and turning, she found comfort and went back to sleep. If the parents had returned to Emma’s room they would have further disrupted her sleep and made it more difficult for their daughter to settle down for the night.

Ultimately, good sleepers are made, not born. Because infants quickly adapt to the patterns we set for them, parents should create healthy sleep habits as early as possible and cultivate a peaceful, fresh-air atmosphere for the whole day. If habits like sleep waking need to be shifted, then parents need to find an inclusive and respectful way to help the baby adjust. Finally, parents must remember that a cry is not always a cry for help, but rather a young infant’s only manner of verbal expression. For more perspectives on crying, please read my post: 7 Reasons to Calm Down About Babies Crying.

(Photo by Hebe Aguilera on Flickr)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I agree about presenting a unified front, both parents in agreement about how to handle nighttime cries. I would also add that it’s okay to know where you’re weak. In my house, I’m the wuss who would always want to pick up my daughter. My husband was more firm about the sleep thing. So he was the one who went in at night because I knew he wouldn’t cave.

    Great post!

  2. Kim Lewis says:

    I am really loving your blog and these posts. Thank you for sharing so generously!! Sleep can be such a trying topic. In one of my parent/infant classes, it was the topic the parents disagreed about the most! One of the difficulties in “creating good sleepers” is that a new baby must be breastfed throughout the night to guarantee that the mother’s milk supply is adequate. And some working mothers really rely on night-time nursing because the pumping they do during the day is not as efficient as a nursing baby at building the milk supply. I would love to talk about this need to wake up at night with someone such as Elsa who is a trained lactation consultant as well as a student of Magda, because it isn’t congruent with sleeping through the night. I think what you are probably talking about here is a time when the milk supply is well-established and the child is able to take in enough nourishment at one feeding to sustain him or her through the night. I don’t know when that age is or how one would discover when it is. I’m sure it varies. As you said in your earlier post, there are no fast rules.

    1. Thanks Kim!

      Yes, helping babies sleep so that we can sleep is sometimes extremely challenging. And since our well-being depends on the baby sleeping, sleep becomes a huge focus, especially for nursing moms. I remember being a little obsessed about getting a few hours of sleep in a row when my first and third children were babies. Usually, by midway through the first year, the baby can be physically capable of sleeping several hours without being fed, and the mother’s milk supply is well-established. But, as with all areas of development ,yes, that varies.

      Thanks again for reading the blog!

  3. what about mothers who “co-sleep” or “bed-share”…?…..

    how do the ideas apply?

    i exclusively breastfeed….i put my little one (6 mos) to bed usually between 6 and 8…..he wakes about 2 times to nurse before waking up at 7…..both times i nurse lying down….the first time he wakes i am usually still awake and not in bed….the second time he wakes he usually rolls over….roots and wakes me to nurse…..

    1. Hi Mary,

      There are positives to co-sleeping with children, but also downsides. It is generally much more difficult for an older infant or toddler to learn to go back to sleep independently when he has a parent nearby. This situation works well for some families, others have found that providing a separate bed for a child has a dramatic effect on the quality of the child’s (and the parent’s) sleep.

      If we want our baby to return to sleep independently, we must “do less” when we he wakes up, and keep in mind that children like to do what they are used to doing. If we decide to change habits and respond to a child differently than we have been, it’s important to be respectful, acknowledge those changes for our child, and allow him to express whatever feelings he has about the change. Not sure if that answers your question but…

      I wrote more about this in Babies Breaking Habits, Toddlers Dealing With Change:

  4. I have done everything mentioned above.. my son is 3 1/2 months old and does not have a night feeding and hasn’t since 11 weeks.. he goes to be consistently every night at 7 pm and wakes up at 7 am. We don’t get him out of his crib at all in the middle of the night.. if he wakes (which he does typically around 3 a.m and then 5 am.), we go in and soothe him without talking to him.. so, so far so good, EXCEPT I cannot figure out what to do about the pacifier! He goes to sleep with it and once he is in a deep sleep it will fall out and stay out until he wakes up again in the early morning like I mentioned above. HOWEVER, sometimes it falls out and wakes him up because it’s lodged under his face or neck and clearly is bothering him and he can’t put it back in his mouth yet.
    When we go in to soothe him, he immediately will go back to sleep if we give him back the pacifier right away. If we don’t give it back, he cries and gets more riled up. At 3 am or 5 am, I’m exhausted. What do I do?!

    1. Hmmm… It sounds like sleep is going really well for him, and continuing to use the pacifier (even though it’s not the greatest habit) would be extremely tempting for me in your situation. Does he use it at other times during the day? Infants your son’s age have a strong need to suck and it will help him if he has time during the day to work on finding his thumb, which will then be readily available to him all night long. If you give him a pacifier during the day, he has no opportunity or desire to work on sucking his thumb (hand or fingers).

      I don’t know if you’ve read some of Eileen Henry’s sleep posts here, but I know that she would say what I’m thinking… that he’s developed a habit and of course he wants to continue it. If we want to change our childrens’ habits, the needs we’ve created (and please don’t feel bad because we are all inclined to do that) we can’t expect them not to grieve the loss of what we take away. Eileen explains it beautifully here: and also here:

      Please keep me posted on your progress! And take care.

      1. Hi Janet,

        I read somewhere on your website that we should always wait for a child to reach developments in their time, not push them. Also that when a child cries, they should be held, heard and soothed. These don’t seem to be your beliefs when it comes to sleep, though.

        Is this just because sleep is so important, or is there actually a difference between their daytime and sleeptime emotional needs?

        I’m also not so sure that just telling them what will happen, and listening to them when upset, will truly cause them to feel understood and responded to. That feels like an assumption about their experience and how thry understand our intentions. Being held is a real need of infants to held them regulate and eventually self-regulate in times of stress. I also read a thought from Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, saying that children who don’t feel fully supported can actually become more clingy and/or start hiding their feelings from us, and that it is better to let them tell us when they want to take each step of independence.

        I’ve found so many great thoughts in your articles, but would love to hear your perspective on this topic.


  5. My little girl is 5 months old, and I made the mistake of giving her a pacifier to sleep. I read the above post, but would still love some advice. How can I slowly/respectfully take the pacifier away and help her to soothe herself for sleep? I have tried taking it away but she gets *very* upset and cannot calm down without this prop. I am upset because I know it’s my fault, but I didn’t know how harmful it was. She also doesn’t play independently very well and cries when I leave her side. How can I increase her independence? She cries when other people hold her, too. Just lots of questions! I am new to the RIE model, but absolutely love the principles. I want her to be able to help herself, but I also hate to hear her upset. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  6. Hi Janet, first of all, congratulations on your great work!
    I am reading your articles and they make so much sense to me, but I am sometimes confused in particular areas, sleeping being one of them. I live in a country where paradigms are at their most and it can get hard at times to deal with the culture in which me and my partner were raised. We have seen so many approaches around us, most of them not giving freedom to children at all, that now we are confused. When it comes to sleeping, I must admit I have changed my mind a couple of times and I now am somehow looking for advice. I have a 2.5 years old daughter who is very understanding and with whom I always talk talk talk. I am amazed at how understanding she is most of the times, but when it comes to sleeping, we’ve had some issues. At first, I slept with her in the same room (she had her own cot) for 3 months, then I temporarily moved out of my room and left her alone. She was a good sleeper, would only wake up for about 2 night feeds. At about 5 months I moved her in her own room, same cot, still alone. It wasn’t long that the fussing at night began. At about 6 months, when I started giving her solids, she started to wake up even 5 times at night and would only comfort if I breast-fed her… This lasted for about 6 months (I do mention both me and my partner were tired and frustrated). At about one year, I started to smoothly give up on the night feeding and on the rocking in my arms when putting her to bed… Very shortly she was one happy sleeper, because I was confident my smooth ‘letting go’ of her habits helped a lot. From 1 to approx. 2 years old she would sleep alone in her room (from 1.5 yr she got her own bed, no more cot), rarely waking up at night…And even when she would wake up, just going next to her for a bit helped her go back to sleep easily. But then at around the age of 2 we moved out of the apartment and she also started kindergarten (which is a delight for her, I mention). I am not sure what exactly happened (might be the new place, the kindergarten (although I doubt it), some tensions between me and my partner (but they were over) or her newly acknowledged fears), but she again started to wake up at nights…. After many nights of 4 or 5 cries a night (and she would come to our room and take one of us with her each time), I decided it’s best I start co-sleeping with her…. Now she is sleeping well, but if I am not there with her, she gets up crying and comes to get me (so I prefer not leaving the room at all….)….. For some while I was thinking that co-sleeping is a good idea, but we’ll have a baby soon (in 5 months) and I am not sure how my daughter will deal with this in terms of sleeping. After reading your articles, I am not even sure co-sleeping is helping (since she was such a good sleeper when she was sleeping alone…)…. So I am not sure whether she still needs co-sleeping or I need to talk her out of her dependence of sleeping with me. And I am not sure whether it is ok to co-sleep with the baby or not…. I am really confused here and for sure it is not helping my daughter.
    I wish you more great articles and all the best!

  7. Do you have an article or advice on the same subject, but with toddlers? My almost 3 year old son has always been a great sleeper, but in the past few weeks wakes up 3 or 4 times per night crying and will cry for 10 or 15 minutes if we let him. In the past we didn’t go in unless it was very obvious he wasn’t going to go back to sleep on his own (very rare), but lately they’re all that way. Nothing has changed that we can think of. He’s still happily (or so we think) in his crib. We give him the option to sleep in his big boy bed but he always wants the crib. So, do we go in or not? He usually settles right down when he go in, but will sometimes cry when we leave again. I don’t think it’s night terrors, but could be bad dreams. He’s not verbal enough yet to tell us though. Thoughts?

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