Sleep on This

If I were to ask parents to rank the biggest challenge during their child’s first year of life, the answer would be almost unanimous: sleep. Parents want to know the secret to healthy sleep for their baby.

Indeed, desperate parents will go to great lengths to remedy a baby’s sleep difficulties. There is a vast library and an extensive marketplace of advice available. Weary and delusional, parents will resort to everything, from hiring expensive ‘sleep experts’ to buying special teddy bears that transmit the sounds of a mother’s womb.

Bedtime is an extra chore when a parent is exhausted and faces the prospect of another poor night’s sleep. It doesn’t have to be that way. Your child’s bedtime can quickly evolve into an intimate, even memorable affair, and bring a joyous end to the day. I would never trade the memories that I have about singing a calm lullaby like “Hush Little Baby “ or reciting a poem like “The Owl and the Pussycat,” or later the routine of reading chapters from The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan or Little House in the Big Woods. When these calm bedtime rituals were followed by a good night’s sleep, life was as it should be.

But those first sleepless months, when one feels like a giddy zombie and then just completely spent, it is easy to feel at wit’s end. While sometimes sleeplessness may be the result of illness or pain, most of the time there are more basic forces at work. So here are some general guidelines to smooth the progress from sleepless nights to sweet dreams.

The first general rule of sleep is that there is no general rule. In The RIE Manual, Magda Gerber cautions, “Do not expect a magic formula: sometimes we cannot isolate any one problem area from the rest of the everyday life of your baby.”

I personally learned the hard way that there is no one-size-fits-all method to help a baby sleep. I have two daughters who slept well once they were a few months old. Then, just as I was puffing myself up with pride at my ability to promote healthy sleep, I gave birth to a boy who didn’t sleep through the night until he was two-and-a-half! This wonderful, active boy, with a sensitive digestive system, had kept me up all night in pregnancy, too.

For months, even years, I dreaded bedtime with my son, because it would take an hour or more to wind him down. Baths did not relax him, they energized him! Now I’ve come to cherish this time with my boy, because bedtime is when he finally slows down, snuggles up, and reveals his innermost thoughts to me. These moments of pleasure and intimacy make the frustrating years of sleep struggles fade from memory, but one memory is certain: the strategies that had helped my girls to sleep did not work with my son. And his environment was different, too. Being a third child, he was born into a home that was more stimulating and less peaceful than that of his sisters.

Magda Gerber recommended that parents work to create a relaxing and predictable overall environment, rather than focusing on bedtime as the whole issue. “Your goal is to develop good sleeping habits. The easiest way to develop good habits in general is to have a predictable daily life. Young babies thrive on routine.” When a baby can predict that after he eats he will have outdoor time, and then he will bathe before going to bed, he can then anticipate and even welcome sleep.

If we add to this dependable chain of events a slow, calming bedtime routine, we make it even easier for the child to unwind. A parent’s attitude toward sleep should be positive, never feeling pity for the child for giving him the gift of rest. (And new parents know what a gift that can be!) If we gently describe each action we will take to prepare the child for bed it will help him anticipate his soft landing. “I’m closing the curtains. Then we will sit together while I sing you a song. Now I’m going to help you into your bed and then switch off the lamp. Have a good rest, my love.”

A child is most amenable to a good rest when he is brought to bed at the first sign of tiredness. If a child is too exhausted or over-stimulated, he is apt to resist sleep. When an over-tired child does finally sleep, he may sleep fitfully. Parents are often under the misconception that a baby put to bed later will sleep later, but as Magda explains, “Many parents I have advised have learned with surprise and delight that contrary to their fears, putting babies to bed very early in the evening did not make them wake up earlier in the morning. Indeed, their babies often woke up much later in the morning, adding hours of sleep.”

But even when put to bed early and routinely, some infants will habitually cry for a short period before they can sleep. Infants are much more sensitive than adults to the stimulation around them. Think of crying as an infant’s way of relaxing. After all, a child cannot let off excess energy the way an adult might by going for a jog, conversing with a spouse, or drinking a glass of Pinot Grigio. An infant’s cry from tiredness can usually be distinguished by a repetitive rhythm that parent’s begin to recognize.

A mother who breast-feeds a newborn can initially subdue these tired cries by nursing the baby to sleep. But, after three or four months of age, when the infant becomes more aware of her surroundings, it is wise for the mother to begin putting a baby to bed when she is still somewhat awake. (In fact, some infants become fearful when they wake up without a memory of being moved to a crib.) While I offer this advice from Magda Gerber, I freely admit that I did not always follow it myself. It was hard for me to fathom disrupting a child’s contented journey to dreamland. And at end of a long day, I was ready for my baby to go to sleep smoothly, quickly and easily. But the sooner infants are in the habit of falling asleep without the aid of a nipple to knock them out, the easier life will be for both the parent and the child.

(Continued in the post Back to Sleep)


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

  1. Wow! My young daughter was having trouble falling asleep, and after reading this essay, I have a new sense of hope that she’ll be able to soon after I follow your advice. It seems that some of the problems you list can apply to her. This is very helpful, like all of your other posts. Thanks again!

  2. Are there articles about toddler sleep? I’m having trouble locating anything RIE on toddler screaming at bedtime and every time I try to run after she’s in bed she starts screaming for me at some point while I’m gone and then it’s an hour later before I can finally get her to go to bed without coming up with some issue in her bed.

  3. Nikkie Shubitz says:

    It’s so hard to find advice on toddler bedtime woes for a once pretty independent sleeper!

    Can you talk more about what worked to change bedtime for you boy at 2.5yo? My toddler sounds like he shares some of your son’s traits! Bath time is a splashy affair, he’s never gone for baby massage, and wasn’t a cuddler once I weaned from nursing.

    He slept through the night for a long time, but then started to wake up and throw all soft stuff overboard and cry until someone showed up to give them back. We converted his bed to a toddler bed, but the result was waking all the way up and walking to our bed when he wakes during the night. His sleep is more disrupted than it has even been and as he becomes more sleep deprived, getting to bed, settling into sleep in the first place gets harder and harder. He’s a constant squirmer. When he *final* stops his fitful tossing and turning he falls asleep immediately. We’ve always stayed in the room as he fell asleep. Reading, I’m thinking we need to remove that crutch. We want to make a big change and understand that we need to be patient with our toddler through it, but because of that, feel like we what to be smart about what we are changing to!

    Please help!

    By the way, thank you for your books and podcast. No Bad Kids is the first book my husband and I have read together. And we love to discuss your podcast!!

  4. I find all of these articles to be such rubbish. Why even write an article like this haha there is nothing tangible to take from this advice to help a baby nap or sleep better. I guess I just have a hard time with this whole philosophy. You can’t tell your baby “I’m closing the curtains” when he’s already wailing and it’s only been an hour since his last sleep.

    1. Uhh, then don’t let him nap an hour before bed??

  5. I know this is an older article, but it was exactly the reminder I needed tonight! It helped relieve some of the “mama guilt” I was feeling. Thank you for all your work over the years-it’s made parenting my 3 kiddos much more joyful!

    1. Aw it’s my absolute pleasure to support you on your journey! Thank you so much for your kind words x

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