Changing Toddler Sleep Habits (Guest Post by Eileen Henry)

Parents of infants and toddlers have a collective wish – a peaceful ending to the day. We deserve it. Our days are long, often taxing, and we hope our babies will fall asleep easily and stay asleep through the night. We don’t have the patience or the energy to deal with a fussy baby. Even though we may sense that our child’s cries are a healthy release of tension, we’re too tired, too vulnerable to hear them. So, to make life easier in the moment we nurse and rock babies to sleep or create other bedtime habits that we may later wish to break.

Here is sleep specialist Eileen Henry’s response to a mom who wants to help her toddler transition to finding sleep on her own.

My daughter had the hardest time falling asleep on her own and I was very worried about using the “cry it out” method. So I ended up either holding my daughter in my arms while walking back and forth as she fell asleep, or nursing her to sleep. Well, she is now 21 months and we are still doing the same thing. But now I really feel like I want to start getting her to fall asleep on her own. But I really don’t know how to transition without too much suffering for my daughter. She also sleeps in my bed, so if I leave her alone,  she can just get off the bed (unlike the crib.)

So any help would be appreciated. Basically, how do I transition gently? What steps do I take?

Thanks so much!

Marina

Dear Marina,

Part of what people pay me for is bad news. So you may get some here for free. We must get to the truth, which quite often feels like bad news, in order to get to the solution (the good news.) As Magda Gerber said in many ways, we can change anything we are doing with our children, at any time, but first we must get honest with ourselves and our child and then show them the new way.

At 21 months the typical toddler is well past the developmental stage (1.5 years past) of learning the important skill of falling asleep and returning to sleep without parental assistance. Therefore the longer we offer conditions that fix their sleep for them, the longer they come to believe that they NEED these conditions in order to fall asleep. In this case, holding, walking and nursing. At 21 months the need for the digestive system to rest and repair in the night outweighs the need for food. Therefore, my recommendation is to cut out that condition first.

I’m not sure what you mean by doing the transition gently. You can cut out one condition at a time or make the transition over a period of time. But here is the bad news…there will likely be crying, yelling, complaining and carrying on about it. We respond with gentle kindness. But the child is experiencing a loss. And with loss comes grief. And with grief comes tears. And I think children can handle this with our loving support and compassion. This is a normal and healthy human response to loss.

In a case such as yours, I find what best serves the family is for the parents to get some guidance and most of all support before and during these changes. How best can you prepare yourself and your child for the decision to change what needs to change? You will want to be able to follow through with the changes and create a new way of sleep in your home. And I recommend a way that enables you to get the best sleep you can as an adult. And that is uninterrupted sleep as often as you possibly can.

A very wise woman once told me this– Our children learn in part how to care for themselves by the way we care for them. But as they grow they mostly learn self care by watching how we take care of ourselves.

Making this change is an act of love. Love for yourself and love for your daughter.

Warmly,

Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
Compassionate Sleep Solutions
303.953.0203

Eileen has generously agreed to respond to your comments and questions about sleep. Please submit yours here. And thank you, Eileen!

20 Comments

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

  1. Thank you for the comforting words above, they help a lot!
    I have a 10.5 month old baby girl who has always had a lot of trouble with sleeping. At 3 weeks old, I had to return to graduate school meaning I am gone from 7AM until about 7PM Monday through Friday in her life. We have an amazing nanny who cares for her throughout the day. When I am home, I play with my girl and feed her dinner and then get her ready for bed between 7:30 and 8:30 PM as she lets me know by rubbing her eyes. I dim the lights, change her diaper, put her in pjs, turn on the ocean noise and then we rock and I nurse her. She usually is not asleep when I lay her in her crib. Approx. 1.5 hours later, she wakes up crying. Not usually mewing crying, like really crying. I go up, try to pat her and comfort her, but she is so upset, I usually pick her up and will eventually nurse her. I do this mostly out of mommy guilt. I have away from her so long all day, she (and I, I will admit) probably needs this special time. Then back to sleep. Then 11PM, 3AM, 5AM, 7:30AM and finally she wakes up for the day at 9:30ish.
    I am home for break right now and would like to break this system, but I know it will involve a lot of loss of sleep for everyone in the house. She is physically capable of sleeping through the night, correct? Is the waking up separation anxiety? Should I do this cold turkey, or try to cut out one nursing a night over a span of time? I feel so guilty hearing her upset and I feel like it is my fault because of the time I need to spend away.
    Thank you!

    1. This is really normal and I think that with children who can’t tell us yet what they experience, and whose rational minds are still very much developing, it is best to go gradually. Actually, according to Dr. Tina Payne Bryson (co-author of The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline), if we push a child to do something before they feel ready they can either become more clingy or start to hide their feelings from us. Children become independent stage by stage. With sleep it isn’t always linear because of the things that impact it.

      It is hard for you though as you are so busy during the day and the lack of sleep must be impacting you. As parents we have to weigh pros and cons and do the best we can with our resources. It will definitely be good to try not to overhelp, listen for a moment and think what the least the child might need from you is. That way you don’t impede development when it happens. But when you feel the need for bonding and connection time, trust your instincts because refilling that is important and helpful in so many ways.

      An early bedtime is often helpful, as is keeping the light low before bed and dark during sleeptime, with plenty of sunlight and activity during the day. A gentle breeze can be good if possible, and not overdressing for sleep (i.e. child shouldn’t be sweating). A simple routine where the child is involved where possible and knows what is coming up; talking through the events of the day; time for quiet, child-led play and also stress-releasing laughter; a calm and non-hurried attitude. I believe that we can often choose gentler approaches when we find ways of making them work more effectively.

      All the best.

  2. avatar Mamammalia says:

    I can recommend 2 resources that use a gentle approach to helping with these issues, both very attachment parenting friendly:
    book: The No Cry Sleep Solution (by Pantley)
    website: http://drjaygordon.com/

    However, the best sleep advice I ever heard was not to take anyone else’s advice too seriously…unless that person is going to come over at 3am and put your baby back to sleep!

  3. Thank you for these posts about sleep. Our 8 month old daughter has been falling asleep on her own since she was 4 months old, but she wakes up 1-2 times at night to nurse. My husband and I are both ready to start sleeping through the night, especially since we also have an energetic two year old who gets up early.

    It’s very helpful to read that we should give her a couple of days of preparation and that we will have to expect some crying. I have to admit, I hate hearing her cry because she was extremely fussy for the first four months of her life and would cry for hours. We still don’t know exactly why, but think it had to do with her immature digestive system and the fact that she was overtired.

    I think we are all still very sensitive to her crying, even though she’s now crying for diffent reasons. So it’s reassuring to read that letting her cry isn’t going to do long-term damage.

    Thanks again for the helpful information.

  4. I have a 7 month old (today) and we are in the process of sleep training. Up until two weeks ago, our daughter was in our bed, nursed to sleep and every time she woke up I would nurse her back to sleep. She would wake up anywhere from 3x – 5x a night. In addition, she was always nursed and held for each of her naps. Two weeks ago I decided to move her to the crib since I needed to get more sleep as I returned to work. The first couple of nights were torture, but after night 3 she was waking up once and night 4, she was sleeping through the night. The question, for her naps she refuses to take a nap in her crib, when I lay her down, she immediately wakes up and cries. I have let her cry for 1 hour, trying different approaches, (which I don’t like at all), but then she won’t sleep. Since I feel that sleep is so important, I pick her up and then nurse her back to sleep and let her sleep in my arms for the entire nap period. I have been home for the past two weeks. I end up holding her for each of her 3 naps to ensure she is getting the sleep she needs. Is there something else I should be doing? Should naps take place in our bed? Also, sometimes she still cries when I lay her down at night. I do have a bedtime routine, but how important is it to take her to her bedroom at night for storytime and nursing? Bedtime routine starts at 5:30, with cereal, sometimes bath, story, nursing and she is asleep by 7:00pm in my arms. I am so confused and worried that I am doing something wrong.

    1. Dear Dulcey,

      Naps are harder than night sleep. There are many reasons for this and I find that even once night has regulated, many still struggle with naps.
      But once your child is falling asleep and returning to sleep in the night autonomously this learned skill can and will translate to day sleep.

      The most important thing to hit is the timing of naps. Observe your child closely and try to ease her into the transition to nap before she is overtired. Look for what Magda called the “soft signs” of sleep. Yawning, rubbing eyes, ears and fussiness are the hard signs of sleep. The soft signs are subtle but most common signs are the child starts to avert the gaze and stare into space. It can look very peaceful. But it can be the ideal time to transition to sleep. This is important for night as well. In general, if there is crying at the end of the ritual, when your child goes into the crib, this means that the child might be slightly over-tired by then. I would recommend pushing up this time in 15 minute increments until you find the right window. For a 7-month old infant, 6:00 or 6:30 might be a better bed time. But if she is still falling asleep in your arms at night then she will want this condition for naps as well. So the next thing to work on is having her go from sleepy to asleep, in her crib.

      When working on naps it is best to stay home and not have too many activities. For the first few days, no activities would be best. Naps are so important for overall sleep and the most important attitude toward naps are this – naps are non-negotiable. To explain how to achieve this attitude and translate it to the child is one of the main parts of my program, Compassionate Sleep Solutions. My recommendation is to get night sleep regulated first. Meaning, the child is falling asleep in the crib, on her own and returning to sleep on her own, all night. Once the child has mastered this, then you can start to work on naps.
      From your post here it looks like that might be what you have been doing for two weeks, I’m not sure. But if night is going well and you are still struggling with naps you might want to consider getting support or further guidance.

      Remember to talk to your infant and tell her, “We are now going to do naps just like night sleep.” And then walk her through the process.

      Warmly,
      Eileen Henry, RIE™ Associate
      Compassionate Sleep Solutions™
      http://www.eileensclasses.com
      303.953.0203

  5. We have a similar problem. Our 21 month old daughter has been falling asleep and sleeping through the night on her own since she was 12 months old, but we were never able to get her to fall asleep on her own for her naps. We tried for about a week and she would cry herself to sleep after about 30-45 minutes of crying, then wake up after 30 minutes crying again. We were all exhausted, so we resorted to putting her in the front baby carrier and walking around the block until she fell asleep. Once asleep, I usually let her sleep in the carrier on me, as opposed to putting her down. In the carrier, she sleeps for 2 hrs, but if I put her down she’ll wake up after about 45 minutes. Frankly, I’d rather have 2 hrs to sit and nap in a comfy chair or watch tv to relax, vs 45 minutes of “free” time to dash around the house trying to get things done. Unfortunately, we’ve now set ourselves up for a bad situation, as I’m pregnant with #2, and can no longer comfortably carry her in the front carrier. I started trying to transition her to napping in her bed (she can climb out of the crib, so we had to convert it to a toddler bed for safety reasons) this Monday. Earlier in the day I told her that we would be doing things different for nap time. When she started to show tired signs we headed to her room where I turned on the noise machine and night light. I wanted to establish a routine similar to bedtime, so I changed her diaper and ended up putting her in her jammies when she asked for them. I was planning on reading her a story, but when I turned the overhead lights off she got upset and could not be consoled. I tried to comfort her by saying, “I know that this is a tough transition. This is not the usual way that we take a nap. I know that you can fall asleep in your bed, because you do such a great job of it at bedtime. It might take some time, but I’ll be here for you.” She cried for about 20-30 minutes then eventually fell asleep for 1.25 hrs. I considered it a relative success considering how long she slept, but when her nap time came on Tuesday, things did not go well. She did not cry so hard, but continued to ask for things to eat and drink. After an hour of being in her room I thought she might actually be hungry, so I got her some crackers and some milk, but she continued to roll around her bed and not settle down. We stayed in her room for 2.5 hrs without any sleep. Eventually I decided we should give up for the day, so I opened the door and acted as though she had just woken from a nap. She played pretty happily for the rest of the afternoon, but fell asleep at the dinner table, something she has never done before even though she’s missed naps before. My husband is home with her today while I work, so I asked him to put her to bed for a nap in a similar manner, so she can get used to the routine. I haven’t heard back from him yet on how it went. I guess I’m just hoping you can give us some advice. Are we on the right track? Should we do something differently? Anything would be appreciated. Thank you.

  6. My baby is 9 months and will only fall asleep if I hold her. I want to try the gradual, no cry method. When I lay her down in her crib and she starts to fuss, I don’t understand what I am supposed to do. Do I let her cry? Do I stay, but rub her back, even though she is still crying and getting more frustrated that I am not picking her up?? Do I hold her again? My mommy instinct is to “rescue” her. My intellect says, “No, don’t”, let her learn”. Learn what, how? I just don’t have a clue what to do. Is there a resource that describes in detail exactly what my options are at these crucial moments? I need a list of things like, “rub back for three minutes….or pick up till she stops, then place back in crib and say goodnight……etc. What exactly are these “self soothing techniques that she should learn, and how do I teach them? Thanks

    1. Sharing what helped us in case it helps you…
      I give my daughter around a week for transitions like this. We start by introducing a soothing thing that will stay constant, eg a particular song or white noise (if you don’t have this in your routine already). Do the normal routine for a couple of days while she starts to associate this thing with sleep. Then, start to make your change. Eg while singing, put her down in the crib and hold your hand on her or pat her. Wait a few minutes. If she doesn’t stop crying, pick her up and start over. Try a few times, then do things as usual and pick it up the next day. This is not a failure, it’s practice. Try again the next day. Bit by bit, she’ll probably get it!

  7. I know my sense of frustration and guilt are absolutely common, and I still feel a bit swamped by them! My 20-month old son is reliant on us to put him to sleep, and back to sleep. He goes down without fighting (he didn’t always, but has grown to this place) and often ASKS for a nap, either by requesting a “snack” (nursing) or bouncing. He naps really well, often 1.5-3 hours, sleeping on his own after I nurse him to sleep and leave. If he wakes during his nap, he’ll often roll over and put himself back to sleep. In fact, he’ll sometimes do it at night, too – but more often, he won’t.

    The biggest frustration comes not from what he doesn’t do but what he USED to do – the progress we saw and then the regression. Sometimes we can put it down to teething or discomfort (shallow breathing, writhing and moaning) but sometimes he just plain can’t stay asleep. This week he’s been waking at night every hour on the hour, and can’t put himself back to sleep. It’s not like he doesn’t try! He’ll roll around trying all the positions, holding still and breathing deeply for long enough that I relax, thinking he’s gone back to sleep, but no – even after trying his hardest he rolls over and cries, asking for “Pick Up” or “Daddy, please.” It’s heartbreaking, and SO discouraging (and exhausting).

    Because he sleeps with us, or in our room (he starts the night in his own bed in our room, and often moves into our bed after a wakeup) it’s especially hard to let him cry and beg. Is this regression normal? Have we just been building up trouble for the last year? (Probably.) It’s so hard.

    Iscah

    1. avatar Amy Ortiz says:

      This sounds exactly like my 2 year old. I’m not sure when you posted this comment, but did you figure anything out?

  8. My daughter is 17 months old, and is actually a great sleeper. She has been sleeping through the night since she was almost 7 months old. The catch we/I have is that I have nursed her to sleep since she was an infant. She has never had a problem transferring into the crib. We co-slept for the first 6+ months and then started a transition. She was better at it than I was, she actually didn’t seem to care and got much more sleep. She will be aware I am putting her in her bed and isn’t ever surprised to wake up there. Same goes for naps. So she sleeps at about 7:30pm until 6 or 7am (no wake ups unless ill, but I don’t nurse at night) and take a 2 to 3 hour nap in the early afternoon. So my general question is how do I take nursing out of the equation for getting to sleep. I don’t want to just pull the rug out from under her. I do feel that after she adjusts, she’ll go back to her great sleeping self, but I know the transition may be hard. Thoughts on how to best provide her with the skills to do this? So far I “think” about nursing earlier and trying to take that away first, then because she sucks her thumb, she already has a self sooth.
    But maybe it’s better to just go all in and try to make it one change instead of incremental?

    Help?

    1. This is a old post but I’m in the same boat and would love to know if you got your daughter to fall asleep without nursing successfully.

  9. My daughter is 21 months old and has gone from sleeping through the night to not. She only wakes once most of the time and usually around 4:30 or 5:00 but I don’t want her to do it anymore! She was sleeping through the night and now she’s stopped and I’m not sure what’s changed. We do get up and feed her and I think that’s probably what we need to stop doing, but she was a preemie and my husband worries because she’s still so small, that she’s not eating enough and she needs to drink to grow. I just worry that now she’s gone back to relying on drinking when I don’t think that she actually needs it. I’m thinking we need to go the water route and just go in and comfort her to get her to go back to sleep but it’s a hard thing to decide to do! With #2 on the way, I’d love to try and get some sleep!

  10. avatar Clementine says:

    Hi Eileen, we are having real problems with our 18month old and sleep. We sit next to her while she falls asleep(not an issue for us, I use it as one on one bonding time) but she won’t sleep through the night/refuses to resettle to sleep. She began this about 4months ago when I was at the very end of my pregnancy with her little sister, Prior to this, she always slept through the night without any problems. We really need some guidance here. With a young baby as well as the toddler being awake for a majority of the night it’s really taking its toll! Thank you so much! Clem.

  11. I have 4 children, ages 7, 4.5, 2.5, and almost 5 months. They all require assistance (snuggles) to go to sleep. They start out in their own beds (except the cosleeping infant), but enter ours at some point, sometimes just an hour or 2 after we’ve put them to bed, which interferes with alone time with my spouse. By that point they cause a big ruckus (which wakes the others) if we don’t let them into our bed. What can we do to help them sleep better alone?

  12. Thank you for article. I have 9 month old whom I nurse to sleep for nap and bedtime . She wakes up 3-4 times for comfort and feeds in her 12 hour night sleep .i would like her to give opportunity for her to self soothe and break this habit of nursing to sleep. Should I start now or wait until she is todfler and change habit when I wean her. Please guide

  13. avatar Thais Perosa says:

    My baby is 9 months and its been very hard to settle him to feed at 11 and then only at 6.. i dont like to let him cry too much and trying really hard to put him on a schedule but it isnt working. One night he wakes up at 11pm and then at 3-4 am. Other nights he goes till 1-2am and then sleeps till 6am. I’m so tired as i have another toddler with 3 1/2 yo. How to make him sleep throughout the night so i can rest as well please? Going insane.

  14. My daughter is now 3 years old and a few months. Since she was 18 months old, bedtime has been a horrific disaster. She will scream, cry, kick the walls, etc once I leave her room. I have a very strict routine and always have. I’ve tried every “trick” and nothing works. I think I’ve already lost my mind. I don’t know what else to do. She finally just stopped screaming after 31 minutes. And this has been going on for almost 2 years.

    Please help.

  15. She says that the 21 month old is 1.5 years late on learning to fall asleep without parental assistance. I take that to mean that she thinks all 3 month olds should be able to go all night without nursing. Janet, I love your blog, and your approach has been more than helpful with my toddler and preschooler. But I am very disappointed to see this kind of misinformation on your blog. You should not assume a 3 month old can go all night without nursing, they are not even old enough to offer water yet. They still have hunger and thirst needs at night. Babies and toddlers have unique night needs, and the respectful thing to do as a parent is to meet those needs. It is instinctual for babies to want to be close to their parents at night, and research proves it is safer for babies under 12 months to sleep near their mothers. 21 months is a perfect age to respectfully night wean. The toddler is now old enough to understand what is going on, and can be offered water at night while a parent stays with them and accepts their cries and disappointment while building this new boundary around night nursing. Leaving a baby in a room to cry is never respectful. Not nursing a 3 month old all night is harmful to the breastfeeding relationship. We need to distinguish that babies and toddlers have different needs, and while night weaning may be a respectful option for children over 18 months, it definitely does not meet the nighttime needs of many babies under 12 months.

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