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!
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.
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
Compassionate Sleep Solutions
Eileen has generously agreed to respond to your comments and questions about sleep. Please submit yours here. And thank you, Eileen!