Baby’s “No Cry” Sleep Is Exhausting (More Wisdom From Eileen Henry)

Since sleep specialist Eileen Henry volunteered to answer parents’ questions here, I’ve received many. Sleep is undoubtedly the number one issue.  I could easily turn this blog over to Eileen and your questions, if she had the time. I’m trying not to overwhelm her!

Below is a note from a parent (Masha) that I had forwarded to Eileen. As it turned out, Eileen’s private response to me as she considered the question was the perfect answer.  She agreed to let me post it …

We’re looking for ways to gradually stop nursing and/or rocking our ten month-old to sleep.  In the past we’ve tried to wean her off these habits, but she’s had difficulty falling asleep on her own, and we felt that her getting rest made her more happy and refreshed during the day (and it has).  But now we’re at a point where she’s happy and refreshed, but we’re less and less so, having to work really hard to help her fall asleep.  It also complicates things when we have a sitter or a relative who doesn’t have our “touch,” so we’re looking for ways to help her fall asleep and stay asleep on her own that don’t involve “crying it out” for prolonged periods.  What would you recommend?

Thanks,                                                                                                                                                                                                       Masha

Hi Janet,

I will try to get to this one soon. It feels like the answer is in some I have already sent, but this could be because it is the most common question, asked by most parents, every day. You would think by now I would have a short answer.

I remember our pre-school teacher saying she had a short answer for almost all of parents’ questions around that age. It was, “Say it, mean it, then do it”.

The problem is the word gradual. That can be a confusing concept for a young child. At every age I say a 24 hour preparation is sufficient. Tell the child…this isn’t working. Show them the new way that will. Literally show them. Walk them through the new way of sleep. Have one last time of the old way and then get on with it.

I assume that “had difficulty falling asleep on her own” might mean that she cried and mom went back to nursing her to sleep. So I think my answer would have to be about coping with the crying around removing the condition that the child has come to believe she needs in order to fall asleep. And that is the child’s experience of loss. It is all about the crying in the end. I spend 90 percent of my time talking parents off the ledge that the cry hurls us onto.

Next week I start with a family of a 14 month old. Mom has been crawling into the crib to nurse the child to sleep. She is now pregnant and it just dawned on her that she will no longer be able to do this with a big belly.

We are so dear, us mommies. We will go to any lengths. With the best intentions (coupled with some obsolete instinctual drives) we will do just about anything to keep our babies from crying.

I have attached two articles from a website I like called Hand In Hand (Helping Young Children Sleep and Listening To Nursing Children). The “listening until you fall asleep” can be a good first step.

I think you will like how these articles address listening to the cry. The practice of compassion is very intense. We sit and listen without fixing it. We sit and witness with an open heart as a human who also knows loss. It is all we bring. And it is plenty. It is enough.

“Yes. I see you crying (acknowledge.) I know this is hard (empathy.) I am here (reassure.)”

Here is what I find astonishing about my RIE- raised children. They truly have a sense of what developmental specialists call “agency”. They understand that they have an effect on their world. They understand that what they do matters. They can and do make a difference.

I guess Magda would say these are the very elements of self-confidence.  So at some stage of development, I forget when, but it seemed around first grade, they rarely looked to me for reassurance. They have that. It is now internal and theirs. And sometimes if I offer it up to quickly they shut me down. They are so clear in what they need from me.

If I just listen, I can hear their clarity. Thanks to RIE, Magda’s teachings and Liz and Hari’s guidance. Because left to my own devices I would still be crawling into the crib, well after my children had moved on.

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                             Eileen

Eileen Henry, RIETM Associate
Compassionate Sleep SolutionsTM

(Photo by edenpictures on Flickr)


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

  1. Janet and Eileen —

    I’m learning so much from your posts about sleep, and your insight has been so helpful to me. I practice attachment parenting, which is a departure from how I was raised, and feels very comfortable and natural to me. Sleep is a problem, though. I’m still trying to reconcile what I understand and love about AP with what you teach about allowing children to struggle.

    I just ordered Magda’s first book (even though my youngest is already 8 months old) so I can learn more about sleep and share on my own website. In the early months of breastfeeding, establishing a milk supply and keeping baby close is so important, but AP doesn’t talk much about when it’s appropriate to begin night weaning or how to go about letting babies sleep on their own.

    The one thing I’m trying to remember (as I realize how I’ve already stifled some independence) is that children are infinitely forgiving, don’t dwell on the past, and are receptive to new changes. So that’s what we’re working on.

    Thanks for the wonderful posts.

    1. Thank you! And I hope you’ll keep us updated.

      I am thankful, too, that children are infinitely forgiving and adaptable to change, especially if they sense their parents’ commitment to the change.

      I appreciated your recent post about changing sleep habits and your thought process around it: Putting On The Tough-Pants To Get My Toddler To Sleep ( ) Thanks for linking in it to Eileen’s last post, too.

  2. Janet and Eileen, thank you so much for including such a strong stand for the practice of compassion in dealing with baby’s sleep issues. I couldn’t agree more. I often work with parents on expanding their capacity to be with the feelings that arise in them, listening to that cry. It can be excruciating because it usually stirs up the parents’ own inner experience (and who doesn’t have some unresolved feelings around helplessness and abandonment?). It’s very hard. Thanks for the extra resources.

  3. avatar Masha Stout says:

    Thank you so much for the wisdom Eileen. A friend recently introduced us to an insightful book: The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems by Tracy Hogg. Chapter six on SLEEP offers the pick-up put-down method which may be a gentler alternative?
    The only reason we are even considering helping our baby to learn to fall asleep without rocking or a nipple/bottle was out of FEAR she will have trouble learning this after she turns two?? There still seems to be something very Un-natural about letting your baby cry at night while staying in the room watching and attempting to comfort when you know you could do more. Thanks.

    1. I’m a little confused, so you are pro-sleep training? Do you know that hinders brain development?

  4. When I moved from DC to LA and our son’s sleep was turned upside down, I waited for a few months to make sure he was otherwise adjusted to our new home. Once I felt comfortable that he was, I knew for everyone’s sake that we had to get his sleep back on track and it was Eileen’s wisdom—struggle v. suffering—that helped me be present without fear the two nights he cried as he made the transition to going to sleep on his own once again. Thank you for that!

    Fast forward to present, I now have a two year old who sleeps in a bed. We have a routine that is diligently followed. He understands the he should sleep until his clock turns green. But we have an ongoing issue where he wakes up at 4/430 every morning, calls out “blanket, blanket, blanket…” until mom or dad puts his blanket on him, and then returns to sleep.

    The thing is, I’m almost certain that the blanket has not been kicked off in his sleep. I think he wakes up then deliberately pulls his legs out and sets them on top of his covers. My gut tells me that he’s just checking to make sure he’s not alone, so every night I tell him that he’s safe, we’re nearby, we’re there for him, etc. BUT the constant disruption is wearing on all of us.

    So, I’m not quite sure how to inspire a change in the behavior when he’s not crying, not getting out of bed, or the like. I don’t want to ignore him because I don’t want him to think I wasn’t being truthful about being available/at home, but I don’t want to encourage the behavior either.

    Any ideas?

    Thanks so much!

  5. Ha! Perfect timing. I just fell into this trap the last few days. My 10MO son has been unwell. He’s been cranky. My good sleeper started waking up, inconsolable.

    The illness passed us, but we were still on high alert. Husband and I trading off to sit by the crib, hand on the back, touching, soothing, sympathetic.

    Last night, we went on for an hour and a half, trying to physically soothe him as we would if he were ill, and he would settle and lay quietly… but when one of us would leave, he’d scream, in desolation.

    My husband was getting a little distraught. I always have to remind him that these things pass. No different than other times he’s struggled with sleeping, except that our son is an evolving being, and so every time is a little different and he’s a little older… but the themes remain constant. It’s okay for our son to struggle sometimes.

    He was screaming after my husband left the room, and I took over. I explained to our son that he was feeling poorly because he was so tired and that it was time to sleep. And I just stood there until he settled himself down.

    I walked to the door and opened it slowly, deliberately. Up popped his head in the beam of light from the hall. He watched me cross the threshold and let out a desolate cry.

    And then I turned and stood in the door. We just stared intently at each other. I stood there watching quietly until he settled himself down, and off he went to sleep. Immediately. How to explain what happened in that moment?

    When I watched him cry out, I just thought, Yes, I can see you, little one, I know you want me to stay but I am tired too. My heart was full of love. It’s like he could read my thoughts. His big eyes staring back at me, suddenly thoughtful, too. Sometimes these very strange, very deep moments pass when you are listening and waiting. I don’t know how to explain them.

    I am sure, had I done that an hour previously, he would’ve been asleep.

    What RIE has taught me is to be patient, watchful, calm and compassionate. I do a lot more waiting now than I ever have before… just watching, listening, being present in the moment.

    He went to sleep easily tonight. Back to normal.

    1. Sophia, I’m speechless. Such an encouraging, enlightening, heartwarming story! Thanks for sharing!

  6. I know this post is old, but I have a question. My son has been struggling to fall asleep, although he used to go to sleep by himself for naps. If I try to let him struggle, he ends up getting so upset that the only way to soothe him is to let him cry himself asleep in my arms. This frustrates me because I’d much rather sooth him and put him down to let him fall asleep. Any insights?

  7. avatar Madison Marguerite says:

    I’d love to hear more about what you mean when you say “obsolete instinctual drives”. I imagine these instinctual drives are not obsolete for the baby…

    1. Hi Madison – I don’t want to speak for Eileen, but I believe she’s referring to the rush parents might feel to end the feelings children express. This was necessary for the survival of tribes in primitive times (who feared attracting wild animals), but suppressing emotions is not a healthy approach in modern times.

  8. So many beautiful words to disguise what you are actually doing. “Intense compassion”! Sounds wonderful. To a suffering baby, however, it makes no difference whatsoever whether mom is intensely co-suffering in the same room or hiding in the basement with headphones and wine. The second mom may feel a bit worse about herself, though, than the first.

  9. Hi Janet. But is there a time limit to this listening to them cry? What if the cries aren’t just ‘please listen to me express my emotions’ but also ‘please do something about it, mummy’? Would our inaction create in our little ones a sense of helplessness or being ignoredbecause their way of communicating their want of help is not addressed/ met. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations