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. 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?

      1. We are pro “sleep learning” in developmental increments when developmentally appropriate. Sleep is a skill like other skills our children will learn. When we allow this learning at the appropriate stage of development, along with the appropriate support and help it does not hinder brain development.

        What hinders brain development is toxic stress. This is nowhere close to toxic stress. Janet has a great series with Dr. Alice Callahan where she goes over the different types of stress.

        I understand the fear that allowing children to learn autonomous sleep could provoke a trauma response or feelings of neglect or abandonment from the child. It doesn’t as long as we mirror the child’s accurate experience and supply loving consistent support.

        But what I tell parents is this – if you think it is harmful by all means don’t do it. The child picks up the underlying emotional state of us. If a parent is in an inner dialogue of trauma and stress and gets triggered in their own abandonment wounds then THIS can make it very unstable for the infant.

        That said I worked with two wonderful somatic therapists this month. They used the word trauma and anxiety a lot. The mother is diligently working on her own nervous system and healing from her attachment wounds so this was especially challenging for her. They too were able to support their daughter in the way THEY saw fit. They took their time and went slowly. They offered her more soothing and more presence.

        Now their baby is cooing herself to sleep in her Montessori floor bed and happy to dive in for her nap each day.

    2. Hi Masha. Yes the pick-up-put-down method is an alternative but not necessarily gentler. It depends on the child and the age of the child. I find this works best for the newborn – 4-month old. For babies over 5-6 months and older, it is too stimulating for the brain and difficult on the parent’s back depending on the size of the infant. Children can learn this developmental skill at any time. I work with parents every day who say, “If I do this again I won’t wait for two years to get the family on solid and predictable sleep.”

      You hit the nail on the head. It does feel un-natural to listen and not fix in the night. Even more so than in the day. Let’s say your child wants another cookie. It is SO much easier to hold that boundary in the day time. But when the cookie is at night, and it is our breast or our bed, and our adult brain is SCREAMING to us to do what it takes to get the rest the body needs – all bets are off. It is much more difficult. As the line goes in G.O.T. – The night is dark and full of terrors. It feels more dire at night for many reasons. And yet the transformation I witness every day when parents “go towards the cry” is inspiring and moving to me. They go and offer acknowledgment, compassion and reassurance. They go into the tears with an emotional yet stable connection of warmth and confidence. Babies and toddlers are brilliant learners and they get two things fairly quickly. 1. When I fall the mattress catches me 100% of the time. 2. They are here for me. I feel their comfort and support and I no longer expect them to fix it.

      Sleep is such a foundational piece of our wellbeing and it is an act of self respect and self love. The body LOVES sleep. Even the little bodies.

  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!

    1. Hey Sarah,

      This is common and can become a new crutch wanting a check in from mom and dad. What can help is not making it any prolonged ritual.

      Remember your preparation. Talk to him about this scene in the night during the day honestly and openly. Tell him you will help him do it himself. Then do your dress rehearsal. Do the walk through of how it goes in the night and work with him on getting his own covers over his body. I have had families find great success with changing out the covers to a sleeping bag. Not a camping one but a sleep over sleeping bag. It can be easier for the toddler to negotiate that.

      I trust your intuition that he just wants a check in. Go back to your story and play scenario. Do the run through and tell him honestly – “I don’t want to wake up in the night so we will practice and then I am going to give you longer to work it out.” Approach this with confidence and a “yes attitude. ”

      If you need more let me know!

  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!

      1. Yes. This is beautiful!

        “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.”

        So honest, authentic and loving. He felt that and let go.

  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. 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.

      1. Yes Janet you got it. And also our babies have evolved along with us. But yes some of the babies instinctual drives are still present in the body. This is why we remain close, consistent and responsive.

  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.

    1. We don’t let babies suffer. There is a huge difference in struggle and suffering. If you are interested, I encourage you to read Dr. Allan Schore’s work on regulatory theory and affect regulation. Co-regulating and tuning into the child’s emotional state and actually “co-suffering” as you put it, absolutely makes a difference both emotionally and energetically to the developing parasympathetic nervous system. And throughout our lives this type of “empathic resonance” does make a difference in our ability to self regulate and co-regulate.

      Dr. Schore is the premier attachment theorist on this subject. And there is a HUGE difference in co-regulation than a mother ignoring the child by hiding in a basement checked out under headphones and wine. HUGE difference.

      And NO. In my experience a mother holding space for a dis-regulated child does not feel better about it. These lovely words of deep compassion do not for one moment disguise the deep work we do with the child in these moments. So I would say mom in the basement might be avoiding and I don’t know if avoidance feels better or not. It might be disassociation though. In mine and my clients experience, going towards disturbance is the opposite of disassociation.

  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.

    1. The time we listen depends on a lot. It depends on the age of the baby. And mostly it depends on the sound of the cry at the particular age of the baby crying. I teach a method that helps parents know when the “self soothing” mechanism is engaged in the brain.

      I love what you say here – “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 ignored because their way of communicating their want of help is not addressed/ met. ”

      This is why we actively DO something about it. The problem is at first, but only at first, it is not what the child has come to expect and they want us to fix it. Not fixing is not inaction. Not fixing and remaining present and supportive is allowing the child to learn a new more functional way.

      We never ever ignore a child. Children learn new skills and I have often wondered if we don’t all go through a moment of feeling somewhat “helpless” until we learn a new way. The helplessness soon (as in 1-3 nights) gives way to confidence, accomplishment and in regards to sleep that wonderful feeling of sleep taking us.

      So yes, we address their communication but we don’t meet their wants. We do meet their need to learn a self supportive way of doing sleep.

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