A Toddler’s Night Waking – A Mother’s Anger, Guilt, Confusion (Response by Eileen Henry)

I am growing so angry and tired from lack of sleep. I didn’t mind getting up during the night when my son was a newborn, but he’s almost 14 months and we’re still up 2-4 times a night. Usually it’s 2-3. I have to rock him to sleep for naptime. It doesn’t sound so bad if all you know are other Attachment Parents, but most of my friends and family follow the Babywise cult and remark how needy my child is when it comes to sleep time. Their babies apparently just “went to sleep” when you lay them down at bedtime.

I have read through all the sleep articles on this website. There are good principles, but I am having trouble applying them. I know writing a simple “how to” is difficult because it’s about the principles, not the method. However, when I am in the middle of a crying session, I get so confused, angry, frustrated, anxious and guilty. In that moment, I feel like I need a “step by step” manual of how to approach it. I am tired of Attachment Parenting’s exhaustion, but I am not willing to just shut the door, trusting that all will be well.

Please advise me.  Thank you so much,


         Dear Susanna,

It is very easy for us mommies to look at typical and normal human emotion and think we shouldn’t have that lot of feelings around our children. I tell new parents, “Here is what to expect when you are expecting…expect to feel guilt…and a lot of it.” Then be kind to yourself and let it go. Be kind and share it with your other mommies and in your circle of support. And then be kind to one another and remind each other what an awesome job you are doing and that guilt does not serve any of us in this incredible task we have before us.

Confused, angry, frustrated, anxious and tired are the exact feelings that should rise out of lack of sleep. Sleep is 50% of our mental health and plays a major role in our total well being. We are human and we are modeling to our little human animals what this humanness is all about. And as far as I can see, the authentic human experience is pretty sloppy and messy. So, right on…you are human.

I love this….”It doesn’t sound so bad if all you know are other attachment parents, but most of my friends and family follow the Babywise cult and remark how needy my child is when it comes to sleep time. Their babies apparently just “went to sleep” when you lay them down at bedtime.”

It does seem that parenting these days has become a bit “cultish.” I guess I would rather look at it as a kind of smorgasbord (probably because I love food). And what if we could adopt an attitude of…I am going to take what I can use and leave the rest. Then if we see something that looks better, or different, or like something we would like to have in our own lives…we can find a way to reach out and grab for it.

You also got me thinking about principles and method. Which is it? And how are those two concepts different? So I thought I’d start with definitions and picked these as a start.

Principles – basic truth, law, or assumption, rule or standard, fixed predetermined mode of action.

Method – Established, habitual, logical, prescribed practice or systematic process that is used to achieve certain ends with accuracy and efficiency. It is usually practiced in an ordered sequence or fixed steps.

So I think we are using both here. I like method…I like scientific method…method acting….I just dig method. So much of what I do is to help families come up with a method that fits with their principles, and what they value as parents. Then I help them re-frame some of their existing ideas and see if opening up their hearts and minds to a new concept could help them attain a better end…an end to the day that involves sleep.

So, to come up with a list of “things to do” in the night…in the midst of this… crying/tantruming/”is this struggling or suffering?”/episode…is difficult to do. I would need much more information to give a set of fixed steps. It would be about the principles…about YOUR personal principles. And our beliefs are what limit us the most in this regard. This is probably the most unique thing about my program. I find where parents are limiting themselves and find a way to open their minds to new possibilities.

Developmentally I can tell you this — your child is well past the age of being able to learn the skill of falling asleep and returning to sleep unassisted. And there is a transition in this learning that involves some crying. And I do believe that it is a developmental skill, and that children can handle the struggle of their own development. And no parent ever feels good about shutting the door on their child’s disturbance and trusting that they will be o.k. And you do not need to do that to have success in sleep. It doesn’t matter how many times you go in to reassure your child…it is what you do when you get there. If you fix his sleep for him this is what he will expect you do every time. If you want it to look different…YOU will have to behave differently.

And that is bad news for many parents. Because the consequence of new behavior will likely create the very thing that they have tried to avoid all along…their child’s cries. And it isn’t because we are wrong, weak, or bad…it is because we are parents and we love them.

I hope this helps.


Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
Compassionate Sleep Solutions

There’s more advice and support from sleep specialist Eileen Henry in my Parenting – Sleep section.

(Photo by gingerpig2000 from the Flickr Creative Commons)


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

  1. IMHO, each child is different. My first was and still is a diehard cosleeper and slept through at 10 weeks.

    But my second was up every hour for the first year. I did lose my mind. Your anger and frustration are totally normal. You just cannot mentally or physically function effectively on that little sleep.

    At just about a year I couldn’t do it anymore – it was not in anyone’s interest to have me that sleep deprived any longer. Dad took over nightduty and, truthfully, he slept better. With me he wanted the comfort he felt with me. And he started to be easier to get down for naps. Now he actually is the toddler I can put in his room for a nap and he just goes to sleep. No real crying it out to have that happen (not that I have anything against any method – whatever works), it just all feel into place.

    Whatever you do, I hope you find a way to take care of yourself. It took me about 3-4 weeks to learn to sleep again, my body was that messed up. Good luck.

  2. Eileen and Janet, thank you so much for these posts on sleep. They’ve inspired me so much, and help me remember that allowing our children to struggle is ok. I’ve set up my younger son for much healthier sleep habits, and it’s been so good for our whole family. We’re still working with the older one (he’s almost 2 1/2), but we’re getting there.

    With every one of these posts I learn a little bit more and become a better mother.

    1. How did you set up healthier sleep habits?

  3. Oh I do feel for you, Susannah! I’ve got twins, and while one of them was pretty good about getting to sleep and sleeping through the night (around 6-8 months old), the other one was, and continues to be quite a trial!
    We do a modified form of Attachment Parenting (With my diastasis recti, I couldn’t carry two babies in slings at once!) And because my husband and I were so exhausted and sleep-deprived in general, we couldn’t co-sleep, because we couldn’t maintain the level of awareness in sleep necessary to assure the safety of the babies.

    The sleeper found her thumb at an early age, hence the ease in self-sleeping. But our non-sleeper refused to be introduced to her thumb.

    We tried Dr. Sears’ Baby Book, Elizabeth Pantley’s book (which I HIGHLY recommend – http://www.pantley.com/elizabeth/books/0071381392.php) which did help to some degree, but the girl kept waking several times a night. We even asked Brian, the cloth diaper delivery guy (and an Attachment Parenting dad) for advice, too!

    Basically what we found was that since my girl was on formula (my breasts were diagnosed w/lack of proper tissue development, and we tried herbal, medication, and pumping and had the help of the best lactation consultant in 3 counties),

    but she also had a mild milk allergy! So she would get very painful tummy pains which would wake her up (in addition to all the other reasons why she’d wake up – hungry, wet, poopy, lonely, gas). She also refused to drink other kinds of formula – soy, goatmilk, etc…

    So usually rubbing her tummy helped her fart out the gas.

    But as she grew older (and we did cave and get her a pacifier, just out of sheer self-preservation!) she kept the habit of night waking.

    We had our bedtime ritual (lasted over 40 minutes) of massage, aroma therepy, soft music, ladybug star projector, storytime and snuggles on a soft blanket on the floor, and the girls would fall asleep, and we’d shovel them into their cribs with their snoedel. (a soft lovey type object.)

    Then the nightmare began.

    Waking after waking after waking!

    By the time she was the age of your child, she was still doing it. And EVERY time she woke, within a minute, she’d let loose with a loud series of farts.

    She was also having a problem with constipation, which was also causing gas, too. Once we got her on babyfood, we noticed that after a successful pooping day, she woke less that night.

    My husband and I started taking turns around 2 years old, and she did much better, after she got through the initial adjustment that Mama was not exclusively at her beck and call.

    We’d cuddle her and then get her back into the bed. Then, when she learned how to get out of her crib, she refused to sleep in it. She would only sleep on the blanket on the floor.

    So we let her!

    It was also easier to lie down near her and not worry about rolling on to her!

    Eventually she was only waking 2 or 3 times a night, usually for wet or leaky diaper or gas or lonely.

    By 3 and a half, the girls got their ‘big girl beds’ and FINALLY my non-sleeper would sleep in a bed! But the waking continued.

    Then we discovered the Sleep Fairy. Basically if the child goes to sleep well and doesn’t call at night except for emergencies, they get a present from the sleep fairy under their pillow in the morning.

    Yes, it’s a form of bribery, but it’s easy for parents who get enough sleep to criticize, right?

    It had limited success. Both the girls went to bed a little easier, and the bedtime ritual was shortened to about 15-20 minutes, but the nighttime waking continued.

    By this time, the girls were adjusted to their beds, a recent move and short bedtime ritual, so we weaned them off the thumb (the thumb/sleeper went cold turkey voluntarily after we explained things to her) and the pacifier (the paci/non-sleeper, surprisingly also went cold-turkey and within a week was paci-free!)

    At this time, we tried reading books about ‘children’ going to bed and sleeping in their beds all night long. I recommend “Back To Bed, Ed!” about a mouse with sleep issues and his sleep-deprived parents.

    Still we were getting several wakings a night from the non-sleeper.

    Then we found the 1-2-3 Magic! system by Dr. Thomas Phelan.

    That was the key that turned in the lock!

    I got the kid version for my hubby, who didn’t have enough time for reading, and the regular (4th edition) version for myself, and filled in hubby on important bits).

    I so extremely highly recommend this book! It’s meant for disciplining (in an Attachment Parenting compatible way) 2yrs old and up, but the section on bedtime and sleeping might help you.

    Basically, you don’t pick up the child, you sit in a chair by the child’s bed, so you can still touch them, and you are near, but you don’t become a human teddy bear.

    Then as they get used to this, you move the chair farther away. Every so often you reassure them you’re there, if they need it, until they fall asleep.

    When they start potty training, they will probably keep waking, but Dr. Phelan says before anything, steer them to the potty, don’t engage them in conversation, or give them books, and after they do their business, put them back to bed.

    That’s where we are now. Our non-sleeper wakes at 3am and 6:45am like clockwork. Usually after potty, she wants some cuddleling and story, etc, but we use the chair method and she goes back to sleep.

    My husband and I take turns and we’re getting more sleep now, so I think we’re out of the woods.

    I hope this helped you. Remember, every child is different, and with all these systems, you might have to adjust and tweak them to suit your circumstances. But please listen to your gut mama instinct. You are attuned to your child, the person giving advice is not. And ultimately, you are responsible for your child’s well-being

    AND that includes taking care of yourself, so that you can be in relatively good enough condition to take care of your kids.

    So, one last thing: Our nighttime waking checklist: hungry? thirsty? poopy diaper? too much pee-pee in the diaper? tummy gas? butt gas? misplaced lovey/paci/thumb? lonely/scared?

    Trade with hubby, catch up on sleep when you can, friends/family who might not want to babysit, might be willing to sit with the child for an hour or so while you catch a nap in the next room. We even had a homeschooled teen from another family at church come and stay with us for a month or so, during the week, so I could catch a mid-day nap, and have help with the twins, as I was pretty much on-call 24/7 with them. We paid the girl $6 per hour she was ‘on duty’. (she had 4 younger brothers and sisters, so she had some experience.)

    Let the laundry pile up, use paperplates, just make more time for yourself to nap. You’ll get through this, don’t worry. And don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to modify your parenting choices just to survive.

    I’ve even had to walk out of the room sometimes and let the baby cry for a few minutes, just to pull myself together enough to keep going!

    Feel free to email me if you need to vent 🙂 lara at twiceblessedlife dot com

    Lara N.

    1. HumbledDad says:

      Wow. Just wow. What an incredible saga. But it sounds like you’re emerging, and your sanity’s intact. Best luck.

      Humbled. Dad.

  4. I think the most important thing is what “method” works the best for your child and family. This may be a specific method, your own method or any mix of methods! I wanted to do attachment parenting, but when my first child stopped sleeping, that didn’t work for anyone. It is the hardest thing in the world to hear your babies/children cry, but sometimes the hardest thing, may be the best thing for your child or family. Remembering that is what helps me. Only you can decide what is the best for your family. Hang in there, every child is different. My son was/is very strong willed and it was very hard and stressful with him, but he is 2 now and a much better sleeper. He still goes through times when we have to remind ourselves to leave the room or to not rush in to him. We have learned from lots of experience, that we make it worse the more we do this! Now with our 5 month old daughter, we have started good habits early, even though we have slipped with her too! She is much easier to get back on track. Hope this helps!

  5. I would just like to let you know of something that i have heard/read. I cannot remember where i received this information but will share it with you because it made sense to me. ‘Babies/children require your presence less in the night when they are held more during the day’.
    I have three children, the last two of whom i practised this theory on. Both of my youngest were held constantly during the day, and by that i don’t mean unrealistically constant. When they slept i would hold them until they were asleep and then put them down into there sleeping space, when we walked anywhere of short distance i would carry them instead of putting them in a pram, if they cried they would be held until they were calm again. I also co slept with my two youngest on my chest until they were ready to not do this anymore. It took my youngest about three to four months to want to be put down to sleep. My middle child was about six months old.
    I also made a point of holding my babies to get them to sleep, especially if we were out. I was often told i was spoiling my child, and saw the looks that i got from other parents who chose to let their child cry themselves to sleep.
    I don’t have a specific parenting method, i chose to just do what i felt comfortable with and what worked for me. Both of these children, now 3 years 4 months and 1 year 9 months, sleep well at night. At times the 3 year old will venture into our bed. And at different times our 21 month old will wake crying in the night. But i am rested enough for that to not be a problem. And i always respond swiftly trying to identify why they are waking. Usually it is because they are not feeling well.
    I would always try to remember that there is a reason that they are waking, it helped me to feel less resentful about a lack of sleep. Good luck with it, it can be hard, but stick with what you feel good about.
    P.S. I was almost sad when my children didn’t want to be snuggled to sleep anymore but am eternally grateful that i have children who sleep well.

  6. Thanks again Eileen – for your great advice and Janet – for posting !

    At our parents evening one mother had another great thought on similar problems with the sleeping (especially the falling asleep and going back to sleep unassisted) – while sitting there hearing your child cry just think “I am helping you to your own independence!” and I found this a wonderful thought. Don’t think about how you make your own nights and sleeping habits better and feel guilty that your child is suffering through this transition. Think about the support you’re giving your child.

  7. My son is 17 months and was a horrible sleeper. I was so miserable and going out of my mind. Sleep deprivation does crazy things to your mind. Anyway, at our 15 month check up our pediatrician recommended sleeping in our son’s room and each time he would fuss we were to tell him it was OK but not take him out of the crib. We did this for about a week straight and he started sleeping through the night. Every child is different and every situation is different but I thought I would share.

    1. Cheryl, what you describe is very similar to what we ended up doing with our son. After having two daughters who slept through the night towards the end of their first year and took 3 hour naps every afternoon until they were 3 or 4 years old, we had a boy who was very different. It was a struggle for years for him to sleep through the night and it took an hour to put him to bed or down for a nap because he needed us to lie down with him. He’s nine now and still occasionally asks me to lie with him while he falls asleep…and I love it.

      1. Melissa Burke says:

        Janet and Cheryl,
        I just started to sleep in my boys room. They are almost 3 and 5.5 and both wake at night with new and renewed fears of the dark. I worry about this being a crutch but I can’t sit in the rocking chair 5 times a night anymore and if we leave them they get up or scream. This seemed like the only solution we could all live with. I don’t get up with them I only talk to them to assure them I’m there and let them know they can sit up for as ling as they like and sip water if they want. They have been laying back down within a few minutes. This is the first time I have felt like I am taking care of them and myself at night.

  8. Hi Janet, these are the words I needed to hear. I am in the process of figuring out how to get my 9 month old to go to sleep unassisted without just leaving him to CIO. There have been some tears but I feel that being with him while he cries for the first part of this process has been what I needed to do for both of us. The guilt I felt just leaving him was unbearable and damaging to my self perception as a mother/responsive parent to my child. Raising Children reveals our fears, I’m glad I took this challenge on. Thank you for your words of acceptance, and reminders to drop the guilt. we need to step past that. I’m taking my first steps in that direction and I feel like Ive learned something valuable in the process.

  9. Janet,
    My daughter is 32 months old and has probably slept through 30 nights in her life. She has fought sleep since the very beginning. I can’t stomach the crying it out method, but my health and sanity are suffering from over 2 1/2 years without enough sleep.

    Lately I have felt exactly as another reader: during trying moments with my girl, I am either Mary Poppins, or an angry mess. Most of our trying moments involve sleep.

    Eileen really hit a chord in the method section of this post. “It doesn’t matter how many times you go in to reassure your child…it is what you do when you get there. If you fix his sleep for him this is what he will expect you do every time. If you want it to look different…YOU will have to behave differently.”

    Our current system involves an elaborate “tuck in” that she is competely dependant on. Her feet are wrapped up, her stuffed animals are placed just so, etc. She is extremely dependant on this set up and all of her night time antics are about needing to be re-tucked in. I am curious how to gently remove this ritual and ride out the storm that follows.

    1. Hi Alexa,
      I think the answer is to open up your arms to the storm. Accept it without fighting it or trying to fix it and it will pass. That is your only responsibility. The storm is not your responsibility.

      This “dependency” is not a need, it is a preference that isn’t serving your daughter or you…and a test to see how far you can be pushed. So, explain what you will do, “I’m going to tuck you in the special way you like it and say goodnight. If you come untucked, don’t worry, just go back to sleep. I love you.”

      If she comes untucked and freaks out, allow her to, while you acknowledge, “You are so upset about not being tucked in. You are a bright girl and I know you can find a way to get cozy and go back to sleep.” Your confidence and calmness is essential to your daughter’s ability to let go of this struggle with you… which is what she will need to do to be able to fall asleep.

  10. Hi Janet,
    We’ve been having some tough nights with our two-year-old too. I’ll be trying some of the advice here – we would love if she’d sleep in her own bed (four in the bed is very squishy) and if we didn’t have to be going to bed too when she does. (She is used staying up til we go to bed and has a hard time relaxing if one of us is still up.)
    But I have a question – our baby is a month old and we’ve been putting off this transition so she doesn’t feel “pushed out” of the bed and our presence by him. How long should we wait? Or should we have at all? Thanks!

  11. You have all sorts of stuff about them being mad, but what about me being mad??? Me showing my emotions? Didn’t you say that I don’t need to be “happy” all the time?? I just got a little mad and asked if he was okay and he told me he was scared (not a lot, I think). I said I’m sorry–but do I need to apologize for my emotions, really? Can we get a post on this please??!

  12. Janet, I’ve read all your books and absolutely love your sound advice. However, There is one singular issue that I have with REI parenting and it’s allowing CIO. I remember very clearly being 5 or 6 months old in 1979, in my dark room, in my crib, scared and alone and crying for my parents to come get me. The sadness and abandonment I felt when I realized they weren’t coming back to pick me up was so strong the memory became a conscious one when I was in my 20’s! My Dad told me recently at 40yrs old, that they used the Ferber method and I cried a long time.
    I feel sadness for other babies when I know their parents let them CIO. And, it really doesn’t seem right in our maternal senses. I guess my perspective.
    Interestingly, I have a 2.5yr old who is a terrible sleeper. I spend hours trying to get her down for naps. It would be a lot easier to just let her cry but I won’t allow it.
    I would love to know what you think about my experience and a baby/toddler feeling this? 🙂

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