How To Help Your Baby To Sleep (Without Rocking)

Hi Janet,

I am an ardent follower of your blog and always look forward to your posts!  My name is Mandy and I am a stay-at-home-mom to an 11 month old son who is extremely intelligent and aware.  He is able to play by himself for long periods of time and is generally a very happy little man.  Unfortunately, we have had some major sleep issues since he was 3 or 4 months old.  He typically needs 3 – 4 naps per day, each nap only lasting about 1/2 an hour, and about 12 hours of sleep per night.  But, the only way to get him to sleep is by rocking him to sleep (it can take anywhere from 15 -90 minutes each time), and he wakes up at least 3 times per night.  He loves to be held and if I hold him he sleeps much better.  My question is this: how can I help him become a better sleeper?  Should I let him cry it out (even though last time we tried he ended up crying for over 4 hours)? I have tried everything, what should I do next?

Thanks so much for your help and insight!

Sincerely,
Mandy

Hi Mandy,

Your boy sounds like a great guy! Let’s try to help him find sleep a little more independently.

For the first several months most babies sleep the way you describe (waking in the night for feedings, short naps, etc.). It sounds like you might have tried to make sleep happen a little more quickly and easily by rocking your boy, which created a habit. Most of us do some version of this with our babies, especially firstborns. We feel like it’s our job to make our babies sleep, when actually our job is to create an environment conducive to sleep, then patiently allow it to happen.

You can definitely help him break this rocking habit without leaving him to cry alone, but as with any change in routine, there will probably be some crying and struggle involved. Here are some things you might try…

The basic plan
Make a commitment to do a little less than you are doing and allow him to do a little more. Start with naps, and after a couple of days, transition to the new routine at nighttime, too.

Helpful ingredients
Fresh air, unrestricted free movement and play (those long periods of play are wonderful and even better when they happen outdoors), predictable, peaceful, slow-paced days, taking care to protect against overstimulation — all contribute to healthy sleep. Try to sensitively watch for early signs of tiredness (for some children it’s a dazed expression), because over-tiredness can cause resistance to sleep.

Prepare
First, tell him what you will do and acknowledge the changes. “Today for nap I will stay next to you until you fall asleep. Usually I hold and rock you, but now I’m going to let you relax while I stay next to you. It’s going to feel a little different.” Keep the rest of his bedtime routine exactly the same. For example: a bath, nursing or bottle-feeding, a story, a song, closing the shades or curtains, turning on a music box, etc.

At bedtime
Instead of rocking, just touch if he seems to want that.  Lie next to him if he’s in your bed, or sit next to his crib and be there supporting him, speaking to him soothingly while he settles into sleep. It may be rough the first few times you try this. Calm yourself so that he can be assured that all is well. The first minutes of crying are usually discharging excess energy. If his crying escalates, acknowledge his feelings. “You’re having a hard time calming down.” Some children find it easier to let go and relax if you leave the room, but if your instinct tells you otherwise (or the baby’s cries escalate), stay. If you do leave, be sure to tell him, “Have a good rest, I love you, I’ll be back if you need me.”

Remember to think of this as a very positive journey you are having together, because it is! You are helping him learn something really important — the skill of falling asleep independently. And that means when he stirs at night and wakes a little (as all young children do), he will soon have the confidence and the ability to find sleep again, rather than becoming fully awake and needing your help as he has been doing.  The key is to trust your boy to learn this skill and refrain from interference that conveys to him that he can’t. Project confidence.

“Remember, nobody can make another person fall asleep. How to relax and let sleep come is a skill your child, like everybody else, must learn all by herself.”Magda Gerber

Results
Once you’ve found a rhythm he will sleep better, and you will sleep better. I’ve seen this happen with families in my classes many, many times. It’s like a miracle. The baby comes to class a different person, plays for longer periods, copes better, and is far more relaxed and focused. The parents are ecstatic and a little stunned, finally remembering what it was like to function with a decent amount of sleep again.

Please let me know what you decide to do and how it works out…

Thank you for your kind words about the blog!

Warmly,
Janet

Please look here for more responses to parents’ questions about sleep. Most were contributed by sleep specialist and RIE Associate Eileen Henry.

(Photo by Stacy Lynn Photography on Flickr.)

91 Comments

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

    1. “Sleep is developmental like walking or talking.” I agree, and this is a natural development for fetuses in the womb. In that warm, cozy environment they fall asleep themselves and even self-soothe by sucking their thumbs.

      Then they are born and, rather than creating an optimal environment that would allow them to settle independently as they did for all those months in the womb, we might try a variety of techniques to get them to sleep. Subtle assistance makes a lot of sense, because infants are required to adjust to a brand new environment. They need some help. But most of us fall into using strategies that aren’t so subtle, because, ideally, we hope to make sleep happen without our infant making a sound. Any small transitional feeling the baby expresses can be too uncomfortable for us to hear. We worry and project that any cry or complaint indicates feelings of intense pain or abandonment.

      Then those techniques we’ve used become ingrained as habits. They become our babies sleep “needs.” That’s the only way to explain why some infants “need” to be rocked or shushed or bounced on balls or carried or can only sleep attached to a nipple and yet others don’t have anything even close to resembling those needs. These are parent-created needs. With all our best intentions, we train infants to unlearn the natural falling asleep ability they once had.

      It IS respectful and loving to help an infant or toddler to relearn the healthiest, most natural way to sleep, but only if we do this with honesty and a whole lot of communication (which infants DO understand — research is finally now proving that), and if we welcome their disagreement with these changes, which they often express by crying. They have a right to say “No, I don’t like this… It’s different!”

      You obviously have every right to disagree and choose different methods, but this way of perceiving infants — as capable people and communication partners — is integral to Magda Gerber’s approach. Everything I teach stems from this basic perception.

      1. Babies in the womb are not putting themselves to sleep or falling asleep unaided. They are being rocked as we move and walk, they hear the sound of our heartbeat, fluid moving and wooshing by them, all of which helps them fall asleep. Any pregnant lady will tell you that when she lays down the baby wakes and starts kicking. That is why rocking and white noise are such a great tools for newborns and young infants.

        Putting oneself to sleep is totally different. It is the process of consciously winding down, relaxing the body and closing your eyes until you fall asleep. Young babies are developmentally not ready for this. They Fall asleep, they don’t Put themselves to sleep.

        I make this point only because I see parents of very young infants (6 weeks sonetimes) wanting to teach “self soothing” and those little brains & bodies are not ready. Just read up on the 4th trimester to understand that.

        1. Aimee, if all sleep was as limited by developmentbas you claim, it simply wouldn’t be possible for some babies to sleep through the night very early while others do not. And yet many do.
          Heather, the theories you are referring to pertaining to the 4th trimester are popular but completely unproven. Harvey Carp essentially made them up based on anecdotal experience. For example, studies show that that the methods outlined in the “5 Cs” are no more effective than any other traditional methods of soothing. It is wonderful if they work for you but they might as well have been written by your grandmother.
          Both of these critical comments completely miss the point of respectful parenting: it is to respect the baby as an autonomous human being. Babies do learn to self soothe on their own from birth, it is actually we who teach them negative habits. We are the ones who swaddle them obsessively and stick pacifiers in their mouths and shush loudly in their ears. Janet is simply saying that if babies are given the space and the right supportive environment, they are capable of accomplishing much more than often given credit for.
          Regardless, the question that Janet answered was about an 11 month old, not a 6 week old or a newborn.

          1. avatar @healingparenting says:

            “We are the ones who swaddle them obsessively and stick pacifiers in their mouths and shush loudly in their ears” – yes, all of that might not be respectful or needed, but it is respectful to follow babies ques. It is natural to nurse to sleep and it is natural for a baby to nurse while sleeping or to help him transition through sleep phases by nursing or by being nearby. I agree that we don’t need to rock them, but for the first months, most babies do want to lay down ON their mother or father and feel that warmth of another body, to hear a heartbeat and relax that way. And for most parents, it is also what they want and needs.
            If your baby doesn’t breastfeed then you can hold her or lay down next to her. But to leave her to cry and to deny her needs? ..

            My son is 2yo now. Almost all of his life he went to sleep by nursing. At some point I used to bounce on a ball with him or rush into any sound I would hear while he was sleeping/waking up and I wouldn’t do it now, I would give him some time to fall back to sleep if he was not crying (I didn’t fully follow RIE back then).
            I loved to have him close to me in a baby wrap and go for long walks in the forest while he slept peacefully. At 2yo he still wakes up during his sleep and calls for me. But he knows when he wants to go to sleep, he knows his body, he goes to bed by himself and calls for me to nurse before sleep. One day he won’t need that anymore and he will sleep on his own with me or his dad next to him or alone – it will be up to him (and us). And that’s for me is respectful parenting – to respect his needs, not to leave him to cry by himself and force self-soothing.

      2. A baby is not independent in the womb…! However they do have an ideal environment so aiming to create that out of the womb may be one way to help a baby sleep better. Those ways are species specific and developmentally specific. to carry, rock, breastfeed to sleep are species specific ways to help a baby go to sleep and stay asleep. They may not fit with our culture that emphasizes the importance of independence but they are the ways human babies sleep – we can fight against it but we must accept the consequences!

    2. I completely agree! I love janets advice on toddler discipline but telling a crying baby that you are leaving and will back when they need you is madness! They are telling you they need you by crying and they just see you walk out the door. This is sleep training and is disrespectful to the child. Children fall asleep independently when they are ready and it is responsiveness that breads this independence! Not walking out and the child learning no one is coming so they give up and get used to it 🙁

  1. If it is something natural, it does not have to be learned (or relearned). When the right time comes, the child will fall asleep on his own. I had to rock my boy to sleep when he was a baby but when he was developmentally ready he didn’t need assistance any more, without any teaching nor crying. Babies never cry for no reason. Also the acknowledgement mentioned is what the parent _thinks_ the baby is trying to communicate, not necessarily what the baby is actually communicating. If the parent is right, it means that he/she knows what can help the child and decide not to help nonetheless. It is not respect in my opinion. Babies only ask for things that are fundamental to their wellbeing. If the parent is wrong, the acknowledgement is not helpful at all.

  2. Heather:
    I’m a newborn care specialist. I can get any healthy baby sleeping through the night (10-12 hours) BY 3 mos using a no tears method. Any baby that is 14 weeks and/or 12 lbs does not need the calories at night anymore. So if a parent comes to me with a 5 month old that is still waking up 2x a night…its not from hunger…its from bad habits. Once those bad habits are stopped by the parents…it usually only takes 3-4 nights before the babe is having 10-12 hours of uniterrupted sleep.
    Also, from experience, the babes that sleep through the night at an early age…are the most well adjusted infants I’ve ever met.

    1. Angie , I would love to see the source of this claim you make – “ any baby that is 14 weeks and / or 12 lbs does not need the calories at night anymore “

    2. I’m glad no one let you care for my newborn Angie! breastfeeding is not only about calories!

      And I am 100% with the other gentle parents that posted her about sleep being developmental. It doesn’t require teaching and certainly no tears

  3. avatar Mom of twins says:

    Hi Janet!

    We bedshare with our twin girls and are trying to help them make this transition.

    I have one question, you say to lie next to the child and touch/lay a hand while falling asleep. BUT, what do you do if the child jumps up, walks off the bed, and starts moving about the room?

    Our girls have the freedom to do that, and this is where we get hung up. Rocking restricts their ability to leave, obviously. So I’m curious, what would you do in this instance?

    Thank you so much!

  4. This is an interesting conversation and I love what Janet says.”You obviously have every right to disagree and choose different methods, but this way of perceiving infants — as capable people and communication partners — is integral to Magda Gerber’s approach. Everything I teach stems from this basic perception.”

    I fully agree. If a parent believes that giving a crying child (6-months or older) a break, stepping away but remaining near to listen, and then returning to offer support, is in any way damaging then by all means don’t do that. Because what the child picks up are the underlying emotions of this parent. And if our underlying emotions are driven by thoughts of , “this is damaging”, “this is wrong”, “this is harmful”, “this will mess up my child,” then PLEASE stay. Please do not parent from a place of fear and worry. Don’t put you OR your child through this.

    The child in this post is an 11- month old child headed into toddlerhood. This little one has a lot of ability going for him. 1. He understands object permanence. So when mom and dad step away they do not cease to exist. He knows they have his back. Because they have done so for 11-months. He has solid consistent data. 2. He understands enough language and 100% of the emotional tone of language, facial expression and body tone to know he is safe and loved and no one has ever left him high and dry to figure anything out on his own with NO support. The idea that children give up and go into a trauma response or abandonment scenario/narrative is most often an adult projection. I have learned in my practice that this kind of parental narrative often comes from our own internal fears and un-metabolized wounds of childhood. Not all crying is some deep seated need. Some of crying is rising desire, the rising will force, impulse and wants. And yes we will respond to all of that as well. Because desires, will, impulses and wants are to be acknowledged, respected and reassured. We are saying that all of you is welcome here. And all of you can sleep safely and securely here. And to be the best humans we can be in this house, this act of autonomous sleep is an act of self-regard, self-respect and self-love.

    In this sanctuary of sleep we enter into some of the most delicious parts of our humanness. We go into the darkness, the shadow self, the subconscious and unconscious world. Ushering our children into this space with confidence is a gift that keeps on giving. I have seen this in my own children (now teens) and countless others. Sleep is the best free therapy we get and letting go with confidence and delight is a habit worthy of passing on as a family value. We create beautiful, loving sanctuaries to hold this precious and vulnerable part of our lives. The bedroom is a sacred space that holds us in this journey. As adults we sleep and make love in this sanctuary. The child sleeps and enters into the world of curiosity and creativity in the night. And in the day this loving space holds their joy of autonomous play and blooming creativity.

    AND if this looks like crazy talk then this method is not for you. There are other methods. And after creating and developing this field of child sleep for 18 – years people often come to me after other methods have not worked out. Because sleep like development is ever changing and emerging. At some point, like this mom with her son, many families need to find another way. One way, even my way, is not for everyone. And one way may not work at every stage.

    So what is a parent to do? Ask for help and find something that supports you and your “communicative partner” in making necessary changes to realize sweet, regenerative, sleep. It isn’t as freaky and fraught as you think. Like much of self care it just takes a bit of understanding, reframing and creative solutions. Sweet dreams to all, Eileen Henry, RIE® Associate and creator of Compassionate Sleep Solutions

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