The Subtleties of Baby Sleep (4 Important Things To Know)

The word ‘sleep’ wakes up even the sleepiest baby.” – Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby

Magda Gerber’s assertion might seem far-fetched, but recent scientific studies (by Gopnik, Bloom, Spelke and others) are proving what Gerber understood more than half a century ago: our infants are astonishingly sharp and aware. They recognize repeated words, read our subtexts, sense our feelings and attitudes. Through my years observing infants and toddlers, I’ve noted that they are even inclined to resist anything they perceive to be our agenda, especially if they sense us selling it to them.

Magda recommended replacing ‘sleep’ with ‘rest’, partly because ‘rest’ is a little gentler, less demanding. Also, for many of us, ‘sleep’ can have a vaguely negative connotation, which we can end up inadvertently conveying to our children. Consider some of the phrasing we commonly use like “go to sleep”, which sounds a like a banishment, and “fall asleep”, which sounds precarious (and potentially painful).

Babies can become unsettled and resist sleep if our attitude towards bedtime is pitying, as in “poor baby has to go sleep”; when we’re anticipating a battle, “uh-oh, this is going to be trouble”; or even when they sense our impatience, “you’re tired, so hurry up and go to sleep already!”  These attitudes make it far more difficult for our baby to do his or her job, which is to relax and let go enough to let sleep happen.

The most important thing to know about sleep is the most important thing to know about parenting in general: Babies are aware and competent whole people. They are listening, noticing, absorbing, primed to learn about us and life through our every interaction, no matter how subtle, whether we want them to or not.

With this truth in mind, here are a few other important – albeit subtle — things to know about babies and sleep:

1. Babies are easily over-stimulated and overtired

It’s easy to underestimate the hyper-sensitivity of very young children, but remember – they haven’t developed the filters we have. Imagine your sensory volume switch cranked waaaayyy up all the time, and there’s nothing you can do to turn it down or tune anything out. While this hyper-awareness is what makes babies phenomenal information gatherers, it also means they become overstimulated in environments we’d consider quite manageable. And overstimulation and overtiredness can mean crankiness, whining, crying, difficulties both falling asleep and staying asleep.

Being an aware baby is exhilarating, but also exhausting, and overtiredness can happen easily (I seemed to miss this often as a mom, myself). I often remind the parents in my classes how ultra-stimulating and tiring the ninety minutes we spend together each week are, even though our classes are relatively relaxed and quiet. But babies are absorbing the space, the energy of all the people, while also developing their motor, cognitive and social skills through self-chosen play. For them, it is exhausting!

Encouraging restorative shut-eye means keeping our eyes open to the threat of over-stimulation and overtiredness and catching the sleep wave early. Some of the early signs of tiredness include slowing down, a lack of coordination and a slightly dazed appearance (which actually sound a lot like me at the end of the day).

2. Babies appreciate routine and develop habits readily

Our choices as parents define ‘life’ for our babies; we teach them what to expect, and they will usually want to continue doing what they know (which makes sense, considering their new and often overwhelming world). So although sleep routines and preferences are individual to each family, they all have the tendency to become habit-forming.

One example that comes to mind is an infant I worked with who had become accustomed to sleeping while carried by her mum in a sling. The family ran into difficulties when they tried transitioning her to sleeping in a bed, because she had learned to sleep with her legs elevated, and also to fall asleep while nursing. When the parents tried to place her in a bed asleep, she would soon startle herself awake again as she felt her legs drop down onto the bed. The parents eventually consulted a sleep expert who offered them a new plan, which included placing their baby in bed while she was still at least slightly awake, turning her towards the bed initially so that she could see where she going before they placed her on her back. They then allowed her a few minutes to settle.

I’m hoping no one reading will misinterpret this as a suggestion not to ever nurse infants to sleep or allow them to catnap in a carrier or in our arms. My advice is simply to keep in mind that our choices have an impact, because the conditions we create can become habits that can then become our baby’s “needs”.  While some babies will naturally transition out of some of these habits, others will find changes more difficult.

3. If changes in routines need to be made, communication and respect are imperative

As much as babies prefer the predictable and familiar, they are also capable of adapting to the changes we deem necessary, as long as our expectations are developmentally appropriate (in other words, we should not expect young infants to go all night without feeding, etc.).

I personally dislike the term ‘sleep training’, not only because it sounds unnatural and forced, but also because transitioning to healthier sleep habits is actually the opposite of training — it is more like un-training. We are respectfully un-training the children we’ve trained to be lulled to sleep by our rocking, bouncing, carrying and car rides. We are respectfully un-training the children we’ve conditioned to fall asleep (and for some only stay asleep) on the breast.

Our competent, aware babies can make these adjustments with a minimum of stress if we establish a respectful, trusting relationship by:

Developing a communicative relationship

The sooner we talk to our babies as if they can understand, the sooner we’ll recognize that they do understand.  For example, when we regularly ask our baby, “Are you ready for me to pick you up?” (rather than swooping her up). And then we wait for her response and if a “yes” is indicated, we acknowledge, “Okay, I’m going to pick you up now.” We begin to notice our baby tensing her body a bit in anticipation of being picked up. Eventually, she’ll lift her arms towards ours.

Informing babies simply and honestly about changes we are making

“After your bath we’ll nurse and then I’ll sing a song while we snuggle and take you to your bed so you can rest. Usually we rock and rock, but tonight we’ll snuggle and then say goodnight in your bed.”

Supporting, accepting and acknowledging feelings (while doing just a little bit less, like holding our baby without rocking them, rocking more gently, or caressing them in their bed)

“You are upset. This feels very different, I know. You are used to rocking. I hear how upset you are. You are having a hard time relaxing, but you will soon.”

4. Sleep requires letting go 

Establishing healthy sleep rhythms for our cognizant babies means creating the conditions and adopting the practices that make it easier for them to let go of their fascinating world at bedtime. Our calm presence helps them to let go of stimulation, stress, excitement and other emotions they may have stored that day (or morning). For our babies to let go, they need us to let go, which means bedtime is never a good time to express our worry, frustration, anger or engage in battles about sleep (ever tried to go to sleep wound-up or upset?).

Predictable bedtime routines that we repeat each day help babies learn to gradually let go and anticipate sleep, perhaps even look forward to it (well, that might be a stretch), as do soothing stories and lullabies.

In her book Your Self-Confident Baby, Magda Gerber shares, “A nice bedtime habit to start with our child is to recapture the day. You can say, for example, “Today we went for a walk and it rained. We came home and had lunch, etc.’ What we think is unimportant is important to a child – what she ate, where she was, and who she saw. Recapturing the day is a way of giving her security. She then carries the good feelings of the day into bed with her. You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, the present, and the future, and gives her life a connected flow…”



“The Subtleties of Baby Sleep” is included as a chapter in my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

Recommended resources:

Helping Your Baby Get the Sleep She Needs by Magda Gerber,, and Magda’s books Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect

The Rhythm of Sleep by Vanessa Kohlhaas, Deep Breath of Parenting

RIE From the Start – 2 Simple Things You Can Do to Support Baby by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

6 Little Secrets of a Sleeping Baby by Alice Callahan (and the many other science-based sleep articles Alice shares on Science of Mom)

Eileen Henry’s articles (and my own) in the sleep section on this site






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

  1. “I’ve noted that they are even inclined to resist anything they perceive to be our agenda, especially if they sense us selling it to them.”
    This is very much my son! Not related to sleep, but this is why we backed way off of potty learning.

    1. Yes! This seems so related, for me, to the topic of the other day, when Janet was talking about how distressed children can “hear” our agenda when we are attempting to coax them to calm their emotions, even if the words we say are not explicitly about that.

  2. Jessica Isles says:

    Im such a huge fan Janet! You are so insightful and I recommend you to so many mum’s. Regarding the rocking, cuddling, nursing to sleep etc you mention that we need to untrain our babies from that expectation that we as parents have created. However, from what I have gleaned from my shallow dabbling in anthropology, human beings are genetically programmed to seek proximity as infants – this is a survival mechanism. This is why they do settle in parents arms, or with movement or nursing etc – they feel safe and their genetic needs are being met. From what I understand, by meeting those needs one is just being human. As the baby gets older, bigger and more capable of survival the need for such intense proximity gradually lessens. We can of course hasten that journey towards greater independence and there are wonderful ways of doing it as you list here. But knowing that is our genetic heritage might help. Thanks again for all your wise words.

    1. Jessica, you are so kind, thank you! And thank you also for your intelligent comment.

      To be clear, especially because sleep is such a controversial topic, I did not, would not ever say, “parents need to un-train their babies…” That is not my interest or any of my business!

      However, many, many, MANY parents come to me (and to the other parent coaches and sleep specialists I know) because they are having major sleep difficulties that, in my experience, could have been avoided if the parents had not unwittingly created sleep dependencies. I believe parents deserve to know this going in, because it is so much easier for parents and children if we work on creating the habits we want for our children from the beginning (whatever those might be). I also believe parents need to know that they can make the changes they deem necessary, if they do so with attunement, communication and respect. These were the points of this post.

      Regarding “genetic needs”, etc., I hope you and I can agree to disagree… because I do not believe that survival in primitive times and the development of healthy habits in modern times have much to do with each other. There are many things that happened to babies in those eras that I would not consider healthy, mindful or respectful.

      1. “They are having major sleep difficulties that in my experience could have been avoided if the parents had not unwittingly created sleep dependencies.”

        This exactly ^^ Rocking your baby to sleep, using white noise, using a pacifier etc, although effective in certain situations, can make things much worse. In my experience, your baby can become attached to these things and NEED them in order to go to sleep properly which can make things worse for parents. They can wake up during the night and crave the attention of being rocked back to sleep, listen to music etc.

        This is one of the best articles I’ve read on baby sleep in quite a while. Thanks for sharing.
        Andrea =>

    2. Yes, I also feel newborns and very small infants really seem hardwired to crave touch or the feeling of a warm human body next to them. It has a magical calming effect on them.

      There was a very interesting small study (and I’m so frustrated that I can’t find it again) by a doctor who worked with infants in an impoverished part in central Africa. This was an area with high infant mortality. He tracked a group of women with newborn babies for a year and split them into two groups: ones with babies that were “high need” and “colicky”. Cried a lot, did not sleep well and so on. The other group were “good babies” (how I hate that expression!) that slept well and did not fuss so much.

      He was so surprised a year later to find out that the mortality rate in the difficult babies group was very significantly lower than that in the easy babies group. I remember the numbers shocked me (ah if only I had them!). He theorised that perhaps what we perceive as difficult behaviour is actually good for survival when conditions are dire (these mothers were typically exhausted and with a lot basic needs not met) because the fussy colicky baby will keep the mother focused on taking care of him.

    3. I’m so inspired by your thoughts and words, your sensibility and sensitivity! And i wish i have read this earlier, because i started a sleep program for my son and i feel i wasn’t clear enough and communicative with him!! But it’s never too late to start right? But i have a question, what can i do to help my son relax if i feel he’s overstimulated? It happens a lot after his bath, he becomes so active that he refuses anything i try to do, from drying him up with the towel and applying his skin moisturizer to even dressing him!! Or even when he’s playing and then starts whining.. and it’s not nap time yet.. Thank you so much

  3. Loved this article. In addition to the books you mentioned, I recommend Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”. He makes similar points about transitioning, noticing early signs of overstimulation, and routines. Respectful communication starts from day one!

    1. Thank you, Jendi! I also appreciate Dr. Weissbluth’s book and recommend it more than any other sleep book

  4. I have been reading your site since before my babe was born. It has influenced me greatly in how we ineract with our daughter. Although I have conflicting feelings about being left alone to cry (we were never able to CIO) I know we need to move beyond our current sleep situation. My 14 mo daughter and I currently sleep on a large futon mat in her room just infront of her crib which has been lowered and one of the walls removed. For obvious reasons my husband would like me back in our bedroom. I lay with our daughter every night untill she falls alseep and sometimes need to go in a couple of times to soother her prior to me turning in for the night. When she doesn’t feel well she wakes a lot and wants to be in my arms while sleeping. This has happened a lot lately. I’m curious to see what your thoughts are about doing a slow transition to the crib (in steps) or if I should just rip off the bandaid? I am not willing to let her cry alone in her room. I’ve tried, and it does not feel right to me. The RIE way has helped in so many other situations with our daughter I’d like to apply this method to her her sleep as well.

    1. Taking everything you’ve said into consideration, I would do a gradual shift, but this will work best (and be kindest to your child) if you do it with confidence and certainty.

  5. Being that I often struggle with bouts of insomnia I know how important sleep is and how important it is to make going to bed a calm and comfortable experience for children. I have nursed my children until 2 1/2 years old and the transition from nursing to sleep and falling to sleep was a slow and long one, but nothing was forced and I did as was suggested here. I would nurse and then stop and tell them it was time to rest now. I assured them that I would stay until they were asleep. My daugther, now four, goes to bed quite well, I send her to get her bed ready (set up her teddies) and then I come and read her a story, not a picture book, but a novel, we’re about to start Black Beauty. I read one chapter and she is fine to fall asleep on her own after that. My son is still nursing to sleep but there are plenty of occasions where he rolls off of me before he’s asleep and just lays there watching me until his eyes close. It’s a start. I’ve never believed that going to bed should be a fight or a struggle and as long as you talk to your kids and they feel safe, proper sleep patterns are a possibility for both kids and parents.My husband doesn’t quite get this and whenever I have to be out of the house in the evening I usually come back to screaming and stressed out kids because he’s being trying to ‘force’ them to sleep – it usually takes me another hour to calm them down from this before they’ll sleep. I try to get him to read these articles but he isn’t receptive to them. But I will keep trying. Thanks for a great article!

    1. My pleasure, Heidi. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  6. Shirlene Murphy says:

    Hi Janet

    I am an early childhood teacher in New Zealand and currently working with infants and toddlers. We are inspired by the work of Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber as well as many other philosophies. I enjoy reading your articles and often share them with other teachers as a resource to develop our knowledge and understanding of infants and toddlers.

    I would appreciate any feedback you have around limiting children’s sleep times. We often have parents asking us to wake their child up after 45mins – 1 1/2hrs because they are going to bed late at night. Teachers feel uncomfortable waking a child from a deep sleep when they are obviously not ‘ready’ to get up. We have tried negotiating with parents and this works (sometimes).

    I remember reading a few years ago that it was a ‘myth’ if your child doesn’t sleep during the day, they will be tired earlier at night. However, i can’t seem to find anything in the sleep research about waking children up from daytime sleeps. I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on this issue, and maybe some ideas about how we might be able to share our thinking with our families without disrespecting their values and beliefs.

    1. Hi Shirlene! I’m not aware of any research about that, unfortunately, but I totally agree with your instinct to allow children to get all the sleep they (obviously) need.

      Thank you for your support!

  7. blueberrygirl says:

    Hello Janet, my son is 5 months old now. I just wanna ask if there is a specific time that babies need to be in bed? Like 7pm ( I mostly read that this is a good time to sleep) but what if he is not giving any signs of sleepiness yet, he usually naps around 5pm for an hour. Do we take the cue from our babies or can I put him to bed say 9pm so he can start to relax and rest. Grandad comes home around 8pm and wants some time with my son butI tell them not to overstimulate anymore.

    1. Magda Gerber strongly believed that an earlier bedtime (6:30 or 7:00) helped babies to sleep longer and more soundly… Most sleep experts agree.

      1. Do you have a medical study or research available to support that? Also, just like adults prefer to sleep next to someone, so do babies and toddlers. They re not gonna want to forever. Basically what you re doing here with this article is creating some imaginary standards kids should fit into and if not, they have unhealthy habits. From this particular text and your replies, Janet, we could deduce that for a baby to crave human affection and closeness is an unhealthy habit that neeeds to be conditioned. In fact, you want to induce the idea that controlling and conditioning every aspect of a child’s life is something that needs to be done for the child’s benefit, yet you speak of respect. CIO is not respect, Janet, how would you feel? Crying for attention from your partner and being respectfully refused cause it ‘s not good for you? By the way, there are studies that show CIO is actually detrimental to a baby’s development, but as an author that does their research, I’m sure you are familiar with them.

        1. You are making many biased assumptions and drawing false conclusions. There are a ton of studies out there about the importance of early bedtimes, and every expert you’ll come across recommends them. There are also many people (babies and toddlers included) who don’t sleep as well next to someone else. Comparing everyone to ourselves, assuming they like what we like, is seldom going to be accurate. Lastly, allowing a baby to express all the stress and stimulation they’ve absorbed throughout the day at bedtime is respectful, caring and loving. Squelching those feelings with methods like bouncing, overfeeding, etc., because we are uncomfortable is “controlling.” There’s always a reason children cry.

  8. Shirlene, I can’t believe that parents want you to wake the children up! I always found when my little ones were in daycare/nursery that the more they slept there in the daytime, the more they slept that night at home. It does seem a shame to wake a child from a peaceful sleep.

  9. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Janet. You helped cast a more positive light on the process of sleep learning. So needed when it feels like so many wonderful parents are divided on the issue. There is so much room to manuever between CIO (despise even using this acronym because it’s just not a helpful label) and nursing/rocking/shushing a baby to sleep every night throughout the night. Of course I am talking about after the newborn stages of development, however even a newborn when looked upon as a whole, competent person is capable of way more than we give him/her credit for. Thanks again.

  10. The Magda Gerber quote at the end is interesting for me because we accidentally started doing that (talking about what happened that day and what we were going to do tomorrow) about a year ago with our first son and bedtime became dramatically easier. I hadn’t realised that she had recommended it!

    I also found that when he was a baby, it helped when instead of thinking of trying to get him to nap, I thought of it as giving him opportunities to sleep. At least I would get less frustrated when he didn’t sleep.

    I do think though that there are some babies that just don’t sleep by themselves when they are really tiny. Having our second, I knew I was going to do all the things that you listed and had assumed that our first son had problems sleeping because I was so clueless. I was also so much calmer. But from his first night, it was clear that he found sleep really tough too and he slept in bed with me for the first five months. On the other hand I just hugged and fed him rather than rocking him etc. and gave him chances to sleep in his Moses basket/cot and at five months he suddenly went from not sleeping at all in a cot to sleeping through in it, whereas my first was struggling to even sleep in bed with me at the same point.

  11. I really got wound up about sleep with my first son and my energy fed his and he just was not a “sleeper”. I’ve since learned to read his signs and our new baby’s signs much earlier and helped to get them to bed before they are disoriented and overtired. There are times it’s impossible to meet both of their needs at the same time, but it’s SO helpful to see the signs and start the routine whenever they occur. With my first son I recorded waking, sleeping and eating on note pads to figure out his pattern. This time around I don’t have time for that and my baby is better off because I’m WAY less stressed about it. He sleeps when he’s tired. I see the signs and help him as necessary by taking him to our room and giving him his lovie and putting his ocean sounds on. It’s really night and day between the two boys in their sleep which could be temperament, but could also be the habits I taught.

  12. I am learning so much from your blog, which I found about a month ago. My 5 month old now plays happily by herself, and I’ve identified her struggling cry as she attempts to master new skills. Instead of picking her up when it starts, I’ll lay down next to her and make eye contact, to let her know I’m listening. Often, she starts laughing through her tears, and then she continues whatever she is working on. (And if not, I let her cry until it changes to her “help me” cry, which is quite different.)

    That said, we’re still really struggling with sleep. She has been fighting sleep since she was 3 months old. Being on the verge of sleep upsets her; even on the breast she often thrashes and whimpers as sleep overtakes her. I don’t mind nursing her to sleep, but it is no longer foolproof, and I do feel like I might be doing her a disservice by not allowing her to learn to fall asleep. Since finding your blog, we’re trying not to bounce or shush her to sleep, and the few times nursing her to sleep has failed since then I let her cry in my arms. It did not seem like struggling to me, it sounded like a cry of terror. Part of me thinks maybe she’s just not ready, and part of me feels like the longer we wait the harder it will be for her. Why is sleep so difficult?!

  13. Janet, I can’t thank you enough. It’s almost as if you’d written this article for me (we’ve had a rough few weeks)… and this approach is working wonders! Absolutely LOVE your work.

  14. Janet, I was so pleased to read Magda’s suggestion to “recapture the day.” It is validating to hear that what I did for years with my children and called “telling them about their day” was also recommended by her. Well beyond the infant and toddler years, this personalized version of story telling allowed me to share what I had noticed and gave them the opportunity to fill in the missing pieces about what they did when they were away from me. This simple little practice allowed them to bring closure to their day while keeping me informed about the things that mattered most. It’s a wonderful way to foster connection. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Thank you for sharing it here!

    1. Great to hear from you, Sandy! Thank you for sharing as well!

  15. I have a little secret to share first child (boy) was “spirited” “strong willed” whatever label you want to use, from the moment he was born (and still very much is)! he fought breast feeding, he fought being put in a swing in a baby bouncy/vibrating holder ..basically everything but being in my arms. I became what is labeled as an “attachment” parent ..I say labeled because it wasn’t my choice, I didn’t find carrying him around in a sling to be beautiful bonding experience ..rather it was exhausting and I would get hot and uncomfortable but I did it because my arms were killing me holding him ..and listening to him scream non stop was also killing me ..was it colic? unsure, but he was happy and not a cry as long as he was next to me! After reading all of the major books baby whisperer – happy baby – Ferber etc etc and trying to implement these processes of getting my challenging non sleeper to sleep ..after 6 months I threw in the towel and followed his cues ..and let me tell you the secret ..he did transition to sleeping on his own for midday naps and sleeping in a crib and sleeping through the night and finally me being able to leave him in his toddler bed alone in his room at night at 2 1/2 but if he had a bad night or was sick/teething I was always with him ..he trusted me and let go of me (slowly) when he was ready! It was hard and I did have to anniciate each transition and either it worked or it didn’t and I tried again late, but I let him decide ..
    You either stick it out for the long run or you require them to follow your schedule early is your decision

    1. This is much closer to respect than what Janet is trying to sell here.

  16. I have what seems like a high maintenance kiddo and i wonder if it’s my fault. Seems like a lot of attachment parenting expects me to carry baby 24/7 and give her 100% ofmy undivided attention.

  17. I would like more information on Nightmares and Terrors. My 10 month old son tonight awoke at 9.30 screaming as though he had experienced a nightmare. He was inconsolable. My husband and I both went into his room, cuddled him and comforted him, assuring him we would keep him safe and acknowledging that he had been upset by something, until he eventually was able to fall back asleep.

    I have noticed that during the week he has picked up a few new skills at the same time rather than over a period of time as he usually does. It seems as though he has experienced a major mental leap. Could this have been the reason for the nightmare? And did we handle it appropriately? I feel as though we did but I’m new to this… Thanks in advance for your feedback!

  18. I would love to help my 5mo sleep better. My first was a good sleeper from birth – self settling without crying for naps. I figured out when he needed to sleep and made sure it happened. Number 2 started off sleeping ok, but between reflux and personality abd various other issues. .. yeah. He’s mostly sorted now but I can see his little sister going the same way. I just don’t know how I’m supposed to do much to change it when I have to drive brothers around, keep the household running, and attempt some semblance of a life beyond the absolute basics of parenting. Some children seem to simply need a lot more touch to relax. It seems much less stressful to go with putting them in the ergo for naps so life can go on.

  19. This piece hits the nail on the head. My mother always said,”Start things the way you want them to continue.” This applies as much to sleep patterns as to everything else. So putting children to bed awake and allowing them to self-soothe and learn to fall asleep is essential.

    As stated above, babies and children thrive on routines. The one-year-olds in my home childcare reach for their cribs after story time as they know that is the next thing that happens in our day. It’s not unusual for them to cry a bit or do what I call “tired talk” – repetitive sounds like “nananananana” – before they actually fall asleep. All of this is normal and to be expected.

    Sleep is essential for ALL of us – including the grownups!

    1. Thanks, Denine. Your mother sounds like a very wise woman. My mentor Magda Gerber said something similiar… “Start well.”

  20. I appreciate this article, especially the part about how we caregivers inadvertantly create our baby’s “needs” by initiating habits.
    I must respectfully disagree with communicating long (more than two) sequences of events to infants. Please don’t rob them of their most wonderful quality: presence. Instead, Let’s practice supporting categivers in cultivating more mindful moments with their children. We can narrate what’s happening in that moment rather than predicting moments to come, “Do you see how gently the snow is falling? It’s blowing past the windows and covering the branches of the tree. We are so warm inside.”
    Thank you for your devotion to infants and toddlers!

  21. I watch for when my son (nearly 5mo) starts to rub his eyes and begins to look a little spaced out; that’s when he’s tired and ready to sleep. He fusses a bit before he falls asleep, but rarely does he cry in that heartbreaking fashion that says his world is falling apart.

    The phrase I use with him is “It’s sleeping time,” as it’s the start of the phrase I have always used with my pets (guinea pigs and cats mostly) – “It’s sleeping time for people.” I say it gently and in a matter-of fact tone of voice, and when I leave him I tell him that if he needs me I will come back. I rarely need to come back.

    I do sometimes nurse to sleep, but that is more often during the day for a nap and simply happens because he’s tired but also hungry, and so I feed him and he falls asleep as part of that process.

    At night he has usually eaten within the hour when he’s ready for bed, and I change him into his bedtime diaper and pyjamas and then we read our bedtime book and I sing the closing song from our baby music class and take him to bed. We do have a white noise machine, but he doesn’t really need it. (I do; I may keep it in our bedroom when I move the baby into his own room in a couple of months!)

    The one thing we don’t have yet is a set bedtime. I did a lot of reading about sleep and decided that I would keep track of when he sleeps (I was already noting when he ate so it wasn’t a big deal to add that) and set a bedtime when he’s six month old, basing it on when he typically falls asleep naturally. (Keeping track also will help me set regular nap times for him, in the same way.) That’s also when we’re going to start having him sleep in his own room. He already sleeps a good 8-10 hours most nights without needing to be fed (when he does need that, it’s a top-up and he cries in his sleep so it’s a dream feed that he’s asking for).

    I’ve been reading your site for just a few weeks really, and it’s been lovely as so many RIE concepts are things that I have been doing naturally with my son. I’m sure part of his contentment is just his personality – I think I have a naturally laid-back child – but part of it is likely due to his individuality being respected and the opportunities I give him every day for independent play (he loves his own feet and hands; we don’t have a lot of baby toys as he doesn’t seem to need much to be happy).

    A question: Do you think it’s possible to tell during infancy if a child is introverted or extroverted? I and my husband are both introverted, and the last two weekends we spent two days with my extended family, staying overnight at my parents’ the first weekend and at my brother’s the second. My brother has four children aged 7, 4, 3, and 4m (the youngest is a month younger than my boy), and my parents have two dogs. (My brother has a cat but we have a cat so that isn’t a big difference.) Both weekends, the day after we returned home, my son slept a lot and ate a lot. It seemed similar to the kind of recovery I need after I do something with a lot of people. I know babies are absorbing a lot of information all the time, I was just curious if you thought this would be more related to a sensory overload type of thing or just being introverted?

    1. It’s hard to say at this point. 🙂 I would keep observing and learning (and enjoying your baby!) with an open mind.

  22. Hi Janet,
    Thank you so much for your blog. I am a massive fan and I feel like reading your blog gives me all the tools I need to confidently parent.

    I was wondering if I could ask you. I am planning on soon working with my 10 month old following these tips to reduce her one to two hourly waking at night to be fed back to sleep. My question is, so she does eventually fall back asleep after her first wake up for the evening, then when she wakes again, do I feed her? Or do I just go cold turkey and try not to feed her at all? Or just allow one feed at say 3am ish? I know she doesn’t really need a feed as eats and drinks heaps and the night feeds are usually only 60 seconds. I’m so confused!

    Thanks heaps!!

  23. I’ve read the RIE perspective on sleep in several places now, and I can’t figure it out. It seems so at odds with everything else about RIE.

    My perspective is that as a competent, whole person, my baby is telling me exactly what he needs in order to fall asleep while feeling asleep. And my almost 5 year old tells me in words that he feels lonely and sad in a room by himself. Babies are very good at getting what they need, and we would be wise to listen to them, even when what they’re asking for is to be rocked, nursed, or cuddled to sleep.

    Like any other developing skill, the ability to sleep independently will emerge when ready, and it will be different for each child. If pushing the potty issue early is disrespectful and developmentally inappropriate, then why is pushing independent sleep okay? I believe that pushing for independent sleep before self soothing mechanisms are in place organically forces compensatory, and perhaps unhealthy, coping strategies to be used.

    I don’t think that mothers should be expected to be haggard and tired all the time, but a simple shift in perspective will go a long way. A baby who nurses to sleep isn’t settling into a bad habit; they are following a biological imperative to stay close to their mother, which ensures their safety while they are in a vulnerable sleep state. I think we need to at least acknowledge when we are imposing an arbitrary cultural expectation (independent sleep) on a biological imperative (social, safe sleep and the mother/infant dyad).

  24. Oops, falling asleep while feeling safe*

  25. Your opinions are based on assumptions that I disagree with and aren’t borne out by research. For example:
    1) infants are “most vulnerable” when they are asleep.

    Infants are no more vulnerable sleeping than they are awake.

    2) it is normal and healthy for a 5 year old to feel lonely at night.

    “Alone” and “lonely” are entirely different. A well adjusted child (which is the goal for most of us as parents) is comfortable in the company of others and also alone.

    “Lonely” is defined as:
    1. affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone; lonesome.
    2. destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship, intercourse, support, etc.

    We can condition children to believe that they are not okay alone, but is that really the set-up we want for them?

    1. I’d love to hear an answer to “ If pushing the potty issue early is disrespectful and developmentally inappropriate, then why is pushing independent sleep okay?”

  26. I’m wondering what your perspective is on this. My daughter wakes up after about 40 minutes (her first sleep cycle) at nap time. So all day she sleeps ONLY 40 minutes. She is grumpy a lot.
    Is this something I try to “fix” or just realize I am providing her with a consistent schedule, place to nap, routine, etc. and the rest is up to her?

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