If the sleep process is working like a dream in your family, there’s little reason to read on. And congratulations! But if you’re like many of us, easing your baby into dreamland isn’t always smooth sailing.
Here are three baby bedtime stories that may shed some light on your sleep issues and/or help you avoid difficulties in the future. One element they all have in common: a highly aware, attuned, open-minded parent willing to perceive her baby as a capable person.
I only discovered your website a few months ago, but your sleep advice is similar to what I did with my daughter when she was an infant (she’s 12 months now). It worked… for her and for me!
I was not comfortable using CIO techniques, nor was I willing to continually hold her while she napped in the day. I learned to interpret the messages of her various cries/grizzles and the difference between, “I’m having trouble but getting there!” and “Mama, I need you!!!” (or a third expression of hers that I have joyfully discovered: “I like to listen to myself before I fall asleep.”). Basically, I watched her, listened to her, and learned about her, and then I responded accordingly. I have to say, everything you write resonates with me both as inspirational and as an affirmation that I am on the right track as a parent.
Observe and listen
Learn to discern what your baby is communicating
I so appreciate Magda Gerber’s advice to “observe and wait.” I see it in action as I watch my young friend’s approach to sleep with her 10 week old baby. Sometimes she enjoys just holding him — her ability to tune into what he might need at any given moment, as well as what she might need is admirable! The times she decides to lay him down for sleep (she does so while he is still working on settling), she stands a few feet away and watches. He wiggles, sometimes calls out, looks around…and she waits and watches. About half the time he settles into sleep. The other half she can tell he needs more snuggle time and responds accordingly.
She has done this from four weeks of age on, and gradually his ability to settle himself has increased, as has the number of hours he sleeps. Sometimes “two steps forward, one back,” but always done with mama waiting and watching first. As a result, my friend has learned so much about her baby — really tuned into which wiggles and cries are calling her, which ones are not. His needs are being met in such a beautiful, calm way, and she does this with all his cries. If he begins to get worked up, she tells him what she sees: “It seems like you might be hungry,” then she waits and stays close…and lets him lead the way. It’s beautiful to watch!
(Alice Hanscam is a parent educator, coach, and online friend. I am a great admirer of her work with parents.)
Observe, listen, and wait
Learn to discern the difference between your needs and your baby’s
I only discovered RIE a few weeks ago after I heard you talk in Salt Lake City (which was fantastic, by the way), but I wanted to share a quick, enlightening success story.
I have a four month old daughter who has always been a terrific sleeper, but when she awakes in the night, she cries until I pick her up and rock her back to sleep. I’ve swaddled her since she was born, but over the last week or so I’ve gotten the feeling that she is done with that. Other “experts” would say to continue swaddling for many months, and honestly, I was dreading the transition knowing that perhaps many sleepless nights and tears might follow.
Last night at about 5 AM, I woke up to my baby freely and happily moving around her crib. She had busted out of her Velcro swaddling blanket! My first instinct (and what I would have done before my introduction to RIE) was to re-swaddle her and rock her back to sleep, knowing that would be the quickest way I could get back in bed. Instead, I took the swaddling blanket out of her crib, gave her a rub on the back, and left the room. Then I waited… And observed (on the video monitor)… And waited more.
To my complete surprise, she didn’t cry at all. I waited for nearly two hours (which felt like a century), watched her kick and flail her arms, until finally my baby girl rolled on her side, grabbed a bar of her crib with one hand, stuck the other hand in her mouth, and fell asleep. I was amazed. During that two hours I almost went in to “put” her to sleep numerous times, but I didn’t. And the pride I feel for her that she can now settle herself to sleep was worth the few hours of sleep I got last night.
Thank you for your continued inspiration. You make the parenting journey feel a little less scary!
Observe and wait
Try doing less and allowing your child to do more
Trust and believe in your baby
I share more about this respectful approach in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
Helping Your Baby Get the Sleep She Needs by Magda Gerber, magdagerber.org, and Magda’s books Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect
RIE From the Start – 2 Simple Things You Can Do to Support Baby by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding BabyThe Rhythm of Sleep by Vanessa Kohlhaas, Deep Breath of Parenting
The Difference Between Toxic Stress and Normal Stress by Eileen Henry (and everything else on her wonderful website Compassionate Sleep Solutions)
Respectful Sleep Learning Part I,II and III by Tiffany Gough, Tongonto.com
How We Learned About Sleep – The RIE Way by Vanessa, Tongonto.com
Eileen Henry’s articles (and my own) in the sleep section on this site
My daughter (2 months) is an excellent sleeper, but right now we are doing everything WRONG and I’m not sure how to fix it. I’m worried it will cause problems down the line.
She rarely falls asleep on her own- it’s either on the breast, or in the car. The car is sort of inevitable because I have to drive her brother to and from school. The breast seems equally unavoidable- how do you keep a baby from falling asleep while nursing?
I am greedy for sleep, it makes such a huge difference. I’m afraid to rock the boat. But I realize sooner than later she will be too heavy to move inside in her car seat, and eventually I’ll wean her. I’m just not sure I can bring myself to sacrifice sleep now to try and teach her to sleep without a crutch.
Meagan – you are not doing anything wrong. This isn’t about teaching her… it’s about tuning in, being open to possibilities, giving her opportunities, working on developing a comfortable, predictable routine with her.
I’d love to know what you recommend for a 2 yr old that keeps getting out of bed at bedtime. We have had to sit next to his bed since he went in to a big bed and to share a room with his 4 yr old brother. He gets VERY hyperactive and can sometimes take well over an hour to get down. We let him know he can read books quietly etc until he falls asleep but he just keeps coming out and it’s a game to him. We didn’t know of RIE in the early days of either of our children and struggle to know what to do now. Many thanks
And then there are the older babies and toddlers. From around 8-10 months – 3 years the gentle, stay present approach to sleep learning may start to unravel. This is mainly for two reasons. 1.) Your child’s cognitive abilities are more advanced. During this phase parents begin to notice if they remain present and in sight, their baby actually cries more. 2.) Your presence is more stimulating than settling. Congratulations your child likes you. Seriously. In fact your child likes you so much that your presence can produce endorphins in her brain. These wonderful chemicals are “joy juice” in the brain and not very conducive to sleep.
This is to be celebrated.
This is where coming and going to offer the child the opportunity to sleep and tuning in from outside of the room can actually reduce the crying.
The key at any age is preparation. Prepare the environment, prepare yourself and prepare your child.
We are still present. We are still close. We remain responsive, reliable and trustworthy. This begins to look slightly different for the older child.
Remember by this age your baby/toddler has much more data on your comings and goings in his/her life. Once infants are mobile they move out into the world with curiosity and joy. This is because they know good and well there is always a lap and loving arms to return to.
With confidence, love and respect we too can come and go from our child as she learns a new skill. And yes, night and sleep feels different. We are animals. We are vulnerable. All animals are vulnerable around sleep. Just because we have the whole shelter thing figured out, doesn’t make this any better for the mommy human animal. Alarms go off, they are supposed to, thus CIO is a deal breaker.
There are options at every stage of development. As illustrated in the three stories here, baby sleep does not have to be a nightmare.
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
I’ve been following RIE since my son was about 10 weeks and now he’s settling himself to sleep by himself all the time. Just one question from Adrienne’s story, which is similar to mine. My son is almost 10 months now and sometimes for his daytime naps he talks to himself for up to 90 minutes before he finally falls asleep. I usually don’t go into his room but sometimes I wonder-did I put him down for his nap too soon or is something else wrong (too hot/cold)? I’m normally quite good at picking up his tired signs and also take note of the time when he last woke up. But are you saying its perfectly fine to leave them in their cot alone while they’re awake and happy? I’m tempted to go in there and cuddle him or put an extra layer on him to help him unwind/relax so he’s not awake for so long before falling asleep.
90 minutes is an interesting amount of time. If the brain misses a sleep window (optimum time to go to sleep) it can take 90-minutes for the brain to be ready for sleep again. I am wondering if your 10-month old is transitioning to a later nap. If he falls asleep consistently 90-minutes after you offer him a nap I would recommend making the timing change in 15-minute increments. By consistent I mean, it takes him this long to fall asleep every day for two weeks or more. 10-months is a significant shift in brain development so I would give it some time to make sure that the timing of nap does indeed need to be adjusted. I would need more information on the other nap he is having and wake up to really make an assessment.
As far as temperature goes. Cooler is better (68degrees F). Check the core temp on the back of the neck, not the hands or feet.
Allowing a child the space to be separate, content and happy is great. However, he might be transitioning to a later nap time. Observe and make any changes to timing in small increments over several days.
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
Thank you very much Eileen for your informative advice. He stayed awake for 90 minutes for his morning nap yesterday and his afternoon nap today. For the last several weeks I’ve been trying to put him to bed close to 3 hours after he last got up but recently (especially if he’s been overstimulated ie I’ve had to take him out with me on an errand) he isn’t sleepy until 3.5/4 hours after he woke up. It seems like a transition period like you said and I’ll be prepared to extend his average wake time soon.
I know I fall asleep much faster when I’m warm but am weary of overdressing him as I dont want time to overheat/dehydrate and wake up earlier because of it. So try to keep his room and clothing not too warm, but I sometimes worry he’s a bit cold when he takes a while to fall asleep 😛 I can be a fine line I guess
Update! What seems to be working at the moment is a reduced waketime in the morning 2-2.5 hours and an increased waketime at lunchtime 3.5-4 hours. He settles himself down quicker and sleeps longer. I keep following his cues and change this to suit his needs as he grows.
My 19 month old was nursed, walked and rocked to sleep during his first year.after he turned 1 year he started talking himself to sleep once I nurse him (we co-sleep). But he needs me to lie down next to him while he talks himself to sleep. If I leave, he cries and follows me. How do I respond to this? He sometimes nurses,talks,again nurses,talks and it goes on for half an hour.
Right on, this is a great incremental approach that many co-sleeping families do.
The next increment would be that he falls asleep talking to himself with you out of the room. This allows co-sleeping families to put their child to sleep and go about their evening or day time activities before they (the parents) return to the bedroom for sleep (co-sleeping).
Often parents let the child fall asleep and then leave after the child is asleep. This can create a hyper-vigilance in the child, especially if the child is undergoing a natural phase of separation anxiety.
The fact that this process is only taking 30-minutes is pretty darn good. If this 30-minutes starts to take an hour or longer you may want to consider the next step toward autonomous sleep.
This would take much longer to lay out for you. It is three three fold preparation.
1. Prepare yourself
2. Prepare the environment
3. Prepare the child
Co-sleeping and bed-sharing families can enjoy quality sleep. It just takes a little more preparation, determination and patience.
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
Thank you, this is very helpful to me as well. We co-sleep with my 17-month-old son, but have been having trouble getting him to fall asleep as he gets older. He seems so ready– he comes and tells us when he’s sleepy– but it’s been hard knowing how to best support him in learning to fall asleep on his own since he no longer just drifts off while nursing. He also tends to wake up and cry every half-hour or so from the time he goes to bed until we join him.
Great sign of readiness that he comes and asks for sleep.
Most infants stop drifting off to sleep on the breast because they are ready to go to the next phase of more autonomous sleep.
It sounds like he is ready to learn the falling that it takes to “fall asleep”. It is similar to the falling of gross motor development.
The crying every half hour is also another sign of readiness.
Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
“Often parents let the child fall asleep and then leave after the child is asleep. This can create a hyper-vigilance in the child, especially if the child is undergoing a natural phase of separation anxiety.”
What do you suggest as an alternative? We are not co-sleeping but my almost 13 month old has, at various times, been able to put herself to sleep after our bed or nap time routine. Unlike these babies though my daughter has never been a “terrific” sleeper. She’s never slept through the night and regularly cat naps. That said she is usually fairly happy so I’m comfortable that she’s getting enough sleep.
We went through a recent rough patch of travel followed by illness followed by cutting four teeth. For two weeks she would only fall asleep if held, and I’ve progressed to letting her chat herself to sleep while I lie on the floor. I’m now most of the way out of the room and she usually falls asleep within 15 min of me setting her in her crib. This is the only way I’ve been able to get her to sleep in a manner that seems to be progressing in the right direction and still allows me to have a little down time.
I talk her through everything we are going to do and I do a pretty decent job of preparing her, so my next step is to prepare her for me to leave the room after I set her down. But I definitely leave the room after she falls asleep currently so I’m not sure what you would suggest I do differently??
Hi, this post is very timely as struggling with our 9 month old first baby. Always sleeps on the breast, very difficult to transfer to cot, I often had to nap with her. Nights got worse after 4 and 8 months (?sleep regression), wakes after every sleep cycle needing settling, then from midnight onward I sleep holding her in my arms. Tried transferring doesn’t always always work. Napping also becoming difficult, will mostly nap now if w walked in the baby carrier. Appreciate some advice. Thanks.
Thank you so much for these gentle sleep stories. All three demonstrate how sleep can be handled and learned by our infants. It truly is “on their own, with our help”.
This is why I prefer to call it “sleep learning” rather than “sleep training”. Janet I will quote you on this one. This process truly is about tuning in, giving opportunities, and being open to possibilities.
At this young age the parent can remain present and close at hand. The emotional embodied state is so important and remaining open to the possibility that the infant can and will master the skill of “falling” that it takes to “fall asleep” is key to the parent’s self regulation.
Removing the swaddle is key in this learning. The falling activates the startle reflex. If the swaddle is protecting this then more sleep learning will need to occur after the swaddle is removed.
I adored reading this stories. I have been pondering about the baby sleep issue a lot lately… and wrote a few illustrated poems about it in Spanish thinking they might help parents revert their mixed fillings about bably sleep. The negative approach adults might have towards sleep can be so easily convey to children! May be the first step to immporve infants sleep is to improve our perception of our baby learning one of the most important skills in life: how to let go… and fall asleep. Love, Fernanda
Thank you for those stories. I am wondering whether this approach also works for older babies. My son is 7 months old and I have nursed him to sleep at night since he was little. For the last two months I have been trying to feed him and then put him to bed. He then plays a bit with his cuddly toy and talks himself sleepy. However, then he always starts to cry and I need to start nursing him to sleep. He sometimes talks, nurses, talks, nurses, but will only fall asleep nursing. To me it seems that he is on the verge of falling asleep but cannot manage on his own. Any advice on what to do?
My daughter is older (21 months) but perhaps someone has some advice for me. She wakes up at 5am every day, regardless of when she goes to bed (usually between 6.30pm and 7pm) – even when we got back from holiday recently and she hadn’t got to sleep until midnight. I still breastfeed her in the morning and before bed but am wondering whether she’s waking for the morning breastfeed and I’d be better off dropping it? After I feed her, she won’t go back to sleep but she’ll happily read books in her cot for up to an hour. I’m worried that if I drop the breastfeed she’ll still want to be up at 5am but will then not be happy in her cot and we’ll all have to get up at 5am. (She still sleeps during the day for an hour and a half but if she misses this nap it doesn’t appear to have any effect on how much she sleeps at night.)
So I’m wondering whether some babies just have inbuilt alarm clocks for super early in the morning or whether I have created this situation??
Hello, i have a 13.5 month old boy who from early on has had a dummy to sleep. I rocked him to sleep when i had to but generally soothed him from outside the cot with rocking him with hands, kissing his hands singing etc.
But after a long overseas trip where he was ill and teething and needed the breast a lot for food (he stopped eating solids) and woke up continuously at night so slept with us and breast fed all night, and since he could then stand in the cot and now walks.. I tried for weeks to get him to self settle in cot and then took dummy away (perhaps bad timing) and then it was becoming so stressful that i started to breast feed him to sleep.
But i want to teach him to self settle. Hes getting a bit better at lying down in cot with me there by the cot but eventually stands and cries. And he wont settle with rocking in arms it has to be whilst breast feeding. Some say i should just breast feed him and when i go back to work next week or want to go out just let me husband use a bottle.
Others say let him cry for 5 min with me out of the room and go in every 5 minutes to reassure then leave fir 10 minutes at a time. But we hate haring him cry… It seems do wrong to leave him… I cant do this anymore. I feel i am doing a half half approach of trying in cot then eventually giving up after an hour and breast feeding him to sleep. Please help. What should my next step be??
He is still on 2 sleeps but i think he is transitioning to 1 perhaps as sometimes only 1 sleep and recently two 45 min sleeps, even in morning when he seems soo tired.
My husband and I co-sleep with our child, and unfortunately I think my habits have led her to become dependent on nursing to sleep. Since she was 8 weeks old, she has been a self soother and would easily put herself to sleep. I got into the habit of nursing in bed with her, because I’ve been a bit sluggish since going back to work. Now, at 7 months old – I have noticed that I cannot leave the room, even after she falls asleep – she senses it and becomes immediately hysterical. I even woke up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, and she instantly became agitated and started crying. Where do I start with correcting this behavior I created?