Helping Your Baby Learn to Sleep (Guest Post by Eileen Henry)

“Sleep is not always a problem to fix. There is a large part that remains a mystery.”

That comment from sleep specialist Eileen Henry nails the reason I find it far more challenging to help parents with sleep issues than I do all other aspects of parenting. Sleep is deceptive and ambiguous, and I am infinitely more comfortable with clarity. This is also the reason I often ask Eileen -– always fearless and gracious — to respond to parents reaching out to me with sleep questions like this one:

Hi Janet,

We have a 15 week old, and she has started to scream and arch her back and refuse to nurse when she’s tired and needs rest. She will scream at bedtime for a couple of hours sometimes and only stops when she’s brought from the bedroom into the living room, which makes me think she’s not in any kind of pain. It is exhausting and heartbreaking to see my baby so upset, and this reaction to bedtime has crept into the whole day — every nap and every time she’s set down she protests. Her naps are often very short, and she is not eating much during the day. I suspect she associates nursing with being put to sleep. 

Everyone is telling me to help her learn to self-soothe and go to sleep on her own etc.  

MY agenda is to get her to sleep, or even just put her down, so that I have a little break, and so she’s well rested. Its feeling like a battle already, my agenda versus her needs/will.  

I was wondering if you could shed some light on this. Is she too young to be really throwing a tantrum? I feel like she’s telling me she needs to be close and I should be giving her what she needs rather than trying to get her to do what I want. 

Thank you,


Eileen responds:

Aww. You are doing everything right. She is too young to be having a tantrum. She is not manipulating her environment or you. She is just waking up to you and her world.

It isn’t you. It is her brain. It is good news. She is waking up to a new stage of development. She is transitioning from newborn to the first stage of infancy. It looks like smiles, greater interaction, and greater awareness. Her brain is organizing. That is the good news.

The bad news is this: It trashes sleep. Or, at least, disrupts it.

More good news: It is temporary. She will move forward.

More bad news: Another stage of development will disrupt it ahead. Or not.

Sleep is not always a problem to fix. There is a large part that remains a mystery. And although humans love a mystery, we are not so fond of the one that leaves the unanswered question: When do we get some sleep around here? Yikes. That sends shivers up my tired spine.

She will sleep. You will sleep. Animals know how to sleep. She can learn the one skill it takes to sleep:

1. Falling

And she can learn the supportive emotional condition to be an autonomous sleeper:

2. I am safe and even content in separateness.

No hurry. No worry.

When you take her into the living room, it can have just the effect you describe. I call that a brain reset. It really does reset the brain. I recommend that if parents find themselves going down that rabbit hole (arched back and intense crying), just change environment. Walking outside (depending on where you live and the temperature) is a wonderfully soothing reset. Give her a moment to soothe and then go back in the bedroom. Do a short sleep ritual and see if she might be calm enough to settle into sleep.

Yes, you can help her learn to self-soothe. And yet her brain is just now coming into the ability to do so. At this age it is an incremental learning and therefore we take an incremental approach.

Your agenda is a worthy and loving agenda. And you will have what you wish. She just needs to settle into her new and improved brain.

I recommend for now just holding her close and easing off a bit. Naps are all over the place at this stage. If we get into this emotional state of “chasing the nap,” it will only frustrate you.

The incremental approach that goes with developmental ability is this:

  • You are working toward your baby learning the skill of “falling” that it takes to fall asleep.
  • You are working toward 100% of her sleep being done this way by the time she is between 5-6 months.
  • This means by this age she can go from sleepy to asleep in her sleep place without you fixing the falling for her.
  • She can have three naps a day falling asleep in this way without you nursing, walking, or rocking her down.
  • She can learn how to do this for all of her sleep over the next few months.
  • There is no rush really. (Go ahead. Take a deep breath. This will help both of you in self regulating and self-soothing.)
  • She can learn this and still have a feeding or two in the night at 4-5 months old. This is called a focal feed. This feeding is based on the authentic hunger and need for food in the night at any given age.

Isn’t she remarkable?

So are you.

I hope this helps you relax. You will not miss some magic window of opportunity. The window opens slowly and over time.


Eileen Henry, RIE Associate

You’ll find more sleep advice on Eileen’s truly helpful website and also HERE in my sleep section.


(Photo by Björn Rixman on Flickr)


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

  1. Any suggestions for a 7 month old who will only sleep while being held at nighttime? If I try to put him down at all he starts crying and wakes up, but as soon as I pick him up and hold him close he falls right back to sleep. We all had the flu last month so that got him used to it and now I am not sure how to transition him into sleeping by himself again. Any ideas are appreciated! 🙂

    1. Stacy,

      Yes, once you rule out reflux and you are all over the flu, then perhaps you can return to the way it was before.

      Preparation is key. Talk to him about the way sleep was before everyone was sick.

      If you could put him down to sleep then and he could drift off to sleep on his own, this means he can do it again.

      Show him this in a walk through and move ahead. It is a weaning process. Not off of the breast but off of your body.

      Eileen Henry, RIE Associate

      1. Hello,

        I am having a similar problem with my two year old son. He used to sleep by himself when he was one. A few weeks ago he started to refuse letting me out of his room at bedtime. Nothing much changed though, we still do our ritual and read his book, but as soon as he sees me getting out of his bed he starts crying. Until today I stayed in his room and reassured him that if I leave I will only be in the next room and he can call me if he needs anything. Things are getting worse as now he wouldn’t sleep if I don’t hold his hand.
        I want to support my child and never want to let him feel abandonned as I suffered from that myself and I know the consequences, but this situation is getting worse and I am reaaly tired and wish to teach him how to sleep by himself. The situation is not easy at all since my husband refuses to let me try to let our son cry it out, and every night, when our son wakes up in the middle of the night, he brings him to our bed to make him stop crying.

        Any ideas to end this?
        I really appreciate your help!


    2. Aunt Betty says:

      Ease him back into the sleep routine he had before he was sick. He will do fine if you are confident about the transition from wakefulness to sleep.

      You may want to try these steps:
      1. Stay nearby the first few times. 2.Each time you put him down to sleep move further away as you wait for him to fall asleep.
      3. After a few times or days of this he will be falling asleep like before.

      Have confidence in your parenting skills. You are his mommy and know him best.

  2. Hi, are you sure this baby isn’t suffering from silent reflux? This behaviour sounds very much like my son’s at this age. Nursing very little during the day, as he had associated this with pain, and then arching the back etc when put down as lying flat exacerbated it. He was finally diagnosed and they looked down his wee throat with a camera and found horrible burning. As soon as he was on medication all these problems stopped. Babies are very easily distracted so it still could be pain even though it stops when brought out to the lounge. Talk to your doctor about this to eliminate it if you think it could be a possibility.

  3. Wish I had read this with my first son. I always felt like I was chasing the nap or missing my window of him learning to sleep. In the end he did learn, with gentle guidance, albeit later than some babies. After a lot of fumbling with my own agenda, following his lead allowed me to know when he was ready to learn to sleep on his own. He was around 18 months when we really hit our stride. At almost 4 his temperament still sometimes affects how easily he falls asleep, but he sleeps well. My second son is a different being of course, he seemed to know how to fall asleep on his own from day one and has had very little issue with that. He welcomes sleep and takes long naps unlike his older brother. Both of my babies woke at night to nurse. 16-18 months that stopped for my first and my second is 15 months and wakes 1-2 times a night. I’m ok with that. I know it will end and I am much less worried about the “when” this time around.

    1. Thank you for this, it is very encouraging! I have a 2 1/2 year old with whom sleep has long been a subject of frustration and despair for me, though it has become *infinitely* easier since he turned two. I’m expecting a second boy in just a few weeks and hope I get one with built-in sleep skills just like yours! 🙂

      1. Camille,

        Although sleep does come easier for some babies than others it is still a developmental skill. Therefore, there are many things a parent can do in their responses that either supports the development or drags it out.

        I still hold by the idea that good sleepers are made not born.

        Of course there are outliers. There are the infants and toddlers who don’t fit in the “norm” or “typical” requirements of sleep for any given age. These children are fine on less sleep. They tend to take longer to wind down and their melatonin production is on a later cycle.

        Even in these cases there is much we can do to offer the environment and conditions that support better sleep.

        Eileen Henry, RIE Associate

  4. Thank you for this. I have an very nearly five month old who is a cracker at getting to sleep on her own. I put her down for all her sleeps awake and after she’s off to sleep shortly after – unless she needs me, or isn’t quite ready, in which case she lets me know. This doesn’t happen much.

    However, she’s up two, sometimes three times, overnight. She has a good feed at this time so I’m pretty sure she’s hungry. Everyone keeps telling me to stage an intervention but I just don’t feel ready. I am exhausted but I know this won’t last forever! (will it?)

    1. Harriet,

      I love it. “Stage an intervention.” I do often call it – going to sleep rehab. Interventions always begin with an honest assessment.

      It sounds like you have done that are are OK with the current way of sleep.

      At this age many infants are having 2 authentic feedings in the night. The third one, I would consider dropping.

      This is what I call the focal feed in the original post above.

      Eileen Henry, RIE Associate

  5. I really love Eileen’s reply and really hits home for me too. Even though my son is now 29 months. He is our first, and it has been such a steep learning curve for all of us! I was also chasing his naps until I finally said ENOUGH and followed his cues. I found that when we accept that our agenda is just that, ‘Our Agenda’ and we release it we are so much more open to connecting with these amazing small humans that bless our lives. My question is, how can I further help my son feel comfortable and safe to fall back asleep by himself at this age. He is waking up during the night and calling for us for what seems to be no reason. He says he wants kisses and hugs, which we give him and say goodnight again but then the whole thing happens again and we might be going back and forth to his room for the rest of the night giving hugs and kisses and begging him to go back to sleep!
    Last night he was upset claiming that someone had come to his bed and he was scared! Seems that he is finding ways to get us to his room no matter what the excuse. Clever boy but at 3am it’s not what I want to be doing! Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Alexia,

      Yes it sounds like you have a typical 2.5 year old accomplished toddler. They are very accomplished at persistence, resistance and resistance. This is also a time where the “scaries” come into play and can wake the child. Of course we want to remain responsive and reliable.

      In this age I involve them both in the problem as well as the solution of their own sleep issue.

      The preparation is more extensive and is fun. I prepare the parent to prepare the child in a way that the child can understand. We show the child what is not working (although I believe they already know) and show the child what the new way will look like.

      Warm regards,
      Eileen Henry, RIE Associate

      1. Simona Kellar says:

        Hi Eileen,

        I have a 12 month old, who is having difficulty with sleeping in his own bed. We moved out of state (new environment). He started walking at 11 months. And in said to myself, we better start a ‘new’transition until he’s 1. When he was 3-4 month on and off, he would sleep in his own bed. Now he won’t go down until he’s nursed to sleep but in my bed. We don’t mind him sleeping with us but I’m not ok that we continue it. Please help.

        Thank you,


  6. I love your gentle approach and it’s how I parent my baby. However, it may not be a realistic expectation that by about 5 months her baby will master the skill of falling asleep. My 10 month old still needs me to hold her to sleep.This doesn’t bother me but I think it’s important that parents don’t expect that their babies will magically transform into independent sleepers so early.

  7. Hi Janet! I am excited that you posted this; the timing is perfect. When I was raising my first baby, I felt like the success of my day depended on whether or not the baby slept well. Bad naps = bad mama. I was endlessly frustrated, and I really feel this contributed to my postpartum depression. I resorted to tricks and shenanigans to get Sisi to sleep (rocking, bouncing, driving, putting her on heating pads, playing classical music, etc.), and when she would finally doze off, I’d pop her in the crib and sneak away, only to have her wake up again 20 minutes later wailing. Then I’d start the process all over again. I don’t blame myself or any parent for trying all those things, but looking back, I realize that they weren’t necessary and didn’t foster trust. Now I have a newborn in the house, and it’s such a different story this time around. in part because I try to go by R.I.E. principles. I have taken such a different approach to sleep. I realized that if I were a baby, I wouldn’t like falling asleep on my mom, only to wake up in a cold crib by myself. I would probably feel tricked. So now I tell Matteo exactly what I am doing. I tell him it’s time to be swaddled, and that I will rock him until he gets sleepy, then it’s time to go into his bassinet and sleep. I give him a kiss and tell him I’ll feed him when he wakes up hungry. He’s only 5 weeks, and is very capable of falling asleep on his own in the crib. I think this simple routine is something very young babies can learn, just as they can learn to fall asleep at the breast, or fall asleep to rocking. But this time, since he’s falling asleep and waking up in the same place, he feels secure enough to put himself back to sleep. Not sure if this is possible for all kids, but I decided to trust my little guy to sleep when he’s sleepy, and it’s really working. He’s happy all around because he’s well-rested.

    1. Aunt Betty says:

      I love your approach! Awesome!

  8. I would strongly recommend you study about GER to see if the symptoms may apply to your baby, and if so, take him to a doctor tomorrow. My 4th baby screamed a lot at sleeping time and also starting not wanting to nurse. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to sleep- it was because it hurt him to lie down and associated nursing with pain because he would often spit up and experience pain in so doing. I struggled with him like that for two months until finally coming across an article about GER and immediately realizing that is what he had. I had no way to know he was in pain- just as you described, it just seemed that he didn’t want to sleep or nurse. Not everything is behavioral. It’s worth a few minutes of research on GER to see if it may apply to your baby.

  9. Hi, Janet and Eileen!
    My son is 18 months old. How I could help him to learn to fall asleep by himself without nursing or rocking? For now he needs both most of the time. Also during the night he wakes up 3-7 times to get some milk. So, I put him in our bed next to me, that I could he could have an easy access to the breast, so, I could stay in bed and have more or less enough sleep without getting up. But I feel tired of this habbit. And my husband is tired to share the bed with the kid who takes lots of space there. So, we’d like to move him back to his bed. What I could do in this situation? How to minimize the night nursing?
    I’m also concerned about it as far as in a month I will need to go for a trip and need to leave my child at home for 4 days and nights. And I’m anxious about his nights without me and night nursing.
    I’d appreciate any response from you.

    1. I’m in a very similar situation with my 22m old so would also be interested in any gentle solutions.

    2. Hi Anna, I had the same exact issue with my first born. He was nursing very frequently at night for a long time and I knew I needed to make a change. Then I ran into this blog post
      I followed his method when my son was around 14 months (I tried earlier but it didn’t work) and he was night weaned in three days, and never nursed again at night. Give it a read and see if it’ll work for you.

  10. Thank you for this Eileen. My baby is 15 weeks old and will ONLY fall asleep nursing. I worry that he will never fall asleep without my help especially as ever attempt to leave him to self soothe end in him crying and becoming very distressed. Any tips? I am quite happy to let him cry but I do not like to hear him distressed 🙁

  11. Dear Emily, i read your post and reminded so much of my son at that stage. To me it sounds very much as reflux-colic issues. I will recomend you to check on that. For us it was really hard, lots of long and difficult feeds and very late bedtimes. Wish u the best.

  12. Eileen, I so appreciate your original response in this article. I am a mother of three and fully appreciate “Sleep is not always a problem to fix. There is a large part that remains a mystery.” As it stands, I have a 9 week old, who sleeps wonderfully and soundly, and eats very well. She is my calm child. My eldest, now nine, was a constant nurser. We co-slept so that he could nurse and i could sleep. My two year old, on the other hand, is another story. He is my, “you will hold me and nurse me all hours of every day” child. I never peed alone, as no one else could console him. After all else failed (we tried almost every method to get him to sleep, except the cry it out), I put him in bed with me. He weaned himself from nursing at 21 months, and slowly, very slowly we started transitioning him to his own bed, but even now, at two and a half, he wakes up as much as, if not more than, my 9 week old. He is my angry/scared sleeper, and I don’t know how else to help him. Around 1 or 2 am, we just let him in bed with us, after he’s woken up two or three times, crying, often inconsolable. We have a routine every night, and we quietly put him back in bed when he wakes… until we can’t anymore. Any advice would be much appreciated!

    1. I should clarify, that even after he is in bed with us, he continues to wake and cry. It is usually not at the same times of night, which leads me (and his pediatrician) to believe it’s not night terrors.

  13. I guess I don’t get it, or I’m missing something. Everything I’ve read so far on baby sleep the RIE way does not actually address the “how” part of getting the baby to sleep. I put my 9 week old down for a nap or for bedtime, and she inevitably starts screaming pretty soon thereafter. I do my best to put her down drowsy but awake. Sometimes she starts screaming when she’s only halfway down into the bassinet. Talking to my screaming infant has done nothing for her. After I pick her up and calm her down (but before she falls back asleep), I put her in the bassinet and she starts to cry again. The only way I can get her to sleep is to either put her in the carrier or rock and bounce her to sleep, and then transfer her to the bassinet after she’s fully asleep. I would love some solid, step-by-step advice on how to get her to self-soothe. Thank you.

    1. Heidi I am not sure that many 9 week old babies can self-soothe. Maybe a rare one, but not most. With older babies I believe you can teach/encourage them to do this, but it is generally not an easy process. Our 7 month old was exactly the same as your baby. I know there are some babies who can drift off peacefully by themselves. Some babies are sleepers and some are movers and shakers! I bet yours will be open, bright, alert and curious! Best wishes to you.

  14. Can anyone direct me to advice about sleep training twins (15 months old)? I feel like we’ve tried everything. Bedtime is great, both babies go to sleep (in the same room) with little to no crying ( we had to work on this but now it’s great and one of my favorite times of the day). The problem is that they wake throughout the night, sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, sometimes at 10:30 sometimes at 4:30 sometimes at 1:00, there seems to be no pattern. I can usually get them back to sleep with rocking but the second I put them in their crib, its screaming and crying that will not stop, eventually waking the other, sleeping, twin. So, to avoid waking the sleeping twin I will normally take the crying twin to bed with me and nurse. I’m ready for this to stop. Naps are still an inconsistent mess. As soon as I try to put them in their cribs they cry and cry until I pick them up. I feel like if I could work with one at a time I could make it happen but that is not always a possibility, most of the time I am home alone with them. We can always get them to sleep in the car and if I don’t have an hour to get them settled and asleep I feel like the car is the only solution and I want this to stop as well. Any advice? Websites? I’m completely frustrated and exhausted, its really taking a toll on our lives. I might also mention that we co-slept (unplanned) until they were 9 months old. It seems that I have created a huge mess. Most of what I read seems helpful but for younger, single babies. Any help is very welcome and appreciated.

  15. Wow! Just as I was attempting to walk, rock, shush, nurse, give a paci, hum, sing, and sway my almost 5 month old to sleep I wondered what Janet might have to say about sleep issues. I finally laid my wiggly but tired baby down in her bed and sat down nearby. I listened to her wiggle around, hum to herself and vocalize and resisted my desire to intervene and ‘help’. Then she became still and quiet. I peeked at her and she was out! Then I read this article and it reassured me that this phase will pass and I should keep working toward helping her fall asleep on her own. I really wish I’d known all of this with my now 2 and a half year old! Thanks for sleep advice that for once is neither harsh or urgent but reassuring, encouraging and realistic! I’m saving this to share with a friend who is about to be a mom!

  16. My 23month has a hard time sleeping and being the first child, it’s my mistake to rock her and till now we rock her to sleep.. During the day nap and also night. How do I slowly change her sleeping habit to be more independent? Appreciate a detail method 🙂 thank you .

  17. We have a 19 month old who does not fall asleep without nursing or sometimes in the stroller (obviously not a viable bedtime option). How do we work with a child of this age learning the Falling skill?

    (Haven’t checked your website yet so that’s next…)

    Thanks, Sallie

  18. Susan Butler says:

    I have just come across your beautiful website and started on the article about sitting a baby up… I have been reading various articles since.
    First of all, thank you. They are beautifully written, sweet, short, simple.

    I have a wonderful little baby girl, she is 5 months today and I have been struggling to get her to self soothe and fall asleep on her own, ( I did it once or twice). We had a lot going on since the birth, emergency c-section, having to forcefully wake her up to force feed her when she dropped weight, moving house, severe weather changes, no furniture to now having furniture, Moses basket, to co sleeping, to moses, to mixed etc etc.

    I can easily do it through walking/rocking/dummy or breastfeeding, it doesn’t take me long at all really. However, to just place her in her bed and let her fall asleep, it’s too difficult. I don’t personally want to let her cry it out until she’s too tired to stay awake. I also don’t want her to always need me to do this for her as it won’t help her in the long run and also my knees are starting to hurt a lot. I know she’s tired from the cues she gives me, yawning, eye rubbing, little ‘singing to herself’, and the resting on my shoulder ready to sleep.

    She has a bedtime routine she enjoys. I start at 5pm with a feed, then bath time with lots of singing and playing (I usually go in with her). Then finish the little bit of her bottle after she’s in her pjs, which she usually likes to drift of by, if not then I will rock/walk her until she’s sleepy. She likes to fall asleep by 6:30 when possible then she barely wakes up at 7 for a small cuddle of if she has a little gas, then sleeps until 10-11pm then again at 1 she barely wakes, finally at 4 for a feed and then she’s up by 6 or in good days 8-9.

    The problem is when she cries she doesn’t seem to calm herself down and it can last some time before I can’t bare it. She really goes all out and I hate seeing her that way. I hate letting her cry at night as I don’t like her getting too worked up before sleep.

    My biggest thing is that I’ll be going back to university in September and really need her to be able to learn to self soothe and fall asleep on her own. I started her routine at 5 to allow her to fall asleep on her own from 6. My mum will be helping with the baby and I hope she won’t get into bad habits (she got into her dummy from my mum for a little time).

    I would love a response and suggestions as I don’t want her sleep to be disrupted or mine. I have so many questions and no idea who to ask. I just want my baby to be okay whilst I go to university. Most of all I want her to have a good routine and good nourishing sleep.
    Thank you!

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