What To Do Instead of Rocking

There’s an old fashioned type of rocking that I appreciate but don’t hear much about these days. It is slow, gentle, and relaxing for both parent and child. There might be quiet conversation or singing, but there is no goal or purpose other than mutual contentment in just being together. A languid journey to nowhere.

These days I’m mostly hearing about the purposeful kind of rocking some experts advise for “parenting children to sleep,” which can become habit forming (though not always), turning this potentially blissful, bonding experience into an increasingly difficult and tiresome chore.

My mentor Magda Gerber’s advice for calming unsettled babies and preparing them for sleep is unconventional. She recommended open and honest communication, like giving babies a step-by-step description of their bedtime routine in order to help them anticipate sleep and gradually unwind. Magda advised listening, asking questions, acknowledging feelings, sharing thoughts. In other words, connecting person to person with children from birth. Or, as child specialist Lisa Sunbury suggests in the title of her recent post, “entering into a conversation with your baby.”

However, communicating respectfully with our babies should not be considered a sleep “method” like rocking. Instead, it is a way of seeing and being with children that we must commit to and, thankfully, a choice we can make at any time.

Here, Kerry shares her success story about switching from rocking to talking:


Our daughter (20 months) has struggled with sleeping since a young age.  Implementing your techniques has helped with bedtime, but she still wakes up sometimes wanting to be rocked to sleep.  Last night during a wake-up I decided to try talking it out with her instead of rocking her, hoping that she would be able to put herself back to sleep.

We’d had a busy and unusual day – several families and their similarly aged toddlers came to our house for a playdate.  It was fun, but chaotic and loud, and the kids were all playing with our daughter’s toys.

During the night-time wake-up, instead of picking my daughter up and rocking her, I mentioned the afternoon’s events and acknowledged that she was having trouble sleeping.  I cuddled with her while she stood in her crib and talked with her about how upset she was when all of the other babies played with her toys, but that she eventually decided to share and play with the other babies.

She cried quite a bit at first, but as we continued talking about the afternoon and all of the things that happened, she stopped crying.  She participated a little in the conversation by giggling at the funny parts and nodding when she agreed with what I was saying.  We talked about standing in the doorway and waving goodbye to her friends as they left with their parents, and then she said, “All gone?!”  I agreed that they were all gone, and that maybe we could play with them another time.

She gave me one last hug over the rail of the crib, then lay down. After I gave her a few pats on her back, she went to sleep.  Even better, she slept right through the night, which is a very rare occurrence in our house!

Thanks again for sharing your wisdom – we can’t thank you enough.


“Enter into the conversation with your baby. Let her know that what she has to say is important to you, and that you are trying to understand. Ask her questions and wait for her response. Be with her in her experience as fully as you are able. It’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship, and a lifetime of conversation.”Lisa Sunbury

For more about sleep:

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

The 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)

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


(Photo by SSG Adam Mancini from the US Army Photography Contest on Flickr)




(Photo by Andrew Malone on Flickr)


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

  1. Lovely post. It reminds me that our goal is not to get our child to sleep faster, easier, sooner… (I am definitely guilty in just wanting my child to go to SLEEP! ~ especially in those early days of infancy) but rather the goal truly is to connect with our child, to know her, to support her, and to remove hindrances so that she can develop in her own way, in her own time. This is true for sleep and so many other skills we want for our child.

  2. I like the idea of this technique, but when my child (now 2 1/2 years old) had trouble going back to sleep he was often crying so hard (wanting to be picked up and nursed) that my voice would be drowned out and felt completely lost on him, which is discouraging.

    Even now, when he’s having a moment of crisis screaming and throwing himself on the floor, it can be frustrating to “talk him through it” when I can’t even hear my own calm voice. Any thoughts?

    1. I would love to read a response to Camille’s post, or even further… when the crying child vomits easily and often.

    2. Camille, as I mention in the post this is not a “technique”, but rather a way of perceiving and communicating with your child. I would focus on listening to and accepting your son’s feelings. It sounds like you may be trying to talk him through or out of them…and he very likely senses that. So, accept, allow, nod your head, let go and let the feelings be. It is always healthy for a child to release feelings.

  3. Yes, entirely and completely!

    My 21-month old daughter has been having difficulty at bedtime for a few weeks, despite constant talking through of routine. She would cry and tell me, “I miss Mama” every time as I prepared to leave the room. I’d always try to empathize, but she seemed to want more.

    A couple nights ago as I laid her down, I suddenly heard myself say this: “It’s ok to miss me. It’s ok to cry and feel sad. I miss you, too, when I leave. You can cuddle your doll, take deep breaths, sing to yourself, or even cry and it’s ok. It’s ok to be sad.”

    It was like the magic phrase for which she had been waiting! She laid quietly for a moment then said, “It’s ok. It’s ok.” And…I left the room for the first time in weeks without her crying! I think she was looking for reassurance that separation can be difficult but her feelings are normal, natural, and shared by me.

    A wonderful moment that made me once again think of Magda Gerber’s wisdom and the power of communication, no matter a person’s age.

  4. Janet,
    I really enjoy your blog and try to incorporate RIE into my parenting practice. My one year old son has a medical condition which means he wakes every hour or so in pain and is only comforted by rocking or nursing. I understand that is unusual but due to this he always wants to sleep in my arms. Which I am happy to do…. all be it very tired because of it.

    He recently turned one and is now signing and saying his first words. He is communicating more clearly (like “up” when he wants me to pick him up). As we are now receiving treatment for his medical condition I wanted to know if there were any RIE tips on making him more confident and comfortable to sleep alone for at least part of the night?

    like camile if I have calmed him down and try to talk about getting back in the cot he screams himself sick and I can never / will never leave him to do that. So I always pick him back up again.

    Any advice or tips gratefully received and i do understand that he receives great comfort from touching me.

    1. Hi Hannah! My advice is to be open to gradually doing a little less. In other words, rather than rocking or nursing until he’s completely asleep, try just nursing until he is relaxed and then simply hold him. It is so easy for us as parents to get caught up believing we need to do far more than we actually need to. Holding him and hearing his feelings is just as loving (if not more so) than rocking him.

      And, as always, clearly communicate with him about any new routine beforehand.

    2. Hi this is Rahul. We’ve a 2 month old girl child who just does not sleep without being carried or rocked and the moment we keep her down she starts crying this has become a lot of stress for sometimes she cries straight for 3 to 4hrs. Please can you suggest something

  5. When my children were very young and very loud and very upset I would hold them and whisper. The whispering and holding would calm them. Of course it didn’t always work but it worked enough times for me. I hope this helps. And remember if it doesn’t work the first time keep trying. Good luck and keep in mind…this too shall pass!

  6. Thank you for this timely post! My partner and I were just discussing rocking last night. We rocked or I nursed my son to sleep every single time (yes even if it meant 10 times a night) and as a result helped him develop associations that were difficult to break and we went through a terrible period of sleeplessness where we felt like zombies for months. I’m due in May with our second and we’ve already been discussing methods we want to avoid this time, allowing the baby to learn to fall asleep by his or herself, obviously loving and supporting them, but not making sure they are rocked to sleep every time they wake up. It’s hard once you get into the habit. We will be reading all your article recommendations over the next few weeks to prepare:)

  7. My 24mo and I still rock together, but usually *after* nap and in the morning upon waking. It’s a nice, quiet time to connect. Some days he wants more cuddles and rocking, some days less. Before nap and night nights, we talk through our wind-down routine. We’ve been doing this since we lucked into RIE when he was 8mo. He’s been an excellent sleeper ever since.

  8. Dear Janet,
    I would love to share a success and am looking for some much needed encouragement on sleep. My daughter is four months old and I had been following AP since her birth until I came across your blog two weeks ago. It was like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders as I read all your posts on play. Your writing on independent play also really made sense to me as an early years teacher here in the UK. Just two days ago she rolled over from her back it tummy for the first time- me having sportscasted her for half an hour through her frustrations! It was an amazing moment for both of us when she finally achieved it on her own so thank you! If I hadn’t read your blog I might have misinterpreted her cries of determination for a cry for help!

    Now to sleep- we have bed shared since day one and I have fed her to sleep every time at night and for naps apart from the times she falls asleep while I am walking with her in the sling. This was working fine as a strategy until she started waking herself up being sick or burping because she couldnt stomach more milk and also my knees are starting to really hurt carrying her so much in the day. Also I am getting a bit fed up with lying in the same position all night for bed sharing and don’t want to be like a couple of friends who still have toddlers and pre schoolers who bed share and wake up for regular night feeds. So I decided to embrace the RIE approach to sleep. She wakes every three hours through the night to feed which is how often she feeds in the day- prior to RIE approach neither me nor her really woke up fully for her feeds- just as AP and LaLeche Leagues sweet sleep book states and dad never woke up at all. However she spends all night glued to me and lots of time sucking on my nipple after she has finished feeding. So last night we tried new approach where I feed her and then when I recognised she’s sucking for comfort I unlatched her and gently placed her in her co sleeper cot whilst whispering to her what I was doing. Each time- 9pm, 12 am, 3 am and 6 am she woke fully when I placed her down and it took her an hour each time to self settle with LOTS of full blown crying! I spent the hour acknowledging her feelings etc but it was so hard. A couple of times I picked her up as she was crying so hard and she burped- I never normally have to burp her at night as feed in side lying position. In the mean time my husband moved into the spare room as for the first time since she was born her crying was keeping him awake. Am I doing the right thing- am I missing anything? Should the transition be more gradual – my husband suggested this morning unlatching so she doesn’t comfort suck but letting her stay by my side for a while first? I would love to have your advice!

    1. I am in the exact same situation as Hannah with my 3 month-old and would love to hear what Janet would advise, if she has a moment to chime in!

    2. Maybe instead of moving to the spare room your husband could participate. After nursing could move into the spare room while he coaches your baby through the crying so that you aren’t the only one losing sleep. Parenting a baby shouldn’t be a one person job.

  9. Oh my! How I wish I had heard of you (and RIE) three ish years ago. My daughter is now 2.5 and finally sleeping pretty well if she isn’t sick or something else is bothering her. But I spent far longer than I care to admit resentfully “parenting her to sleep” with rocking and nursing, thinking any less was cruel… I feel really sad that I deprived myself of sleep for so long. But I guess we can only do the best we can with what we know. I’m due with her little brother in about a week and I’m determined to, at the very least, be more open minded about infant sleep and hopefully make it better for the whole family. Thank you.

  10. Dear Janet,

    I love your article and we have been trying to do this with our 22 month old daughter before even reading it. However, she is a strong willed child and is having a really hard time falling asleep in the last weeks. we start our routine at 6:30 and she is taking until 10-10:30 to fall asleep and then she wakes up every 1 or 2 hours. she is extremely overtired and this is affecting all of us. I would like to help her but I apparently don’t know how and I feel like I’m failing as a mom. After we finish our routine either my husband or I will lay with her and talk and sing to her but she just jumps around scapes from bed or starts crying. We have problems to set a limit in a respectful way and keep her in bed, I think probably because we are so overtired and so stressed about the situation. Do you have any tips for us? what can I tell her to keep her in bed and help her to relax? I feel like we are all about to loose it and I feel so bad for my girl who is barely getting any sleep.

  11. Julianne White says:

    I remember having a similar conversation with my daughter when she was 18 mths , with similar results 🙂

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