Sleep topics tend to be a hotbed for firmly held opinions and blanket judgments. Even experts make pronouncements like: “Babies can’t ____,” “All infants need ___,” “Parents should always ___ and must never, ever ___.”
The problem with these staunch views is that they dismiss the one expert who can truly show us the way, the person we need to tune in to and learn from… our uniquely capable baby. It’s quite difficult for our babies to demonstrate their true needs, interests, and capabilities if we aren’t open to offering them the opportunities to do so. But these opportunities aren’t easy for us to provide (particularly when sleep deprived), because being open and attuned requires patience and the willingness to relinquish control over our infant’s sleep.
In 4 Eye-Opening Things Science Tells Us About Infant Sleep, scientist and author Alice Callahan, PhD shares scientific findings that validate the benefits of supporting infants to learn to self-settle. In this follow-up post, Alice shares her personal experience encouraging her infant son’s healthy sleep process.
How I Helped My Baby Learn to Sleep
by Alice Callahan, PhD
In my first post, I wrote about how science has influenced my beliefs about infant sleep. When my second baby, M, was born, I knew that I wanted to give him manageable opportunities to practice falling asleep independently from an early age. As with most of my parenting experiences, this was easier said than done, but it ultimately worked well for us.
First Days: Curiosity and Observation
From the first day home, we started from a place of curiosity and observation. We watched how M showed us that he was tired and how he worked on getting his hands to his mouth to soothe himself. He fought to get out of the swaddle from a few weeks of age, so we switched to cozy sleep sacks, leaving his hands free for self-soothing. He did sometimes startle himself in his sleep, but he also learned to soothe himself by sucking on his hands from an early age.
During the first month of his life, M mostly drifted off to sleep while feeding or just after. There was no need to interrupt those sweet moments or the biology that makes sleep after warm milk almost inevitable.
In this video, M fell asleep in my arms. I loved watching expressions flicker across his face as he transitioned to sleep.
When there was an opportunity, we put him down awake in a bassinet in the living room, and after looking around for a while and sucking on his hand, he would often drift off to sleep peacefully.
Sometimes he would squirm and fuss for a few minutes before falling to sleep. Sometimes his cries would escalate, and one of us would pick him up and help him calm down. M also often fell asleep in the car seat when we dropped Cee off for preschool or a front carrier when we went out for walks. We were flexible. The goal was for him to be able to practice going to sleep in a few different ways. (For more tips on supporting good newborn sleep, see this post.)
One Month: Fussy and Unpredictable
After about a month, M suddenly seemed to struggle more with going to sleep. When I put him down awake in his bassinet, he immediately began to cry. This wasn’t just a little fuss, but a red-faced cry so passionate that beads of sweat would appear on his forehead. This seemed like a physiological response, one that told me that he clearly needed help. He was immediately soothed by being picked up and nursed. However, nursing didn’t always put him to sleep, and when it did, it seemed to be a light sleep. Even when I tried holding him for the entire nap, he often woke after just 15 minutes. He was tired and needed to rest, but he was having a harder time doing it.
I didn’t mind soothing M to sleep. He was especially fussy in the evenings, and it was gratifying to support him through that time. I would turn on soft music and give him a bath in the kitchen sink, and then we’d dance around the kitchen together. He would usually have a good cry, and then eventually relax into my shoulder and drift off to sleep. Those nights are some of my favorite memories with him.
However, I still wondered how I could support M in learning to sleep more independently. It seemed like we needed an intermediate step – something between nursing or dancing to sleep and falling asleep by himself.
Learning to Sleep: Gradual, Supported, and Flexible
After trying a few things, I found a routine that seemed to work well for us. I sat in my glider and laid a firm, flat pillow across my lap. I nursed M but gently removed the nipple from his mouth once he started that shallow, fluttery suck that meant he was he was getting sleepy. Then I let him lay on the pillow on his back. I talked to him and sang to him and rubbed his belly for a while. If he cried, a little rocking in the glider helped to calm him, but once he was calm, I stopped rocking.
Once he was asleep, I could gently transfer him to his bed. Interestingly, he seemed to sleep more soundly when he fell asleep on his own (compared with nursing to sleep), and it was no problem to transfer him. When he fell to sleep on his own, he was also more likely to connect sleep cycles and take a longer nap.
One of the benefits of this process for me was having the chance to observe him in his transition to sleep. Sometimes I got to witness a sweet smile as he drifted off to sleep, and I was glad that he was learning just how good it feels to rest. He also often fussed before going to sleep, and I was there to listen and reassure him. I learned about his different cries. Some were tired cries. Some seemed to mean frustration. Some just felt like a gentle off-load of emotion.
I noticed that often just before he went to sleep, he would turn his face away from me and cry a few really big cries, and then just as suddenly, he fell off to sleep. Other times, just when I thought he was asleep, his eyelids would pop open and he would have a couple big cries for a few seconds before falling back to sleep. I thought about how sometimes the process of falling to sleep is uncomfortable to me, too, how I sometimes jerk awake as if catching myself in a fall. It might have been challenging for him sometimes, but he knew I was right there with him.
Then, a funny thing happened. He started fussing more before falling to sleep, but he also started trying to roll his body away from me more. It was as if he was ready for a little more space, as if my presence right next to him was just a little too stimulating. And so, I started putting him down in his bassinet, right next to my glider, close enough that I could offer a pat or word of reassurance if needed. After a week or so, I started laying on my bed, just out of his sight but within earshot so he knew I was still close. And after another week or so, I started putting him down for sleep and leaving the room. He handled each transition wonderfully. To be honest, once I started leaving the room, he seemed to go to sleep more quickly with little to no fussing, as if it was easier without me. He was ready.
Reflecting on the Process
This whole process evolved slowly between about 6 and 12 weeks of age. I want to emphasize that we weren’t militant about it, and it was important to me that this sleep learning process shouldn’t create more stress or anxiety for anyone in the family, M included. In the beginning, we just tried the independent sleep routine once or twice per day, finding that the first nap of the day was usually the best time to practice.
One thing I noticed was that M’s sleep development wasn’t linear, and that observation helped me relax when it felt like we weren’t making progress. Some days and weeks he struggled more, and other days things just seemed to click into place. It seemed like there were these little windows of opportunity for learning to sleep, and I just wanted to be sure he had a chance to practice during that time.
If all of this seems sort of unconventional and maybe a little crazy, I hear you. But when you think about it, it’s no crazier than bouncing on a ball (or pacing the floor, or driving in the car, or pushing in a stroller), often for hours of the day, to get a baby to sleep. When I tried actively soothing M to sleep, he still struggled and cried, and it usually resulted in a frustratingly short nap during which I couldn’t put him down. With our routine, M had the chance to practice going to sleep on his own, a skill that he’d use for the rest of his life, and he ended up with the best naps. During his nap, I had a chance to take care of myself or reconnect with my older daughter without a baby attached to me.
I also think M’s sleep autonomy allowed his sleep to develop more organically over the first year. He wasn’t a perfect sleeper by any means. He wasn’t one of those amazing babies that sleeps through the night at 2 months old. Instead, I think his sleep patterns were pretty average. He often woke in the night for food or comfort, and he went through periods when he struggled more with sleep. Still, his sleep gradually consolidated without much intervention. We didn’t experience a noticeable sleep “regression” around 4 months. When we needed to make sleep changes later (for example, gradually dropping some excessive night feeds that developed during a rough period of travel and illness), those felt like small learning opportunities rather than traumatic changes. We were confident in his ability to sleep, and I believe that reaffirmed his confidence in himself.
By 11 months, M was sharing a room with his older sister (which they both love), sleeping about 12 hours through the night (most of the time, anyway), and blowing kisses to us from his crib at bedtime. Last week, he started crawling to his room when he’s tired, signing to us that he’d like help getting ready.
This was just one baby’s path towards independent sleep. The timeline and the intermediate steps might look very different from one baby to the next, and I don’t think that’s necessarily important. What was most important to me was finding that delicate balance between giving M space to learn yet also giving him support when he needed it. It was humbling to go through this newborn sleep stage again, but the key was observing my baby each step of the way and trusting in his ability to sleep.
Alice Callahan is the author of The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. You can find more of her work on her blog, Science of Mom, and her Facebook page.
(Photos and video are by Alice Callahan. Thank you so much, Alice!)