When Sleep Isn’t Working (Guest Post by Eileen Henry)

What does it feel like when sleep is working in a family? This is a very satisfying time when babies, toddlers and parents are all getting restful, rejuvenating and dependable sleep, when both bedtime and nap are peaceful, relaxed, serene and certain. Although this may sound like a dream, sleep that truly works can become a part of any family’s daily and nightly reality.

Alex phoned me for a consultation about her nine-month-old baby Olivia. 

“I don’t know what happened. Things were going so well. I would nurse Olivia to sleep, and she slept for four and five hour stretches. Now she is up every hour or two. It feels like I have a newborn again.

Suddenly everything we were doing has stopped working. I nurse her to sleep, and as soon as I start to lower her into the crib, her eyes pop wide open, she bolts upright and screams. Once we finally get her back to sleep, it starts all over again. Nothing is working anymore. Help!”

This is a familiar sleep scenario that I hear in one form or another almost every week, although it’s not always about nursing.  Sometimes the linchpin of a baby’s sleep routine is rocking, sitting or lying down with her, walking, strolling, or patting. Whatever the mechanism, what used to work doesn’t anymore.

When I spoke with Alex, her voice became low and hushed. This part of the call always feels a bit confessional. “I know I’ve done it all wrong.” My response is: “No, you did it just right – but for longer than necessary.”

Simply put, Olivia was sleeping (and awakening) like a newborn because Olivia was being responded to like a newborn. Although Olivia didn’t need to be nursed to sleep anymore at this stage of her development, Alex never changed the routine, so it was all that Olivia knew. But with nine months of experience under her baby belt, Olivia is smart. She is ready to apply all she has learned about her parents and her world to learning how to sleep on her own with less of Alex’s help.

Infants are the best learners on the planet. 

In the beginning (birth – four months) feeding and sleep form a symbiotic relationship.  Falling blissfully to sleep during or after feeding happens naturally. The experience also serves as a critical element in establishing secure attachment, which occurs organically if interactions with the mother or caregiver are emotionally attuned and connected.

The quality of this connection can be realized whether we co-sleep or crib sleep, and the healthy bond is created whether we bottle feed or breast feed. It is the quality of the connection more than the quantity of connections that cements the bond. I want moms to relax with newborns because mom’s emotional state is a key factor in helping her infant to soothe and regulate.

No matter how a newborn is doing sleep, it changes, and more ability and comfort with “falling” is realized as development unfolds. Going from sleepy to asleep on their own doesn’t have to be realized in the first weeks of life.  If they fall asleep in our arms on occasion, it is no big deal. It is an incremental process that they learn on their own.

Infants learn exponentially, especially from repetition and routine.  Children build on what they have learned over time, and they apply their learning from one experience to the next.  Home is a familiar environment, so that makes for rapid learning.

For nine months Olivia has watched Alex come and go. She has learned that every time Alex leaves the room or the house, she always returns. Olivia started crawling at six months and now has her own experiential process of coming and going. Alex noticed right away that Olivia moved out and into the world with joy and curiosity. This is because Olivia has trust in her parents and her environment. Already pulling herself up to a standing position, Olivia has gained some experience with falling, and this will help her in falling to sleep because it means letting go, which takes trust and some experience to know that it’s safe and even pleasurable.

Olivia recognizes her house, her bedroom and her crib, and Olivia knows where sleep happens. She also knows she is safe and comfortable in her crib. In fact, a wonderful thing happens to Olivia many times a day in her bedroom. Over and over throughout the last nine months, she is reunited with her mother as Alex comes and attends to Olivia’s needs.

Most importantly, Olivia understands her emotional environment. She knows she is loved and cared for. With all her senses she knows how love looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds. It is the same way she will learn language — through immersion. She is immersed in the language of love.

Because Olivia has an understanding of consistency and can safely let go,  she is now ready to learn a new consistent approach to sleep. After our consultation Alex feels prepared with the new action steps she will take to change sleep. Her relaxed confidence will be Olivia’s greatest support in learning new and improved sleeping skills.

On a follow-up a few weeks later, Alex said: “As you recommended, I endeared Olivia to a lovey. I chose a bunny with a cloth attached and told Olivia this story:

It was time for the bunny to fall asleep and sleep in her own nest all night long. If the bunny needed help, the mommy bunny would hop in, give her baby bunny a kiss and hop back to her own nest to sleep.

After Olivia’s nap, we did a dress rehearsal of the new bedtime ritual. I talked Olivia through the process and told her, “Tonight I will put you and the bunny in your crib to fall asleep and sleep all night long.”

I then showed her what coming and going looked like in this context, slowly coming and going from her room. “Then I am going to leave so that you can relax and sleep. I will come and go, and I’ll help you fall asleep on your own. Olivia sat in her crib wide eyed and watching.”

Alex came and went and offered Olivia the love, empathy and support she needed in learning a new skill. She replaced nursing with alternate soothing methods, which Olivia came to recognize and appreciate in the place of nursing. Alex used her voice, her touch, her warmth, her trust, her respect and emotional connection– all of which created their bond throughout the last eight months– to soothe and reassure Olivia that she could let go, fall asleep and return to sleep in the night when she woke.

And the mommy bunny and baby bunny slept in their nests happily ever after.

Eileen Henry is the author of a new book The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming The Cry. She is a RIE® Associate and and works with families all over the world as a Child Sleep Consultant, a specialty she pioneered. Her unique program not only transforms sleep but the entire parenting experience.  “My goal is to co-create the best emotional and physical environment for sleep success for your entire family.” 

(Photo by Masaru Suzuki on Flickr)



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

  1. This is a lovely example of teaching a baby to sleep in their bed, but do you have any advice for toddlers?
    I am new to RIE but have found it be be an extension of what I had previously tried (not as successfully) to parent. I feel like I am getting a grasp on it and seeing the benefits in almost all areas except for sleep and I am finding it very difficult to obtain resources that deal with our specific problem.
    My 2.5 yo is a ‘good’ sleeper and has self-settled since 6 weeks old. However we now have a power struggle at bedtimes and difficulty getting her to stay in her bed especially during the day. She doesn’t come out of her room, rather plays in there, mostly quietly. She has been in a bed for about 10 months. Do you have any tips on getting her to sleep during the day without confining her to her pram? She still really needs this nap!

    1. My read on it is that is her bedroom is a safe “yes” space, just give up on the power struggle. Go through your calm and normal nap/bedtime routine (if there’s not one, get one established), and then just let her be. I bet that removing the power struggle dynamic will allow her to sleep, as she won’t feel compelled to test and act contrary to what she sense you REALLY want her to do. Hopefully she’ll fall into a new pattern of resting at appropriate times, when she is released from the external pressure she’s feeling right now. I hope this helps, and I’m curious to hear other thoughts! I know this is frustrating!

      1. I like what Rachel says here: I bet that removing the power struggle dynamic will allow her to sleep, as she won’t feel compelled to test and act contrary to what she senses you REALLY want her to do.

        Yes there can be an emotional environment I call “chasing the nap” – where our natural attachment to nap can create natural resistance in the toddler.

    2. Hi Linda,

      That transition out of the crib/pram is best when it happens at this stage of development. With the increasing experience of “freedom” the toddler starts to make other choices. In this case play over sleep.

      Many toddlers are still in cribs at this age. The confinement is a physical boundary that promotes sleep. Within that boundary there is nothing to do but sleep (or play with their own toes.)

      Once out of the crib the room becomes the crib. Therefore, we must create an environment conducive to sleep. I would recommend removing any distractions and toys. OR give her the choice of the pram. Parents are surprised that when given the choice, many toddlers choose the crib again. However, after being out of it for 10-months this is unlikely.

      We can lead them to the bed but we can’t make them sleep.

      I would work with you on the following:

      1. The emotional and physical environment and how to involve your child in that process.
      2. How to offer the crib as a napping choice that promotes more rest during rest time.
      3. I would also re-evaluate your ritual leading up to bed. There can be ways to simplify that routine that helps with the toddler’s natural stage of struggle and resistance.


  2. I appreciate the fact that nursing to sleep is recognized as a correct, compassionate, and fine thing to do for an infant! Too many people treat it as a “cardinal sin” of sleep, and this could not be more untrue. For our family, gentle night-weaning did not occur until our daughter was nearly two…but I agree it can be done earlier AS LONG AS IT IS WITH EMPATHY as discussed here. I think parents knowing the mutiple options for making breastfeeding and sleep work for their family is SO important to raising a confident, secure child AND for ensuring mothers are supported in reaching their breastfeeding goals. Thanks for another thoughtful and empowering post 🙂

  3. The above story describes a lot of what i been through. My 15 month old never went into a crib awake without resisting and screaming. Wjat can i do to make sleep happem wothojt an hour of rocking??

  4. We are struggling with similar things in our house. Our 22 month old is a sweet and affectionate guy all day, but has regressed to seriously struggling with naptime, bedtime, and morning wakings at least 50% of the time.

    We have always talked to him about modifications we’re making in the routine to accommodate his needs, but we get frustrated. It is extremely difficult at this point (screaming, kicking) to get him to settle, and while we are often able to provide acknowledgement and calm presence, we are often just as ruffled.

    Please help!!

  5. Is there any advice for a toddler? My daughter does not go to sleep on her own and needs myself or my husband in her room to help her sleep (really me unless I’m unavailable). We are expecting another baby soon and do not have room in our bed for two kids. Is it possible at this point (25 months) to get her to go to sleep without one of us in her room?

    1. Also, what does this part quoted below look like specifically? I guess I’m at a loss as to how to do this. Is there any way other than staying in her room until she falls asleep? At 25 weeks pregnant, this is getting more and more difficult as she wants / thinks she “needs” me to lay on the floor / pallet next to her.

      “I then showed her what coming and going looked like in this context, slowly coming and going from her room. ‘Then I am going to leave so that you can relax and sleep. I will come and go, and I’ll help you fall asleep on your own. Olivia sat in her crib wide eyed and watching.’

      Alex came and went and offered Olivia the love, empathy and support she needed in learning a new skill.”

      1. Anna Klajban says:

        I’m wondering the exact same thing and am in a similar boat. My son will only fall asleep with me in the room. This part of the article is so deliciously vague that it sounds dreamy but in reality, was there crying? How long did she leave for? Did Olivia fall asleep when Alex was in the room or out?

  6. OMG! What you’ve said is so true. When my little Jackie was born, me and my wife have had quite a tough time. It’s glad that i’ve finally found your post.

  7. I also have a nine month baby Olivia 🙂 and I just found this post while searching for some ideas on how to make my baby sleep AGAIN. She’s been a good sleeper since birth, I always tried putting her to bed awake and she settled by herself always, rarely needed any extra cuddles. She’s been sleeping true the night (app 8pm-7/8am) every single night from 1-4 month of age. Then just like that she started to wake once (I breasfeed and she feel back to sleep until morning, except when teething) Than at 7m age she started to wake more, teething or not; at 11pm, 2am, 4am, 6am always nearly catching these hours… I just got in gave her the pacifier and she fell back to sleep, than I started to give her bottle again at around 2am and first few nights she slept until morning after feeding, thought she was hungry… Now she’s waking again regardless the bottle, except now she wants one, very often also the second one at 5-6am… Please help, soon I go back to work and feel exhausted, she’s becoming worse as she was as newborn :O

  8. Miranda Mitchell says:

    What about a toddler ( 26m) who is struggling who is across the hall from a 4yo? His sleep is impacted severely and it feels terrible. The toddler slept FINE until he slept in our bed for a few nights when we lost power/ heat and now we’re in the mud. He’s waking 4-6x per night and we walk him back to bed but will scream unless we sit next to his bed while he falls asleep. It’s so discouraging. The 4yo is exhausted from hearing him wake up as it is!

  9. Thank you for all of your articles, I’ve been avidly reading them all and they make a lot of sense to me. I’ve seen a lot of progress with my 10 month old after putting into practice the principles on this website.
    My question is: when Alex is leaving the room in this example, is Olivia crying? How long does Alex wait before returning? Does she continue to leave after soothing until Olivia falls asleep when Alex is no longer in the room? I know that crying is ok…. provided I’m in the room… I’m confused about whether some crying is ok after I leave the room?
    Some background:
    I fed to sleep until 8 months but from 6 months had hourly waking overnight so something desperately needed to change. My son can now fall asleep in his cot by himself, but only if I am right there standing over him. My problem is that it can take up to an hour for him to settle for a nap because as long as i’m in the room, he just plays. I know he’s tired and really needs to nap. As soon as I leave the room, he loses it and becomes hysterical. So I come back into the room and am only then able to settle him to sleep in a couple of minutes. It feels like we’re in a bit of a rut and I’m leaving the room for the sole purpose of getting him to cry and stop playing so that my return will sooth him to sleep. I don’t know where to go from here! Any tips would be much appreciated!

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