Sleep is an essential element of our happiness and well-being. If our child is not sleeping, then chances are good that we aren’t either. Many families are content with the sleep situations in their households, and more power to them. Others seek advice and solutions because they struggle night after night. Still others fear that making any kind of change in their approach could threaten their attachment bond and are resigned to waiting months, even years, for their children’s sleep patterns to improve. They’ve been led to believe that this is the only natural, gentle, or respectful way. Sleep specialist Eileen Henry‘s perspective is neither “cry it out” nor “wait it out,” but a middle way that prioritizes attachment and is rooted in science and nature. “We don’t train children to sleep,” she says. “We create a physical and emotional environment that allows sleep to come naturally.”
Transcript of “The Beauty of Sleep (with Eileen Henry)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m welcoming Eileen Henry to the podcast. She’s a longtime friend and associate, a fellow RIE Associate. She was one of the first child’s sleep consultants in the US and now she has well over 20 years of experience helping families all over the world achieve peaceful and lasting sleep. She uses a unique, individualized approach rather than a prescribed method. And her main goal is to assure that parents and child maintain and strengthen their bond.
Sleep discussions are always the most controversial. Everybody’s got a strong opinion, but I can’t think of a better qualified guide than Eileen Henry for a discussion on sleep.
Janet Lansbury: Hi, Eileen.
Eileen Henry: Hi, Janet.
Janet Lansbury: I’m so glad that we’re finally doing this.
Eileen Henry: I know, I am too. This is great.
Janet Lansbury: I’ve known Eileen for a very long time. We both studied with Magda Gerber. What made you kind of veer into this? You were one of the very first sleep consultants that there were, right? You sort of invented this job.
Eileen Henry: Yes. The first thing that veered me into sleep was what I call the gift of desperation. Coming from a history of my own sleep issues. When I had my first child, I thought, Wow, if I don’t sleep and he doesn’t sleep, this is gonna be very difficult. And it was really his dad, my husband at the time, he came to me with an article from the Wall Street Journal. There was one person, Jill Spivack in Los Angeles, doing sleep and he said, “There’s an eight week wait time for her.” He said, “Eileen, you need to do this. Someone, someone could get hurt in that eight weeks if they’re not sleeping.” So that’s how it started.
Janet Lansbury: So then you did all the research and…
Eileen Henry: Yes, I had already done a lot of research at that time, and I was working with Hari, our friend Hari Grebler. She was my mentor, and we had talked about doing sleep together, and I loved her take on sleep. She’s like, “I want to call it ‘the beauty of sleep.’ There’s so much tension and there’s so much angst around sleep, and it’s really something that is beautiful.”
That’s always stuck with me.
Janet Lansbury: What is the key to sleep? Well, let’s not say one thing because whenever someone asks me “what’s the one thing?” my mind goes completely blank. So what are a few or one the most important things that you try to communicate to parents about sleep?
Eileen Henry: Yeah. So the elements of that rest in what is called the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and coming to a place of relaxation.
I think it really helps parents to realize that sleep is something we’re going to touch and nurture throughout development, focusing on that piece. And that’s relational, that’s a relational nurturing because as far as in children development is what affects sleep the most — gross motor development, verbal development, ooh, my goodness, the verbal toddler. All of these interrupt sleep, but life itself interrupts sleep. And so returning to the nervous system, returning to the rest digest system and relaxation. So working on… parents working on their own self-regulation. I think is what is so transformative about this process.
Janet Lansbury: So yeah, it’s like everything about parenting is not about how can I help my child sleep better? It’s about how can I work on my perceptions and trust this experience more?
Eileen Henry: Yes, trust. I often quote you in two things that constantly come back that parents really relate to… One is being that emotional anchor for our children. And to be an, an emotional anchor for any human being, we have to be fairly regulated. And then “confident. momentum.” I love that. The confident momentum to me is an embodied piece, leading our children and leading from a place of rest and relaxation and play. Really, I use play, play story language very specifically, especially for 8, 9, 10 months through toddlerhood. I think that’s a key element.
Janet Lansbury: How do we get there though? Let’s say we’ve had experiences where our child didn’t fall asleep and we panicked and we did all these normal things that I did, focusing on it so much, like, Oh my gosh, if this doesn’t happen. And then we worry, how am I gonna function?!
I remember with one of my children I felt like I can’t go another day. I’m not going to survive this. I’m not going to make it if I don’t sleep a little bit better tonight. What do we do with that? What do we do with all those feelings? How do we calm ourselves down? How do we find a different place in ourselves to approach sleep with?
Eileen Henry: That is one of the compassion pieces, and if parents can realize this is temporary, that you’re not locked into anything here… It always brings me back to that beautiful Magda quote that we can change anything we’re doing with our children at any time.
We have to have the awareness. Then we look at the child and share the truth with them, which they probably already know, which is, “ah, I can’t do this anymore here. I’m going to show you how. I’m going to show you a new way.”
So that newborn infant phase, we’re feeding them a lot in the night. That’s just something that we do have to get through. And we have these amazing brain chemicals that help us do that. The falling in love drugs, the oxytocin, it keeps us able to do that, but that starts to run thin coming into five, six months, and that’s the real point where we can make some changes to get more regulated sleep.
Janet Lansbury: And what are some of the components to that that you recommend to parents? What are some of the basics for an ideal countdown to sleep or for getting ready for sleep? What does that look like?
Eileen Henry: So the newborn phase really is a symbiotic state. The infant doesn’t know where they end and we begin, and they’re not supposed to. There’s a period outside of the womb where they’re still doing a lot of developing and their brain is organizing. So for that piece, I recommend, “Yeah, bring them in, be close. Do what you need to do.” And so I tell moms and fathers, “Do what feels right and the most comfortable for you.” That’s when we really want to get in touch with our intuition. And we give birth to these little individuals — one might come in with reflux or crying a lot and be really hard to soothe, and those babies need more body contact. Their nervous system needs more calm, relaxed, grounding. So getting through that phase.
Then there’s a brain wake up that happens around the fifth and sixth month, and it can happen even sooner, like four or five, six months: that moment where they look up at you, it’s, it’s just unforgettable for parents. That moment when they look up at you and they smile and they get the other, they’re relational. Allan Schore calls it “core relationship.” When core relationship comes, and there are some other things that are happening, some infants are starting to experiment with solid foods at that time, we can start organizing the night to meet that relationship.
And I think this is why I love the RIE philosophy and the RIE approach, the dependable, predictable routines that tell the infant: This is where we are. This is what’s happening. A routine of the day built around the basic needs, because the feeding relationship and the sleep relationship, there’s still some overlap, right? They’re still getting fed in the night. Most six-month-olds are having one, maybe two feedings, but there’s, we’re starting to come into a place where we can do a focal feed that meets the authentic hunger need of the infant in the night. So working at around five, six months, I help parents to discern that. And from that place, a lot can happen as far as bridging sleep cycles But the cornerstone of sleep is falling at the onset of the night without too much sensory input and fixing of the caregiver, the parent.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I just want to clarify… because we started off talking about our self-regulation and just to acknowledge that our feelings have such a huge effect on our babies, obviously. So, you know, we’re dictating the whole tone of an experience. That’s why it matters how we feel.
Eileen Henry: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: So how do we keep ourselves calm if our child seems to be struggling to fall asleep? And maybe we know that if we could, you know, just, I don’t know, move that baby around more or whatever, that maybe we could help them get to sleep faster, but we want to try to give them more of a chance. What does that feel like to be in the middle space?
Eileen has a book called The Compassionate Sleep Solution, Calming the Cry. And you say:
“There are two major camps on getting babies to sleep through the night. These methods are hotly debated, and their oppositional ideas can leave parents feeling frustrated and confused. 1. Cry it out! – Deal breaker for many parents. 2. Do whatever it takes, all day and all night long – Deal breaker for those of us who need to function in the real world.”
Then you say:
“There are other approaches that offer the much coveted “No Cry” result. The “no cry” unicorn baby, sorry to report, is a mythological creature. The Compassionate Sleep Solution is a gentle, honest and realistic approach. Since crying can be a part of that reality, this method will teach you how to calm the cry. Your child can sleep and feel safe and secure.”
Eileen Henry: Yes, I still stand by that. So the middle way, I like the middle way, the “this, and.” The middle way really is a line that we dance throughout parenting, I’d say until probably, in this house, 17 years old, <laugh> that line that we go down. How much struggle and challenge am I going to let my child experience so that they’re resilient, capable, competent, un fragile? Because development is an un fragile state. We all go through it. And we are hardwired to have struggle and it’s inherent in development.
That struggle of rolling from the back to the belly to the back again. Oh my gosh, in RIE class, that’s one of the most beautiful memories to me of watching infants navigate that one gross motor move, that one move that they could take months to master.
So how much struggle are we going to let them have so that they’re resilient, strong, capable, competent beings? And how much support, reassurance help, and sometimes fixing? Off and on, we’re going to fix things for our children so that they know that we have their backs, they know we’re there for them, we’re supporting them. That’s a personal line for each parent. And also it’s different per child, so it depends on the child.
A lot of times, I start with discussing that I’m very much into building rituals, sculpting the physical and the emotional environment. Those are the first two places we go to. And the ritual is both. It addresses the physical environment and it addresses the emotional environment.
So after we have a very connected, loving, intimate ritual, and we put our child into the sleep space, that’s where the struggle begins. The infants self-soothing mechanism, it comes online anywhere between four to six months. It’s coming into stability. There’s a mechanism in the cingulate cortex, and it’s a self soothing mechanism. And I teach parents a process that helps to discern all cries are not dysregulation and a, a suffering state that some cries or struggle. And usually parents, once they discern that, they’re like, Oh, okay, a little struggle. I can deal the struggle. Suffering, we go towards it. That’s the relational piece: going towards the cry and being in relationship and present with that disturbance.
Janet Lansbury: And we’re still present with the struggle, but we’re present in a supportive empathic, I’m here for you way still. We’re not saying, Well, you do the struggle thing on your own. Just as with the baby rolling over. We’re not saying, Well, when you’re struggling, I either have to fix you or not care. I think that’s what people maybe are concerned about.
Eileen Henry: It depends a lot on the age of the baby and what the parent is hearing. And like you said, being present with that. Families that I work with said, “I want be present.” They say, “I want to be present for struggle and suffering both. I want to be here and be present.” So some parents sit down, or pick up the baby and hold. If our child is really crying intensely, a lot of sleep consultants say, “Don’t pick up the baby.” And I’m like, “No. Oh gosh. Pick up your baby. Hold your baby. Just be very clear, ‘Oh, you’re calm now. I’m gonna put you back in bed to sleep.'” And if that starts the crying up again…
Janet Lansbury: I think it is challenging. I mean, as parents, especially if when we’re first time parents, we feel so much like we’re out at sea anyway, that we want to have some rules to hold onto. But what Magda Gerber’s approach and what you are talking about with everything is the nuance. It’s about this in-between, and being open to what life and relationships and everything is really about, which is not having the answer all the time. You know, this brave openness it takes as parents for us to really see our child and be with our child in all different states that they’re in, supporting that and being open to wanting to understand more and wanting to see things through. And as you said before, we won’t always be in that space. And that’s fine. If we feel like I’m going to bounce on a ball or I’m going to put my child in the car in the middle of the night or whatever, that’s okay. Sometimes we need to do that, right?
Eileen Henry: Oh yeah, absolutely. And that comes into it as well. But it’s that moment where we look at another human, we look into our baby’s eyes, it’s face to face. And really the question is, “Can you tell me more? Tell me more.”
I had a dad recently who described his experience and recounting his words I have a body reaction in my throat, in my heart, and in my gut. He said, “I held her. I held her and looked in her eyes and it was as I was breathing and remaining present with her, very quietly just holding her, I watched her go from being in pieces to becoming whole again.” And it was so profound for him. He said it was transformative. “It’s forever changed the way I will relate to my daughter when she’s disappointed, when she’s sad, when she’s struggling, when she’s frustrated.” And he named all of these words before he even got to the word suffering or the things that we immediately jumped to when we think our child’s suffering. I mean, I thought everything was a suffering cry. I would have like a visceral panic attack when I heard my little ones cry —
Janet Lansbury: That’s very typical, isn’t it? We’re built that way, right?
Eileen Henry: Yes, we are. And their father, fortunately, he was just enough calm and “it’s okay, she’s just angry.” He could hear anger before I could hear the angry cry. “It’s okay, give her a minute.” And then it would calm. So the coming and going, really we are coming and going and supporting or staying present if that’s what a parent chooses. But the coming and going is with an infant who understands object permanence. They know when we leave we don’t cease to exist. So they’re not coming up with an abandonment scenario in their crib. They have enough experience and data of us coming and going to know we always come back, We go, we come back. And in those moments of coming and going, there are some beautiful reunions that happen crib side. You know, when we come up and look over the crib and our baby’s smiling and flapping their arms and legs. Those moments, I wish we spoke to those moments more in the fear of harming attachment with infants who are in cribs. Those the moments are like watching the arrivals gate at the airport. I just dropped my partner off at the airport this morning and one of my favorite places are arrivals, seeing people reunite. It’s so beautiful. And we get to do that so many times in the day with our little ones, the ones that are in cribs.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. But I think that some people might see that as like total relief and desperation that they have to try to win you back now because they lost you and you left them. It’s a touchy, touchy subject.
Eileen Henry: It is a touchy subject. And fortunately a client of mine introduced me to Gordon Neufeld’s work. And she said, Your program is so similar. His process is so much the same of the connection that we make before we put the child into separateness, where they must confront those natural feelings that arise when we separate from our beloveds and how to bridge that separateness. And that’s the key element to me. Bridging that separateness isn’t as difficult as we think, especially if a child understands object permanence. They’re starting to have some language reception, but what they’re understanding is tone, the tone of the voice, the facial tone, the body tone, the emotional current of the household.
Then when we go to put an infant down we stay on top of the check in. We don’t put them down and say, you know, work it out, get back to me when you figure this out. Instead it’s, “I’m gong to go brush my teeth and I’m going to come back and check on you. I’m going to go do the laundry.”
I had a very handy washer and dryer that was in a closet between the children’s bedrooms and I would sing and fold laundry. They could hear me out there and my daughter would yell out, “Are you done? Are you done?” It’s like, “No, I’m going to be done a little bit. I’m going to come and check on you. I’m going to come poke in.”
I always have three more kisses in me, or five more kisses or whatever. I always have one more hug in me. “Where do you want it?” And she’d hand me her lovey and I’d hug her lovey and kiss it. Just keeping that lightness of “I’m right here, I’m gonna come back, I’m over here, I’ll be back. I’m sitting on the couch with dad, We’re listening. I’ll be back.” So that they don’t have to work so hard. They don’t have to pull on us: Get back here, get back here. Where’d you go?
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, that makes sense.
Eileen Henry: Gordon Neufeld talks about going from work mode to sleep is very difficult. Think about adults, you know, if we’re in a heavy work mode and then we try to go to sleep, ugh, no go. We have to go into a play mode. Something light, something sweet, you know?
Janet Lansbury: Right. Because sleep, even as adults, it’s about separation. Separation from life.
Eileen Henry: We separate from our own consciousness. We go into the subconscious and the unconscious. We go into the shadow material. It’s great. I forget who called it “the best…” Oh, the guy that wrote the book, Why We Sleep, he says, “The best free therapy on the planet is our dream state and our sleep state.” So confronting those natural feelings and allowing our children to go: Yeah, I know, the night is dark and full of terrors. Yeah. Turns out that’s true. How are we going to approach that?
Janet Lansbury: I get so many questions about sleep, and it’s not my specialty. I honestly, I get intimidated by the camps that you talked about, because I don’t believe in either of those camps. And whoa, it was a hard enough place for me to navigate as a parent and to try to help other parents navigate it. I don’t have that in me, but I love that you do.
Eileen Henry: The one thing I do love about the camps is that I like to challenge myself and my own program and my own thinking and my own beliefs and my own experience and all of that. So they do keep me, they keep me on my toes and challenging myself and challenging my program. How am I gonna synthesize this into something that’s a middle and doable way for even someone who’s in one of those camps that comes to me and is desperate?
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, that’s a hard place. I feel for the parents that need help and and are feeling the judgment of the camps out there, even in social media, everywhere. You can feel so much shame, even just, forget about commenting, just reading this stuff, these strong opinions that people have.
Eileen Henry: Guilt is a part of this, but when it goes into the deeper, you know, shame and its shadow, pride. Oof. That’s some tough stuff to balance. So yeah, bring on the question. Let’s talk.
Janet Lansbury: I would love there to be an open environment for people to explore this, and every aspect of parenting, and not be labeled and told you’re this or that and that you’re wrong.
Okay, so here’s the question:
I have a question about sleep for a toddler who’s overall quite anxious, particularly at night. My three-year-old son has been having a hard time sleeping since he was about two years and nine months. He says he’s afraid of various things that change each night. Sometimes bears other times, bikes or sleds, or our very friendly neighbors.
I’m sure that a large part of it is that this began around the time he went through a lot of life transitions that would certainly be stressful for a toddler. We moved houses in towns. He transitioned from a crib to a full size bed. He had a little sister and decided he was ready to be potty trained. Our family life has remained very stable, but I’m sure this was a lot for him.
We have tried every strategy I can think of to help him feel safe. He sleeps with a little flashlight. We check the room for scary things before bed. Our dog sleeps in the room with him. We sing him a special song our pediatrician recommended about how scary things do not live here, and we’ve experimented with laying in his bed until he falls asleep. We also got him a clock that lets him know when it’s an appropriate time to wake up.
Our issue is not that he doesn’t stay in his bed, He stays in there from about 8:00 PM until 6:30 AM but we know he is spending at least some of that time awake. By the time he eats breakfast at seven, he already looks incredibly tired with dark circles under his eyes and staring off into space.
I’m up early. So it really wouldn’t be a problem for him to be up early if he was getting sufficient sleep. I’ve read so much about how important sleep is for brain health and development, not to mention behavior. So I’m worried about him, but not sure how to help him. Would love any insight you have.
Eileen Henry: Aw, that’s beautiful. I love, I love a lot what they’re doing.
Janet Lansbury: There’s a lot of attunement in this.
Eileen Henry: Lots of attunement.
First of all, I want to address the last piece, which is the fear piece. There’s been a lot of that propagated online about the fear of, “oh, their brain development, they need sleep.” They do, and they will get it. Their bio rhythms, they naturally will find sleep. This child who clearly knows how to sleep will get enough sleep. The child, especially at this age, they can handle way more interruptions and even wakeful periods in the night that we can. So just to take that fear away. And I’d love to know if he naps every day because he will make up for it in a nap, probably. At this age, if he’s missing a chunk in the night, his body will find it in the daytime.
So given all of the changes that happened, and this is another thing, you know, human beings can handle the most amount of change and novelty and newness from about zero to 26 years old. That is an open, novel-seeking, innovative brain state. But it is astonishing that that one piece of a new sibling, I find really affects toddlers. I will get in a month, several toddlers that have just had a new sibling, many toddlers. And it’s common they start dreaming about apex predators. They will dream about sharks. It’s like, oh, it’s a little shadow material coming up with your feelings about a new sibling. It comes up in the dream phase.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. It’s very threatening
Eileen Henry: Toddlers at this age. They’re dealing with so much. So they’re dealing with separation anxiety and they’re dealing with a brain that they’re starting to kind of freak themselves out a little bit with language and make-believe and imagination and all of these beautiful qualities of the creative brain of the toddler. And a lot of this can fall right into the separation anxiety.
So what I do is go right to the anxiety, right to the tough spot. There was a study done at Harvard on anxiety and sleep and, and in the study they quit working with the children and just worked with the parents. And instead of trying to prevent the anxiety of the toddler, kind of normalizing and helping children confront their anxiety. Do you know Dr. Sarah Bren?
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, I know who she is. Yes.
Eileen Henry: She’s an attachment therapist. Really Great. I like Sarah a lot. She calls it “early creative visualization.” This is the creative connection that we help the child with going into the night. “Ooh, bears. Yeah. Scary stuff.” And we can relate to the child how we know what it’s like to go into the night and have bad dreams, the scary things that come to us in the night that we meet the monsters.
Because any monsters that we meet in the dreams, they belong to us. They originate in our brain. They’re our monsters. How do we befriend them? What do they want? Do they want love? Do they want attention? Do they want regard? Do they want to be noticed? Do they want something?
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I was thinking that when she said the bears, I want to know what those bears look like. What kind of bears? Is it a teddy bear? Is it a big grizzly bear? What does it say? What would it do to you that you’re afraid of? I would go to all those places.
Eileen Henry: Human beings have used storytelling and mythology and these practices since we started drawing things on cave walls. There’s a little girl I remember who had an alligator under her bed, and the mother asked her, “Huh, I wonder what that alligator’s hungry for? I don’t think it’s hungry for little girls.” Together they came up with, “Oh, that alligator wants love.” And so her daughter, she was three-and-a-half, she cut out little hearts and put them in a dog bowl and put them under the bed. And this alligator became part of her play world.
Janet Lansbury: Aw.
Eileen Henry: She integrated it. So to me, these situations, I think integration is the middle place. So coming from, Oh gosh, what do I do? I’m worried about my child and their health to how to work with it creatively helps to integrate. And that’s the transformative piece.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, exploring it. It seems like from this note that maybe there’s been times spent following a recommendation to sing a song about how there aren’t any scary things here. And that’s, to me, just imagining that as a child, I feel like, why are we singing that there aren’t any scary things here if there aren’t any scary things here? It’s kind of like: Let’s not think about it. Everything’s fine. Nothing’s really happening. That usually doesn’t make someone feel that comfortable. It can be the opposite. So it’s interesting that she got that advice.
Eileen Henry: Yeah, I like going right into the fear, right into the cry, right into the disturbance and doing some creative parts with that.
Janet Lansbury: And it’s similar to how Magda taught us to go right into the feeling instead of saying, “Oh, it’s gonna be okay.” Instead saying, “Wow, what is that about? That’s real for you.” And really being open to leaning into those things that we’re not supposed to talk about. You know, that a lot of us grew up with the message: let’s just pretend everything’s fine, let’s not go there.
Eileen Henry: Yes. And the confidence that they can handle these feelings with our help, they can handle this. Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: And really that’s true for all sleep, right? It’s having that attunement to them and that relationship between us that has a lot of trust in it. And also, I’m here for you.
Eileen Henry: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: That is so helpful, Eileen, and inspiring. Thank you so much. I want tell everybody that amazingly, Eileen Henry offers free 20 minute consultations if you go to her website, Compassionate Sleep Solutions.com, and she has her wonderful book, The Compassionate Sleep Solution. Check all her stuff out, take advantage of her free consultation. As you can tell, she’s just a wealth of wisdom and encouragement and support and bravery really going into these in-between spaces. So thank you again, Eileen.
Eileen Henry: It’s a vulnerable place, but it’s cool.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. Well, you’re a great navigator for it for any parent, so thank you for doing this work. I love that you’re doing this.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. There are many of them and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.