Here's what I did with a family, and how you can reclaim restful sleep yourself.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hanging out with two infants, A. (11 months) and W. (9 months). And while it was a bit of a challenge to juggle care routines for both of them by myself, the hardest part was helping W. get to sleep.
Since W's birth, his parents say he has wanted to be held all the time, and was not happy on his own. This was proving particularly challenging for sleeping, as W. had grown accustomed to falling asleep upright on an adults' shoulder while rocking. He'd wake up and scream if you tried to put him down at any point in this process. While this was a challenge for his parents, it became impossible for me as I needed to tend to A. and have use of my arms.
Every day, I would rock and rock W., waiting for him to fall asleep, upright on my shoulder, and then try to slowly, gently, peel myself away. It was a long, complicated process for both of us. We (his parents and I) decided it was time for something different, and so began following the methods in Eileen Henry's Compassionate Sleep Solutions. (I've since read through her book, and it's fabulous. Easy to read and understand.)
Here's what happened: We had created a sleep crutch for W. in continuing to hold, rock, bounce, and pat him to sleep while physically touching another human. As a newborn, Eileen writes, this is normal and necessary for sleep, but continuing the behaviors after 4-6 months can create these crutches. It doesn't make you a bad parent or a failure if you find yourself in the same situation. It just doesn't have to be that way!
So W's parents and I sat down and made a plan. We wanted to remain consistent between the three of us to help W. understand the new process for sleep and feel comfortable and confident in what was happening. It's worth noting that we all were ready to try this new method. That was key. We knew it would take longer for W. to fall asleep, and would take more effort on our part in the beginning. We knew he would cry as he adapted and learned to fall asleep on his own. Our objective was to remain as supportive, kind, and helpful as we could as W. learned these new skills. Here's what we did:
Step one: I set a strong routine during the day that was relativity consistent and predictable. It was easy to guess that he would be sleepy again around 9:30 AM and 2 PM each day, as the events between were also predictable. I tried to ensure he was fed and changed before these rest times.
Step Two: I watched for signs of tiredness, and tried to catch the window where he was tired, but not over-tired. He would slow down, become easily frustrated and clumsy, and rub his eyes.
Step Three: We began the nap routine. I would say “Looks like you are tired, W. Are you ready to be picked up?” I'd wait a minute or two if the answer looked like a no, and then say “It's time to get ready to rest. I'm going to pick you up now.”
I invited W. to participate in 2-3 short prep steps for his rest space. It's important to keep the sleep area consistent so that young children feel safe, know what's happening now, and can relax to sleep. W.'s space was a portable crib in the main living space. I invited W. to help close the curtains and darken the room, close the door, turn off the lights, and choose a book to take with him.
I showed him his sleeping place and said “Here is your resting place. I'll place you in here after I sing to you, you'll close your eyes and have a nice rest. I'll be sitting just here (pointed to where I sat), and then when you wake up, I'll come say hello. “ Then I sang a very short song (same one each time), looked in his eyes and said “Good night W. Hope you have a wonderful rest. See you when you wake up” I placed him in his crib (standing or sitting) and walked to the place I said I'd be.
Step Four: (The hard part) The first day W. was upset. And of course he was; it's hard to let go and fall asleep if you haven't done that on your own before. I sat just out of sight, biting my nails, and convincing myself to wait another minute. When his cries became more pronounced, I went over and stood nearby, On nap one, I caved and picked him up after 45 minutes, rocking him to sleep. (Now I know it would have been better to just reassure him by doing as little intervening as possible and trusting that he could do it himself.)
The second nap that day we repeated the process. W. and I had already done this once, so it was somewhat familiar to him. This time he took about 30 minutes, sometimes crying, sometimes whimpering, or reading, or playing. I noticed he was getting stuck sitting and literately jerking himself back awake as he nodded off. So, after these 30 minutes, I went over and said “You seem very tired. I'm going to help you lay down and rest.” I gently laid him on his side, and placed the blanket over him. I repeated this a few times as he sat back up, and eventually, he did fall asleep on his own.
On the third and last day I worked with W., we walked through the sleep process together, and he peacefully sat in his crib after I said “Good night W., see you when you wake up” This time, his crying stayed around a 3-5 range (out of 10) for only 15 minutes, and then he fell asleep on his own! I was so proud of all the work he did to learn this new skill. His parents shared that they were having similar experiences in putting him to bed at night, and that they themselves were getting more rest as well. Win-Win-Win!
Our plan worked for us, but might not work for you or your child. I highly suggest picking up a copy of Compassionate Sleep Solutions and/or checking our Eileen's website. There's more to this than following a prescribed plan!
Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions