It is in fact possible to gently help your toddler fall asleep alone, in his or her own room, without a struggle or cry-it-out sleep training–even if your child is a long-term cosleeper! Here’s how we did it and how you can do the same.
It’s not a secret: We don’t sleep train.
Not in the traditional sense, at least. We encourage sleep, of course, but there is no cry-it-out, controlled crying, fading, eat-play-sleep, none of that.
And no, it’s not because I think parents who sleep train are terrible. It’s just not something I felt comfortable doing knowing what I know about breastfeeding and normal infant sleep. And it’s not something we’ve needed to do with either baby.
Instead, we cosleep, follow safe bedsharing guidelines, and nurse on demand.
It works really well for us, and sleep has never been a stress-inducing source of struggle in our home. With the exception of during a few short weeks right after birth, everyone sleeps well.
Whenever I share this with anyone, though, I inevitably get this question:
But how will your baby every learn to sleep on her own??
It’s a good question. And today, I’m sharing the answer:
That’s not what you want to hear. I know. Wait wait wait! Don’t close that browser yet! Patience is just one part of the answer! Hear me out.
THE POWER OF REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Sleep is developmental (source). Just as it takes time for babies to learn to crawl and walk and talk, it takes time for babies to learn to “sleep through the night.” It takes time for them to develop the circadian rhythms adults already have, and it takes time for them to begin producing melatonin and other hormones associated with sleep in the same way adults do (source)–more time than most new parents realize.
Babies do not come out of the womb ready to do these things right away, and for good reason.
Infants are born very premature compared to other species, because our pelvises are small and our brains are just too darn big (source). I mean, can you imagine trying to vaginally birth a one year old child? A kid who can already walk at birth, the way a baby horse can?
Yeah, no thank you.
So, as a result, we birth babies who are pretty helpless and underdeveloped in just about every way.
Emotionally, babies seek comfort from nursing or suckling (there is a reason pacifiers are nipple shaped!). They are wired to prefer close physical contact; skin-to-skin care helps newborn babies regulate not only their body temperature but their breathing and blood sugar too, and being held this way remains beneficial even for older infants. Since babies have small stomach capacities and breast milk is easily digestible, and since older babies are easily distracted from eating during the day, waking at night to eat is natural and normal (source).
All of these things together make for little people who want and need one thing at night: YOU!
The truth is, just because some babies–a small minority in actuality–will sleep by themselves through the night at an early age doesn’t mean babies in general are “supposed” to.
DID YOU KNOW? The most commonly cited medical reference behind the belief that most babies (70%) can sleep through the night by 3 months is a study by Moore and Ucko in 1957 (source). But sleeping through the night was defined as a period of 5 hours between midnight and 5am, almost all babies studied would have been formula fed milks very different from breastmilk and modern formula, and it was a common practice at the time to offer babies solid foods at just days old. All of these factors would dramatically impact sleep. This research is outdated, and is directly contradicted by recent research on the topic.
The truth is, Western sleep expectations simply do not align with a baby’s sleep biology (source). And there is a strong cultural bias against “allowing” normal and developmentally appropriate behaviors like night waking, night nursing, and comfort nursing (source).
In other words, they don’t really make sense when you think about how babies are wired and where they are developmentally when they come into the world.
For example, most parents are led to believe that a baby should be sleeping through the night somewhere around 4-6 months, sometimes as early as 12 weeks. If you think this, then it might be surprising to learn that one recent study found that about 30%-60% of 6-12 months old do not “sleep through the night” for a consecutive 6-8 hours (source)! And another study found that only 16% of 6 month olds sleep through the night (source).
Having realistic expectations about my babies’ biological, social and emotional development helped me look for sleep strategies that allowed me to meet them where they were at. Working with their sleep biology instead of against it made sleep less stressful, and it helped me see their behavior as normal rather than a problem. Indeed, research has shown that parents who intentionally cosleep are more likely to notice sleep behaviors that other parents find problematic, yet are less likely to identify these same behaviors as problematic themselves (source).
“Due to placing infants at odds with their emotions, i.e. socially isolating them for sleep, and/or minimizing contact which is exactly what infants seek and need, it is no surprise that Western parents (surely the most well read and informed) nonetheless remain the most obsessed, judgmental, disappointed, exhausted and the least satisfied parents on the planet! … [W]e create the very sleep environments and unrealistic parental expectations that create and perpetuate the very sleep ‘problems’ sleep ‘experts’ are asked to solve.” – Dr. James McKenna (source)
Eventually, though, it is true a baby no longer needs the assistance of a caregiver to fall and stay asleep at night. When a child “should” get to this point, however, is both a cultural matter (in the US, we tend to believe the appropriate time frame is ASAP) and dependent on the unique development of the child in question.
But what if the child is ready, you ask? If you don’t do sleep training in infancy, how do you get a child from needing help falling asleep to going to sleep on their own–preferably in their own bed in their own room??
HOW TO GENTLY HELP YOUR TODDLER SLEEP ALONE
Here’s how we did it.
When I was about 18 weeks pregnant with LoLo, baby #2, I was ready to wean my oldest, Little Bo, who was about 25 months at the time. She had been nursing to sleep since infancy, and by this point was nursing 3-4 times a day still, almost exclusively before sleep.
The morning nursing session was the easiest to drop, since I could simply offer breakfast instead. Evening was also easy: Dad took over bedtime. Afternoon nap was a little harder, but Little Bo found she was happy to hold onto a lock of my hair (“oosh,” as she called it) in lieu of nursing to sleep.
The next step was getting her into her own sleep space and falling asleep oosh-free. Daddy came to the rescue.
When she was 2 years and 3 months old, We set up a twin bed next to ours using a bed frame we already had, some metal slats, and an affordable twin mattress. The bed was only about a foot off the ground, so in the unlikely event she fell (she never did), it wouldn’t be far.
For a few months, the Mr. would lie down next to her until she fell asleep, often falling asleep himself amidst the cuddles, and then sneak back into our bed later. She was mostly sleeping through the night by that point, but if she woke, he was right there to help her back to sleep.
When LoLo finally joined the family, Little Bo was 2 years and 6 months, and she still needed one of us to lie down next to her to help her fall asleep. So we took a divide and conquer approach: the Mr. helped Little Bo at night while I woke up to nurse LoLo.
During the day, though, I had both girls by myself while daddy was at work, and nap time was a struggle. At least, until I did this…
THE TRICK UP MY SLEEVE
One afternoon, I decreed there would be “Quiet Time.”
I emptied Little Bo’s room of most of her toys (read: distractions), baby-proofed it completely, set up a baby monitor, and pushed her twin bed into her room. She was allowed a couple of toys, and was actually excited to play in her room by herself “like a big gorl” (her words, not a typo). After about 15-30 minutes of gleeful playing, she would always fall asleep.
The peace and quiet in the afternoon (that would last as long as 3 hours sometimes!) was golden. And it gave me some much needed time to attend to LoLo without distraction.
By the time Little Bo was about 2 years 10 months, I found it would take longer and longer for her to fall asleep during Quiet Time, and it started pushing her bedtime later and later.
So we dropped the last nap. Afternoon “Quiet Time” was no more–but she could lie down on the couch and fall asleep if she wanted (spoiler alert: she never did).
Now, by 6:45pm, we get started with the bedtime routine. Nothing elaborate, no big song and dance, just things we need to do before we get into bed, like clean the living room of the day’s toy mess, go potty, brush teeth, and read a book. We make sure we have our stuffed animal or baby doll of choice in hand, and then…
It’s Quiet Time.
We just moved Quiet Time back a few hours. And it worked. She was falling asleep by herself in her own room without tears or cry-it-out training by 2 years and 10 months old.
I was told if I didn’t sleep train in infancy, what I am experiencing now shouldn’t be possible. My child will never sleep unassisted and will need me forever (dun dun dunnnn).
But that wasn’t the case.
Was it quick? No. The whole process took about 10 months.
Will it work for every family? No. But it met my child’s needs, aligned with our parenting values, and ultimately worked really well for us. I’ll do the same thing with LoLo, and if it doesn’t work for her, I’ll keep trying gentle approaches until one of them does. Because that is important to me.
Knowing my daughter, a traditional sleep training approach would have been extremely stressful for both of us. And since sleep training often has to be done over again as baby goes through “sleep regressions” and developmental leaps, I suspect we would have experienced that stress repeatedly.
At the end of the day, remember this:
There are a lot of different ways to encourage sleep. If sleep training makes you uncomfortable, you are not doomed without it. And you’re not “wrong” for choosing the path less traveled or the path of least resistance.
Were you able to gently help your toddler sleep alone without cry-it-out sleep training? Share your tips in the comments!