Sleep, crying, and balancing closeness with boundaries

March 16, 2011 · 55 comments

A rested baby makes a happy family

A rested baby makes a happy family

Imogen at Alternative Mama and I have been talking about sleep. She has two little ones and is seriously sleep deprived, but is having a hard time finding a solution. She’s not comfortable with CIO, and isn’t able to co-sleep for medical reasons. She asked for more details about how I managed to get more sleep with my babies, and agreed to let me share my response on my blog.

Dear Imogen,

It’s was very, very difficult for me when my kids struggled with the transition to our new routine and cried. I had to learn to allow it, and learn how to support it, but still stay firm in the boundaries I needed for my own well-being. It was hard, but I was surprised that the result was a closer relationship with them — not a more separate one.

Two changes were needed to getting more sleep

The first was changing the way I felt about routines and crying, and the second was changing our habits.

As a new mother practicing attachment parenting, I felt routines and crying were dirty words. I wanted to respond spontaneously to the needs of my child, which were expressed with cries, without relying on a clock to tell me what and when something was ok. I felt the philosophies that encouraged schedules, routines, and crying were dismissive of children’s feelings and often portrayed them as manipulative, conniving, and naturally bratty. Since this is not how I view children, I didn’t feel comfortable with those parenting methods.

I thought enforcing boundaries would tell my children their feelings didn’t matter

What changed my mind was reading Janet Lansbury’s RIE blog. At first what she said sounded uncomfortably close to BabyWise, with discussions of routines and crying as babies learned to sleep. As I became more familiar with the RIE philosophy, though, I understood the difference. BabyWise encourages implementing a schedule in order to be in charge and ensure a child doesn’t grow up spoiled. RIE encourages implementing a routine as a way to communicate with your children and give them the security of knowing what to expect out of their day.

It made a world of difference in how I communicate with my children. Before I would respond immediately to “fix” whatever the problem was. I’ve learned to stop and wait for a minute to learn more about the problem before I take action. Is it something that needs fixing, like thirst, hunger, or a dirty diaper? Or is it simply an emotional release of frustration, anger, or pain? If it’s the former, I need to do something — get water or food, or change them. If it’s the latter, I just need to be there, and allow them to work it out on their own.

Create framework to explore, grow, and learn

When we decided we needed to make a change to get more sleep at night, we started by changing our routines during the day. I established a regular wakeup time (within an hour), then made a plan for the day:

  1. Cook and eat breakfast
  2. Independent playtime while I cleaned up and spent a few minutes with email/blog/work
  3. Park/playground/playdate
  4. Lunchtime, stories, naps
  5. Errands or independent playtime while I work and make dinner
  6. Dinner, bathtime, stories, and bed

My kids balked at having regular times to do things. Naptime and bedtime were the hardest, but after two days, they changed. It started with excitement about bathtime and storytime, which was exciting for us. We love to see our boys running (or crawling really, really fast) to go upstairs for their bath.

The excitement slowly came around for bedtime, too.

There is no formula to deal with crying

We didn’t have a set plan for how to deal with the crying, other than agreeing we would listen and use our judgment do decide on action. I wrote about our sleep methods here, here, and here, if you want more details on my younger son’s nighttime routine and how we responded. He was eight months at the time, but he didn’t have much difficulty.

It was a challenge for my older son. We were consistent with the bedtime routine, but we didn’t know how to react to his unhappiness. He screamed, cried, and kicked doors and walls. I can only chalk it up to his age (he was a little over two at the time), and the fact that we were asking him to do something different than what we had before.

When he was in the middle of a tantrum, we sat with him until he calmed down. Surprisingly, the tantrums were easier to deal with than when he simply walked out of his room, over and over and over again.

We tried many ways of responding, from silently walking him back to his room and leaving again to singing lullabys and sitting with him. We still allowed him to come into bed with us in the middle of the night if we just couldn’t deal with it anymore. Eventually the consistency of the sleeptime routine won out and he started to go to bed for naps and nighttime without a struggle.

There is no magic fix

Even though we changed the way we look at routines and crying, and established our normal day, we don’t have perfection every night. This winter everyone seemed to be sick, plus there are visitors, teething episodes, and potty training. Between the two kids, my husband, and me, my goal is four to five hours of uninterrupted sleep, and at least eight hours total. That’s what I need to feel human and be the mother I need to be during the day. Most nights I get it, but some I don’t.

Imogen, I know it’s difficult because it’s so hard to hear our children cry. But if your own well-being is suffering, work on making a change. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing like we see on television shows like Supernanny. Do what you’re comfortable with, and take your time if you need to. It’s a change for you as well, and you need to be gentle with youself, too.


Suchada's signature



Can anyone else offer their experience and encouragement for Imogen? She is a warm, loving mama who needs lots of support right now!

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Laura March 16, 2011

Thanks for your post and Imogen, I totally feel for you. With our older son, and now with our infant, we took the approach of teaching them how to self sooth. We did allow our son to cry a bit (not extensively) but looked for ways to help him sooth himself. Typically, that means a good “shhhhh” and a pat on the back instead of picking him up every time he cries. although we did pick him up as well, depending on what we feel is the response he needs. We also put him down when he wasn’t totally asleep, so that he could learn how to fall asleep on his own. Every child and family is different so I only share that from a point of “this is what worked for us.”

Suchada, I absolutely love your blog and thanks for the mention of RIE, I will look into that as it feels very aligned with our philosophy. I do want to just say one thing about Babywise (and I am in no way trying to start a debate here), I just find it odd that is gets such a bad rap. I’ve read it numerous times with both my babies and took away a different message — actually a message with resonates closely with your post. What I got out of both BabyWise, and your post, is the approach of flexible structure. I’ve found that, at least for our family, a general schedule is helpful–it gives us all a sense of security and boundaries. The key is flexibility. The clock by no means rules our day, rather it serves as a general guide, along with cues from our children. My experience has been that developing close, responsive relationships with our children is not mutually exclusive to setting boundaries in any way. Again, love your blog, thanks for a great post!


2 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 17, 2011

Hi Laura,

Thank you so much! Have you read my post about Babywise ( There’s some good discussion about it. Like you, I found the methodology to begin a routine to be reasonable. What I didn’t like about it was the underlying philosophy that I feel is dismissive to the very real feelings and needs of babies and children. I tried to talk about that here, and what the difference is. My interpretation of Babywise is that it sends the message of, “This is how we do things in this house and you’re going to get used to it”, where RIE sends the message, “Things are different and I can see your upset about it. I’m here, and I’ll support you as we get through this change”. I think the intention behind the change can make a big difference in the relationship with your children.


3 Nadia March 19, 2011

Hi Laura,
I did too about baby wise. Great reference that I adapted, of course, with the flexibility it promotes.

Mama eve, thanks for posting your thoughts on the topic. Everything is useful especially to new moms.


4 Natalie Nevares March 16, 2011

Love this piece, so important for parents to hear a pro-sleep AND responsive parenting perspective.


5 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 17, 2011

Thank you Natalie. It’s something I recently discovered, and from the responses I receive, it’s clearly a need many mothers have.


6 Natalie Nevares March 17, 2011

Thanks Suchada,

Sleep is a HUGE issue, more than I honestly realized. I personally didn’t enjoy new motherhood. I had difficulty breastfeeding, felt lonely and confused, developed crippling insomnia and became severely depressed when I returned to work. And then I got pregnant with our 2nd 16 months later. My experience inspired me to create a coaching service to support and mentor new parents through this emotional journey, because really it’s so much about emotions and wanting to do the best for our kids. I didn’t know it would be my primary business, but mostly, I’m helping parents with sleep (establishing “flexible” routines, how to move co-sleeping, nursing kids to a crib or toddler bed, some sleep training if that’s what families want). I honestly didn’t know it was such a perennial problem for SO MANY families, but clearly it is.

With so much conflicting baby/parenting advice, and so much judgment in our parenting culture (imagined and real), I personally didn’t know what to do about sleep and had to work hard to find the right formula to help my babies sleep while still being 100% responsive to their needs. Who wants to hear their babies cry? I read all the books (Sears, Babywise, Weissbluth, No Cry Sleep Solution – ALL of them) and simply took bits of this and bits of that and tried a little of this and that until magically, my babies started sleeping through the night by 6 months old. There were a lot of transgressions with teething and illnesses, but now that my kids are 4 and 6, and we ALL sleep soundly (nearly) every night, I’m really glad that I had the courage to do what was best for my family and not buy into the fear that if I didn’t breastfeed all night at my own expense, that I would damage my kids.

Honestly there is no book or philosophy or theory or method that works for everyone. But flexibility and consistency, trial and error, and TRUSTING OUR OWN INTUITION is key for happy, thriving (sleeping) families. Maybe co-sleeping is the best way for all of you to sleep and you’re all thriving and happy, but if it’s not working for you and you’re finding it increasingly difficult, it is totally possible to make changes that don’t ignore your child’s needs. Often it is FEAR that prevents us from making any positive change in our lives, and I for one want to challenge every fear that stands in my way! :)

Thanks for writing what you do, for keeping an open mind, and for helping parents know that they’re not alone in their struggles! I love it, keep it coming!



7 Genevieve March 17, 2011

With my first child, I knew these concepts because I’d read Aletha Solter’s “Aware Baby”, but it took me ages to be actually able to cope with my babies cries, so I couldn’t give him the presence, acceptance and calm support that he needed to really get his birth trauma out of his system, he was trying really hard and I was trying really hard, but I couldn’t feel confident or comfortable with his cries, so when he cried my stress levels rose and I’d feed and feed and feed and then pace and rock and sing and sling and try and try, everything accept be still and peaceful with him and give him a calm loving message that I was really listening and that it’s ok for him to let it all out. I got it eventually, after a couple of months and things started improving dramatically. That was 14 years ago and I can still feel it when I think back, he had colic and literally cried for hours in the evenings and we tried everything, but I knew in retrospect that it could have been so much easier for us all if I’d had someone support me to really listen to his cries.

With my daughter, 8 years ago, I could really tune in to the different cries from the beginning (I had 5 years practice at this stage as my son was 5) and consequently she slept soundly for 3 hours at a time regularly in the first 3 months, then it increased and she just woke up briefly for a quick feed (she slept with us), then straight back to sleep once or twice in the night and was rarely if ever actually unsettled or upset during the night and it was all so so so easy – which I put down to being really confident at hearing and allowing her a stress release cry when she needed it for whatever reason.

At the beginning of my mothering I doubted that it was possible that babies could sleep well unless they were trained and I knew I’d never do that. But now I have great confidence in this and have helped tons of families gain that kind of confidence (I’m a parent coach). It’s satisfying to be that person for other mums that I wish I’d had.


8 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 17, 2011

Genevieve, I’ve read a few articles by Aletha Solter, but didn’t know she had a book. I love your perspective as a seasoned mother and parent coach!

I had a very similar pattern with my first child, and I remember all those sleepless nights trying to “make” him go to sleep. I think I avoided it with my younger one simply because they’re so close in age (only 19 months apart), and I just didn’t have the energy to do as much with him. I’m still working on accepting crying and supporting them — it’s a completely new concept to me, but we’re learning, and improving. I wish this solution were more well known, because I think many mothers think it’s an all-or-nothing thing, and that’s simply not the case.


9 Genevieve March 18, 2011

Like you Suchada I wish more parents were aware of and had support with this model as it is so one of the big keys to babies being much more calm, settled and able to access deeper more restful sleep, which brings everything on the up and up.

Dr Solter has four books; “Aware Baby”, “Tears and Tantrums”, “Helping Young Children Flourish” and “Raising Drug Free Kids”. She has instructors in about 16 countries, I’m one of them, the only one in New Zealand. I help families all the time adopt this and similar models all based on AP and non punitive discipline. The Aware Baby is one of those books I wish every parent knew about, it’s ground breaking stuff. I’ve really enjoyed reading the experiences and perspectives of all the parents on this blog, great discussions!


10 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama March 17, 2011

Thank you so much for this post. We’re struggling with sleep right now and I’m exhausted. My 9 month old had the perfect storm to disrupt sleep this month: a week long vacation to the opposite coast with a 3hr time change, daylight savings, his first cold which lasted 2 weeks, his first – and now second – tooth breaking through, overnight house guests, and what appears to be a growth spurt. His sleep is the worst it’s ever been – for him and for me. I’m going to check out RIE and your other sleep posts because we really need to make some kind of change.


11 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 17, 2011

I feel for you Charise! Let me know how things go.


12 Darcie March 17, 2011

Finding your balance is a process. You and your children’s’ needs change and evolve as they do. This is why I think flexible approaches are always good and anything rigid is going to set you up for failure! I never understood the thinking of a baby crying is a bad thing. It’s their way to communicate and it’s our job to try and figure out what they are “saying.” Sometimes there is something we can do other times they need to figure it out for themselves because nothing that we can do helps. That plus the lack of recognition of parents’ needs is why AP never really struck me as something that would work for us. Why is it necessary for parent’s to completely lose their needs and desires to equate to good parenting? Never accepted that. Sorry sidetracked.
Every child is different in what they need to feel comfortable and secure. My first self-soothed very early on when she discovered her thumb. My second LOVES physical contact. She NEEDS story time throughout the day. It’s not just the act of reading it’s the sitting in mommy or daddy’s lap and snuggling that she really needs. This provides her balance and security.
Just like Suchada mentions, once you realize that your child is secure and has all of their physical needs met, setting up some sort of routine is very beneficial to all of you. They know what to expect and so do you. It provides another layer of comfort.


13 Monica March 17, 2011

Thank you for this post! I am an AP mama who loves routines and also did some CIO with my oldest when he was about 8 months old. I was so exhuasted and suffering from PPD that something had to give. I couldn’t continue to get up 2-5 times a night with him and finally decided enough was enough. Other AP moms look at me like I’m evil when I tell them that we did CIO.

I’ve learned not to let it bother me, mostly because I know we weren’t ignoring a cry for help or need. Mostly they were only protest cries, ‘mom-why-aren’t-you-coming-like-you-always-do?’ demanding cries. Children also need to learn that nighttime is for sleeping. Period. This can be a boundary issue that my son (now 2.5) still struggles with. He is very spirited and demanding, and while I love how independent he is, I must also teach him that he may not boss around his parents.

Some lessons are tougher than others to teach, but still need to be taught.


14 Monica Mae March 17, 2011

We were not comfortable with CIO or co-sleeping. We landed somewhere in the middle I guess. We used the Baby Whisperer books and boards to help us through sleep stages. We ultimately used “walk in walk out” which is where, if they wake up and cry, you walk in and pick them up momentarily. That lets them know that you are there and that you love them. Then you put them back in the crib, which lets them know that this is not play time and they are meant to be sleeping. It took a lot of commitment but ultimately my daughter is a great sleeper now. These boards were a lot of help.
Good luck!


15 Imogen @ Alternative Mama March 17, 2011

Thank you so much Suchada! I so appreciate you sharing what you did; I feel empowered to make the changes that need to be made now.

I guess I really felt like in order to be an attached parent, I had to completely ignore my own needs but in order to give fully to our children we need to give to ourselves, too. There’s only so long you can continue running on empty.

Thank you so much again, Suchada. When my little Squish is ready I will be implementing our own bedtime routine – and for now we will work on a flexible daytime routine. It’s going to be harder for me I reckon! I don’t *do* schedules, lol.


16 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 18, 2011

That’s wonderful Imogen! I’m so glad for you. Best of luck with your changes — and please keep me up-to-date. I’m thinking of you!


17 Genevieve (The Way of the Peaceful Parent page) March 18, 2011

Also, to contribute to the subject, you might find this article of mine affirming;

In this article I talk about how babies and young children can and need to heal through their releasing cries (in arms) when the parent can really be with them in a way that gives the baby the message that their cries are being really heard and accepted.


18 Jespren March 18, 2011

Good post. I try for 2 hours consecutively and 6 total, I frequently don’t make it. It’s frustrating. My first child ate EVERY HOUR for the first 7 months and was still waking to eat 5-6 times a night until after 1. Now my 2nd, who initially slept wonderfully, wants to comfort nurse all night and wakes every hour or so to nurse at least briefly, even though she’s really only hungry twice a night. I really really wish I could get her to take a plug for her comfort sucking. I believe it’s developementally important for them to be allowed to suck when they want, but I can’t sleep with her at breast.
So mostly I just keep repeating ‘this only lasts a short while’. In another year (or less) they’ll both be peacefully sleeping through the night in their sibbling bed and wake to play in their own room. Eventually I will get caught up on my sleep and I refuse to CIO regardless of how tired I am (although a little RIE type crying for a few minutes to try to get her to go to sleep by herself isn’t beyond me, just isn’t working very well.) I figure my 11 month old have about a 10 minute attention span/short term memory, so if I tell her it’s okay, to lay down and go to sleep and then let her cry for 10 minutes she can know I told her to go to sleep. After that though she just knows I’m not responding to her, so I go in (earlier if her cry changes from ‘no, wait, come back!’ To ‘mommy, I’m all alone!’)


19 Kellie March 18, 2011

I am right in the thick of this right now myself. My 5 month old is just not sleeping well at all and there will be days at a time where he will not nap, not even when I’m nursing him and will want to nurse 3-5 times in the middle of the night and often after one of those feedings will want to stay up for a good two hours. During these times I just don’t know what to do….co-sleeping just doesn’t work for me and sometimes I start to feel guilty about feeling like my sleep is important. But I finally firmly told myself that you know what—if I didn’t need sleep I’d have no problem holding him or playing with him during the middle of the night but the fact of the matter is, the human body needs sleep and as you said Suchada–it makes me a better mother when I am more well-rested. Your post is very comforting and makes me see a little light in this whole struggle with sleep. Thanks!


20 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 23, 2011

Kellie, good luck with finding balance. My son was around 5 months also when his sleep patterns changed and he went from 4-5 hour stretches to 2hrs or less. It was really, really difficult for me to accept that he simply slept better and was happier in another room. I enjoyed co-sleeping with both my boys, and it was sad for me when that period ended, especially with my second, because he was younger (we moved him to his own room at around 8 months). The closeness we gained from more interaction during the day was worth it. Please let me know how it goes!


21 Sheila April 19, 2011

Although I never CIO, I really agree with what you say about schedules. I’ve been able to work through a lot of my son’s sleep issues just by being very attentive to his routine. Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Naptime Solution has some neat stuff about how long a baby should sleep at each age, and how long they are able to stay awake. Using that knowledge and watching my baby very carefully, I was able to discover that he could be awake almost exactly 3 1/2 hours before starting to melt down. Planning for a naptime RIGHT THEN was the only way to make sure he got a good one! So we’ve settled into a nice routine where I know when his naptimes will be and give him an opportunity (either nursing, a stroller ride, or a car trip) to fall asleep. It’s been a lifesaver.

What really made the difference for me was realizing that my son already had a schedule, and that I simply needed to adjust MY schedule so that I was providing him what he needed at the right time — instead of a sleep-inducing car trip when he wasn’t really tired or a stimulating grocery shop when he was. And that way, I can arrange the naps he gets so that he’ll be tired around when I want him in bed at night. Once the routine is a habit, he’ll pass out right at the expected nap time with very little effort!

Of course it takes constant adjustment. He can now be awake for 5 hours, which puts us right between one nap and two naps a day. We’re working that one out, and I think we’re getting there!


22 Ruth April 24, 2011

Thank you so much for this post! I have re-read it several times and it really gives me some good things to think about. I have a 7 month old who is a pretty terrible sleeper. We have been trying a lot of different things and not having much success. I am really opposed to traditional CIO, but I don’t think it is always bad for babies to cry. I am struggling to find a balance, and I think that this post helps me a little bit with finding that balance.


23 Suchada @ Mama Eve April 24, 2011

Ruth, I’m so glad you found this post. It’s resonated with so many women, and I’m glad it’s provided some inspiration on how to get better rest for everyone in your family. I would love it if you let me know how it goes!


24 Janelle November 29, 2011

I so needed to read this post today. Thank you. My daughter is almost two and our sleep routine is rough. I’ve been trying for a month to change it but am currently at a loss. I’m working on getting a crib and may have to allow her to cry, which she already does quite a bit at bedtime. I find that I have a hard time sleeping away from her which is part of the problem. Needing to heal from a traumatic pregnancy birth and postpartum. I read your post today on not knowing what to write about but I want you to know that reading through your blog today about gaps and sleep has truly been an encouragement. Glad to know another hippie in disguise is out there.
Blessings in this holiday season to your family.


25 Suchada @ Mama Eve November 29, 2011

I’m so glad you found it Janelle. Sleep has been one of our most difficult struggles, and it’s something I will have lots more to say about. It takes time to find what works for you and your children. Best of luck!


26 Sydney January 23, 2012

This is a great post. Ive recently started letting my 5 month old cry to sleep. We don’t have a method, but id say it is close to Ferber. We listen to his cries though. He will usually just have a tired cry. If he has a reallymad cry we try and figure out why. Sometimes hejust needs a little extra nursing or hes overly tired and mad that we’ve kept him up. Its very hard to hear him cry sometimes. But hesnow gettipng long naps on his own and sleeping for up to 7 hours some nights. The reason we did this because I was getting really depressed not getting any sleep while he was in our bed. Now that our son, my husband and myself are getting more sleep, everyone is happier and my son has never wanted to play on his own and now he isalmost crawling and loves tobe on his ownplaying. I see itthis way, a happy mother is a good mother.


27 Kim March 12, 2012

Thank you for this! Found your blog today and we are struggling with sleep. My first child is 17 months old and wakes 2-5 times per night. I am also 13 weeks pregnant with #2 and am exhausted. We co-slept for many months, then room shared and partially co-slept, then separate rooms and partial co-sleeping, and now separate room for the whole night. We tried a crib, a play pen thing (soft sides helped for awhile), and now a mattress on the floor. She has never been a ‘good’ sleeper but until now I could role with it and believed that sleep would happen eventually and the best I could do was provide love, security, and support. I am sure that my milk supply is going down and think the lower supply is probably making her awake times at night last longer. Instead of 10-15 min nursing sessions we are now doing 30-60 min nursing, side switching, sucking, sessions.

But I am tired. Exhausted. A zombie by 1 in the afternoon. My exhaustion is now making it hard for me to be the mother I want to be and my spirited and spunky little girl is not getting all that I could be giving her.

I will be continuing to try new things and see if we can find our way. Here is hoping!


28 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 12, 2012

Kim, I wish I could reach out and give you a big hug. I’ve been there. Sanity and sleep are things you deserve, and things your children deserve in their mother, even more than reassurance through the night. Best of luck in making a change — know that there are a lot of moms out there who are rooting for you!


29 Kim March 12, 2012

Thanks mama! Sometimes just ‘saying’ it makes it better :)


30 Sarah August 22, 2012

This may be because I am sleep deprived, but what is the method exactly? I can’t find it. Do I need to pay for it?


31 Suchada @ Mama Eve August 22, 2012

Hi Sarah,

I based my post on this article from Janet Lansbury’s site:

Nothing to pay for — just a different way of thinking about sleep and babies. Best of luck!


32 Sarah August 22, 2012

Thanks for your response, so are you now differing from your eight reasons not. Tocio article?


33 Suchada @ Mama Eve August 23, 2012

Yes, I think I am differing in a way, but not completely. What’s most important to me is that my children are respected and responded to, but also given opportunities to learn to sleep on their own. When I think of the term “CIO”, I generally think of a set plan that involves not responding to children except on a particular schedule, and not involving them in routine changes. What characterizes RIE is responding to children and also involving them. So in the days before changing a sleep routine, it’s important to talk to the child and let them know what’s happening. It’s also important to go at a pace that is reasonable for both you and your child — something that only individual families can decide. All children are different, and all parents are different, and it’s up to them to find what’s reasonable. I’m still absolutely against just closing the door on a crying child and walking away (unless it’s for a few minutes needed to gather your own emotions, and even then the child deserves to hear from you why you’re doing it).

So yes, my views have changed, but my general philosophy of respect for children and their needs remains the same.


34 Sarah August 23, 2012

Thanks again, what do you recommend I do with my eight month old, she is too young to understand, could she still be trained?


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