Ask EP: Independent Sleep

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Q:  My 4 month old won’t nap unless I’m holding him. I’ve tried laying down with him for a bit but the longest he sleeps alone is 10 minutes and once he’s awake, he won’t go back to sleep even if I rock him or hold him. Most days I just rest with him, but I would like to be able to get some house work done. We co-sleep at night. Any advice? Any thoughts on the book “the no cry sleep solution”?

Thanks. For now I’ll just treasure these special moments because they are more important than laundry and won’t last forever.

–          Emily

A:  First off, I’m thrilled you’re relishing the moments – before you know it, they’ll be over and you’ll be doing dishes wishing you were back cuddling with your little one!  Because, seriously, how fun is house work?

I do, however, understand the desire to have a bit more freedom for whatever it is.  I can say that my daughter was exactly the same!  She would last five minutes out of my arms at 3 months and only at 6 months did she start napping right next to me, but I had to be in bed with her and she’d cuddle up next to my leg.  Of course, personally this was fine because I had been itching to get some work done on papers and other writing so this was a fine arrangement (almost a forced work-time), but it won’t work for everyone.

I think for many babies, you’ll have to go through a period of adjustment.  You start by putting them down and when they wake, lie with them again, feed them, and get them back to sleep.  I know you said your son won’t go back to sleep, but one possibility is to try and anticipate it at first.  Put him down, but don’t leave.  Stay close and as soon as he start stirring, cuddle up and let him feed.  This may get you another 10 minutes or another 30 minutes.  As the time builds up, you can start moving away for longer and know when you may need to be present for a comfort feed or cuddle before your little one wakes too much and can’t get back down.

As to the book ‘The No-Cry Sleep Solution’, I haven’t read it.  I have heard mixed reviews from people.  Some cherish it, and others found it not-at-all helpful.  As you’ve brought up to me, one of the suggestions is to put a stuffed animal in with your baby so he has something to cuddle.  This makes sense as there is research showing that children who don’t sleep with their parents tend to have greater attachments to inanimate objects like dolls and stuffed animals.  These objects serve as proxies for the comfort typically provided by the parent (which is also why many infants and children who co-sleep do not have the strong attachments to a single stuffed animal or doll that infants and children who sleep alone tend to have).  It is possible that a child will accept a stuffed animal as a substitute for a parent, but I am also aware that a child may not accept this substitute.  I believe this would be a case-by-case type of thing.

All-in-all, as frustrating as it might be, I think the best advice I can give is to enjoy it.  Accept it’s a phase and know your child will grow out of it and then you’ll be wishing it were there again (and if your son is anything like my daughter, it will return and you’ll relish it).  And when you start making transitions, you’ll need to accept it may not be a quick fix – it may take time for your infant to securely learn to sleep on his own.  And that’s okay.



Hayes MJ, Roberts SM, & Stowe R. Early childhood co-sleeping: Parent-child and parent-infant nighttime interactions. Infant Mental Health Journal (1996); 17: 348-357.

Pantley E. The No-Cry Sleep Solution.  USA: Better Beginnings, Inc. (2002).

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  1. says

    Have you tried putting him to sleep on his tummy when you put him down instead of on his back? With my kids, whenever I needed some time to get some housework done, or even just go to the bathroom, putting them on their tummy, or in say a bouncy seat or swing kind of on their side, worked wonders. My almost 4 week old son sleeps so much better on his side or his stomach than he does on his back so that’s what I do. We bed-share at night so he usually sleeps in my arms then, but if I need him out of my arms for a period of time, thats what works for us. I’m not sure if that will work with your son, but it worked with my older two daughters up until they were older infants (getting close to their first birthday).

    Also, I read the no-cry sleep solution, and it didn’t help me. Honestly, it was just the same thing I had been doing for the weeks and months before getting the book. It all seemed kind of common sense to me, so I don’t recommend it for that reason.

  2. Kristy says

    My daughter has always been like that too. Once she was over 6 months old I was better able to sneak away from her but I typically have always not stayed away long during naps because she won’t go back to sleep if she wakes during a nap. In the evenings once she is out I can sneak away and do some stuff for maybe 30 minutes to an hour until she wakes. I many times keep her on my boppy pillow in my lap and get on my computer while she is sleeping. There is not really a magic fix if your child does this that is just how your child is though they will most likely get better at letting you sneak away for longer periods of time the older they get. I get my housework done while she is awake, either while she plays on the floor or if she is in my carrier or on my hip. To me baby’s sleep is more important than housework. Though when she was younger I often imagined how amazingly clean those moms homes are who have a baby who sleeps alone. LOL

  3. Jespren says

    I had to swaddle both my kids to get them to sleep alone. A tight swaddle mimicked my arms and a (recently worn) shirt left tucked beside them gave them my scent. Worked when nothing else would. My 1st slept swaddled til age 1, my 2nd until she was about 4 months (she was a more independant sleeper). It’s important for their development, however, that you don’t swaddle a young babe’s leg’s straight, they should be bent to avoid hip problems.

  4. Bee says

    Ok, I’ve met my son’s needs every time he woke up and fussed/cried even if it was every 30 minutes for the whole night, or sometimes every hour, or every 2 hours…. But now that he’s a year old, my hubby asks if isn’t it time for the baby to get a little more independent of me. So, I’m tempted to not offer the boob every time, but it always leads to crying. Now that he’s one, should he learn to comfort himself now and should I let him figure it out by himself-cry a bit. If I hold him he will try to expose my nipple and suckle (pull my shirt up or down and try to get in). Do you have any advice for older babies?

    • says

      Bee – one isn’t that old at all. Many babies don’t start sleeping through the night until after 2. At one, your son is very much a baby and is not nearly developmentally ready to have independent “forced” on him. If you’re serious about night weaning, you can try just holding him and not offering the boob, but I would not suggest it because your son’s ability to understand that shift is simply not there yet.

      As to self-comforting, you have to realize that he does have some skills with respect to that – he knows he needs the boob to calm down. We forget that simply because our body is the mechanism for comfort doesn’t mean your child doesn’t know any soothing skills. Letting him cry will *not* teach him how to be independent or to regulate his or her own emotions. In fact, quite the opposite. Older children and adults who have proper self-regulation of emotions were those that had their needs met as children. By doing this, we are modeling the soothing behaviour for our kids and eventually, though perhaps not for another year or more, your child will be able to comfort himself most of the time. (If you think about it, even as adults we can’t do it all of the time.)

      It may be tough, but honestly, you will not regret spending more time with your child or continuing to breastfeed him in the long run :) I think, in short, the advice here holds for “older” babies as well (and I can say I’m practicing it with my 20 month old daughter).

  5. Celeste says

    My daughter would sleep in a carrier, either on the front or on the back depending on age. Yes, it was a little more workout for me, but it met her needs for closeness and could buy me up to several hours over the course of a day to do both housework and computer work. We never tried to create a quiet sleep environment for her (there’s nothing quiet about the womb) and from the start to now at 21 months she sleeps wherever, whenever she needs (the greatest constant is a loving person nearby).

  6. Jenny Somerville says

    My 10 month old still will only sleep for 30-60 (if I’m lucky) stretches at night and will only nap for 20 min stretches during the day unless she’s in her carrier. I have had a hard time trying to find a routine for her naps. I try to follow her ques but can’t find a pattern. Should I try to encourage a schedule with her in hopes that the routine will help to lengthen her sleep durations? Any advice would be much appreciated on how we can all get a little more sleep! I should also say we co sleep and night and co sleep or have her in the carrier for her naps. thank you!

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