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16 month old can't put himself to sleep without being rocked

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Hello Dr. Laura
I just want to say that I really enjoy reading your posts and your website. You have given me some great insight in how to be with my son. Thank you!

We are really struggling with getting my son to sleep, for both naps and at bedtime, and to sleep through the night. He is 16 months and he has always been a difficult sleeper and I am starting to worry that we have created some habits that he won't ever grow out of.

For starters, he has always been an alert, interested in everything sort of baby. He was so easy distracted that starting at three months he wouldn't nurse in any place but a dark, quiet room. My schedule didn't always allow this, especially as he was eating every two hours at this point and so he started to get most of his milk at night. He slept in our bed for this as it was much easier and at least I got some sleep. It soon turned into him nursing every hour and half.

At a year, I was so exhausted at the end of my rope that we started weaning out some of the nursing, one at a time, by moving myself out to the couch (we live in a one bedroom) and having my husband hold him and rock him to sleep when he woke up. He was pretty resistant to this and it was a tough transition. As a rule I don't believe in CIO, but I was so desperate and exhausted that I had to do something. I also don't think its technically CIO when my husband is holding him the entire time, but it was a really hard for all of us. We are now at the point where I only nurse him once a night, around 4ish, but he still wakes up one to three other times, and really struggles to get back to sleep. He isn't upset, just restless and unable to put himself to sleep very easily.

To get him to sleep for naps or at bedtime, he needs to be rocked to sleep. It has almost always been this way, since about three months. Even though I would nurse him beforehand, he would still need lots of rocking to get to sleep. We are trying to get him to sleep on his own, by just lying next to him, but he is constantly sitting up, trying to stand up, crawling over us. Sometimes, he goes to sleep for my husband after about an hour, but with me, he always needs to be rocked (at the end of a long day I don't have the patience to sit with him for an hour, but if I knew it would work, I might be willing to try harder!) Usually, almost as soon as i pick him up, he relaxes and will be asleep in 10-20 minutes.

We have a pretty consistent bedtime routine with a bath after dinner and then stories and then I nurse him. We play the same cd every night and we try to get him down by 7/730. I am starting to think that the problem might be that he loves his bath and reading books and these might get him all excited instead of relaxing him. I am not sure what else to do with him that would make him relax. He is so alert and interested in everything. His language skills seem pretty advanced, he has a huge vocabulary and he is putting words into sentences. He seems to repeat about one word from every sentence we say, so even talking to him seems to be exciting and interactive. On the other side of this, he is not walking yet, and just starting to crawl, though he scoots around to get places. I keep thinking that once he walks he will be more tired and sleep better, but that still doesn't help with getting him to go to sleep on his own.

Ideally, I would love to be able to put him in his own bed/crib and have him fall asleep on his own, but I am just not sure if that is even possible with him. I thought I would see if you had any idea or suggestions so that someday, hopefully sooner then later, this might be possible. Are we too late in trying to get him to sleep on his own? Do you have any suggestions?



So you have a wonderful, smart, alert, interested in everything 16 month old who does not relax easily and has not learned to go to sleep unless he is rocked. He wakes up at 4am to nurse (and presumably goes back to sleep) and wakes up an additional 1 to 3 times/ night and has a hard time falling back asleep. You want some hope that this will someday be different, and some ideas, if possible, to move in the right direction.

Let me start by giving you a promise. Your son will someday fall asleep by himself and sleep through the night in his own bed. I can't tell you when, but I guarantee you that he will. Now, let's think about a road map for how to get to that point.

First, I want to give you some well-deserved credit. All that sleep you lost and all that night nursing was good for your son. Now that he's over a year old, though, he doesn't need to nurse at night, and it is actually bad for his teeth. (I know that some people say nursing does not cause cavities, and that seems to be true if the baby is solely nursing. But once babies start eating solid food, the bacteria in their mouth changes and breast milk, like any food, seems to then cause cavities.)

So the night weaning you did was fine, and will also help all of you to get more sleep at night. I want to add that CIO is when you leave a baby to cry alone, and my read of the research is that it isn't good for babies. But if his Dad was there holding him while he cried because he missed nursing at night, that is not CIO. Crying while someone you love comforts you, while you tell them how sad you are, is actually a healing experience. Since your son was over a year old and was nurtured through it by his dad, I do not believe it was harmful to him. I do understand, though, how hard it must have been for all of you.

Ok, let's turn to our road map. Your son needs to learn to put himself to sleep without rocking. Not only will he fall asleep more easily -- and by himself -- but he will also be able to put himself back to sleep, which will eliminate his night wakings.

I'm sorry to say that you are right about rocking being a habit that can be hard to break. I did exactly this with my own daughter when she was about the age of your son. I had stopped nursing her at night, but found that when she awakened, the only way I could get her back to sleep was to walk around the house rocking her in the middle of the night! Finally I committed myself to helping her learn to put herself to sleep. How? I lay down with her in her bed every night until she learned how to fall asleep by herself.

You say that if you lie down with him, he will fall asleep after about an hour. That was exactly the situation with my daughter in the beginning. We had a music tape that was very calming -- as I recall, I had to try a number of them to find one that bored her enough, because she likes music and found most of them too interesting. She slept on a very cozy mattress on the floor, so that I could lie down with her. (You can also do this with your little one in a crib, but it is harder for them to relax because you can't hold them as securely for as long. You can also put him to sleep in your own bed, but I don't recommend it if you are moving him, or it will be hard for him to put himself back to sleep in his own bed when he awakens at night. If he is in your bed for the whole night, then it's fine to put him to sleep in your bed.)

In the beginning it really did take an hour for my daughter to fall asleep, and I have to admit that I often fell asleep with her, which wreaked havoc on my schedule. You might try listening to an audio book to stay awake.

Let's think about what you might be able to do to hasten your son's learning this important skill of falling asleep without rocking. First, he needs to learn how to relax physically since until now he has depended on rocking for this. Massaging him would probably be helpful. I particularly recommend light rubbing on the acupressure release points that help release emotions: the top of the head, the corner of the eyebrow near the nose, the center of the bone under the eye, the center of the upper lip between the lip and the nose, the chin crease (above the chin, under the lower lip), the inside of the pinky finger near the tip, and the edge of the hand (the part you would use for a karate chop.) You can touch either side of the body. Each of these points in humans releases stress and emotion and helps us relax, so they are a great tool to teach anyone, particularly kids. You may notice your son yawn as you lightly touch one of these spots. That's a sign that his body is releasing stress and you can move on to the next spot.

It's also useful to use low light right through the bedtime routine, so that your son begins to produce melatonin, the night hormone, which makes him sleepy. I know some kids love night-lights, but my hyper-alert daughter would keep her eyes open if there was anything to see, so I made sure that her room was super-dark at night by forgoing a nightlight and choosing curtains that blocked out the light. They're a great investment for the early childhood years. 

I want to commend you for having a regular bedtime ritual, and for lights out at 7/7:30pm, which is probably before your son gets his second wind (that rush of adrenalin and cortisol that kids summon when we don't let them sleep when they first get tired.) You might keep in mind that if he is seeming more excited during bath and books, that could be adrenalin working, and he might need an even earlier bedtime. It is not unusual with kids this age to need lights out by 7pm, and I have heard of some very active kids who need a 6:30pm lights out. To find out, I would experiment with adjusting bedtime 15 minutes earlier for a few nights, and watch to see if he is any calmer.

I have noticed that when young children get daily opportunities to roughhouse and laugh, they fall asleep more easily. That makes sense, because laughter reduces the cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones in the body. It helps clear any anxieties that have guilt up during the day so the child relaxes.

While we're on the subject of adrenalin, your son has the energy of a kid who is walking, but he doesn't yet have a way to channel that. In addition to any roughhousing/laughter sessions, he needs to be kept active during the day scooting and crawling around as much as possible, climbing and pulling himself to standing. That will use up some of the energy that otherwise will have to be subdued at bedtime.

But it's important to ratchet the activity level down for a couple of hours prior to lights out, so he gets calmer. 

I also suggest a bedtime snack after bath for kids this age, to eliminate any possibility that your son awakens at night because he's hungry. If you have room for a small snack table in his room you can read a story while he drinks his milk and eats some bread and peanut butter, which keeps the peaceful atmosphere and doesn't disrupt the bedtime routine.

Finally, what do you do when you or your husband lies down with your son and he can't settle down, but is constantly standing up, climbing over you, etc? First, you should know that kids who are on the verge of walking often feel driven to do so. They do have a hard time lying prone while they are in the waking state. So after he learns to walk this will become much easier.

In the meantime, tell him it's bedtime and everything needs to sleep. Go through a gentle, boring litany of how everyone and everything you can think of is lying down in bed and sleeping right now. I would not tell him a story because it is too interesting and I would limit the number of songs you sing to him (but definitely leave the boring lullabye music going.) Don't engage in conversation. Tell him that his stuffed animals are sleeping and he needs to be still so he doesn't wake them. Massage him, as I suggested above, ending by touching/cuddling him only as much as he needs to stay calm and still. Then just be quiet and still yourself. Tell him that he needs to stay between you and the wall, and then when he tries to climb over you, gently put him back with his animals and pillow. Say again "It's bedtime now. Now we need to be still and sleep." You will have to do this over and over. He may even cry, which is fine. Comfort him, but stick to your limit.

Eventually, your son will learn that you are serious, and he will stay in his place and begin to lie down. He will probably do this faster if you snuggle him more completely, and that is fine. That will be an easier habit to break than rocking, once he starts falling asleep in his bed.

After a month or so, your son will be falling asleep fairly quickly with you or his dad lying beside him. Then it's on to the next step on your road map -- helping him learn to fall asleep without you needing to stay with him. There's a whole article on my website about helping toddlers learn to put themselves to sleep that will walk you through that step.

I have not addressed naptime here. Continuing to rock your son during naptime while you work with him on night sleep is fine. It is not ideal-- he'll learn the evening falling asleep faster if you don't rock him at naptime -- but honestly, I think it will be harder to make the change for naps, and babies seem to understand that naps are different.

I want to add that there is nothing wrong with waiting to begin this process.Your son is really still a baby, and it is hard for him to regulate himself to relax and go to sleep. On the other hand, there is also nothing wrong with teaching him this skill beginning now. It is something he will need for the rest of his life, and particularly for a very alert and interested in everything kind of guy, learning to relax and fall asleep is a critical ability.

The important thing is that you are actively parenting him to teach him the skill of putting himself to sleep, so he learns that you are always there if he needs you, and that he is safe and secure in the world. Your son is a lucky little guy. Enjoy him!

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