Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips

Photo credit: Lab2112 on flickr

This post provides tips for sleep deprived parents that want their babies to sleep better and, like me, do not want to use the cry it out approach. Some of these things I have learned through experience and others I’ve learned through reading research. I should note that I have not necessarily tried all of these things because I do not consider my children’s sleep to be a problem. That doesn’t mean that they never wake up and it doesn’t mean that there are not tough nights here and there, but on the whole I get enough rest and my kids get enough rest.

1. Calming Bedtime Routine

Children need time to calm down and prepare for sleep. Having a consistent bedtime routine can be useful in giving the child cues that sleep time is coming. There are likely things that you do each night before bed, such as putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, reading bedtime story, nursing or rocking, and so on. Try to do those things in the same order to help your child understand what is coming next and learn to calm down through that process.

You may also want to have a few routines that you alternate. For example, one routine for bath night and another one for other nights. One for weekdays and one for weekends. One that involves Daddy and one that involves Mommy. Having these alternate routines can help keep things smooth on nights when things need to change up a bit (e.g. one parent isn’t there, you are visiting friends, a favourite book is missing, etc.)

Also, create a calming environment during the bedtime routine. For example, turn off any bright lights (dimmers are great), television, and loud noises at least an hour before bedtime (ideally no television in several hours leading up to bedtime if you allow television at all). Consider building a massage into your bedtime routine.

2. Lots of Fresh Air and Exercise

With my kids and with lots of other kids I know, this is the single most important factor in determining how well they sleep at night. When our son was going through a really rough period with sleep as a toddler he was spending several hours outside each day running around. When we doubled the amount of time he was spending outside his sleep improved exponentially. Even in cold climates (we live in Canada), I recommend finding a way to get outside with your kids every day (bundle them up and go for several short trips outside if need be) and finding places for them to get exercise (playgroups and indoor playgrounds are great for this, but other options include going for a walk around a museum or a mall or other place where your child can walk for a long time). So if you’re spending 2 hours being active with your baby or toddler, try 4 hours instead and see if that makes a difference. Our kids need that exercise and fresh air anyways, so even if it doesn’t help with sleep, it is a good thing nonetheless.

3. Watch your Baby’s Diet

It is possible that something the baby is eating could be contributing to sleep problems. Some babies that are on formula have sensitivities to certain types of formula. For babies that have started solids, food allergies or sensitivities can impact sleep. Also, certain types of foods consumed too close to bedtime can prevent good sleep. This includes anything containing caffeine (chocolate, sodas, etc.), foods high in sugar, artificial colourings and preservatives, foods high in protein and simple carbohydrates. You should replace those foods with foods that promote good sleep, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. In addition there are certain foods that contain tryptophan (a sleep inducing chemical) that are good evening food choices (despite many of them being proteins). These include turkey, tuna, certain types of nuts (not for babies), cottage cheese, hard cheese, yogurt, soymilk, tofu, soybeans, eggs, bananas and avocados.

4. Watch for Irritants in Mom’s Diet

If you are breastfeeding, then it is also worth considering whether something in your diet could be contributing to poor nighttime sleep. Usually breastfeeding mothers can eat whatever they want, but some infants are sensitive to certain things in mom’s diet. Dairy is a frequent culprit and can be difficult to cut out (it is an ingredient in so many things, so finding all that hidden dairy can be tough). Kellymom has a great article on dairy and other food sensitivities in breastfed babies. Beyond food, caffeine and alcohol can be other culprits. Both of these are safe in moderation for breastfeeding. However, they can impact your baby’s sleep. Your caffeine intake can make your baby more wakeful (this is of course a catch-22 because if you’re not sleeping well, you’re more likely to reach for a coffee). With regards to alcohol, a study on sleep disturbances and alcohol has shown that infants had poorer sleep in the 3.5 hours after being exposed to even very minor amounts of alcohol in a mother’s breastmilk.

5. Consider Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping isn’t for everyone, but for a lot of families (mine included), it is the best way for everyone to get a good night’s rest. There are many benefits to co-sleeping and also important co-sleeping safety requirements to consider if you do decide this is right for your family.

6. Consistent Napping

Good sleep promotes good sleep. A lot of parents whose children do not sleep well at night mistakenly think it would be a good idea for them to give up naps. Instead, parents should try to institute a consistent nap routine. The baby’s last nap should not be too late in the day either to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with nighttime sleep.

7. Comfortable Sleep Environment

Wherever your baby sleeps, ensure that it is comfortable. That doesn’t mean adding all sorts of blankets and pillows (which can be dangerous). Instead, it means making sure that your baby is dressed appropriately for the temperature in comfortable pajamas. It may mean using things like white noise to help your baby to sleep. It certainly involves ensuring a smoke free sleep environment, not having smokers sleep in the same room as the baby, and ideally a smoke free home altogether.

8. Adjust Your Expectations

I hate all of the chatter about sleeping through the night. Our society puts way too much pressure on parents in this regard and completely discounts information on what normal infant sleep is. Be reasonable and patient with your child and understand that not every child is the same and also that a child that did once sleep well, may not always sleep well. If a child is teething, going through a growth spurt, sick, working on a developmental milestone, hungry, didn’t get enough exercise or fresh air, is preoccupied by a scary situation during the day, or any list of other things, that can wreak havoc on their sleep. Try to be understanding in these situations and help them get through those tough times.

9. Read, Read, Read

Nothing in this post helped you? Have you done all of these things already? This is just a start and only hits on a few key issues. But people have written whole books on this topic and maybe you could benefit from reading some of them. Elizabeth Pantley’s “No-Cry” series, including the The No Cry Sleep Solution, the The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers and the The No Cry Nap Solution (also my review) offer great tips and ideas. I have used these books extensively for myself and to help others. I should note that I didn’t do the logs that she suggests and unless you really want to be able to track and quantify improvements, I don’t think it is really necessary. So don’t throw away the ideas in the book just because the idea of the logs sounds too complicated to you. Just use the book to choose tips and solutions that are a good fit for your family and your child.

Other books that promote gentle approaches to sleep include:

Links to some videos and articles with sleep tips can also be found on the Parenting Baby To Sleep blog’s I Need Sleep Now page.

10. Recognize that This Too Shall Pass

Our kids are only little for such a short period of time. It isn’t always easy dealing with night wakings or sleep deprivation and I know it is frustrating for a lot of parents. I think it is important though to realize that it will pass, things will get better. You do not need to teach your child to self-soothe using cry it out. Your child will learn that skill with time on their own. In the meantime, if these tips are not working and you are frustrated, get some help. Certainly spouses/partners should help each other and find a way to share nighttime parenting wherever possible. Beyond that, find someone that can help you out during the day so that you can take a long nap when things are really rough.

Annie is a mom of 2 kids and blogs about the art and science of parenting at PhD in Parenting.

27 thoughts on “Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips”

  1. We’re at our wits end with our daughter. She’s 15 months old and we used to co-sleep and we all loved it. Until one day she started waking up at night more and more frequently and staying awake for an hour at a time and playing. If we didn’t turn a light on, she’d scream the whole time, and she didn’t want to be rocked or nursed. We eventually couldn’t take the whole family being sleep deprived, so we moved her to her crib in her bedroom so that one person at a time could deal with her and the other could sleep.

    She’s waking an average of 4 times per night and we don’t normally nurse before 4:30 or 5 (I’m 16 weeks pregnant and really need my sleep to function normally through the next day …) and haven’t fed her overnight in over a month. She still wakes. She’s WIDE AWAKE when she wakes, and even if I nurse her, she doesn’t fall back asleep.

    Any advice? We feel like we’re going crazy. We’d like more than 2 hours of sleep at a time going into this next baby’s first months!

    1. did your milk dry up? my daughter did similar thing at 18 months when i was about 4 months pregnant. didn’t realize until a month later that there wasn’t anymore milk. i bet in a few months she grows out of it regardless of the cause. hang in there. just make it un-fun to be awake in the middle of the night.

  2. @Kim:

    How much active outdoor play time is she getting each day? We went through a phase like that with my son. He was spending several hours outside each day, but when we added another couple of hours on top of that, it made a huge difference.

    What is her nap schedule like during the day? Is it regular? How long are her naps? How many naps is she having and at what time?

    Have you considered getting rid of the crib and putting a regular double bed in her room instead? When my son was 12 months we got him a double bed with a bedrail. We would put him to bed there at night and then one of us could join him in his bed if need be during the night. That way one person could still get sleep in the other room, but we also weren’t dealing with trying to get him to sleep alone in a crib (he slept better with someone than alone).

  3. Hey, thanks! My 14 month old daughter was having a hard time getting to sleep just then, and some of the thoughts in this article helped me focus on relaxing her without focussing on sleep, and she just drifted off. We co-sleep, and I love this, but she will only sleep on me or in the car, even for naps – I like doing this, but naps on her own sometimes would be wonderful, as I can’t do much of anything … I’m a writer and work fromhome, but the sound of the computer keyboard wakes her instantly! She is really sensitive and has mummy radar on hyper alert so getting her to sleep then puttting her somewhere or lying next to her then getting up doesn’t work! Any thoughts?

  4. Hi,
    There are many benefits to infant massage to aid in sleep and relaxation. I am a certified infant massage instructor in the Knoxville area and would gladly do a demo. for those interested.

  5. Any tips for weaning an 18 month old off of being rocked to sleep? She’s needing to be rocked for 20-30 minutes each night and for each nap and we don’t think we can do it any more. It’s not a long-term solution to her sleep needs and, as she gets bigger and bigger, it’s killing my arms and back. We have a solid bedtime routine with a bath, book, nursing, and song, but we don’t know what to do after that other than rock, rock, rock. She’ll nurse back to sleep in the middle of the night, but won’t fall asleep that way. Can anyone help? Thanks!!!

  6. Josh’s question is pretty much identical to mine. My daughter is 16 months and the rocking is taking longer and longer now that she is entering toddlerhood. She is also very wiggly as I rock her at times. Any ideas would be appreciated!

  7. Josh and Renee:

    I’m not sure what to suggest. We’ve always had our kids sleep with us. I nursed or cuddled them to sleep in our bed, so rocking was never a part of our routine. They would fall asleep in the same spot that they were going to remain for the rest of the night.

    Whether you are interested in co-sleeping or not, why not set up a space where you can lay down with your child to go to sleep (nurse to sleep or cuddle to sleep) and then you can leave after she is asleep if you want?

    For other tips, I would suggest Elizabeth Pantley’s No Cry Sleep Solution. I know she has tips for each type of sleep scenario, including transitioning away from rocking to sleep.

  8. Josh & Renee,
    I have a 3 1/2 year old, who had been a challenge to get to sleep for about 18 months. We always responded promptly to his cries and he nursed to sleep until about 18 months, then we rocked him to sleep. To this day, we still read him a story and rock him to sleep. However, in response to your problems, I think you just need to TRY putting your child in their bed. For example, many times when our son gets wiggly rocking, it is because he can’t get comfortable in my lap. As soon as I lay him down in his bed, he rolls over, gets comfortable, and settles in, then I say, “night night, I’ll see you in the morning.” If he replies “See you in the morning,” then I know he is okay with me leaving him to go to sleep on his own (which is the norm). If he says he wants to rock some more, we will rock for a few more minutes, then I’ll lay him back down. Sometimes he may not want me to leave the room, but he will lay in the bed, and I will sit nearby and sing to him for a few minutes, then he will settle in, and I kiss him goodnight and tell him I’ll see him in the morning.
    So the squirmies you are getting with the child rocking with you may be because he is too big to be comfortable in your lap – it could actually be a GOOD thing, that he is ready to start to settle himself to sleep. My son very rarely wakes up in the middle of the night anymore (that is fortunate because our 1 year old will only sleep in the swing, and wakes up sometimes – she is getting better, but when we move her to her bed, we are afraid we are going to be up every couple hours again). Our son is our “light at the end of the tunnel” that eventually our daughter WILL learn to sleep!
    Good Luck!

    1. Reading your post really gave me hope. We are first time parents of an 8mos. old. He’s amazing. We decided after reading an AP book that it was for us but we have no support around us. Our son has never slept well on his own. He’s always slept on me or in bed with us until we found a swing that worked. We’re going through teething and transition to a crib and a move all at once right now and his sleep has really suffered. I’ve felt that it would fall back into a rythm with time but have had lots of criticism from family telling me otherwise. I belief parenting is all about patience and taking the time to sync with your child so that you know their needs. It’s nice to hear another parent’s struggles and see their perseverance. I do not wish sleepless nights on anyone. Thank you for sharing.

  9. I would like to say that these recommendations will hardly work for my sun. If he don’t like to sleep he will never do this inspite of diet, lots of fresh air and exercise and other things. He is 6 months old only and often cries at nights. I would like to repeat that if my son doesn’t wish to sleep, he will not. Whatever you do for him you will not be able to calm him down. I think that it is typical behavior for kids of this age.

  10. My 14 month old only falls asleep at the breast for night and nap times, and we co-sleep. The problem is that I can’t sneak away… at all…. Once she’s asleep, she snuggles right up and moving her, or moving away, she wakes up right away and won’t resettle. I have to go to bed with her and stay there… all night long….it’s a real challenge, and I have no time with my husband. I’m all for attachment parenting, any tips so I can get a bit of “me” time, I can’t even sneak off to go to the bathroom.

  11. Hi,
    I have a 15 month old daughter with whom I’ve gone from nursing to sleep, to rocking to sleep w/o nursing, and some how we got back to nursing to sleep again. I would love to be able to put her in her crib when she’s tired and have her go to sleep on her own, but I can’t bear to hear her cry. If she’s not out she’ll wake up and cry to be picked up. I don’t think that my MIL fully understands my not using the cry it out method, but she goes along with what I do. I feel like either I missed a window, or I screwed up somewhere…. Thanks for any and all advice and/or help.

  12. My son finally slept through the night at 18 months old. Our story:

    For 14 months, we carried and bounced him to sleep. Nursing always worked but I tried to avoid it as sucking to sleep is a very-hard-to-break sleep association.

    We co-sleep and he fussed to nurse up to 10 times a night. I had ZERO hope that he’d sleep through the night. By chance, we changed bedroom and he (14 months old) suddenly didn’t want Daddy to bounce him. He rolled around me on the bed, didn’t cry, I didn’t nurse him and he dozed off. I realized he was ready to learn to fall asleep by himself and used more of Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry ideas.

    At the same time, I happened to start weaning him off the breasts in the day. After 4 months, he weaned himself off at night and slept through the night. Hubby and I have been soooo relieved since.

    Feel free to read more about our “Sleep” journey at All the best!

  13. i am a new mom to a 4 m/o. in the begining he had some tummy troubles and we got into the habit of standing rocking and nursing. he is so long and much bigger now. sometimes he will nurse in be and look asleep, but after need rocked again. i would love a peaceful nightime routine. he sometimes allows for this so i know he has it in him.’
    also nap times are never consistent. sometimes long nap in am, sometimes in afternoon, sometimes no long nao but a lot of cat naps, and often during his long nap he will wake several times needing to be rocked back to sleep. i rarely get up out of bed as he this normal behaviour for his age. my friend says something is wrong with his constitution. because of his napping as well as his fussy tendancies.
    the thing that is great is that he is a good night sleeper, sharing our bed is what i contribute this to. so fortunately i get good sleep unless he is extra wigggly, then i lay awake wondering if i should reposition him or put his knees to chest because he needs to fart. sometimes i do this and he wakes up pissed.

  14. We have been co-sleeping with our daughter very successfully until recently. Since she turned 1, she seems less and less restful! She goes to sleep promptly at 7pm but awakens every hour or so throughout the night. Sometimes she will nurse back to sleep and sometimes she insists that I get up and carry her around until she falls back to sleep. I am working 30 hours weekly and I suspect she is trying to make up for time that we’re missing on work days, but I do need to sleep! We have set up a toddler bed next to our bed in our room and are hoping to transition her there… any suggestions??

  15. Something we really noticed help our nap situation that then really helped our night sleep problems was integrating a good sleep, eat, play sleep schedule. As soon as she wakes up she nurses then I put her on the potty, she’s 9m now but she’s been using the potty since 6m. Then she plays and when I see her tired cues I put her back on the potty then I put her in a hammock. The Mama Little Helper hammock has an automatic rocker to it so it rocks her to sleep and she’ll nap for about and hour. Not saying doing elimination communication helps nap sleep but the routine of sleep then eat then play then sleep has really helped us. When babies are constantly nursed they think they need to nurse to fall asleep and that their bellies need to be full all the time. Well they may not be hungry but they cry because their belly isn’t full. I implemented this at 6m or so and it worked really well! And I think my biggest life saver has been that rocking hammock! I can’t rock for 20-40mins every couple hours and then get up and work in the ER that morning for 8-12hrs! She tends to do all her naps in it and if she’s having a bad day she goes to bed in it until she wakes to feed then I switch her to my bed with me and she eases right back to sleep after her feed! With the new routine she want from cat naps to 3-4 1hr naps and went from waking every hour or so to waking at 12am, 4am then wake up at 6am and nurse before starting the day.

  16. Thank you! I’m looking for gentle solutions for my ten month old. She’s up so much in the night and I won’t give up co-sleeping so I’m looking for answers. This was helpful. I’m trying to get a solid schedule during the day and I will try that hammock! Thanks again.

  17. Hi,
    My daughter is almost 20 months, and we’ve taken great joy in allowing her to go to sleep having a bottle and lying on us, then we transfer to her cot. Most of the time she stays asleep, but if she wakes she needs to be cuddled back to sleep (which my husband and I both enjoy).
    However, our son will be born around 17th April and I’m nervous about how I will manage to maintian our routine with our daughter and also meet the needs of our new born.
    Should we change how we are putting our daughter to sleep and if so what is the best option?
    We tried putting her down awake and sometimes she’s OK, but after recent surgery we took the side of her cot off and put a smaller side on so she can climb in and out, so now if we put her down to sleep she cries, climbs out of bed, opens her door and needs to be rocked to sleep, we tried putting her down and rubbing her back, it settles her but she doesn’t sleep, as soon as we leave the room she’s up again.
    But once asleep she’s 50% of the time there until morning

    Any advice, suggestions, links would be apprecitated

  18. We found for both of our children that the daytime consistent naps was key to night time sleep. If either one missed a nap, then it was more difficult to put them down, and likely that they would wake up at night. Consistency and routine are KEY! 🙂

  19. Well written. I agree with most of the points mentioned in there. I think baby meals need to have a good amount of carbohydrates and protein to help them with sleep. Setting baby sleep-routine is the key.

  20. I have a 6 week old and we co-sleep. I have 1 tip that might be a bit frowned upon but we’ve tried so often to put her down for a nap during the day by herself once she was fast asleep in me but she would wake up instantly, until she was put on her tummy. It stressed me out a little to start with until I watched that she was able to turn her head and her change her position and I check on her regularly as we have a completely open plan house and I don’t do it at night when she co-sleeps. But it was great just to be able to get half hr to an hr to get a few things done 🙂

  21. Our son is almost 21-months. We transitioned him to a twin bed in our room because he has always struggled with sleep (frequent wakes that usually consist of screaming/ crying and requiring his pacifier, bottle, mom/dad [sometimes both], or is even sometimes just inconsolable and we end up having to exit and re-enter the room to sooth/reorient him). Our sleep as parents has greatly suffered, as well as our time together as a couple. To a degree, we have accepted this because being responsive to our son has been priority for us. However, even in his own bed, mom or dad are always with him. If we do go to our own bed after he falls asleep, he will wake up crying and either come to ours or we go back to his. We are expecting our second and I just do not know what to do. I’m tired of doctors and others pushing for us to “rip off the band-aid” and sleep train. We have a good night routine, he gets plenty of exercise during the day, we don’t do sweets or processed foods with him…. I’m just stumped.

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