Sleep is foremost on the mind of most parents with a baby under one-year-old. What time should they go to sleep? Where should they sleep? How to get them back to sleep? I could go on and on.
For sleep-deprived new parents, their baby’s nighttime sleep pattern can become a never ending loop of trial and error without any relief. This dilemma often means no one in the family is well-rested and leads many parents to choose sleep training.
As a postpartum doula and a mother of two, I know there are ways to teach our babies from the beginning how to ‘eventually’ sleep independently. This will occur when it’s developmentally appropriate without ever needing to sleep train.
Eileen Henry is a Resources for Infant Educarers® (RIE®) Associate, author, and compassionate sleep coach. She educates families on how to respectfully and empathetically support their baby’s independent sleep in the most caring way.
I have read Ms. Henry’s book, Compassionate Sleep Solutions. I reached out to her because I study and practice RIE.
When it comes to infant sleep, I notice people think RIE means ‘cry it out’ and though I’ve never felt that way, I know many do.
In the interview that follows, Ms. Henry shares her perspective about cry it out (CIO) and the principles of RIE and infant sleep. As well, below she shares her knowledge and expertise in compassionate infant sleep.
Thank you, Eileen!
The RIE® Approach to Infant Care
What is the compassionate sleep solution?
It is a respectful and mindful approach to infant and child sleep. It is based in the RIE® Approach of caring for infants and grounded in Attachment Theory and Regulatory Theory. When practicing compassion, we are very present and actively listening to the other, in this case our child. To be this present we must be able to handle difficult emotions as well as positive emotions. All feelings are welcome.
I know you have a background in RIE, and I often find there is a misconception about RIE being CIO, and having a baby sleeping independently, versus the attachment parenting style of cosleeping. For parents planning to practice RIE, how may they educate themselves about infant sleep when they bring their babies home?
There is a big difference between allowing, supporting and reassuring a child in their struggle to learn a new skill and CIO. In RIE we support the inherent struggles of development as a building block of confidence, competence and resilience. There is also a big difference between incrementally ushering our children through developmentally appropriate stages of separateness on their way to autonomy (toddlerhood). This can be done in a way that fosters security and confidence. I prefer the word autonomy rather than independence. True autonomy allows for interdependency and that is the foundation of healthy intimate relationship. Compassionate Sleep Solutions is a highly responsive middle way to parent our children in learning the skill of sleep.
My work with parents is about the incremental steps from the newborn stage of enmeshment (bedsharing/co-sleeping), to some separateness (infancy – room sharing/crib), to autonomy (toddlerhood – crib/ bed/own room) and toward individuation adolescents and teens.
We must go through these stages to become differentiated adults. Our culture is young and we are currently flailing. Part of the difficulty I am seeing is that we do not understand differentiation as an essential element of being a mature adult. If I am differentiated, I can hold onto myself (internal world and external expressions) and be present for another to have their experience. Even when challenged by their experience I can listen, offer empathy and compassion or ask how I can support them. Non differentiated adults allow our internal experience to flood the relational space. We constantly feel “triggered” and have difficulty self-regulating. From this overwhelmed dysregulated place, we make other’s wrong, attack, retreat, blame and feel victimized. Therefore, the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that eventually need to happen can’t happen if we can’t differentiate and hold onto our own shit. The fact is that our children will leave our homes at whatever level of differentiation we (the parents) achieved. Again, this is development , it is ongoing and it is never too late to learn differentiation.
The ability to self-soothe is at the foundation of differentiation. I teach parents about their own self soothing, their child’s developing self-soothing mechanism and how we play a part in the child’s emotional regulation through co-regulation.
Sleeping through the Night (STTN)
There’s a huge conversation around sleeping through the night. Lots of ‘compare and despair’ over whose baby is sleeping the longest and waking the least at night. Do you feel it’s a reasonable expectation for a healthy term infant to sleep through the night by 12 weeks old? Do you feel there’s a natural point in a babies development where things should get easier?
I love that word combo – compare and despair. Comparison most often leads to idealization and that can lead to despair for sure. There is a “one up” or “one down” result. Meaning – “Damn that baby is doing better than my baby (puts me lower)” Or “Check us out. My baby is doing better than that baby (puts me higher)”. Idealization is delusional and delusion can and often leads to despair. Comparing our baby to other babies is natural and often not very helpful. Some babies come into this world and sleep comes easier for those babies. Therefore, the baby next door might be sleeping through the night at 3 months, but he is an outlier. Most infants need one to two feedings in the night at that age. But most infants don’t need to eat every hour at that age.
The important task is to find out where your baby is this regard. 3-4 months can be too early for some, but It is never too late to allow a child to learn the skills of falling and re-falling to sleep. If there is an optimal time it is between 5-8 months while the baby is still horizontal. Once they are upright and standing naps are the hardest sleep to regulate. But as I said – it is never too late to learn. Children are learning machines.
What kind of sleep setup do you feel is ideal for most newborns?
Close to Mama or the parent who is feeding and attending to their continual needs. Where the baby will sleep is a personal choice to be made by the family. I think that room sharing in either a bassinet or co-sleeper is important at this age. Bedsharing is fine as well – as long as it is safe (easy fix), everyone wants everyone there (meaning mom AND dad/partner) and everyone is getting the sleep they need. The last two conditions are where it tends to unravel.
What are your thoughts on swaddling?
It depends on the baby. My daughter had a full head of hair. She would grasp a handful, not be able to let go and scream. The swaddle was helpful for a brief period. I do not like the straight jacket Velcro get ups. I prefer a swaddle that the baby can bust out of when ready. Every time a baby moves the brain organizes so once they are moving a lot or rolling it is best to exchange the swaddle for a sleep sack.
Sleep Cycles and Transitions
I often hear from parents their baby will only sleep in their arms, or wakes as soon as they’re put in their bassinet. Pretty normal behavior for newborns, but for parents whose babies still need this type of sleep transition support at 3 & 4 months old, how may parents begin to teach their baby to transition into sleep more independently?
Babies are smart unique individuals. Some babies come into this world and need more soothing and they are smart enough to ask for it. When parenting the newborn, we are listening, and we respond often. More often than we will have to do later in the child’s life. We hold them a lot, more in the beginning than we ever will again. This stage is about building trust, safety and security. So yes, this is on the scale of very normal depending on the baby. 3-4-months is what I call the first brain wake up. And it coincides with the self-soothing mechanism coming online in the brain. Therefore, some babies (not all), can begin to learn the developmental skill of falling asleep on a hard, flat, still surface. When we rock hold and wear babies, we are fixing the falling of falling asleep. Since we can’t fix it forever, at some point babies will need to learn how to fall and let sleep take them. So, coming into the 5th and 6th months this is a great time to offer your baby the chance to fall to sleep, separately, on a firm, still surface.
The 4-Month Sleep Regression
Many new moms reach out to me around the 4 month mark. There’s a huge dialogue about the 4-month sleep regression. Do you believe this exists? If so, how should parents prepare to manage this fluctuation in their infants sleep?
Regression is a thing and it happens all of our lives. Because we develop all our lives and development is NOT at all linear. When these particular “regressions” happen is not at all trackable because every brain is unique in how and when it moves through developmental stages and leaps. I like to focus on the leap of development that usually (almost always) accompanies regression. At 4-months the leap is that big brain wake-up I mentioned above. The child is leaving the symbiotic state of the newborn and realizes where they end, and we begin. Therefore, they are coming into core relationship. They are also developing preferences for how they want sleep to happen. So, to prepare for this ask yourself – Do I want to be doing sleep this way at 6 months, at 9-months, or for how long?
Often preemies or babies who’ve spent time in the NICU, or been through a traumatic birth are a little more ‘high needs.’ For parents with a baby whom fits in this category, how early may they begin helping them get on track?
These are special circumstance babies and need more closeness to repair any fracture of attachment or trauma from birth. The best thing to do is come home and get as much skin to skin closeness as possible. Bedsharing or co-sleeping is a good choice for these little ones. Their nervous system needs more time. Depending on the complications or circumstances after birth it is best to wait until the 6th month at the soonest to work on sleep learning. Observe, listen and develop your intuition on your particular baby and you will know when it is time.
Getting Compassionate Sleep Support
What would you say to a mom who’s exhausted because her baby who was previously sleeping great is suddenly waking every hour?!
Respond, reassure and soothe – without fixing the falling.
I’ve read your book, and one thing that stood out for me is it has as much advice for parental self care, as it does about infant sleep. Why do you feel parental self care is an important part of getting babies sleeping?
Self-care involves personal acts of self-regard, self-respect and self-love. Our children learn this mostly by watching us do it. We are modeling values and what a human being needs to feel resourced and a sense of wellbeing.
Where may parents find you online? Do you have a program or complimentary consultations? If so, please share your contact details.
I offer a free 30-minute consultation: