Babies and sleep

Not long ago a reader wrote asking me how I’ve handled issues with babies and sleep.  For starters, I was blessed to have the example of a great mom, who nursed her babies long-term, slept with them at night, and generally modeled relaxed loving mothering to me.  Her example made it second nature for me to respond to our babies in a relaxed way even at night.  Here are some of the things we did that made night-time parenting easier.


We let our babies sleep with us for the first year or so. I know cosleeping is not for everyone, but we loved it.  We had a king sized bed so that there was enough space for mom, dad, and baby.  I also installed bed rail on my side of the bed so that the baby could sleep close to the edge on my side without falling out.  I tended to keep new babies close to me at first, but once John got used to a baby in the bed, he was just as aware of where the baby was as I was.

Nursing on demand

The best thing about the baby sleeping with us was being able to nurse without getting out of bed.  It can be tricky at first, especially with a tiny baby who is just learning to nurse.  But it is SUCH a sanity saver in the long run– instead of sitting up rocking to nurse, you can actually sleep.  Ah, heaven.  And forget the schedule.  If our babies cried at night, I fed them, plain and simple.  I nursed all four of our biological kids and three of our adopted ones, so I’ve spent about a decade nursing babies.  And I’m telling ya:  nursing in bed and feeding on demand made it much more doable and relaxing for me.

Keep it simple

Whether you’re nursing or bottle-feeding, co-sleeping or sitting up in the rocking chair, it is important to keep things as easy at night as possible.  That means having diapers and extra binkies and bottles and anything else you’ll need very close by.  Nightgowns or sleep sacks make night diaper changing much quicker and easier.

Rest during the day

Another huge sanity-saver when coping with a baby who isn’t sleeping well yet is to remember to rest a little each day, especially in the first 6 months when the baby is likely to be most restless.  Lying down even for 20 minutes in the afternoon with your feet up and your eyes closed is restorative to your body.  Yes, even if you don’t sleep, and even if you’re lying on the couch with Sesame Street playing for your 3 year old.

I personally think high door-locks on the front and back door are a great investment for moms of little ones.  That way you don’t have to worry about your 3 year old opening the front door and letting the UPS man in.  It’s no way to wake up from a nap, let me tell ya.

Get outside

When babies are waking you often at night, you sometimes go through a day in a fog of exhaustion.  A brisk walk outside every day, even for 15 minutes or so, can get your blood flowing and help you regain a more positive outlook on life.  Stick the baby in the carrier and the toddler in the wagon, and everyone will benefit from the outing.

Stash chocolate in strategic locations

I think I’ve mentioned my love of chocolate. Sometimes my chocolate habit even gets me busted.  But more than once it has given me just the lift I needed in the middle of a tiring day.  Try it.  You might just like it.  Even if you need to walk again afterward.

Set loving limits

When our kids got old enough to start sleeping a little more independently, or when I wasn’t home to put kids to sleep via nursing was when dad needed to step in.  For the first 10 years of our parenting journey I worked part time as an OB nurse, so there were always times when John had to put the kids to bed.  Some of the kids went to sleep easily for him:  feed them a bottle, lay them down, the end.  But a couple of the kids did resist going to sleep without me.

Rather than letting kids truly cry it out, John would sit in their room next to their bed and pat their backs as they fussed before going to sleep.  Sometimes it would take a little crying before they went to sleep.

There were times as they got older that they’d also try to sit up or stand up.  He’d just say ‘no, go to sleep’, lay them back down and go back to patting their backs.  Occasionally they’d get so wound up he’d have to pick them up and rock them for awhile to settle them down again.

But there seemed to be something about dad being the one in there, just gently insisting it was bedtime that encouraged a baby to go to sleep eventually.  And we felt like crying when mom or dad was right there was likely to be a much less scary proposition for the child than being alone in a dark room with no one there.

Older babies and weaning

John also did the back-patting trick with the kids once they were 12+ months old and we were beginning to feel like it was time for them to be sleeping on their own (often when we were weaning or at least trying to get rid of night feedings.)  He’d put them to bed and stay with them til they got to sleep.  Then when they’d wake up in the night, he’d be the one to go back into their room, tuck them back in, and pat their backs til they went back to sleep.

At our house, the babies are pretty much all mine til they’re a year old due to nursing.  But it has become a habit for John to take over and respond to night wakening after kids are a year or so old.  And– funny thing– he STILL is the one most likely to get up when a child vomits or has a bad dream. I’m pretty sure I got the better end of that deal, come to think of it.

What we did with our adopted kids

One final note to this rather long post:  we treated our newly-adopted infants and toddlers as if they were newborns when they first came home.  We 100% responded at night to them for a good solid year after arrival — in some cases longer — before instituting any ‘alone’ sleep rules.  This gave them a chance to get well bonded to us.

Finally, I want to encourage all you tired mommas out there to to hang in there and just take one night at a time.  Some day your baby WILL sleep all night long. Maybe not tonight.  But the time will come.  And you’ll make it.  Really.

And for those of you who are mommas who’ve already survived some sleepless nights I’d love to hear– what helps you deal lovingly with your baby’s needs at night?  How do you keep your sanity when you are sleep deprived?

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  1. I LOVE this post! I am posting tomorrow about co-sleeping (I just wrote the post) and this was such a wonderful post to read! I am pregnant with number 3 and this post was very reassuring to read. Thank you!

  2. One thing I’ve struggled with is knowing what is “normal” and what is adoption attachment type issues with our daughter. She came home to us as a 7 week baby but has always had trouble sleeping through the night. She is now 4 and still wakes up at least once sometimes more wanting to sleep with us or upset or scared. I think it’s because of her deep down fear of us leaving her. Doc thinks it’s because she’s just being 4 and wants to sleep with mom and dad. She’s also a light sleeper and so maybe that’s part of it too. I don’t know how strict to be with boundaries because I don’t want to hinder healing for her fears. Anyone else have this issue? Oh ya, we aren’t opposed to co-sleeping – she’s just the world’s most restless sleeper, kicking, hitting, talking, etc. So even in our king size bed no one gets much sleep.

    I just know I’m tired. Thankful I get to be her mommy when she has her midnight wakings. But tired.

    • Missy, We allowed our youngest two daughters to sleep with us for several years for that same reason. Both were adopted and both seemed to really crave our presence at night time. Our youngest was actually 5 before we booted her, and now at 7 she still enjoys telling the story of how daddy said she couldn’t sleep with us anymore because she kicked him too much. Another thing about her– we were older and wiser and knew clearly how fast our time would go with her. So we both hung onto that time with her as ‘baby’ in our bed, knowing it was precious time and wouldn’t last forever. (Nothing like having teens and adult kids to give you a new perspective on little ones! 🙂 )

      • Thanks for your wise words! 🙂

      • We have a 4 year old that joined our family at 3 months old. He has never slept good having dealt with reflux, food intolerances, sensory issues and so forth. Now he deals with night terrors and also needing to know that we are right there. He’s on a waiting list for PTSD therapy. Maybe, just maybe sometime, hubby and I will finally be able to sleep!! It is nice to know that others have had older kids sleeping with them since many people look at us strangely for having him in our room.

        • Barb, I think our daughter has some sensory issues too. Before reading this post and comments we always stressed to her how important it is to stay in her bed all night. I decided instead to start stressing that mommy and daddy will always be there and that she can come to our room anytime she needs to. The past 2 nights she’s slept in her bed all night. Coincidence? We shall see!! Praying that God provides you all the strength and energy you need!

    • Hang in there Missy! I’ve got a biological 2.5 yr old daughter that still doesn’t consistently sleep through the night (and we co sleep). I think there is no true normal for sleep – no matter how the child came to be in your home. Our infant sleep issues with her were mostly food allergy related, now they may still be some of that, but mostly just seem to be her personality… it’s just what she needs at night, so we continue. BUT now, she’s not keeping us up all night either! Maybe add a twin size bed pushed up against yours with a rail on the outside and a big body pillow between you and her after she falls asleep? Just hang in there and listen to yourself – you’re the mom, and you know her best! 🙂

  3. tia bennett says:

    We did all of those with a few kinks. We always put them to bed at night in their own bed and then at their first waking I would bring them in to nurse and cosleep. I had to wash sheets more often due to milk leakage, but the sleep was worth it.

    Our kids liked and needed a pacifier, we would put all of them that we could find in their bed at night so if they woke up they were likely to find one :).

    Afternoon rest times were a must for me and my sanity. We also had a flexible schedule we stuck to during the day, which I feel helped night time too.

    Honestly, looking back, I wish I hadn’t stressed as much as I did about sleep. Lack of sleep on my part is my excuse! I was desperate some days!

    I don’t whole heartedly agree with all of the Growing Kids God’s Way methods, but there is one that we still do. If a child, especially toddler and up, is having trouble sleeping try some parent couch time. Have Mom and Dad sit on the couch together every evening for like 20 minutes. Sit side by side and just talk, but make sure the kids see you.
    Worked for us!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    This is a wonderful post, thank you! We have no children yet, but will be adopting in the near future. Please share how you were able to nurse your adopted children… that is major a priority for me, but I have yet to meet any adoptive mothers who’ve done so.

    • Elizabeth- a friend of mine did this, by taking hormones. She mentioned getting a lot of help from the laleche league as well.

      • Thank you for mentioning Laleche… I’ll be sure to check out their site. Perhaps there is a local chapter here where I can get involved. 🙂

  5. Love this! I would add that a lack of focus on how much sleep I was getting or not getting was very important. Don’t think too much about it; it’s not a healthy focus, you’ll be miserable. Also, for olders, such as the four year old (and my current 6 year old) I provide a little treat for staying in their own bed when it becomes a problem. One little gummy bear is laid on the breakfast dish the night before, and if he stays in his own bed all night he gets to eat it, but if not, he puts it away to try again tomorrow. It’s small enough a reward that it’s not a big cost to him to come to me if he really needs the attention, but it’s a small reward for sleeping by himself.

    • Sue– I think that is a HUGE and important insight. Sometimes I’d literally turn the clock around so I couldn’t see it. And I’d try not to count how many times I’d be awakened. Meet their needs, then sleep when you can and be thankful for the sleep you get. They grow fast, they really do.

    • Thanks for that thought. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with being so tired and not getting sleep but it certainly weighs on me. I need to just give it to God and know that He’ll provide for me, just like I’m providing for my kiddos needs.

  6. I think one thing that has been important to us in our parenting/sleep journey is finding what works for us as a couple and as a family. Bedsharing does not work for us as a couple, but having baby in our room in a bassinet does. Finding what works for us as a couple (and compromising on both our parts) makes us stronger and also makes us more willing to sacrifice our own sleep so that the other can rest. It’s also been a challenge- and continues to be a challenge- to find the best sleep solutions for our kids. Our 2 oldest are the opposite in sleep patterns, so putting them in different bedrooms has helped tremendously. It’s what works best for us as a family… even if that means that our 2nd will end up sharing a room with baby brother for a few years. Nontraditional, but it works!

  7. Loved the previous comment- lack of sleep is so hard- I have 3 & my oldest just turned 4 so I definitely get it. 🙂 I always try to keep in mind that God promises to give us what we need- our youth pastor used to say, “So if I don’t have it, that means I must not need it!” And I apply that to sleep, too- He will give us the sleep we need & the strength to get through that next day. 🙂

  8. Mary, you’ve simply nailed it (again) in my humble opinion. Although we’ve never adopted & we don’t personally care for co-sleeping (no issues with it, just not our gig :)), it’s wonderful to hear someone speak up for on-demand nursing & not letting a baby “cry it out” at night — they’re just babies, for goodness sake. I’ve never understood the need to leave a baby go to sleep on his own when it really takes so little to comfort them. Now, I haven’t lived in baby utopia, we’ve had our share of babies who put us through our paces. One didn’t sleep more than 2 hours at a time for the first 2 weeks, leaving my husband & me beyond sleep deprived — I’ve never been so tired in my life! We had another that struggled mightily with sleeping for the first 6 months — I slept for 4 hours while my husband rocked her, then I got her for the next 4 hours to rock her while my husband slept. It seemed like forever while we were in the midst of it, but in the end it was such a short time to do whatever we could to help the little gifts God had given us. The best perspective you gave — they all learn to sleep sooner or later. I’d add to that — you know deep down when it’s time to be done with the dependence, the tricky part is figuring out the best way to end it. 🙂

    Regarding on-demand feeding, I’m thinking it’s really the only way to handle the growth spurts that happen periodically when those sweet babies need to eat more often. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not supposed to be about our personal comfort. It’s just one more selfless act of being a mother — some selfless acts are easier for some & more difficult for others. I certainly have plenty of areas where being selfless isn’t my strong suite. 🙂

    One last thing: couldn’t agree more with the chocolate stash, even though it can cause a little strife when you’re found out! The endorphin rush (I think that’s what it is?) from chocolate is worth the potential difficulties one might encounter upon discovery.

    Have a blessed day, Mary.

  9. Whenever I would question whether or not it was the right thing to sleep with my baby, I would think about what primates do. Babies and very young children understand that we are there to protect them. When we lived in caves, families must have slept together for warmth and protection. In my very unscientific opinion, I believe babies and toddlers are hardwired to need bigger humans around them.

    My child didn’t sleep through the night until he was 20 months old. It turned out that he needed surgery to enlarge the opening of his penis. It was painful for him to pee and it would wake him up at night. So, I don’t think children should be allowed to cry themselves to sleep, but if a situation goes on too long, it is a good thing to have the child checked out.

    I love your calm, reasonable, baby-centric view Mary!

    • I totally agree on the primate thing! Babies are not manipulative creatures out to deprive you of all the sleep they can, but they just need their parent(s) and they want to feel their presence. It’s actually been proven that in co-sleeping families both mom and baby get more sleep than in non co-sleeping families!

  10. I’ve always really admired and respected you and appreciated your posts. This one just makes me think even more of you!

  11. When my teenage daughter was a baby and living on a cancer floor, I survived on 2-3 hours of sleep a night which can be the normal amount for caregivers of someone with a medical issues that requires a lot of maintenance.
    The time I was awake I was spent caring for my daughter but I discovered after a few days that if I prayed continually, listened to music often, and because I was walking constantly with her (the only thing that soothed her and had me clocking about 12 miles a day on the floor) I was never tired until I hit the pillow. Persons who exercise seem to have a built-in focused mechanism and an uncanny ability to function. God works in miraculous ways!

  12. Ah!, soooooo true! 1) It goes SO fast. 2) The baby years really CAN be enjoyed! 3) Throw away rigid schedule. 😉

  13. Oh Mary, thanks so much for this post! More women need to be educated about this! With daughter I was very worried about SIDS and I felt very guilty if we both fell asleep while nursing. Now I know more and my son usually ends up in our bed… He starts off in his bassinet and after his night feedings I sometimes put him back, and sometimes I don’t. I don’t worry about night time diaper changes.. just make sure he’s wearing a big diaper and that’s gone well so far.
    And I can’t stress the importance of nursing on demand enough. Like the lactation consultant at my breastfeeding class said: “humans are mammals. Have you ever seen a goat deny her lamb the milk because it wasn’t her time yet? Or seen a cow send her calf away until four o’clock?” Not everyone might be happy about the animal metaphore but I do think it’s true.
    (Did I mention I’m training to be a leader for VBN? That’s a Dutch breastfeeding organisation similar to LLL.) I feel very strongly about nursing, I never expected it to make me feel so strong, so powerful. It’s the best start I can give my baby. Or, to quote someone else, “why buy from the competition when I have my own factory?”
    And I am also very interested in hearing the story of you nursing your adopted ones. Were you still nursing a different baby when they came home? Is that how your milk supply still worked? And did they still know how to latch on? So many questions…

    • I forgot something… nursing on demand is nursing on demand, so also in the middle of the night. Even if your aunt or mom or neighbor tells you that night feedings shouldn’t happen after baby has doubled his birth weight/is six weeks/is three months/is six months. Even if your best friend’s formula fed baby sleeps from 7 – 7. Not stressing about this makes so much difference! That and, as you said, turning the alarm clock around. It’s not relevant to know how many times your baby woke you up. The question is, did you get him (and yourself) back to sleep? Good for you! And because prolactin levels are very high in the night, it’s very good for your production to give night feedings.
      (I’ll get off of the soap box now.)

  14. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m currently nursing #5. Though I don’t feel comfortable co-sleeping he is close by. I pick him up and feed him in my bed, then put him back in his bed. Keeping the lights off helps both of us to get back to sleep faster and is restful for me while he is feeding. Another thing I do is not change diapers at night. I found by the time I changed a diaper at night I’m wide awake and so is my baby. I only change them if they absolutely need it or if they have a diaper rash that we are fighting (rarely) otherwise they use the same diaper all night. Disposables work well for this, if I used cloth at night I would have to change it.

  15. This is a great post. I am pregnant with my 7th and this is basically what we have done. Even down to having my husband taking over with night-time wake-ups once the babes are one-year-old. He also still gets up with the kids at night and I agree that it is a better deal (thought that wasn’t my original intention:) We haven’t done as much co-sleeping with the last few babies once they are about 3 months old. Both ways have worked for us but it has been nice to have them in their crib once they are only waking up 2-3 times per night when I have had so many other children to care for during the day.

    You said it all so well!! And I am so glad you brought up the issue of nursing adopted children. So many women don’t know that it is even an option. If anybody is interested in learning more, there is a site called that offers valuable assistance on this topic.
    I didn’t nurse adopted children, but I did re-lactate after not nursing for 10 weeks. It is not only possible, but doable!!
    I would strongly encourage any adoptive moms to check it out.
    Milk glands are always there, they do not form during pregnancy. Most women never hear that type of information.
    Thanks again, Mary, for this awesome post, and for getting such helpful info out there!!

  17. 🙂 i appreciate you so much! 🙂 as some other readers mentioned, your post here just affirms the decisions we’ve/i’ve made for my 2 kids… i LOVE co-sleeping…it’s wonderful. it’s not what my mom did, and neither did my mother in law… sometimes i wonder if i’m just a sap and a wimp for wanting my babies close! 🙂 i’m glad i’m not crazy or “needy.” 🙂 my almost 1 year old still sleeps next to me (in a pack n play and sometimes next to me) each night. she still wakes up some, but we’re not nursing in the middle of the night any more… she sleeps so much better with me than she does alone…and honestly, i love having her snuggles 🙂
    i never figured out how to nurse while in bed 🙁 but i wish i could have… i just couldn’t figure out how to position everything! 🙂 so, i would just sit and wrap my blanket around me and nurse… 🙂
    we also have a white noise machine, and that has been wonderful. in the beginning, i thought it was kind of dumb, but now, after 3 years of having one (we first got one when my now 3 year old was only a few months old), i love it… i actually sleep so soundly sometimes that it’s scary! 🙂

    thanks for making me feel “normal” 🙂 when i see how sweet and incredible your family seems, it makes me think that, maybe, for today, i did the right thing 🙂


  18. Mary,
    This is SO my life! Naps are a lifesaver. As is the reminder that this, too, shall pass. It is amazing how little sleep you can function on. 🙂

  19. Fantastic post. To my parents’ horror, we are co-sleeping and nursing on demand with Little Peanut. There’s no better feeling than her little snuggled body in the middle of the night!

  20. Michaela Chown says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have stressed over the years (6 children, pregnant with number7) about sleep issues. Trying to do what other people and older generations expected of me. However, I have finally relaxed, my son comes in every night after settling in his own bed for a cuddle where he stays until morning. My 14 year old never slept through until she started full time school aged 5. It is so short lived, I would love her to come into my bed for a cuddle now. My other children only come in now if they’ve rarely gad a bad dream or are sick. Even tonight, my four year old asked to come in and I just say if you wake in the night you are welcome to come and sleep in mummy’s bed. I would rather have a well adjusted child than a full nights sleep! Once it’s gone, it’s gone…

  21. Thanks for writing this. We were cosleepers, I nursed both of my babies until 12 months+, and it killed me to let them cry. (I tried everything, believe me!) My kids are now well-adjusted preteens. Now I have someone else to link to that did it (mostly) like I did!

  22. Kim Kauffman says:

    This was a great post! Our daughter was a TERRIBLE sleeper for the first nine months due to terrible acid reflux. She’s gotten much, much better but now (she’s 16 1/2 months) she’s getting SIX teeth at once – four molars and two incisors and goodness gracious she is back to her terrible sleeping habits. I know she’s in pain and she can’t help it but wow, I pray every night that these dang teeth will come in fast. 🙂

  23. Mary, I love you so much for posting this. I’m on month 8 of getting less than 3 hours of sleep a night (pieced together), with my preemie twins (our 5th and 6th children). Between nursing them both, I sometimes feel like I don’t sleep at all. But you’re right, of course, they will sleep through the night eventually. I think I just needed to “hear” you say it. 🙂