It’s OK to Rock Your Baby to Sleep

Guest Post By R.A.

“Is your baby a good baby? Is he sleeping through the night?” I cringe slightly when I hear these questions because all babies are good babies and they can set up false expectations for new parents and caregivers. We don’t need to equate goodness with sleeping through the night. We shouldn’t. And we shouldn’t expect that babies will sleep throughout the night, without waking. There is good reason for them not too, both from an evolutionary and practical perspective.  Even the idea of what it means to sleep through the night varies by individual, family, book, or resource you might be referencing. As a mom of a newborn, I paid too much attention to what so called sleep ‘experts’ had to say about this topic and now I’d like to share a few of my reflections, looking back over the first year.

When my baby wakes up in the middle of the night, he is not just ‘seeking attention’ and I don’t need to ‘train’ him. Last night, when I was room sharing with him in his nursery, he woke up because while he was sleeping, he turned over and accidentally hit his head on the bars of the crib. That must have hurt.  He woke up and started crying. Of course I responded.

When he wakes up he is not just using a bottle as a ‘sleep prop’. He is actually hungry. When he cries, I offer him the bottle and he eagerly takes it. I can hear his stomach growling and how it settles once he has some milk. Of course I responded.

When he wakes up he is not a ‘bad baby’. But tonight, he is having a bad dream. He’s falling back asleep in my arms. But he starts to whimper. I brush his hair with my hand and hold his little hand in mine. He sighs and settles. Of course I respond.And sometimes he just wants to be comforted during the middle of the night.  Because that is normal. It’s normal. And your response to comfort your little one is normal too.
Of course, I am looking forward to when he sleeps for longer and longer stretches. But until then…

One of my favourite parts of the day is just before 7pm when I’m sitting with my baby in our rocking chair, feeding him and rocking, as he falls asleep in my arms before I transfer him to his crib (and yes, sometimes it takes more than one attempt to make the transfer!). When he wakes up throughout the night, which he still does frequently at 11 months old, this is how I comfort him and help him get back to sleep – by picking him up, comforting him, feeding him, and giving him a soother. Despite what I’ve read online and have been warned about by some ‘trainers’, I’m not worried about my approach. And if you do something similar, I hope you aren’t either. I don’t know any 20 year olds that need to be rocked back to sleep or any 30 year olds that wake up at 2am to need to eat lasagna to get back to sleep (need being the operative word, because I certainly don’t mind a late night snack myself!).  

It’s normal for babies to wake up throughout the night. It’s normal for them to nurse and feed. And it’s normal for us as parents to rock, and soothe our babies back to sleep.

For my husband and I, parenting overnight is one of the most important things we do because when our little one wakes up and cries out, it’s usually when he needs us the most. It’s also when he is the most vulnerable. A calm and loving presence, being with him, a soothing hand (or soother), embrace, hug, cuddle, nursing session or feed, are some of the most comforting things we can offer as parents overnight (or as guardians or caregivers). It’s not always easy and I understand that there are circumstances where some parents need to look for other approaches (especially parents with limited support, those struggling with post partum anxiety or depression, parenting solo, or for many other reasons). I just wish that as new parents, we weren’t made to think that we need to teach our babies to be independent by not responding overnight. This is not how babies learn independence. They become independent and form healthy attachments by knowing that they can trust us to respond consistently when they need us.

This relatively new idea that we should be trying to train our babies to sleep without contact for 12 hours is not based on evidence of what’s best for babies or for us, it certainly doesn’t feel right either. You don’t need to train for sleep because sleep is a biological response to tiredness. And sleep ‘training’ is not the path for supporting babies and children to develop into resilient adults with healthy attachment bonds. But being responsive to them when they need us, is.

What is normal is frequent wake ups and being close to my little one when he needs me – day or night. I know that responding to him, especially when he is crying out overnight, helps him build trust that the world is a safe place because when he needs comfort, someone will respond. I also know that responding to him is strengthening his ability to form positive and secure attachments that will serve him throughout his lifetime, especially in the form of healthier relationships.

Responsive parenting overnight can take many forms. For some, it might mean safe co-sleeping arrangements when the risks have been assessed and determined to be minimal, for others it might be extended room sharing that makes overnight comforting easier. It might also mean extra support (like an overnight doula) so that parents and caregivers can get a bit of extra rest every once in a while.

Some babies in their own cribs (or safe sleep surfaces) might just need a soothing hand on their back or tummy while they settle back into sleep, or a soother, and many others might need extra cuddles, rocking, holding, or to be nursed or fed. Whatever works for you and your baby, I hope you are able to make it work and get through it one night at a time. We have had some overnight support along the way and are very grateful for that, especially since some of the other areas of our support system are more limited.

Around the one year mark our baby was waking up on average, two or three times a night (often at 10pm and 5am). Now that he is over 14 months old, he often only wakes once or twice and on those rare nights, will sleep right through until 6am. We didn’t need to train him to do this.  And I also know that as he grows he will continue to wake up, looking for some comfort (or a snack!).

Some nights are more tiring than others. But I also know it won’t be like this forever. So when we start our day around 6am, I grab a coffee and think ahead to all of the inevitable sweet, and challenging, moments that we will have throughout the day – and night.