There’s a reason your baby or toddler won’t sleep.

I find that many parents feel anxiety and pressure when their baby won’t sleep, but don’t resonate or have success with common solutions. This article will shed light on why that is, provide insight about what you’re seeing, and share information on how to help your baby sleep. 

Another piece of sleep advice? What this is and isn’t

What it is:

  • Respectful, treats your baby as a person
  • Underlying needs, root causes
  • Baby’s own wisdom, innate abilities
  • Clarity on the “self-regulation” you’ve been desiring
  • Connection and communication
  • Working together with your baby
  • Sleep as it relates to other aspects
  • Release of mom guilt
  • Raising a human and member of society

What it is not:

  • Sleep training
  • Cry it out
  • Quick fix of symptoms only
  • Sleep as a singled-out skill
  • Authoritarian

Why so much differing sleep advice?

It’s like having a chronic illness or recurring injury and choosing a care provider. Some treat symptoms only. Some take a more involved look, realize the symptoms seem linked to something else (like exercise or sleep), and then stop there and make relevant suggestions. Still others take a deep dive to uncover all possibilities and all relationships between body systems, looking for underlying reasons either until they get to the root of the problem or discover more questions.

The resulting advice, then, can vary greatly. The following information? It’s the latter! This approach come from Aware Parenting, the work of Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

The #1 reason babies won’t sleep

Sleep is a state of consciousness, an innate biological function. Humans must sleep to survive. As we get older, we could say there are ‘skills’ around managing the state of our nervous system according to situations we’re in. But sleep itself is not a skill.

If it’s innate, then why won’t your baby sleep?

Babies and toddlers innately know that in order to sleep, they must relax; and in order to relax, they may need to let off some steam.

Have you ever had the experience of lying awake thinking about something—and for some crazy reason (maybe having to do with the state you’re in) it’s a million times bigger in the middle of the night? It’s not that we don’t have the skill to sleep. It’s that this thing is bothering us to such a degree it’s preventing us from relaxing.

Here’s where babies don’t get enough credit from society for being ‘people.’ They’re the same.

And here’s the missing piece of information, the gem: Does your baby ever cry after basic needs have been met and you don’t know why? Or cries “because s/he is tired”? If not, think back to earlier days; was this true at any point? Or is there something you must do constantly or else your baby would cry, such as rock, bounce, shush, pacifier, or nurse (for-comfort-only)?

Why babies cry

Babies cry for two main reasons:

  1. Everyone knows babies cry to communicate basic needs, such as hunger and closeness.
  2. Not everyone knows that babies also cry to release stress. It’s a natural healing mechanism. When done in arms, it’s how they process and heal their experiences, such as overstimulation, a stressful birth, a NICU stay, medical procedures, developmental frustrations, etc. Note, ‘cry it out’ involves babies being left alone or separated, which is very different from the innate healing process described here.

This information is new to most parents. I personally think it’s not more common because of two factors: 1) our society tends to be very uncomfortable with emotion, although this is starting to change, and 2) most of us adults weren’t raised this way—and haven’t been for generations, going back to the Middle Ages when babies were pronounced possessed with demons if they cried. We’re talking old habits!

Emotional habits can set in extremely early, before higher-brain analytical and reasoning skills develop. These learned habits can become so ingrained that by the time we’re adults (long before, really) they feel like instinct. It’s why we address this with babies so early. It’s why you’re here searching for information—you may not know the technicalities, but maybe something in your gut that you can’t explain may have made you wonder… Thank you for investigating.

Without knowing reason #2 above, most parents see only two options for the crying: ignore/separate (‘cry it out’ or sleep training) or distract (do whatever it takes to make it stop).

But this new insight means there’s a third way for you. It means crying itself—in arms—is also a solution. More on this in a moment.

What “regulation” really looks like

Self-regulation is quite a buzz word, and it’s something most parents are seeking for their babies. We tend to want “regulation” to look orderly, or think that a regulated baby looks calm, happy, not-crying, everything’s A-okay. In the end, that may be true to varying degrees. But the reality is, the pathway to a truly settled place is typically messy, loud, and chaotic–and this critical process is usually skipped in traditional attempts at getting babies to “self-regulate.” 

But therein lies the gem! Set aside the goal of the “self-regulation” you’ve heard so much about. That old perspective can prevent parents from seeing the beautiful, natural process Baby is going through.

The big feelings bubbling up are exactly what can prevent your child from relaxing. It’s what’s “on his mind.” This is what’s fighting sleep—not the child himself.

  • For babies, this usually looks like continued crying after needs have been met or dependence on something in order to sleep.
  • For toddlers, it can look like crying, busy-ness, easily frustrated, nothing’s ‘just right,’ tantrums, hitting/biting, and more

You see, your wise child is communicating, doing exactly what he needs to do in order to sleep.

The #1 reason babies won’t sleep

And this is the most common reason we find that babies won’t sleep—those pent-up feelings and stress.

This is not a bad thing. Needing to ‘have a cry’ and release stress is very normal and healthy. The fact that your baby may need to cry does not mean you’re a bad parent or have done anything wrong. On the contrary, the pressure to #1 always figure out why your baby is crying and #2 always stop the crying?? Well, #1 is impossible. #2 varies and depends, and may not be quite what you think…

Crying is often connected with sleep because we’re all more vulnerable when we’re tired. For your baby or toddler, this is when big feelings can bubble up to the surface. It’s why they cry “because they’re tired.” It’s not directly because they’re tired—if only tired, they’d answer that need by simply falling asleep. They’re ‘havin’ the feels’ and attempting to get them all out so they can relax. Brilliant.

How to know if this applies to your baby

It’s true, sometimes there are other factors, like food or environmental sensitivities, new motor skills or challenges, or tightness of body tissues. All of these can affect sleep.

But how can you know if your baby won’t sleep because of pent up feelings, or if your baby’s crying is really the need to cry and not something else?

Here are some angles to explore for starters. If you experience any of these and there’s not a medical problem or stressor currently happening (such as being left alone crying or being accidentally—or otherwise—hit by a sibling), it typically means there’s a cry (in arms) trying to come out:

  • Baby fusses or cries after immediate needs have been met
  • Cries at nap or bedtime or “because s/he’s tired”
  • You feel you need to actively do something to get Baby to sleep
  • You have a go-to method to calm (that stops crying and/or settles on purpose, such as pacifier, bouncing, etc), that if you didn’t do, your baby would cry
  • You feel exhausted from the process of getting Baby to sleep or that you’ve tried everything
  • Baby goes to sleep fine and then wakes often
  • Toddler gets wound up at bedtime instead of winding down
  • Toddler requires a list of things to be just right first
  • Baby or toddler asks to nurse any time s/he is upset (and not hungry or sick)
  • Stressful or traumatic birth, according to you or your baby 

How to help your baby or toddler sleep

For babies who aren’t sleeping well, letting off some steam and getting pent up feelings out is key. Remember that crying in arms can be a solution and s/he is doing exactly what he needs to do.

But that’s just his part; your part is to stay present, hold space, allow the big feelings, listen, and love. Depending on how you were raised, this might be easier said than done. But it’s immensely worth it.

As you go through this process, remember we’re addressing your baby’s authentic underlying needs. Because of this, it will look different than the norm, which tends to focus on surface symptoms.

The ‘crying in arms’ (CIA) process for sleep

The following assumes that your baby is healthy or the crying is considered normal “colic.” There are variations on all the below; this is a starter guide. Please never leave your baby alone crying.

  1. First and always, meet all immediate needs and medical concerns.
  2. Beyond basic needs, the first work is yours! Realize that you’re not failing if your baby won’t sleep. You’re not failing if your baby is crying and you can’t figure out why.
  3. Observe him/her. Look for signals of a need to ‘let off some steam’ before nap or bedtime, such as fussing, crying beyond needs, “busy,” or wants to nurse for comfort. Note, there are immense benefits to nursing; this is to distinguish the particular need to release feelings.
  4. Observe yourself: What’s your initial impulse? Are you doing anything that if you didn’t, Baby might cry? (or would have in the past?)
  5. Give it a try: hold your baby and listen. Hold in a way that allows eye contact.
  6. Do this until either 1) he’s done (and drifts off to sleep or stops on his own) or 2) you reach your limit of being present with it (you can pick up again another time)

It’s okay not to do something to stop this type of crying. In fact, there’s no need to do so at all, as long as you’re holding your baby. Sharing your loving, listening presence is ‘doing something’!

When will sleep improve?

There are two main common responses immediately following a release cry:

  • Fall asleep naturally, without you having to ‘do’ something
  • Stay awake, but meditatively serene

Sleep may improve the first time, or it may come more slowly as your baby or toddler gets more feelings out.

You’ll have many questions along the way, but I encourage you to explore this communication with your baby. This is your child’s beautiful, raw, honest feelings. She’s telling you her story. All those feelings are legit, and it can truly make a huge impact on sleep.

What it all means—for sleep and for life!

If your baby won’t sleep, there’s a reason. With the cry release process, s/he can let out some of those feelings that are keeping her from relaxing or waking her up in the night.

But it’s not only sleep that improves! CIA can be done any time of day, whenever your child needs it. Once caught up on the old cries, life energy can get freed up in him/her. You may notice shifts in sleep, demeanor, calmness, ability to play independently, easier transitions, ability to overcome a challenge, or a deeper feeling of connection, trust, and bonding.

It also has implications across a wide range of life skills. Children—even babies and toddlers—learn how to authentically listen, not by being taught, but by being listened to. By experiencing their own sadness, anger, frustration, grief, and many more emotions, they’re able to recognize feelings in others. All of this fosters innate compassion and emotional ‘intelligence,’ neither of which then need to be taught. New motor skills are often set free.

Overall, it becomes a lifestyle of 2-way communication, trust within relationship, immense bonding, and insight into how your child experiences the world. It’s a way of both addressing sleep troubles and raising a compassionate human all at the same time!

© Eliza Parker 2019, links welcome

NOTE This perspective is based on the assumption that your baby is healthy internally and externally. It is not intended to take the place of medical advice or treatment. Some behaviors/symptoms can also be an indication of serious emotional or physical problems; please consult a doctor if you suspect a problem.

Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator® (work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen), Aware Parenting Instructor (Aletha Solter, Ph.D), Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and trained Feldenkrais® Practitioner.