Baby Sleep Problem: Help, I Feel Like A Human Pacifier at Bedtime!

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  • January 18, 2011

Weekly Baby Sleep Problem for The Sleep Lady:

“My son is now 15 months old and still nursing at morning and night.  In everything I read, it always says put your baby in the crib “drowsy but awake.” Is it just me, or is that way harder than it sounds?!  Whenever I try and stop nursing my son at night time before bed, he fights back hard!  He fusses if I let him off and cannot settle down.  How do I still nurse my son but get him to stop this habit of using me as his human pacifier so he can really learn to go to sleep on his own? Please help me with this baby sleep problem!” Anonymous

Dear Anonymous (but Not Alone) Mom-

Often in my book, “Good Night, Sleep Tight“, I will instruct you to put your baby down in his bed when he is “drowsy but awake” so he can learn to do that last part of falling asleep on his own. If you have trouble visualizing what “drowsy but awake” means, imagine a scale of one to ten, one being wide awake and ten being deep sleep. You want to put your toddler down at about a seven or eight on this scale. Think of drowsy as “warm, dry, fed and loved” all within a sleep-friendly, nurturing environment. He should be awake enough to know that he is going into his crib. If he falls asleep too quickly, in less than five minutes or so, you probably put him down too drowsy and perhaps too late. Put him to bed when he’s a tad more alert the next night.

If your child just doesn’t get drowsy, if he’s really good at fighting sleep to keep you close by and engaged, you will have to put him in his crib anyway. But make sure you have an appropriate bedtime and evening routine to help prep his mind and body for sleep. Once he’s in bed, use your repertoire of soothing techniques to help him transition to sleep.

I would recommend you nurse your son with the lights in his room and then read a book and in to bed. It sounds like your son is sort of saying “Hey, I am trying to nurse to sleep, why do you keep interrupting me?”. In order not to give him any mixed messages you may want to change the order of your bedtime routine to:

–        Bath, nurse, brush teeth, book, bed

If that doesn’t give you enough space between nursing and bed (and he still fights you unlatching him) then try:

–       Nurse, bath, brush teeth, book, bed

I always think it is a good idea to add books in to a bedtime routine at this age so when you decide to wean him he will be accustomed to reading before bed as part of his relaxing bedtime routine.  You may want to ask your spouse to put him to bed the first few nights also.

NOTE: The easiest time to learn to put oneself to sleep is bedtime. If he doesn’t know how to do it at bedtime then it will be even harder in the middle of the night and for naps.

Even when you put him down at the right point on the drowsiness scale, he will probably protest and fuss as you lay him down. Don’t worry but don’t get him out and start the whole routine over again. Instead stay nearby and use Sleep Lady techniques to comfort and reassure him and he will learn to put himself to sleep without nursing to a very drowsy state.

Remember if you have to choose between drowsy or awake….choose AWAKE at bedtime.

Sweet dreams,


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Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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  • Kary Shams says:

    Dear Ms. West:
    My baby will be 12 months in two weeks. We have a good rock-solid night time routine: Bottle-Massage-Bath-Two Books-Down drowsy but awake. Issue 1: I did the chair routine and it worked perfectly, but now that a whole week has passed I find that if I leave the room and she notices it, she starts crying, so I’m stuck to my rocker for 15-25 minutes. Issue 2: She was using her pacifier to sleep but she was waking up in the middle of the night looking for it, so I decided to remove it and I was successful in weaning her off it, thinking that without it, she would sleep all through the night, which she did for two nights, and then all went down South. Now, she wakes up screaming and pointing at the side table in her bedroom where the bottles usually are, and would “not” stop until I feed her. She would only eat 1-3 oz. So the pacifier has been replaced for the bottles and she wakes up every 4 hours. I have read your book three times… what am I doing wrong here? How can I get her to stop feeding at night and therefore sleeping through it? Thank you very much for reading this. Sleepless Kary

  • Megan says:

    My 14 month old sleeps wonderfully at night, I put her down at 7ish and she’ll sleep until 6 and after a quick cup of milk she’s back asleep until 7:30. BUT she’ll only take two 30-45 minute naps a day. She shows signs of sleepiness but refuses to nap any longer. Any suggestions?

  • Allison Kozdron says:

    I’m trying to establish a nap routine with my 4 month old (for my and my 2.5 year old’s sake). We’ve got a great bedtime routine, and she’s asleep by 6:30pm until 7:30am the next morning (with 1-2 wake ups).

    She can soothe herself to sleep (sometimes), so I’m putting her down for her morning nap awake, but ready for sleep. It’s usually about 1.5 hours after waking up in the morning. The problem is that she just won’t sleep. She doesn’t cry, or even get too fussy. She doesn’t play or want to be awake. But she can spend over an hour trying to soothe herself to sleep. Then, she’ll “wake up” and not be sleepy anymore. Of course, then she just falls asleep in the car or carrier if we’re out later, because she is tired.

    Any tips?