Learning to Self Soothe (WIO)

Dear Middlechild,

This past week you’ve been unhappy in the middle of the night, waking up and wanting to come into our bed. You have had the “ick” but also you have been going through a bit of sleep regression.  I see this as part of the process of learning how to self soothe.

You see.. You no longer nurse at night. You self weaned at 18 months when I was pregnant with your sister. You no longer wish to be rocked to sleep, and will complain if we try. The way you fall asleep now is by laying on our chests and simply being near.

When you wake up in the middle of the night we move you to our bed and you roll into our bed, find your pillow, and fall asleep on your own without nursing, without being rocked, without being held. Or sometimes you’ll try that and when the sleep doesn’t come you’ll curl yourself around one of us and put your head on the shoulder of the one you chose to snuggle with.

This is self soothing. This is not us working to soothe you. This is you finding your comfort, being okay with falling asleep in different situations.

Self soothing is like the progression towards walking. First you roll, then you sit up, then you do that funny thing where you get up on all fours and rock back and forth, then you crawl, then you pull up to stand, then you take that first teetering step and fall. The first steps towards walking don’t look like walking at all. I did not expect you to walk just after being born. I knew that it was something you had to work your way towards. So it is with sleep, and with everything that changes as you move from newborn to infant to toddler to child, to tween to teen to adult, to parent, to middle aged, to elderly.

The first steps towards self soothing don’t look like self soothing at all.

First you learned to soothe. You were tiny, just born. You learned to nurse for comfort. You learned to soothe when burped or when you passed gas. You learned to soothe with motion, with sound, with closeness. You learned that life is patient, and that there are things that feel good and peaceful, and things that feel hectic and unhappy.

Then you learned trust. You discovered that there are people in your life that are different from one another. You preferred me briefly, then your daddy briefly, then your grandma. Then it was back to daddy, and then me, and then Grandpa, then back to me again. You learned that we go away and we come back. You learned that when you have a need we respond to that need. You learned that when you cry, we comfort you. You learned that when you play, we play with you.

Then you learned routine. You learned that when night comes and it gets dark outside, daddy comes home from work and we take our baths, we brush everyone’s teeth and we read books and we fall asleep. When you were a baby this happened swaddled in my arms nursing in a rocking chair. As you grew this became nursing curled up in my arms in a rocking chair. As you weaned this became snuggling up to us in the rocking chair. As you grew this became laying down on our chests in our bed. As you continue to grow this is becoming you laying your head down on a pillow near us and falling asleep on your own.

With both you and your brother you learned to fall back to sleep on your own before you learned to fall asleep on your own.

Sometime as a toddler the “sleep regression” comes. The deeper sleeps of infancy briefly recede as your mind comes alive with imaginary fears, as you become aware of midnight peeing, and as you become more able to choose a position to sleep in.

I see sleep regression as a major step towards your learning to self soothe. It’s not self soothing if you sleep like a rock and just don’t wake up until dawn. And those sleepy middle of the night dark hours where you’re already so close to sleep are better practice time for doing it on your own than are the wound-up before bedtime hours where you’re trying to relax at the end of the day.

You have started. You’ll stir awake and complain and then bury your head against your pillow and fall back to sleep if you can. If you cannot you’ll wake daddy and he’ll rub your head and you’ll fall back to sleep in your own bed. If you can’t, you’ll come into bed with us.  The “can’ts” fade away with time as you become better at it, as your sleeps become deeper, as you become more secure in your skin.

As you learn to fall back to sleep, we’ll start helping you learn to fall asleep on your own as well. You’ll learn that bedtime is time to stay in bed and you’ll be able to remember this and do it without an issue. We’ll read you your books and sit with you until you’re a little bit sleepy and then we’ll do our chores and check in on you to tell you one more I Love You and give you one more kiss.

And as your older brother has done, eventually that will fade into the distance as well and you will simply fall asleep as all of us do eventually.

No tears, no muss, no fuss, all on your own schedule. Because sleep is a natural wonderful fuzzy comfortable warm safe place to end each day, and because mommy and daddy are just down the hall and will always answer your cries, soothe your fears, and get you that water you thirst for in the middle of the night.

I’m proud of your independence which you choose on your own. I’m proud to be there as your safe snuggly spot in those nights when you’re learning to self soothe.

<3 Mama


14 thoughts on “Learning to Self Soothe (WIO)

  1. I love this as a follow up to your original wait-it-out post. My son is only 5 months old, but wait-it-out is working for even him. Now we put him in his crib drowsy, pat his little behind, and soon his eyes close peacefully. If he wakes, he can often fall back asleep. There hasn’t been a moment where he cried without being comforted, and we have always been there for him. Despite that, he is a more and more independent sleeper.

    1. I’m jealous. :) My kids learn to sleep a little slower and it doesn’t really click for them until they’re a bit older. :) I don’t mind because I know it’s their pace and it’s worth letting them take it at their speed.. But I do love me some sleep!

      I’m glad that WIO’s working for you!

  2. Thanks for this! My son is 15 months and still wakes for a little water and some good snuggling in the middle of the night. I don’t mind it, but some nights I wonder if it would have been better for him to have CIO when I was advised to by a pediatrician. I knew there was a reason my instincts told me to WIO.

  3. LOVE this!! And the other one about WIO. This has been my method with all 5 of my kids, and although sometimes I felt I was working against the grain, when talking to my neighbors and other moms about how their kids went to sleep…this way just felt right. Just like anything else children learn as they grow: baby steps, learn it slowly. Thanks so much for this, I love your words :)

  4. Your words have been like a breath of fresh air amongst all the “sleep training” posts and arguments for and against CIO/AP/don’t sleep train/this too shall pass etc. As a new FTM your letters to your children have reminded me to smile and keep it real – all while I’m holding my gorgeous angel snuggled up and asleep in my arms! What joy to watch her face so peaceful and so rested. And although all my powers of observation clearly indicate that she’s in a place where I can transfer her to another sleek surface without her waking (limp arms etc), I’m choosing to sit in the moment and relish this moment just once more…. Ummm…. Until the next nap time comes around :)

  5. Thank you. My son is only 3. I needed a little reminder that he is already so independent in his falling back asleep (sometimes) and that I won’t be sleeping on the bed on the floor next to his bed forever.

  6. This goes right along with how my husband and I parent. We rock my son to sleep safe in our arms. He sleeps for longer stretches now and only wakes twice to eat. I often worried that he may never learn to sleep without us. This post only soothed my concerns and reassured me that our instincts feel right.

  7. Thank you for wonderful soothing words. You hear so much about what you “must do otherwise your baby will never learn independence”. So lovely to find someone who too believes that all we really need to do is following our parental instincts, be kind and patient and loving. Thank you!

  8. Hi Sarah,

    I was looking for something on your blog which touched on nursing while pregnant, my daughter is 13 months and unexpectedly, I’m 11 weeks pregnant. I feel the pregnancy is taking its toll on my supply and we’re really struggling. She’s beginning to bite at the breast out of seeming frustration. Not sure where to go from here?

    Any advice would be much appreciated!

    Felicity H

    1. Hi Felicity,

      Some moms dry up during pregnancy. Some babies wean, some continue nursing until mom’s milk comes in again, some develop a very painful latch.
      I would try treating this like any other situation where a child bites while nursing. Make sure that her latch is good and deep, and if she bites unlatch her and remind her not to bite down. I used a three strikes policy for biting, but relaxed on that a TON when I was trying to let my children nurse as far into my pregnancy as possible.

      My oldest nursed until I was 3 months pregnant. My middle child nursed until I was 6 months pregnant. He was younger than my oldest at the time (22 months when his sister was born).

      I would try to gently discourage biting down. You can do breast compressions while she nurses and remind her not to bite. And if she’s frustrated by the lack of milk you can try nursing after she has eaten so that she will mostly be nursing for comfort and closeness and less to fill her belly up.

      Congratulations on your second child! <3


  9. Sarah I am IN NEED OF YOUR HELP. Please. I have a 13 month old son who is very strong willed he has slept in our bed since he was 6 months old. I have always had him close to me 24/7. I nap with him and at night i put him to sleep in his own bed in his room but when he wakes I pull him into our bed. Even though he sleeps with us he still wakes during the night to nurse. He is breast fed. He will nurse for comfort then roll over and go to sleep. But sometimes he doesn’t want to nurse just cry and fuss. One of my questions to you is should I pick him up and get up and rock him or just lay next to him while he cries and try to comfort him? I don’t know what to do my husband wants us to put him in his bed to cio but I do not believe in this method. I don’t want my son to cry to us and we don’t come. I want him to learn on his own how to sleep through the night without crying and pain. Please what should I do. Continue to nurse him at night ? Pick him up and rock him ? Let him sleep with us and for how long ? Should I sleep train him ? Or wait till he is older to understand better and tell me what’s wrong ? Please help me. Thank you very much.

Leave a Reply