The Cause of Baby and Toddler Sleep Problems and Gentle Solutions

Over 60% of parents confess to having a “sleep problem” – or rather their baby or toddler has “a sleep problem”. This is such an alarmingly high number, no wonder so many books and programmes exist to try to implement quick fixes. Do quick fixes however really exist when it comes to baby and toddler sleep? Perhaps more importantly though, do so many of our young *really* have a sleep problem?

In this post I’d like to question the idea of ‘poor’ baby and toddler sleep and look at ways parents can cope if they consider their child falls into this category:


1. Is it REALLY a Sleep Problem?

What do parents perceive as sleep problems in babies and children? This list sums up the most common complaints I hear:

  • A baby who only sleeps in the arms of an adult and cries when put down.
  • A baby who wakes regularly through the night, be that every 2, 3 or 4 hours
  • A baby who only naps when being held, in the car or pushed in a buggy
  • A baby who needs to be rocked or fed to sleep
  • A toddler who cannot sleep without his parent’s presence
  • A toddler who is reluctant to go to bed
  • A toddler who wakes early in the morning
  • A toddler who wakes during the night
  • A toddler who needs the breast, bottle or dummy to fall asleep
  • An older child who is reluctant to go to bed
  • An older child who finds it hard to sleep without his parent
  • An older child who has nightmares
  • An older child who wakes regularly at night
  • An older child who wakes early in the morning.

Let me begin by saying that each and every point on this list is NORMAL. None of these are pathological problems.

I would also disagree with many ‘experts’ who believe that these are behavioural problems. Quite simply these ‘problems’ are all entirely physiologically and psychologically normal for human young. Which in summary means that they are not really ‘problems’ at all – at least not for the children. What they actually are are problems for the parents. Parents who “want our evenings back to ourselves”, parents who “find it hard to go to work after a night with the toddler”, parents who “really want a fully night’s sleep after not having one for two years”, parents who “don’t want to start the day at 5am”, parents who “don’t want to share our bed with our child”.

Now I’m not saying parents should just ‘suck it up’ and be martyrs, but I am confused that most adults will not take at least some of the responsibility and realise that parenting is about making sacrifices, it is about being selfless and it is about putting the needs of your child first sometimes. Who really expects to have a child and return to pre-baby normality within a year or two? Lets get real here people. Becoming a parent is an irreversible life changing decision. Is it too much to ask to sacrifice our evenings or adult bed space for a few short years that will all too soon be forgotten?

I think many parents would do well to think – “Who really has the problem here? Myself or my child?” if they are honest in a lot of cases then the ‘fix’ should be employed for the parent – how to do this? Work out ways that you can cope better with your own feelings and own needs in order to nurture yourself *and* your child, it shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. You might do this by:

  • Going to bed earlier yourself
  • Taking a nap during the day when you can
  • Taking up meditation/yoga/relaxation
  • Employing a cleaner
  • Getting your washing & ironing done at a launderette
  • Employing a postnatal doula, au pair or mother’s help
  • Asking for help from family and friends
  • Taking a day off to recuperate whenever possible
  • If you are with a partner asking him to take a night shift once a week whilst you retreat to the spare room for a full night’s sleep
  • Finding somebody to talk to or offloading your feelings into a diary or blog

Once you have emptied your own container you are better able to take on board your child’s issues. The next step is then to form realistic expectations of your child’s sleep.


2. Forming Realistic Expectations of Your Child’s Sleep

Rather than rewrite the book I’ll list some posts below which cover this in great detail, once you understand how sleep works and importantly in line with your child’s developmental stages you can reset your expectations. When we realise something is normal it often becomes far less of a problem:

Normal Newborn Sleep

Normal Baby Sleep

Normal Toddler Sleep

Why Bedsharing is Normal and healthy

Why it is Normal for Babies to Only Sleep ‘In Arms’ & healthy to nap in a sling.


3. What If You’re Still Not Happy? Looking for the Cause

So, you’ve reset your expectations and you’re taking care of yourself, what if you still need to change things?

Many sleep trainers jump straight in with outdated behavioural modifcation techniques such as gradual withdrawal and rapid return (or controlled crying or controlled soothing, which really is no different to rapid return aside from avoiding the unpleasant taste these two phrases leave us with).

This is naive at best though – why? Because these behavioural control techniques do not ask WHY? WHY is my child doing this? Imagine you had a sore on your arm that was oozing, would you simply stick a bandaid on it and hope it went away or would you think “hmmm, I think that might be infected, I’ll find out as I might need to take some medication to help it heal once we know what bug it is”. The techniques are no more than a sticking plaster. Masking the real problems.

Why don’t children sleep? Well besides from the obvious (i.e: it’s NORMAL!) here’s a brief list:

  • Because they do not feel secure enough to do so without us, perhaps they need to feel more attached to us in general – perhaps they already are and just need a bit more at night when it’s dark and scary.
  • Because they are trying to assert some control (and do not get enough in the daytime)
  • Because they are desperately trying to connect with us
  • Because they are in desperate need of our attention (perhaps they are from a large family, perhaps they are in daycare in the daytime)
  • Because they are trying to offload their daily stress, discharging their cortisol – perhaps something is bothering them during the day, perhaps this cortisol is due to day care.
  • Because they feel safe with us and can use this time with us to offload their stress and anxiety (ever wonder why your kids are “better behaved” for others? This is such a compliment to us as parents – it means they feel safe to be their authentic selves with us, to really ‘let go’ of their emotions, it’s GOOD news!).
  • Because something is worrying them – either from their daily lives or something ‘in the present’ in the room
  • Because they have too much screen time, particularly before bed.
  • Because they are hungry, some toddlers need a bedtime snack!
  • Because they don’t have a good bedtime routine.
  • Because they don’t have anything to comfort them in the abscence of the parents.
  • Because there has been some upheaval in their life – a house move, a new sibling, a new nursery, a new school etc..
  • ad infinitum

Fix the underlying problem and often the “sleep problem” disappears……….. Imagine your child ticks three of the above, is ‘Rapid Return’ or ‘pick up put down’ REALLY going to help?

4. Considering the Child

A big step missed out in behavioural techniques. Would you ‘rapid return’ or ‘pick up put down’ your Grandmother if she had trouble sleeping at night? Would you gradually withdraw from your husband if he was going through a traumatic time in his life that was affecting his sleep? Of course not, that would be inhumane – So WHY OH WHY do we treat our child with such little respect and regard?

Empathy for our kids is key if we are going to change anything about their sleep – think about HOW our actions will affect them, how will they feel? Do you REALLY want to make them feel like that? Don’t kid yourself you’re only doing it for their own good, sleep is important, self settling (which is a myth by the way – see my post on this HERE) is a gift – yada, yada, yada……….the reason you have to keep saying this to yourself is because what you’re doing feels WRONG. Your instincts are telling you something, listen to them!


5. Making Plans & Putting Them Into Action

You might not reach this point, but if you do here are some things that can help:

  • Fostering connection and attachment in the daytime (check out Love Bombing)
  • Giving your child more control in the daytime (15 mins child led play – with them – is fab for this and the above).
  • Making sure your child is happy at daycare/preschool/school and removing stressors there
  • Making sure your child is well fed, remove additives where possible and give toddlers a bedtime snack if needed.
  • Consider alternative therapies, cranial osteopathy, chiropractic, allergy testing and the like.
  • Remove TVs, DSs, laptops and tablets from bedrooms and limit their use for 2hrs before bedtime.
  • Check the lighting in your child’s bedroom and your bathroom (more HERE)
  • If your child is at daycare know they need time to unwind (I suggest 2hrs) before bedtime.
  • Be child led for setting bedtimes if possible – watch your child’s sleep cues
  • Start a wind-down routine 1hr before bedtime, stories, massage, relaxation CDs.
  • Implement a good bedtime routine – at least 30mins before bedtime.
  • Don’t worry about how your child gets to sleep, a 3yr old who breastfeeds to sleep will soon stop! (check out THIS POST) BUT if you want to stop night feeds check out THIS ROUTINE.
  • Don’t worry about getting your child out of your bed, it will happen soon enough! (see THIS POST) – but if you want it to happen sooner consider making the move in small steps, firstly ‘rooming in’ with a mattress on the floor rather than a big jump to sleeping alone.
  • Use ‘props’ to help you – music, smells, ‘loveys’ and comforters (see HERE for recommendations).
  • Know that a child crying in the arms of a loving parents is not the same as controlled crying or cry it out.
  • Above all else know that you are not alone – you are not the first to experience this and you will not be the last, find people on your wave length to talk to, those who can empathise with you rather than constantly give you advice or opinions, build a network of support around you – because that’s the key to surviving the sleepless nights of early parenthood – YOU – not ‘quick fix’ sleep solutions, not breaking or taming your child. YOU. YOU are the key.

Good luck! 


If you would like to learn more about infant sleep, including many more sleep tips check out my latest book, available to order now:

gentle sleep book, gentle sleep training, gentle sleep expert, baby sleep expert, toddler sleep expert

You can also join me on my Gentle Sleep Facebook page HERE for advice, tips and chat about all things baby, toddler and preschooler sleep.

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

Posted on April 3, 2013, in Babies, Preschoolers, Toddlers, Tweens and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Well said Sarah! With my son I’ve always said he needs his Mummy Fill…if he gets that he sleeps soundly. He’s at daycare so bedtimes have always been very special for us, lots of cuddles, massage and whispering. He used to take over an hour to settle when tired but now a lot less and he absolutely adores nighttime…runs to jump on my lap!
    Even today my health visitor asked what sleep issues I had with him and behavioural problems and was very surprised when I said none. Do they expect toddlers should have some? I guess if I’d have listened to their advice about putting him in his own room and using controlled crying rather than bed sharing and responding to him before he even cried, he may have so called behaviour problems now.
    Get your work into the NHS and start changing the advice parents are getting :)

  2. Hahahahaha it felt like you were in the room, I can imagine how bored of this programme you are, Sarah! Well said as always- hope people read all the way through and pay close attention to point 4!

  3. Couldn’t agree more about the program… Loved your alternative ideas though!

    I have just read all the posts in this post… I have a 7.5 month old breastfed baby who sleeps like a baby! Untill 6 months I was terrably anxious and worried that his sleep was wrong/poor/abnormal/my fault and fought my instincts trying to get him to sleep in his cot (where needless to say he slept even worse) after an early encounter with a very outdated HV.

    In the last few weeks my whole attitude has changed, Iv relaxed and no longer worry. We now co sleep from the first waking (once I’m in bed) and he naps either with me on our bed or in the ergo carrier.

    I just wish that when I had been reading (too much) in pregnancy I had come across more of the wonderful info in these posts rather than the damaging info on lots of popular baby sites.

    Thank you.

  4. I really like this post, thank you. It’s very constructive and helpful. I do think that a lot of the sleep problems that are out there are actually due to the kind of advice given on the show and the pressures that are put on parents to conform to these ideas. My little girl is 15 months old and I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked the question ‘is she sleeping through the night yet’ or ‘is she in her own room yet”. It’s those stock questions that even strangers at the shop will ask you and it can start to feel like you’re failing as a parent if they aren’t. It’s a nice reminder that its perfectly and completely normal that babies, toddlers and small children wake up in the night or have trouble going to sleep with out the comfort and safety of their parent being there.

    It’s sad that there is so much advice about these so called sleep problems, because I think it really pressures parents into missing out on some of the most amazing bits of the job. Bed time is one of my favourite times of the day when the three of us get to be all together, snuggled up in bed reading stories and then I get to cuddle my little girl until she falls asleep. It’s really wonderful.

  5. Great Post, Sarah! There’s so much conflicting advice on sleep-training but you nailed the essence of the problem. Thank you!


  6. Sarah, truly excellent advice. Thank you so much for continuing to question our society’s obsession with sleep training and for providing real, evidence-based information and appropriate solutions for children’s sleep problems. I only recently stumbled on your work, blog and books and I have to say my immediate reaction was “phew!”

    I plan to share this article far and wide!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this! I have problems with my toddlers sleeping and thanks to this, I have found amazing solutions! You are definitely helping out a lot of moms out there. I hope a lot of parents will be able able to read your blog post because it really helps! :)

  8. Oh Dear Lord, I couldn’t watch one more episode either! I for one couldn’t stand the self richeous back patting and congratulating each other on what a fantastic job ‘they’ had done.
    I am so glad I stuck to my guns & kept my (2yr old) baby with me. To cut a very long & stressful story short, he had (and recently discovered he still has) silent reflux which would have been completely missed had he not been in my room next to me where I could hear his wheezing & watch him rolling around his little cot like a pinball! After a lot of battling with doctors & being treated like a naive new mother, he was finally diagnosed & given help.
    I’m so grateful to find your blog & read others posts who think the same as I do; that our babies are born from our bodies & it is never a chore to tend to them, nurture them, listen to them, cuddle them, feed them & Love them with every part of our being. That is why I became a mother. It breaks my heart when I hear & see how people treat children in our society. That they do not realise the damage they do when they shout at them & call them names. As for ‘controlled crying’ or whatever you would like to call it, in my book it is a child traumatised & not understanding what is going on! These poor children on this Bedtime Live programme looked as if they fell asleep from exhaustion & not how ‘clever’ the ‘experts’ were! I would love to see the making of this programme & the reality of how their techniques worked in one hour, live on TV when these kids had obviously been this way for some time! Something doesn’t ring true to me!
    Keep up the good work Sarah x

  9. All very well and good if you can afford a cleaner/ afford to take time off work and are not working 2 jobs a day to support your family/ afford a house with a spare bedroom/ can afford mothers help/ have a partner still/ afford to go to Yoga or live near family and friends. If you don’t have the ability to use any of your suggestions above and both your children are waking 3-4 times a night and taking at least 30mins each time to go back off when you are sat stroking their hair and this has been going on for 4 years. Its causing you to fall asleep at work, lose a job in the past, burn yourself when cooking, what should you do then?

  10. Thank you for this article, I totally agree many so called ‘sleep problems’ are only problems because parents are stressed and at breaking point, even though I have in the past been exhausted by my two girls and working I’ve always reasoned how would I like to be treated in the same situation and then applied that, co-cleeping and shared sleeping with a toddler bed in the room has really helped us and the girls stay rested and happy too, thanks for giving an alternative view.

  11. What’s the view like from up there “baby expert” ? I discovered your twitter page, posts and website a few days ago. I can honestly say that i have never been so offended

    I am a mother to a happy contented toddler for which I give thanks to Gina Ford. Yes “that woman with no children of her own”. I know! I know! How dare she try and tell us mothers with all our instincts and breast milk what to do.

    Your view is that baby’s cry during the night for a reason and we should not try to modify this ” normal” behaviour. Any attempt to do so is selfish and damaging to the baby. Correct?

    Do you limit this to sleeping? Should we not change any of our child’s behaviours? You clearly credit children with knowing exactly what they want and need. So if i follow your advice then the next time my toddler snatches a toy at playgroup then I should not attempt to show him the error of his ways. It’s normal and therefore selfish to try and change his behaviour. What about potty training? Isn’t that behavioural modification?

    I started to think that you were a spoof after this particular post. Your advise for dealing with sleep issues is to employ a cleaner or employ an au pair and if this fails then take up yoga . Are you joking? The only “staff” we employ round these parts is the window cleaner. This advice is a far cry from the “down to earth” approach that your website boasts. You may be a “mum of four” but I suspect that you can not relate to me on any other level.

    I am seething at your suggestion that I have gone against my maternal instincts by following a sleeping routine. I can assure you that my maternal instincts were screaming “your baby needs sleep”

    It’s clear that you haven’t read contented baby recently. Probably not since that time it made you feel uncomfortable. Gina Ford does not claim to have your baby sleeping through from eight weeks. In fact my baby was 6 months old before he slept 12 hours. She also doesn’t advocate leaving a baby crying for long periods. Yes I concede that there is an element of leaving a baby to cry but I can count on one hand the amount of times that this was necessary and it was only for a few minutes at a time. Are you honestly saying this will have damaged my child in the long term? I am sure you have some wishy washy scientific evidence to hand. Something regarding attachment issues or elevated heart rate. I am dreading his first few days of school. Just think of all the crying, the elevated heart rate and the long term attachment issues. Maybe I should home school?

    • If it offends you you have issues, confident mums with really contented happy babies dont go around freaking out at every one else’s opinion on-line, why? because they know the other if talking crap thats why. You however must feel she has some sort of point. She hit a hot button in you. That hot button of bitterness and protesting is something you need to handle. If you felt you did nothing wrong, well you wouldnt be here would you.

      • I can assure you that i do not feel i have done something wrong. I was definately not seeking assurance online. I just stumbled accross this alternative “baby expert” whilst online. Got too much time on my hands thanks to Gina Ford. What point do I think she has? The one that claims that I have damaged my child? How about the one that claims I treated my child like an animal? Or maybe the one that claims people like me are just plain selfish? Yes you are correct in saying that she has hit a “hot button”. I think parenting is hard and it’s sad that people claiming to be baby experts criticise parents for choosing something that has worked for them. I don’t usually respond to things like this but that “hot button” of mine was positively steaming.

  12. I have the most amazing 18 month old little boy (I know you will all think the same about your own children) but he doesn’t sleep. I have read this blog, gone to workshops, listened to my health visitor, spoken to other mums and family, read various books and have come to the conclusion that there are a lot of scientists, psychologists, medical professions, friends that all have different opinions, suggestions, advice and none of it has helped. This blog did upset me. I am so sleep deprived that I am not being the mum I want to be because I’m exhausted. My body and brain needs sleep and this blog seems to mainly suggest that as it was our decision to have a child we should just suck it up. It doesn’t seem to provide advice except to just do whatever you are currently doing. My baby needs to learn to sleep – like he has learnt to crawl, walk, talk and unless I have misread, which perhaps in my sleep deprived state I have this blog doesn’t seem to give me that. I agree with the post above to a point. Gina Ford worked for you and that’s great and the comments you pointed out – treating your child like animals for example upset me too however there are parts of this blog that does make me feel a little better. I feel comforted that some children won’t sleep through the night at 18 months and that we are not alone. I was sent a link to this blog to help me – I thought it was to help me find a way to get by beautiful boy to sleep at night. If it was it failed, except to make me feel bad about considering ‘outdated behavioral modification techniques’ but at least I know that even at 18 months old it isn’t always the case that they will sleep through.

  13. I really liked your article Sarah. When I had my daughter a friend gave me a Gina Ford book. My friend was quite a baby led Mother and a very caring Mum so I had no qualms about trying to follow it too. However although some small aspects of it were helpful (sleep times) with hindsight I just think all children are (obviously) different and hers was more receptive to being nudged in the right direction with sleeping through the night… My daughter is now nearly three and no ‘sleep solutions’ or books worked. We paid one of the ‘experts’ on Bedtime Live (before the programme went to air) and all I can say is her sitting and shushing method in the night whilst not picking up led to nearly three hours of heart wrenching crying which did not get less as the next couple of weeks went on. So I then went back to night feeding and cuddles. How I wished I had never tried this at all but you get so led into believing you have a problem if your child doesn’t sleep… and yes it does get exhausting working, and I was studying too when you are up every two hours in the night and then up for good quite early in the morning. I truly believe I could have recruited Gina Ford and unless she somehow managed to break my daughters spirit completed nothing would have changed.. She was not ‘overtired’ and had an appropriate bedtime and ‘appropriate’ but not over long naps in the day. It is only at nearly three with the help of a sticker chart that she is starting to sleep a little better. I feel like I am getting there and your article made me feel that I’m not a lax parent for still getting up many times a night and made me head for a nap myself now whilst she was napping (maybe a less tired mummy helps?) I think with baby number two I will be less Gina Ford and more William Sears from the outcome…. I just wish he was more publicised and I discovered him with baby number one…

  14. “If you have a partner ask him to help”?
    Appreciate that there are lots of single parents of both sexes but it’s a massive assumption that fathers don’t also get up with young children.

  15. When my little one would cry all night with colic me and my partner would do 2hr shifts. One of us would be with baby while the other slept and then change after 2hrs. When my partner went back to work obviously he needed his sleep so I took all night shifts. But on the weekend he would let me sleep while he looked after her. In the day I just sleep when she sleeps. Yes no housework gets done but who really cares. We leave all the cleaning to the weekend. She sleeps ok now in bed with us but will take awhile to get to sleep. So sometimes she won’t sleep till 3am but will then sleep through. We normally put her up to bed around 9/9.30pm she has a feed and then we read a story. But then she just won’t sleep, normally not crying just awake and talking to herself. Is this too late a bed time? I go up to bed at the same time. We try rocking her and all the things that work during the day but she still doesn’t sleep. She does nap downstairs before this usually around 7 – 8pm for a few hours so maybe she is not tired as she has just been sleeping. She doesn’t seem to have trouble sleeping in the day, sometimes she willl just fall asleep without any help from me, other times she needs to be held and rocked to sleep. I think this is usually when she is overtired. She is 12weeks old and my health visitor told me she should be soothing herself to sleep. But I Don’t agree, if my baby needs a little help then I will give it to her.

  16. Whilst I agree with your points your tone is awfully condescending. It has never sat right since my first reading of Toddlercalm. I think that it can do the opposite of what you intend and only help people who agree with your points. Why don’t you make it a bit empathic to struggling mums AND dads? Then there might be a few more people taking up this gentle way.

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