12-month-old not sleeping through the night?

Mary emailed me last week, at her wit’s end with chronic sleep deprivation and I pounded out a quick response. She’s given me permission to reprint our exchange (edited a bit for readability and extra things I thought of since) in case it can help anyone else out there!

Basically, we are having a tough time with Jenny’s sleeping. Common problem, I know, but it is really difficult to know what to do. She is almost a year old, on Monday, and right now she takes naps and sleeps on a futon in her room. Until a month ago we all slept in the same king size bed. I sleep with her at night, my husband sleeps on our king size bed alone. She wakes up about 5 times a night. I am sleeping with her on the futon because she fell off the bed 3 times and I don’t want to risk it anymore, and I also want her to sleep in her own room on the futon or the crib, but she wakes up so much at night it is easier for me to be there to nurse her back to sleep.

Do you have any advice on transitioning her to sleeping alone and waking up much less? I am not opposed to letting her cry a bit, which would mean she would have to be in her crib. I am just curious what you have done in you experiences in helping he babes be able to put themselves to sleep and stay asleep. Oh, and I am nursing her to sleep every night and nap, sometimes she falls asleep nursing and rocking, sometimes I have to let her crawl on the futon till she is exhausted and side-lying nursing falls asleep. Recently I’ve been thinking having her in a crib right next to our bed would work, unfortunately our room is too small to fit all that.

I really hope you have some sort of wisdom or resources for me, I keep being told to do the Baby Wise method, but I’m not sure if that’s for us.

Parenting advice disclaimer

YOU ARE THE EXPERT ON YOUR CHILD. Trust your instincts; follow your heart, not any one set of principles. Glean what you can from a variety of sources and experiment with what works. I’m going to toss a bunch of ideas at you, but please remember that these are just my opinions, too!


First, NO to Babywise. I think it is at best quite ignorant of normal child development; at worst, downright cruel. Babies need their mamas; they do not need to be “shown who is boss” from the time they are born, by withholding nutrition and comfort. It might not be so bad for a one year old, but on principle, I’m against using the method at all. There are other, better resources.

You can get Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child and The No-Cry Sleep Solution at the library. Those two books will give you a good middle ground to start tinkering with your sleep situation.

Also, know that once she is a year and is walking AND not teething, she will probably be a bit better at sleeping. There is just a lot of brain development and growth going on in the first year that disrupts sleep. If you don’t already own The Wonder Weeks, you should; it unpacks the major developmental leaps in the first 18 months of a baby’s life.

My own story

My firstborn was a crappy sleeper until she was…oh, at least 2.5. I think it was mainly personality, because I did the SAME thing with #2 and she is a much better sleeper than #1 ever was.  (She also wants to be ALONE when she sleeps, whereas my 4 year old would still love to be plastered to my side all night.)

Number 2 woke (to nurse!) about 3-5 times a night from 4 months to 12 months. Then, on the eve of her first birthday, she slept ALL NIGHT LONG in her crib, without making a peep. And she’s done that ever since, bar a few weeks here and there due to teething or developmental spurts.

And here’s the kicker:

I didn’t do anything differently!

She just did it on her own!

I tend to be mostly in the “grit your teeth and bear it” camp of sleep philosophies. Some people sleep better than others, and that includes little babies. I don’t think you can make huge horrible habits that can never be broken, and I also don’t think you can totally rewire a person’s brain. I think it’s definitely worth messing around with your strategy to see if you can get better/longer sleep – by all means, experiment. But don’t make yourself crazy if nothing seems to work.

Random thoughts

If you would like to get Jenny to eventually sleep alone in her crib, then you can start patterning her to do so by always putting her down for sleep in her crib – for naps and until you go to sleep at night. For night wake ups, pull her onto the futon with you so you can get rest too.

(If you can baby proof her room completely, there’s no reason she *has* to be in a crib to sleep. It’s easier to nurse a baby to sleep and roll away quietly on a futon than picking her up and putting her in the crib!)

Something to check out is to see if she really needs you to get back to sleep at night. Usually, when we are co-sleeping, we jolt awake at the first little whimper and stick a boob in their mouths before they have a chance to roll over and settle themselves back to sleep. If you can get her into the crib, or on the futon with something barricading her so you aren’t concerned about her “wandering” too far, just wait and see if she wakes up fully before you respond to her. Sometimes it takes a little thrashing and crying out, but mine often isn’t actually awake when she’s doing it.

Another alternative is letting your husband sleep on the futon with her. Some babies won’t wake up if there isn’t an opportunity to nurse nearby. Also, daddies aren’t usually as quick to wake up and respond as mamas.

You can also track her wake-ups and pick her up to nurse in her sleep just before she is due to wake up. If she’s waking out of hunger, this might give you a longer stretch at night. This is called a Dream Feed and is referenced in The Baby Whisperer – an okayish baby sleep book. (They all seem to give you The One Perfect Solution that’s supposed to work for all babies, everywhere, which I find ludicrous. But anyway.)

My firstborn didn’t do well sleeping with a belly full of solids – digesting all night would keep her awake. But my second born’s biggest meal is always right before bed and she seems to sleep better with a full stomach. You can play around with what and how much Jenny eats before bed if you want to see if that makes a difference.

Keep in mind that whatever you try, most likely your fate lies mainly in what Jenny is already programmed to do. Your goal should be to figure out a system that gets your family the most sleep and most solid rest as possible; not some arbitrary “sleep through the night” ideal put forth in a sleep book or by well-meaning friends and family!

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