Creating A Respectful Sleep Solution

Recently I have become aware of RIE, founded by Magda Gerber, through Mama Eve’s blog (and our discussions on sleep). I have been reading and learning a lot about RIE, and I have to say I am very intrigued. creating a respectful sleep solution

The philosophy seems to be very much in line with positive/gentle discipline. RIE is all about treating babies and children with the very same respect as you would an adult. It’s about allowing them to express their feelings without us trying to quieten them, and enabling them to learn about the world around them without being taught, coerced or directed. Although I don’t agree with all of the advice, I think the basic foundation of mutual respect between parent and child is positive.

However, the RIE philosophy doesn’t seem to align perfectly with the attachment parenting philosophy quite as well.

One example is the view on breastfeeding for comfort. According to RIE Associate Janet Lansbury’s website, breastfeeding for comfort is not a great way of helping your child deal with their feelings. They even go so far as to say that breastfeeding a child for comfort not only stops them from learning to deal with their feelings, but that it ‘trains’ them to find comfort in food. I really can’t get on board with this – if breastfeeding wasn’t supposed to be used as a tool to comfort children, then why would breastmilk contain hormones with calming, relaxing properties?

However, the RIE philosophy on sleep is very interesting. It seems to be the middle ground between sleep training and attachment parenting – teaching our children to sleep independently, whilst still respecting their needs and feelings – and most importantly, without withholding comfort. Sounds amazing, right?

Lansbury stresses the difference between a ‘struggling’ cry and a ‘suffering’ cry – she says it’s important to respond to these cries appropriately. For example, if your child is crying after you’ve put them to bed and you feel that they need you, you should go to them and soothe them. However, if they are struggling, you should support them to work through the difficulty independently – just as you would if they were experiencing frustration whilst painting, or playing with legos, or trying to learn to ride a bike – instead of rushing in and doing it for them.

I thought I was doing what was right for my children, but how can I teach them to respect themselves and their needs if I cannot do the same?

Now, as you all know, I am not a fan of leaving babies to cry alone in their beds. Regardless of the RIE suggestions, I will not be leaving my baby to cry alone for any length of time. However, I am starting to question my previous belief that all sleep training is inherently bad. I will never agree with cry-it-out sleep training – CIO and CC (controlled crying) disrespects the child and makes a joke of the parent-child bond. However, the RIE approach to teaching children to sleep is something that has helped me start to figure out a sleep solution for our family.

Here is where we are with sleep, at the moment: Squishy, who is 6 months old, wakes very frequently in the night. Sometimes as frequently as every 30 minutes. Occasionally I am lucky and I’ll get a 90-minute stretch or two out of him. As you can imagine, I am exhausted. Monkey, 3 years old, still requires parenting to sleep in the evenings. 6 months ago I wouldn’t have said this, but I feel that this need has turned into habit. When he wakes in the night or in the morning, he simply helps himself to a book from his cupboard or a toy car, tucks himself back up in bed and natters away to himself for as long as it takes to go back to sleep (or, in the morning, for me to come to get him). He is ready to let go of being parented to sleep.

As it stands now, we both have to be home at bedtime because of both children’s requirements. Alternative Daddy can’t do any overtime, which is going to be a problem now that I am not returning to work for a while. Up until recently, there was no need for our bedtime routines to change, but I feel that something has shifted. It’s time for us all to become a little more independent.

So, I am beginning to formulate my own plan that respects the needs of both of my children, as well as the needs of Alternative Daddy and I. There will likely be crying, and it will be a hard couple of weeks. However, there will be no abandonment, no withdrawal of love and affection, and no predisposed time-slots for comfort – and if at any point it becomes clear that they aren’t ready for the changes, we’ll stop. We will comfort our children as much as they need while they learn to fall asleep independently. We are not expecting them to sleep all night every night – especially not little Squishy, who will still need to be fed in the night for many more months to come – we just want to get to a point where I am getting enough rest to be able to cope with life, and where we are able to put both children to bed without the need for both of us to be there. This is not sleep training, this is a gradual change of routine which I hope will help instigate healthy and positive sleep habits in our home.

Related Post: 8 Reasons to Avoid Baby Sleep Training

I have spent so long within the mindset that ALL crying is bad. I have also been guilty of consistently placing the needs of my husband and myself at the very end of the list. I thought I was doing what was right for my children, but how can I teach them to respect themselves and their needs if I cannot do the same? They deserve a mother who isn’t so chronically sleep deprived that she snaps all day long, isn’t present with them and loses her temper at the drop of a hat. They deserve better.

Will I be sleep training my children? No – we will be ‘sleep learning’ – together. This is about creating balance in our family. Respecting the needs and feelings of our children doesn’t equal stopping their tears at all costs.

And you know what? I actually feel really positive about it. I think our whole family will benefit. I will of course keep you posted on our progress!

What are your thoughts on RIE?

Image courtesy of Critical Moss @ flickr


  1. says

    I’d love to find a “perfect” sleep solution. It seems to me that there is no “middle ground”. It’s either co sleep and let your baby feed all night, or stick them in their cot and let them cry. Neither of which work for us. I have an 11 month old who is very very dependant on me for his sleep, he has to be rocked or nursed, he will not settle for anyone else in the night. That’s fine, but when he wakes some nights, hourly, it’s exhausting. We’ve tried “gradual withdrawal” and “no cry” and neither work. He just gets furious, and sad, and even more clingy. I’d love to try a gentle, but long lasting way of “teaching hom better sleep habits” so that he can self soothe a little, I don’t “need” him to sleep 12 hours, I don’t mind nursing him at night, but I’d like if he woke, sometimes for him to be ok enough to just go back to sleep? I’m not sure if I am being unreasonable? He is different from my daughter, who never “needed” help to sleep, didn’t want to be rocked, didn’t need to be nursed to sleep, would wake, feed, roll over, and go back to sleep herself so I am trying to work out how to help my small boy, without traumatising him or me. I must admit, being bombed with tiredness, we didn’t stick to the “gradual withdrawal method’ for very long, it’s less time consuming to rock him, than to sit by his cot patting/stroking, and at 1am, when I’ve been up 3x since I went to bed already, I’m all for easy. We can’t co sleep, I have arthritis, so can’t comfortably have him in our bed, and our bed won’t work with a side sleeper cot style bed. It’s something I’d love someone to find a solution for, so we all get a bit more sleep, I will go and have a read, and see what I think of this method you’ve blogged about, and get back to you!

    • says

      Oh mama, I do feel your pain! I cannot co-sleep either, due to lingering SPD so I totally understand your frustration. Many AP advocates will say it’s as easy as bringing your baby into bed but it’s not that simple for the likes of you and I!

      I have to admit I am sceptical too. I simply cannot abide hearing my littles cry – which is why we will be doing it gradually. Like, right now, I am working on getting Squish used to falling asleep being rocked rather than nursed every time. Then we’ll move from rocking to stationary cuddling. Then we’ll move to laying in the crib and holding hands. etc etc.

      Just remember that there really is no one-size-fits-all solution. I have read SO many books about sleep and sleep training recently, which has been very enlightening and has helped me figure out what I want to achieve and by what means – no unnecessary crying. It’s hard to get into the mindset that crying is not bad – it’s how we deal with it that counts. Squish crying in my arms because he’s pissed that I won’t nurse him to sleep is not CIO :)

      Good luck mama, I hope you figure something out soon, and i’m looking forward to hearing your views on RIE!

  2. says

    Bless your heart! You’re lucky if you get 90 minutes? OH, that makes me wish I could come hold your crying baby for you while you sleep. : )
    My 9 month old is going through a rough patch, and I’ve been reading RIE pages and Mama Eve’s blog and just found yours as well, and just wanted to chime in and say that I’m right there with you – trying to find a path b/t AP and CIO that I’m comfortable with, and that will get us all some sleep in this house. May we all get some sleep sometime soon!

    • says

      Aw, thank you so much! hehe. That would be amazing…

      Good luck in figuring out your own sleep stuff! It’s good to know that there are others on this path too :)

  3. says

    Imogen, you and I are following a very similar path. It took us a while to find something that worked for us, and I still don’t get 12 hours of sleep every night. I do at least get 3 hour stretches (on the worst nights), so that’s something. As I’m writing you I just realized my baby is crying, so I need to go listen and see what’s going on. But I’m glad you’re at least on a path to get where you want (it’s all about the journey, right?) I’m looking forward to hearing more! <3

  4. says

    I love the exploration you’re in here and how you’re reevaluating meeting your own needs and modeling that for your kids. It’s kind of like putting your own oxygen mask on first. I agree that RIE has a possible middle way between 1. hard-core sleep training and 2. never letting a baby cry, where your needs can slide to last place. No one does want a resentful, exhausted mom.
    Listening to crying at bedtime, when you want to help the child learn some more self-soothing techniques, does it seem possible to you they may be crying out “I don’t like this! I hate this!”? It seems possible to me. I think their body may be screaming bone tiredness. Instead of hearing their crying through adult emotional concepts, like “I’m alone, I’m abandoned” just see if it opens up any space for you to translate it into body talk of discombobulated angry exhaustion wanting the painful feelings in their body to stop.

    • says

      That’s a really good point you’ve made. I’d also go further to say that there may come a time where if we *never* allow our children to cry, even just fuss a little, we are preventing ourselves from learning what these cries mean. I know now that if I sit next to the crib and pat Squish’s bottom to try to get him to fall asleep, his cries are saying “Hey!! What do you think you’re doing? You’re supposed to feed me to sleep! This isn’t right, mum, this is….zzzzzzz”. He’s not feeling abandoned or alone because I am *right there*.

      Thank you for your comments. I feel like this exploration has opened up a completely different world.

  5. April says

    I think that the wording of what we are doing (‘sleep training’, ‘sleep learning’, CIO, CO, Modified, etc) has become extremely important to our identity as parents.

    For my own experiences, I have used a variety of ways to help my children learn how to fall asleep on their own and how to go back to sleep when they wake in the middle of the night. I started out responding to each and every cry. Around week 2-3, I started to tell the different between a mad cry, a hungry cry and a fussy tired cry. If he was fussy, I would tell him that it was bed time, ‘time to sleep’, and put him in bed, usually for about 2 mins. Within those two minutes, I can tell if he has started to calm down, since he has learned that his bed = sleep time. If he hasn’t, then I (or more often, my husband) pick him up and hold him for awhile. Usually only another 5- 10 mins of holding and he will be ready to go back into his bed. If he is mad, he is held and soothed (or allowed to be mad, if that’s what he wants). If he is tired he is fed, etc. We have been very consistent about putting him down when he’s tired and picking him up when he cries, but by giving him a couple of minutes on his own, I’ve noticed a difference. Now (at 11 wks), after he eats and starts to get sleepy-fussy, I’ll ask him if he wants to go to sleep or bed. He usually makes a response that is part fuss, part babble. I swear that you can hear the difference in this sound that indicates he’s ready. I’ll put him down and he just goes to sleep. This is my third baby and I’ve done the same thing for each of them.

    This works for me, but may not work for others. Regardless, babies and children respond to the consistency of your actions. If you are consistent with your actions, your children will know what to expect and that helps them to feel secure.

    I think that standing up for your needs is a very positive step. You are absolutely right that you will be treated by your family, the way that you treat yourself. You are setting an example for them of how you want to be treated.

    I hope everything goes how you want and that you get more sleep!

    • says

      I really like the sound of your technique. It seems to be all about really listening to what your children are trying to communicate. I love that you pick him up and cuddle him if he’s not ready to fall asleep yet. This is what I don’t understand about CIO: surely anything that makes them feel insecure about bedtime – being left alone for long stretches, cries being ignored, not being picked up or touched to comfort – is eventually going to have a detrimental effect. Surely the goal of all of this is to ensure our babies know that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a safe one to remain in.

      Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing what you do! I wish I had read this when Squishy was a newborn!

  6. April says

    I was talking with my husband about this post and he made an interesting point. He said that we are all teaching our children how to sleep, whether we are teaching them to sleep next to us in our beds, teaching them to be rocked, bounced, or nursed to sleep, or teaching them to fall asleep in their own bed with us next to them talking to or comforting them. It’s all a way of teaching our children how we want them to sleep.

    And last night when my baby got up twice, we nursed, and then I told him that it was time for us both to go back to sleep. I put him in bed and he didn’t make a peep. Just rubbed his fist next to his face, like he usually does, and closed his eyes. I think he understands the word sleep now. (Just wanted to share a positive story :) )

  7. Beth says

    Good luck!! I am in the exact same boat with our 6-month girl. I had started reading about RIE and had the same discovery that not all crying is bad. I love the analogy that if your friend is crying, you don’t “shssshhhh” them. You hear them out and let them cry on your shoulder and offer comfort. We are co-sleeping and shooting for an in-between AP as well. My 2 or 3-hour chunks of sleep aren’t too bad, but after weeks/months in a row the lack of sleep adds up. Hopefully she will start to extend some of that time soon, and she can work through some of the waking on her own with support from mama and dad.

    I hope you post updates on how it’s going! Good luck!!

    • says

      Thank you! And good luck to you too. Dealing with very little sleep is exhausting.

      I think it’s about time I updated actually, things have really improved! Watch this space…

      Thanks so much for commenting! <3

  8. Nicole says

    Bedtime is a two-parent job around here also!

    I don’t mean to criticize, but I do want to mention that it makes me a wee bit nervous to see an infant sleeping next to an older sibling. This is warned against in “safe co-sleeping” rules, but I also have a friend whose older child accidentally smothered the baby while they were sleeping next to each other in the same bed. Miraculously, the baby survived and was fine, but his breathing did stop and paramedics were called and it was a nightmare that could have turned out a whole lot worse. :-(

  9. Courtney says

    I do kind of a modified method. I usually cosleep for the first four or five months then as the sleep stretches lengthen, I’ll start putting baby in their crib. At this age, I’ll bounce, rock, nurse etc until they fall asleep. After seven months our so, I will put baby down when really sleepy. Depending on temperament, I may give them a few minutes of fussing or controlled crying to see if they settle down. If crying escalates, I go rescue baby and we figure out where to go. I think if we listen to our babies, we will know what we need to do. Neither of my children have ever been left to just cry. I do think that there is some benefit to giving baby a few minutes to figure it out before you go in. I definitely learned when to go in right away and when to give them some wind down time.

  10. mamaleh says

    Great discussion! My 9 month old AP baby has started wanting to stay on my breast nearly all night! I don’t mind being in the bed and nursing every bit as needed but its to the point where I cannot turn over or she wakes again and cries until I nurse. I don’t understand how to change this so I am exploring.
    Getting to sleep initially I have been successfully doing without nursing. By bouncing on ball and listening to her favorite (pop!) music. But during the night I am basically a pacifier!


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