Whole Parenting Family

when your baby is a “bad” sleeper

sleep isn't an issue

A friend confided in me: I sleep in bed with the baby and my husband sleeps with our toddler. I know–I know–it’s so weird. He’s a bad sleeper.

I responded: that sounds like so many parents I know. Not weird at all. Almost all of us are dealing with baby and children sleep. Meaning: crappy interrupted adult sleep.

We’ve embraced “bad” sleeping. So now it just feels like “sleeping.”

I wrote a lot about sleep with my first two kids. I read a lot about sleep. I think I thought I could out-think the sleeping problems of babies. I viewed them as problems. I viewed myself as a sleep deprived zombie. I was convinced there was a sleep answer.

Toddler Sleep Issues: reasons why they might wake up.

Sleep Sampler: 0-12 months: my overview from my kiddos

Ousting a co-sleeper: we’re not here with BabyLoves, but why did I kick SweetPea out of bed at 6 months? IT DID NOT WORK. I kept getting up to nurse and soothe her for another 6 months til we night weaned.

Nightweaning: when & how we did it with our second born.

Now on baby number three, I’ve embraced that babies sleep differently than children and adults. Well, at least I’ve given up that I can teach my baby to sleep differently than he is inclined to. Babies do not go week after week with uninterrupted REM cycles. They just don’t.

If your baby magically has never awakened between the hours of 7pm and 7am, ever, EVER, great! We’re all clapping.

But this post is for those of us whose children fall in the normal range of waking to feed, waking to diaper change, waking to need and want comfort from a parent, and who don’t want to sleep train.

I’m not in the sleep training camp. Many of my friends are (**waving** hi, gals!!**). I’m not going to judge your sleep parenting decisions. Because we don’t sleep train at all or even attempt to shape sleep habits before a year at night, I’m sharing how we cope with night sleep, specifically.

1) Earlier in the night wake ups for 6 month olds+

(before 6 months, I just nurse my babies right back down, even if it’s a zillion times, because they’re infants and probably need the nutrition and soothing)
If I know she’s eating enough during the day (working//bottle moms: amp up his bottle amounts if you’re bottle feeding or offer to nurse more if you’re nursing on demand), I soothe her back to sleep with rocking and back pats. Elizabeth Pantly’s No Cry Sleep Solution talks about how to be present with them while they’re upset (aka SCREAMING) but not nursing. I’m with her and comforting her through touch and sound (ear plugs?!), but not nursing her. The idea is that over time she will figure it’s not worth it to wake up until the middle of the night because she’s not getting nursed. This is only good if I really believe she is not hungry, but looking for comfort instead.
Check diaper, check teething (motrin or homeopathy, whatever you prefer–we do both), check humidifier in room, check volume of white noise machine, etc. AA or I just be there for her and try to stem the tide of frustration that wells up so quickly.
(we’re not here with BabyLoves yet, so this if off my experience with the first two–he may be different)

2) Later in the night;middle of the night.

After years of getting up & down, at this point, we are all about cosleeping because I just have to lay there in the bed with the baby and side nurse. I honestly don’t even wake up when he’s nursing at this age middle of the night. When he was smaller I would be much more aware, but as he’s always been big, it’s been really easy to dream nurse.
You’re thinking cosleeping sounds terrible. My spouse and I will never be alone again and the baby will take up our whole bed because I’m freaked out he’s going to crawl off it and die or we will crush him. 
I thought so too with SuperBoy so I got a double mattress from Room & Board that has spring & mattress combined and put it in his room in the corner as a floor bed. When he woke up in the middle of the night, I’d head in there and pass out in the bed, between him and the floor. It was also SO low that even if he rolled off, he’d be fine. The double meant there was plenty of room. He was so big at the point that there was no way I could crush him and he wouldn’t wake up and scream.
With SweetPea we coslept the first six months and then began the next six months of up & down with her in her room at night. Why didn’t I just go back to co-sleeping??
My mom asked me the other day if I was going insane because I had to be around the baby almost all the time. Surprisingly, I’m not. I nurse on demand & cosleep & both of these things makes me life so much easier at this point. I also have a husband who often puts the older two to bed by himself if I’m in with the baby. I also have a mom and dad and sister who are around almost all the time so I have lots of extra help. I’m pretty spoiled.

3) That’s it? Cosleep and be a zombie for a year or Cry-It-Out?

This sounds like I’m giving super limited advice. Cosleep & then night wean at 12 months. I wish I had a broader spectrum of answers! This is what’s working best for our family. I have limited mobility in the evenings as I need to be at a hand and near the baby for nursing back down. Do I feel trapped and imprisoned and suffocated? Not really. I know this is a finite period of time and I actually love the snuggling part and that I can be on my iPhone while he dozes and I can get things done on my electronic to-do list. I gave up planning evenings out (clogged ducts, close to infection, screaming baby who wouldn’t take  bottle: not worth it).
Maybe it’s all relative to our own situations. I’m an at home mom of three who has the time to just do lots of bedtime snuggles at night. My working girlfriends or friends without a partner to help put other kids to sleep (because the big ones sometimes get up, too!) may find this to be completely insane advice.
What I do know is that almost every person goes through babies waking up at night, a lot, and it’s really really hard. The commonality of the hardship does not lessen it. Whatever your method of coping, know I’m in solidarity with you in the middle of the night!!


  1. Kim on December 2, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Ah, this is a big relief to read! I co-sleep with baby#4 and it works for us. It’s much easier to let him side nurse than to cry it out and disturb the other three littles. I thought I was enabling a bad habit, but I am glad to know other moms do the same thing. Whew!

    • Natural Mama Nell on December 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      Nope. Not a bad habit!!! I’m in the exact same boat!

  2. Andrea on December 2, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    When it comes to sleeping, I like to replace the word “bad” with the word “normal” and then I feel better about it 🙂 Honestly, though, I think our culture has such a warped view about what normal baby (and even toddler) sleep looks like. I totally agree with you it’s easier to just go with the flow and not try to overcomplicate or overanalyze things. At least for me, it only became easy to handle interrupted sleep once I gave up on how I thought things were “supposed” to be.

    • Natural Mama Nell on December 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      It’s too much of a battle. And some battles are worth fighting, but something you cannot actually win on?? You’re such a wise mama 🙂

  3. Kristen on December 2, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    It’s amazing how all children are so different. Our first thought it was play time whenever we attempted to co sleep. She still does at 2.5. Our second is only 3 months & I can already tell (if we would co sleep, I’m terrified of rolling on top of her!) she would be just fine co sleeping. She is in her crib in our room but she would much rather sleep in my wrap or in our arms-which happens a lot. Thank you for sharing your experience. 🙂

    • Natural Mama Nell on December 2, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      Keep doing what you’re doing! I think we all need to hear what other moms are doing so we can know if we’re way outside the box or if we have company 🙂 Our middle one who we ousted at 6 months–totally was into playing instead of sleeping. But then commenced the long six months of getting up every few hours. There is no easy way to do it!

  4. Laurel on December 2, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    I’m trying to figure this all out with #2. #1 was never good at sleeping at night (still isn’t sometimes) and we definitely did the co-sleeping thing so I wouldn’t be a complete zombie ALL THE TIME. With #2, she starts in her bed (pack n play) and then comes into our bed in the middle of the night. It worked for a while but over the past month or so, she now thinks it’s play time when I bring her into the bed. Still trying to figure out what to do about that……

  5. Therese on December 2, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    So, I really appreciate your blog, family, and you. That out of the way, what happens when you cosleep with your baby because 1. it is way easier, especially breastfeeding, and 2. he was an “intense” baby as it was anyways, then he turns 1 and you interupt his life by providing him a brand new sister, so the co sleeping just continues because everyone is happier and sleeping better including mom, then because of daddy’s job changes and a few moves, your 2 year old and now one year old are still co sleeping. And now, surprise, we have a 3.5 year, a 2.5 year old and a new baby coming in 6 weeks and we are ALL still co sleeping. We have worked to at least getting them in their own bed together and falling asleep, but my sweet 3.5 year old boy is waking up several times throughout the night. I know it is due to habit, I am sure he would wake up when sleeping with us, but would just feel for my hair ( yes, my hair) and go back to sleep. And now I am not there. So he cries. The first few times, I just go in, pat his back, maybe hold a hand, never talk, and he goes back to sleep, but after the first 2-3 times, if he does wake up again, it is full blown screaming, so I just get back in bed with them both. I do not let him play with my hair though, as I know that is a major habit we need to break. (breaks my heart). But I am tired. So tired. And terrified this is not going to be any better once baby comes. I need reassurance, I suppose, and suggestions. Certain people, outside our immediate family, say to just let him cry, but we can’t, neither of us. So, any other options or books???? Sorry for the longest comment ever.

    • Natural Mama Nell on December 3, 2014 at 10:54 am

      Not the longest comment ever. At all. Ok. My cosleeping is limited to my experience of only having done it for 6 months at the longest. BUT transitioning older kids to their own beds is something I’ve seen lots of friends do. So this is like third hand advice (the hair holding is super cute//most of my friends older kids want to touch their nipples for comfort :). I am here to reassure you that a) you’re a great mom and b) you’ve done a great job of meeting your kiddos’ needs and c) you are wise to want to make room for the newborn in your bed.

      Books: Elizabeth Pantly’s “no cry sleep solution” is helpful. Dr Sears’ sleep book. Let me look at my shelf for others.

      Location: Have you considered a mattress on the floor of your room? Like a twin one that is “his” and he has to start the night there and is allowed to transition as needed? Or have your husband just sleep with them? Or have them sleep with each other in a double bed? (too much fighting? try bribery. “if you are nice and stay here without fighting with your brother all night you will get THE BIGGEST TREAT EVER”

      Crying: The biggest thing I’ve heard to be helpful is to have modified cry-it-out where you will acquiesce to certain things at night and not others. So if they’re having trouble, you will lay with them for X amount of minutes and they know that’s their snuggle time. Or you will sit in the chair in their room for Y time and that’s the special time. Or really maybe your husband because i’m sure you are super uncomfortable physically being at the end of pregnancy.

      Hair: have you considered a hair cut and making a big loopy locket type necklace for him? That may sound super weird, but if it’s his comfort mechanism, he might settle for the hair and not you??

      It’s SUPER HARD. HUGS.

  6. Amanda on December 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Oh children’s sleep. After number two I’m waving my white flag. We were pretty diligent with numero uno and he is great, but we had so many random issues come up with our second we were majorly thrown off our groove. Pray he is able to wean soon because mama is feeling a little touched out and get in his big boy room with his brother! 🙂 Although, I know I’ll miss him tons when he does.