Child sleep does not need to be a nightmare.
An interview with Eileen Henry
How did you get interested in child sleep?
When my first child was born I brought him into bed with me so that I could “meet all of his needs.” Every time he
woke up I breast fed him. He started waking up more often. It felt as if we were both up all night, disrupting each
other’s sleep. It was like torture.
Where did you get help?
I discovered a parent education class called R.I.E., which stands for Resources for Infant Educarers. The program was
developed by Magda Gerber, whose books include Your Self Confident Baby and Dear Parent. The teacher stressed
the practice of sensitive observation. The “light bulb moment” for me came when she said, “Children learn to need
what they get.” I realized that my son did not need to nurse every time he woke up. He had begun to associate
waking up with eating. Which meant that I had created a “need” as well as a sleep pattern that was unhealthy for
both of us.
How did you get from there to working as a sleep consultant?
The changes I made to improve the sleep of my first child, the practices developed with my second child, and years of
exposure to parents as I trained to teach R.I.E. all helped me to develop the practices I teach. Few things are more
satisfying than seeing tired, desperate parents change their lives by getting better sleep for their children and
How does a consultation begin?
I ask about the parents’ expectations of their child’s sleep. Many approach bedtime with anxiety. I did. Infants are
very attuned to the state of their parents. They can pick up on the discomfort and become anxious themselves. The
calmer we are about our children’s sleep and the more certain we are that they can get to sleep, the easier it is for
them to sleep. To an infant, the feeling of your body can be clearer than your words.
What else do you ask?
The sleep solution needs to be appropriate to the developmental stage. The sleep patterns of a newborn infant are
different from the patterns of a four-month-old, which are different from the patterns of a one-year-old. So I ask the
child’s age. We need to understand what the child is capable of and to be careful not to expect too much. The most
appropriate way to get that information is to ask your pediatrician about the food needs for your child’s age and
When is it reasonable to expect a child to sleep through the night?
Somewhere around five to eight months is when there is a change is children’s need for food at night. They no longer
need food every few hours. They can go for much longer stretches without eating. That said, the Holy Grail called
“sleeping through the night” may be five hours for one child and ten hours for another child.
Can you do anything to promote healthy sleep during the early months?
Children need to develop a sense of the rhythm of night and day. So one of the simplest things you can do from birth
is make sure that the room where they sleep is dark at night and dim during the day. You can also start to observe the
times of day when a child eats and sleeps. Children tend to develop their own schedules. It is then the job of the
parent to enforce that schedule by preparing the child to sleep before they get overtired.
The core practices in the R.I.E. classes I teach in Boulder include the development of ritual and routine, which help a
child learn to be self-regulating. Putting a child to bed in the same place as much as possible is important. So is doing
the same things every time you put a child to sleep. This can include the songs you sing, the stories you tell, and even
the way you say “I love you.” The location and the routine give the child the opportunity to recognize that it is time to
What are some bad habits?
Putting child to sleep in different places – on the couch, in the car seat, on the go – is often necessary. We all do it.
But allowing inconsistency to become a habit can prevent a child from developing regular sleep. The same can be said
for many common methods of getting a child to fall asleep. My husband used to stroll our son on rough pavement. It
worked. But it wore out my husband and prevented my son from learning to make his own transition from awake to
Does sharing a bed with your child interfere with the child’s sleep?
Not necessarily. The “family bed” can be a beautiful thing and works for a lot of people. I loved having my baby in my
bed. But there is a difference between having a child fall asleep in your bed and having a child fall asleep on your
body. Having an infant fall asleep on your breast is a wonderful feeling. But if it becomes the only way the child can
get to sleep it can prevent a child from learning to put himself or herself to sleep.
What are the alternatives?
For newborns, I recommend having the baby beside your bed in a co-sleeper or near the bed in a basinet. If this is too
disruptive to your own sleep, try moving the baby a bit further from the bed.
Many parents do not get serious about sleep until their child is six-months-old. Or older. Are they too late?
It is never too late. If parents are committed to making changes and consistently applying the solution, the nights will
get better. So will the days.
So what can a parent do?
The solutions are specific to the parents and the situation. But a great way to start is to be honest with your child and
say to him or her, “We are going to make a change now.” If at this point the child cries, calmly acknowledge what you
see. It can be as simple as saying, “You are crying. This is hard. I will help you.”