Helping Your Baby Sleep with Love and Compassion

Mother watching sleeping baby

Is your baby not sleeping through the night? That’s normal. It’s less common that a baby does sleep for long periods without waking, but norms don’t tell you what your baby needs. Babies’ needs differ.

A compassionate approach to parenting seeks to understand and meet needs—your baby’s needs, certainly, but also your own needs. Part of the challenge is separating your real needs from those cultural assumptions you have acquired from the people around you.

If you are experiencing enough disruption in nighttime sleeping patterns that you want to know how to help your baby sleep, I hope this helps. I have been there, and I remember how it felt.

Helping Baby Sleep

In cultures where there is less anxiety around the idea of how and where babies sleep, it would make no sense at all to give advice on helping baby sleep. Having read about babies’ sleep in other cultures (see Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting without Borders below), I’m convinced that this is only a topic among North American parents because of a cultural anxiety that was introduced by an adult need to control children.

Nevertheless, you start where you are. If you already have sleep issues to deal with, you may need tips to help your baby sleep.

Start with your baby’s needs. Hunger, warmth, calm. Hunger and warmth are easy enough needs to meet most of the time. Calm can be more elusive. Create a calming routine with calming associations. All of the senses can contribute: sound (sing a lullaby), smell (most likely the smell of you), sight (darkness will probably help), touch (soft pajamas, soft blanket, sheepie), and maybe taste (breastfeeding while falling asleep).

For a great list of practical suggestions based on decades of experience with parents, see Ask Dr Sears, “31 Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep and Stay Asleep.”

Also consider your own needs. You may be tired. You may need to trade off with another adult just for a while. Don’t take your frustrations out on your baby, though. Don’t make sleep an issue for your baby just because it is an issue for you.

If you don’t have your baby yet, start by letting go of assumptions that could cause problems. Read Parenting without Borders, so you will have a point of reference when doctors, your parents, and other well-meaning experts offer you advice on sleep and other aspects of parenting.

Co-sleeping or Family Bed

Again, in the context of family sleeping habits around the world and through history, it is strange to have to justify family members sleeping next to one another. It makes more sense to me to ask why some believe babies should be separated to sleep alone, since that is uncommon anywhere else in the world. The usual answer is that it will make them more independent, but research doesn’t show this result from separate sleep.

If we sleep better with our babies and if our babies sleep better with us, we should be sleeping next to one another. It makes waking in the night much easier and shorter. Everyone wakes in the night. How we handle that now can shape how our children handle that in their future.

You do need to remove risk factors, such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, water beds, sofas, and heavy bedding over the baby.

If you or your spouse have any of the risk factors, or if you don’t sleep better with your baby, don’t. A bassinet next to your bed can still give you the convenience of closeness that a separate nursery does not.

Will They Remember?

Human epigenetic memory of being stressed as a child can be passed on and will be encoded in the genes of the stressed person. The new field of behavioral epigenetics studies how and to what extent this happens. I have yet to see a study on the specific epigenetic effects of babyhood stress on an adult, but I don’t doubt it will come.

The simplest point to remember is: a stressful experience as a baby will have a effect. What effect? The science is out, but don’t believe those who tell you that a baby won’t remember being left to cry, so it doesn’t matter. The stress your baby feels now matters now and it can matter long into the future as epigentic memory can be passed on to future children and grandchildren.

When you meet your child’s needs with love and compassion, they learn to meet their own needs without the stress of worrying about the absense of your comforting presence.

Ask the Experts about Sleeping Babies

Christine Gross-Loh, “Sleep Time: Keep Our Babies Close or Give Them Space?” in Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents around the World Can Teach Us (2013).

“Where should your baby sleep? Wherever he sleeps best.”

Ask Dr Sears, the website of the Sears family of pediatricians, gives quick answers to common sleep issues.

“Sleeping with Hayden opened our hearts and minds to the fact that there are many nighttime parenting styles, and parents need to be sensible and use whatever arrangement gets all family members the best night’s sleep.”

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What Is Kangaroo Care?

Kangaroo Care of Newborn Baby

Kangaroo care of infants involves a parent, usually the mother, holding the baby skin-to-skin on her bare chest. The steady warmth, easy access to breastfeeding, and simple, physical closeness benefit parent and baby.

All babies benefit from closeness to a parent, and premature babies need the most help.

Kangaroo Care Helps Baby Regulate Systems

Among the most important measurable changes for a baby during kangaroo care are regulation of body temperature, oxygen saturation levels, and respiratory and heart rates. As Dr Sears writes, babies spend a period of time after birth “getting organized.” One aspect of a baby’s organizing is the synchronization of heart rate and breathing, also referred to as “coupling,” and it can take as little as ten minutes in kangaroo care.

Because this closeness to parent is helping the baby regulate systems, there is more energy to be spent on successful breastfeeding, restful sleep, and growth.

As kangaroo care has become a common practice in hospitals, it has developed its rules and guidelines: baby wears only a diaper, baby is placed upright on the mother’s bare chest, baby is covered with a receiving blanket and held snugly to the mother. As I read the guidelines in several places, I wondered whether there was a place in this procedure for a mother’s instinct. I hope that these procedures aren’t meant to engineer away the need for a mother’s love and connection. Whether a parent follows these guidelines or not, their baby will thrive on sking-to-skin closeness.

Baby Saved by a Mother’s Love

A story that was in the news last August has astonished many. When an Australian mother was told that one of her two babies, born prematurely at 27 weeks, had not survived, she instinctively took the time to hold him, to tell him his name and what she would have liked to have done with him during his life. She undressed the baby and held him on her chest for two hours. Doctors told her that his periodic gasps were just a reflex, but she fed him breastmilk on her finger and he breathed. Though he weighed only 2lbs and doctors had declared him dead after working to save his life for 20 minutes, he lived. His mother’s warmth, touch, loving voice, and nutrition saved him. The story was published after she appeared on an Australian television show, carrying her five-month old son to interviews to help people understand the importance of kangaroo care.

That this baby was saved by his mother’s love may seem like a sentimental interpretation of the story, but the extensive research on kangaroo care bears this out. The benefits of skin-to-skin contact with babies are physical, but they are also far beyond the physical.

Babies Thrive on Kangaroo Care

Marsupial care, the idea of nine months in and nine months out, is not at all new. In last week’s post on babywearing around the world, I mentioned research by a British prehistorian who found that a mother’s marsupial care of babies—babywearing—was essential to human evolution.

In one tiny baby we can see the benefit of putting energy toward growth rather than the effort to regulate systems. The mother isn’t just an added bonus in this situation. The continued physical contact between mother and baby is essential to the individual baby. In the case of the baby in Australia, his mother’s closeness saved his life. Maybe this is true more than we realize. If this is true person by person, it makes sense that such care scaled up to a species level helped to focus development. More babies survived. More babies put their energy into growth, and everyone who followed them benefitted.

Babies thrive in kangaroo care. Kangaroo care isn’t a nice addition or a recent phenomenon but a necessity for all babies to reach their full physical and emotional potential.


Baby Carrier Industry Alliance, “Position Paper on Babywearing and Kangaroo Care,” October 2010.

“Kangaroo Care,” Cleveland Clinic, 1995 (reviewed January 15, 2009).

Holly Richardson, “Kangaroo Care: Why Does It Work?” Midwifery Today, volume 44, Winter 1997.

Image © Kati Molin |