Thankfully, this was not a nightly thing. But when it did/does happen, it's completely frustrating and exhausting... even maddening. I have no idea how parents deal with this on a nightly or nap time basis.
If your baby or toddler cannot fall asleep without you helping them in some way, that's striking evidence that they are the victim of sleep dependency. I make it sound so dramatic, but it can sure feel just that when you're having to deal with it.
So what to do about it?
Do your best to prevent it, in the first place.
- When your newborn falls asleep, lay him in bed. There's nothing more snuggy than holding a sleeping baby. But your little one needs to become familiar with their bed. They need to learn to connect their bed with sleep. Try to get in a lot of snuggle time during their awake hours when they're staring at you as if they had to memorize your every feature. It's certainly fine to hold them while they are sleeping occasionally, but don't make it a habit.
- When they begin to grow out of the fall-asleep-anytime stage, lay them in bed when they are very drowsy, but not quite asleep. Let them get used to drifting off to sleep in their bed. If your baby is in the habit of falling asleep while nursing or taking a bottle, change their feeding schedule. Feed them after they have been awake for about an hour. Then put them to bed again, once it hits two hours from the time they got up. This way, they are not going down hungry, but they are not "milking" themselves to sleep. (I would still nurse them right before sleeping for nighttime sleep.)
- Create a consistent bed time routine. I've found with my babies that including a bath in the bedtime routine was a huge trigger to them that it was time to go to sleep for the night. The evening goes like this... supper of solids (if 6 mo. or older), bath, get jammied up, nursing session, put in bed. They most generally fell right to sleep without crying, or with very minimal crying. If I skipped the bath, they would either wake up in a couple hours or have a very hard time falling asleep. It's like they needed their evening to be predictable.
- Work on fixing nap time sleep first. It is far easier on our sanity to handle the extra stress during the day.
- If your child is still nursing or bottle feeding, change daytime feeding time so that it does not hit your baby's sleepy time. You want to put them down for a nap without nursing or bottle feeding them to sleep. They may cry, because this is new to them. It's not typical routine. I realize that everyone has their own opinion on "crying it out", but the truth is, there will most likely be some crying. (More on that in a bit.)
- Establish and stick to a peaceful bedtime routine. Make sure your child's evening is predictable to them. They do not understand time as dictated by a clock. They perceive it as dictated by circumstance. (Routine will vary depending on age and your family's schedule.)
- To deal with excessive night time wakings, it may be easier to wean them off of it, than to go cold turkey. If all they want to do is nurse, decrease the nursing time by a few minutes every night for a few nights, so that eventually, they're hardly nursing at all. If your child is older and just wanting you to come in, decrease your cuddle time every night for a few nights, then don't pick them up at all, then don't go in at all.
- A note on crying. I generally let them cry for a few minutes, then go in to them, cuddle them for a minute, then lay them down again. You can generally tell a difference in their cry, whether it's a "disappointed" I'm awake" cry (more like a moaning, whining that is willed to existence) or a very worked up cry (involuntary and more than likely very hard for them to get over on their own).
These are only a few ideas. Every circumstance and child is different, so these may or may not work for you. If you have a particular situation or question, feel free to email me and I can try to help you out.
I have also found some great advice from Dana Obleman. She has a free sleep assessment option. It's computer generated, just so you know. And it also signs you up for way more emails than you may want, so you may want to either use a junky email address or unsubscribe later. If you scroll down to the bottom of her page, there are several links to specific sleep issues. Her blog has many videos where she personally answers questions.
Sleep good tonight... I should start thinking about getting there.