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TL;DR Version

How do people get a 6-month-old to soothe without picking them up? Has this actually ever worked for anyone? We are on baby #2 and it seems like a myth?

Long Form Version

We are on baby #2 and have hit an issue that I feel like is reasonably common: the kid can almost never soothe himself to sleep in a crib, regardless of how drowsy he is. He's breastfed, no co-sleeping, consistent night time routine (feed, wash, quick-book+dim lights, crib, music, white noise+dark).

Unfortunately, he's a negative sleep trajectory. After being relatively normal to about 4 months (naps ~45-1.5h, night: 3h then 1.5h after), he had a sleep regression and blew up his naps to 45m and first night cycle to 1.5h+a mix of 45m. He returned to the original better night sleep for almost a week (3h+1.5h blocks). He is now on 45m blocks... for all naps and in the night. For those in the back row, that means 10-15 wake ups each night, depending on how quickly he soothes back down. Even tag-teaming, this is a WW1 style trench warfare existence.

His typical pattern is to wake up not immediately startled/crying but with an escalating grunting and barking vocalization that eventually turns into uncontrollable crying if you wait long enough (5-10 minutes). We're taking a full court press on this issue to knock out possible physical causes (e.g., reflux meds, cutting out dairy, tried some tylenol at times where physical discomfort seemed possible). Related to this is an issue: the kid just can't be comforted without picking him up and holding/bouncing him (depending on where in his waking cycle you catch him).

Spread across hundreds of pieces of literature is this concept of "Oh, just put your baby down drowsy but awake! If they get upset, soothe them in place!" With no apparent backup plan when they are not soothable without holding them. Methods tried so far, with the level of success noted from "some" :-\ to "makes things worse" :-(

  • Audio:
    • Shushing :-\
    • Singing lullabies :-(
  • Physical Pressure:
    • Patting :-(
    • "Holding" with hands on sides but without lifting out of the crib :-\
  • Motion:
    • Vibrating hands gently on the sides :-(
    • "Rocking" by bouncing baby gently in place without removing from crib :-\
  • Sucking:
    • Finger :-\
    • Baby hand :-\
    • Pacifier N/A (couldn't keep it in well enough, preferred his hand)
  • (Feeding): We haven't fiddled with this much, but the kid is chunky and eats great. Only about ~2 wake ups seem to have much hunger cues, and we just feed him then.
  • Props (haven't tried much on this):
    • Stuffed animal N/A (haven't tried much due to choking/smothering risk)
    • Tube socks filled w/ warm rice/grain N/A (considered, but he is in a Merlin suit so unclear if it would give much pressure/comfort)

We have found only a handful of wins where the baby falls back asleep through some combination of these methods. Ones with mixed results typically cause some temporary soothing, but the baby staying up so long they are no longer tired and then there's a 40 minute waking cycle or otherwise need serious bouncing/nursing to settle. Given that it has only worked maybe 3 times ever, the "critical failure rate" is about 5-10 times more likely than the success rate.

Worse, the successes don't mean the baby sleeps any longer. We recently had our first "put baby down in crib, leave room, it falls asleep." They then woke up 40 minutes later, and every 40 minutes thereafter until 4 AM (where a 1.5h double-cycle happened by pure luck).

Breaking down this question into actionable bits:

  1. Additional Methods: Anybody has soothing methods not on the above list?
  2. Baby-Gone-Good Stories: Is there anybody who had a baby that consistently escalated in a crib, but then got better at it (in the 6 month area)?
  3. Wins?: Was it even useful to help a baby soothe with less intervention? This seems to be a common wisdom, yet are not seeing that less assistance in sleeping results in the baby stringing more cycles together.
  • I feel your pain - there’s a reason sleep deprivation is a means of torture... How was your experience with #1? – Stephie May 3 at 6:17
  • My son is two and STILL won't usually settle in the crib. I do suspect that it's something of a myth, or just doesn't work for 'higher needs' babies. – Meg May 3 at 15:44
  • @Meg second that! – Stephie May 3 at 16:09
  • I know you said that they mostly didn't think it was food, but out of curiosity, How are you feeding him? (i.e. - direct to breast or bottle) – goodguy5 May 6 at 13:53
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    Just a side comment if you still happen to be looking at this and are still having this issue. I note yours is in a Magic Merlin suit. That suit actually prevented our nearly-5-month-old from self soothing. His self soothing method involves lifting his legs up together, pushing them up on the bars, rolling on his side, and doing 180s to full 360s in his cot. He rolls around to get comfortable it seems. The Magic Merlin pinned him down too much and he hated it, despite having loved swaddles before. – Donna May 28 at 5:59
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I'll weigh in here and risk sounding like a terrible person. We had a very similar experience with our second, except maybe worse. We got some good sleep out of him for the first couple weeks of his life, but it quickly degraded into 30/45min sleep cycles all the time. For the next 3 months he never slept more than 45 minutes at a stretch, ever. I'm honestly not sure how we survived it (props to you for making it this far, don't die now!).

We got all the advice from all the angles - everything from "never let them cry" to "cry it out". We ended up buying and reading this book:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345486455

which was convincing enough that we decided to try the "cry it out" option. I want to summarize what the book said and why we tried for what we did. Keep in mind though that I read this years ago, and with the sleep deprivation my memory of this is all very spotty. The overall summary for a child of our age (we started looking into this at 3 or 4 months) was that at around this age they started to "grow up" enough that they could very much handle longer sleep periods and self-soothing. However, some children have a hard time learning self-soothing techniques on their own. As a result, when the child wakes up randomly throughout the night (which happens to literally all of us for no reason at all), they are unable to go back to sleep, and you end up with a screaming baby after 30/45 minutes. Again, most children learn to self-soothe naturally. Some however don't, and this can cause very long-lasting sleep problems.

At this age attempts to help soothe the baby don't really help because the issue is that the baby needs to learn how to soothe themselves. That doesn't leave many options other than crying it out. At this point in time things were so bad with our son that we didn't really have any other options to try, and had done our best to rule out any "physical" options (like you mention). We felt like terrible people but tried the whole cry it out thing anyway. We did our nighttime routine, put him to bed, and prepared for screaming.

That first night it was over an hour before he finally went to bed. It was genuinely terrible. Eventually he exhausted himself enough that he did fall asleep. After that he got in the first real sleep period he had in months (I think 3-4 hours). We didn't make him do anymore crying that night. The next night we did the same thing. I think he screamed for even longer before he finally went to sleep that night, and got in a good sleep period. Same thing the third night (I think). The fourth night he just went to sleep and stayed asleep, maybe even for half the night (it's been too long for me to remember the exact details). No crying. After those 2 or 3 nights, things changed substantially for the better, and it didn't revert after that.

I know you tried some "crying it out" without success, and I certainly can't guarantee the same results for you. Based on my own anecdotal experience though, if crying out is going to work it may take more than one night. It is very unpleasant though, and I know I felt like a terrible person, but the results we ended up with were better for all parties involved. Our son was a much happier baby once he started sleeping.

We have 5 kids. 3 were great sleepers with only minor problems, and the various soothing methods people generally recommend were all we needed. One had a terrible problem sleeping and needed the baby equivalent of a nuclear bomb to get under control. Our fifth is now 8 weeks old, and he seems to be on a trajectory that will also require more effort to help him sleep well.

Helping a baby get good sleep habits can be an extremely difficult and painful process for some kids. However, I can say for sure that some short-term crying is worth long-term change, both for you and your child. Of course I can't promise that you'll get the same results I did, but if nothing else is working then personally I'd try it (and chances are I will be trying it myself again in about 2 months).

  • It is tricky: right now even with softer pick up/put down methods, we have hit 1h battles. Our choices appear to be: a) put down to any degree awake (continue battle for 30m-1h, escalating in distress=>uncontrollable crying/scratching face; wakeup 5m-3h later), b) put down 2-5 minutes dozing (rustle in crib, then 40m) c) put down > 5 minutes dozing (no rustle in crib, then 20m-40m) d) falls asleep nursing (40m-1.5h) Excluding the wake ups where he just decides the day has started and is up for 1h or 2h. – Namey May 6 at 20:30

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