Do you struggle with an unsettled baby at night?
Or a one year old who doesn’t want to sleep? You follow a peaceful bedtime routine night after night and make sure they get naps but – nope! Come bedtime and your precious bundle is in the crib yelling – or even worse, giggling! – and you just want them to settle down and GO TO SLEEP?
And most of what you find online is about how you need a routine or a schedule but that’s not the problem! The problem is what to do when you’ve done the whole routine-and-singing-twinkle-twinkle-12-times but THEY STILL WON’T SETTLE TO SLEEP.
You may be tearing your hair out. You may even be staring into your little one’s eyes and asking them – out loud – what they actually want from you.
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Coping with an unsettled child at night
We’ve all been there. Standing, holding a restless toddler or baby and wondering whether they will ever sleep. If you’re like me, that’s the hardest part – not knowing how long it’s going to take. So all these tips aim to help with that too – to give you some kind of end point so you don’t feel so helpless with your unsettled baby at night.
It’s about your baby but it’s also about you, mom or dad, because this isn’t easy but you have to get through it somehow. When you’ve been trying to get your little one to sleep for hours but it just isn’t happening and your evening is disappearing fast, you need a plan.
What age of child are these tips for?
These are all ideas that you can use from tiny baby through one year old. If your child is still really a baby – even if they can stand up and say some words – you’ll find something helpful here. Once your child is past 2 and can hold conversations, you’ll do things a little differently, but this stuff is great for little or big babies.
I’ve started with what works with a newborn and worked through to what to do with a nearly-two-year-old. It doesn’t matter whether you’re nursing to sleep, rocking, or you’ve sleep trained – these ideas will move with you.
And if you’re interested in sleep training but worried about having to listen to your baby cry, read this post all about our great experience with gentle sleep training.
How to get a baby or toddler to accept that it’s bedtime
I’m sure you’ll know what I mean by ‘accept that it’s bedtime’. I mean that you’ve followed your bedtime routine to a T and your little one is now supposed to be ‘drowsy but awake’ or ‘fast asleep’ – but they are NOT.
Perhaps they are wriggling in your arms and crying when you try to rock them. Or they might be giggling and chatting or standing up in the crib. Whatever they are doing, they sure don’t look drowsy. They are not accepting that it’s bedtime.
Exactly how you get them there depends on the age of your baby and how you usually get them to sleep. Wherever you are with your baby, I recommend that you read to tip #5 because that’s my top tip. It could be a desperation strategy for exhausted, frustrated parents. It’s also the only one I still use now my daughter is 20 months old and sleep trained.
#1 how to settle the nursed-to-sleep baby
Nursing to sleep is amazing. Watching your babe doze off on the breast peacefully in your arms is a beautiful thing. But sometimes it doesn’t work. You get them ready for bed, nurse them as usual and – restless baby. So what to do?
When my babies were tiny, I just kept latching them over and over until they slept. It was exhausting but I knew it would work in the end. Maybe it was a sleep regression or a growth spurt but if they kept looking for the breast, I kept giving it. (I was not always happy about it. Often I was rolling my eyes as I unclipped again. Unprintable words may have escaped my lips.)
Tell yourself, “Just once more,” and keep saying it every time. It’s still frustrating when you think they’re asleep and then they aren’t but if you tell yourself this is the last time, it’s easier on you. And eventually it will be true.
If that’s really not working, try this next tip…
#2 how to rock a restless baby to sleep
If you haven’t sleep trained, rocking is probably high on your list of how to settle a restless baby. Rocking to sleep works great – but it’s hard work and it can be frustrating. You’re working away, cuddling baby close and rocking – and they’re wriggling and crying in your arms. Maybe arching their back or trying to get upright and not looking at all like settling to sleep.
If you’re wondering will my overtired baby eventually sleep then the answer is yes – but it might take a while. If you can keep going, rocking to sleep will probably work, eventually.
So it’s about you making it through those marathon rocking sessions. When you’re rocking for a long time, it feels hopeless. 20 minutes in and your baby starts crying again, just when you think you’re nearly done.
Rocking or bouncing your restless baby
If swinging baby from side to side in your arms is exhausting, try swaying your entire self. You might feel silly – but no one can see you! If your little one seems to hate lying in your arms, put them upright on your shoulder and squat gently up and down to bounce them. Holding them tight against your front and leaning forward then straightening up also works really well sometimes – but it’s much tougher on your back.
To get through rocking to sleep, try COUNTING.
Tell yourself, “I will give her 100 rocks.” And then do it and count quietly to yourself. Counting will pass the time and take your mind off your unsettled baby. Keep rocking even while baby wriggles and cries. If they seem to want a different position, try that if you like but keep rocking. When you reach 100, think about where you are now.
Is baby any more settled? Are they crying or wriggling less? Do they look sleepy? Are they accepting lying in your arms? If you feel like you are making progress – even just a little bit – do another 100 rocks (if your arms can take it).
But if rocking is just not making any difference, or you can’t take any more, try pacing instead.
#3 walking your unsettled baby to sleep
Just like you did with rocking, pacing up and down the darkened room with your baby will eventually get your baby to sleep. Either lying in your arms or leaning over your shoulder, walk up and down with your little one. Keep pacing the room, over and over again, shushing, humming or singing if you like.
I like counting while I pace too – it just makes the time go faster and takes my mind off the not knowing when I’ll be done. First 100 steps. Then another 100 if it feels like it’s helping – or if nothing is helping but you’ve got to do something.
Even if you get to 500 or beyond some nights, at least you have a measure of what it took to get baby to sleep.
Are naps your pain point?
If nighttime sleep is fine but your little one won’t nap, click here for an excellent toddler nap plan – and loads of awesome free sleep advice.
#4 sit or lay beside your baby or toddler to soothe them
If you’re trying to move on from rocking and pacing baby to sleep – or if it just isn’t working – try putting your little one in their crib and sitting or laying down beside them. Sometimes a baby who loves to be rocked off will surprise you by settling better lying flat in bed.
Shushing, hand-holding and patting their tummy gently can all help soothe and settle a baby in the crib.
Moving to soothing your baby as they lie in the crib is a great first step towards independent sleeping.
You might have to lie them down a time or two or pick them up for a cuddle if they’re getting very upset. If you haven’t tried settling them in the crib before, it might take a while.
When you’ve gone through all of these ideas and nothing is working, you’re probably pretty stressed out. It’s hard on you too but staying calm is important for you and your baby.
Tag your partner in
The longer you go on trying to settle a restless baby, the more frustrated and tired you’ll feel. If you haven’t already, now’s a good time to tag your partner in.
Sometimes, a change of arms can make all the difference. That restless toddler or baby standing in the crib for you might be asleep in five minutes for your other half. It’s so ANNOYING when you’ve put tons of effort in to try and put a crying baby to sleep – with no luck – then dad comes along and they’re asleep in minutes. So annoying – but helpful.
Maybe baby wanted the other parent – or maybe they can tell you’re stressed – but it can really help to swap over – even if you just get a break for a while and don’t feel like you’re alone dealing with it.
#5 give them five minutes
This is my most successful tip for trying to settle an overtired baby. It nearly ALWAYS worked for my two youngest children – but it feels a bit MEAN. If you hate crying, this is going to feel really mean – but bear with me. It doesn’t take long and it helps BOTH of you.
When you’re wondering how to settle a restless baby and nothing is working, sometimes YOU need five minutes. I know I do. Maybe you don’t have a partner to tag in – or maybe you can see that your baby isn’t going to settle with you there today.
Put your baby or toddler safely in the crib – white noise on & room dark – and go away for five minutes.
It’s not crying it out!
I promise it’s not crying it out. If you were ok with CIO you would have done it already – I don’t like it either. You’re not going to leave them to cry to sleep – it’s just a break. Going away and leaving your crying baby goes against everything you want to do for them but sometimes I think it’s ok.
It’s ok if you’re getting short tempered and grumpy and not handling the situation the way you’d like. It’s ok if you feel that maybe you both need a break.
You know your baby is safe so go into another room for five minutes. Watch TV, talk to your partner or scroll on your phone – just distract yourself.
Benefits of taking a break from a restless baby
There are a few benefits to this approach. Firstly, if you’re feeling a little grumpy and frustrated about your baby not sleeping, hearing them cry will soften you. By the time five minutes is up, you’ll be dying to get back in there and snuggle that baby! I always have new energy for helping my little one to sleep if I’ve done this.
Baby will probably have accepted that it’s bedtime
The other BIG benefit of leaving the room for a few minutes is that your little one will accept that it’s bedtime. Ever since my little ones were babies, this has been my go-to when I really couldn’t get them off to sleep. The only reason I kept doing it (because, as I may have mentioned, it feels mean) is that it works.
Nearly every time I go back into the bedroom, my little one is drowsy. When I pick them up again, there’s a change. Less wriggling, less struggling and more snuggling into mama.
If you haven’t sleep trained, pick them back up and rock them to sleep when you return. I used to find it usually took less than 100 rocks to get there. Now, I hold her close and feel her press herself into me and know that she’s ready to go to bed. I don’t get her to sleep before putting her to bed anymore so she goes back into the crib drowsy. A bit of shushing from the door is all it usually takes to settle her for the night.
Try gentle sleep training
If you can handle this strategy, you could handle gentle sleep training. I was never keen on the idea but took the plunge recently and am loving my peaceful evenings – and how well my little one sleeps! And we succeeded with a minimal-tears method. Check out Baby Sleep Made Simple to find out how we did it.
What if taking five minutes doesn’t help?
It probably will help. If they aren’t ready to sleep, decide which strategy to go back to. Another five minutes? More rocking or pacing? More nursing? The take-five-minutes plan isn’t there to get your child to sleep, but to get them to accept that it’s bedtime and stop fighting you. Once they do that, setting them to sleep is much easier.
Accepting that it’s bedtime
Bedtime with a baby or toddler who won’t settle is hard work – and little ones are unpredictable. Sometimes things that usually work just don’t. Other times, you try something and it works in a minute or two! The key to how to get a restless baby to sleep is to have a few ideas and be flexible.
Try one thing and switch if it’s not working. And share the load when your little one is going through a tough stage. It’ll be worth it.
Try a sleep schedule
A baby sleep schedule can change your whole life as a parent of a restless baby! You can get a printable baby routine here:
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Looking for more on getting a baby to sleep? Try this article.
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