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Baby Sleep Questions Answered

Baby Sleep Training & the Older Sibling

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I know you’ve answered a billion questions about sleep here, but I’m hoping you can make it a billion and one. I just don’t know what to do here….

My daughter is 21 months old and has never been a good sleeper. She used to cry inconsolably every night as an infant and since then bedtime has been a struggle for us. When she was about 6 months old we started a bedtime routine and we used the progressive waiting method from Ferber to get her to fall asleep on her own. For over a year she would cry herself to sleep every night—never more than a couple of minutes, but still. Every. Stinking. Night. Only in the past month or so has she started to sometimes lie down in her bed and go to sleep quietly like a reasonable human being. She still wakes up at least once or twice a week and cries for a while before falling asleep again. If she doesn’t get enough sleep at night, she is a whiny, tantrum-y mess all day. Needless to say, sleep is a very precious and delicate thing in our house.

Anyway, all this background info sets up my question: How do I sleep train my 6 month old son?

His room is right next to his sister’s and we have hardwood floors so the sound carries very well. Ever since he was born, I’ve been so afraid of him waking up my daughter that I jump up immediately at every little snort or snuffle he makes. And I do whatever it takes to get him to go back to sleep quickly and quietly (this mostly consists of rocking and/or nursing). It’s worked well; my daughter is very rarely woken by him in the night. But that has basically taught him nothing as far as self-soothing goes and he still, at almost 7 months, wakes up multiple times during the night, and nurses virtually time.

I usually put him to bed between 6:30pm and 7:00pm and he’ll wake at about 10:30, 1:00, 4:00, 5:30 and 6:30. It’s ridiculous that I’ve let it get to this point; I know he’s completely capable of sleeping through the night, but in reality, he’s never slept more than about 4 hours straight in his whole life. I’m exhausted and I need it to end, but I’m not sure how to go about it.

I got out our copy of “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” (which I got on your recommendation, for my daughter, over a year ago) and have halfheartedly tried to start training him. But it seems when I let him cry, it wakes up my daughter and the situation quickly spirals out of control—my daughter’s cries keep the baby awake, the baby’s cries keep my daughter awake, my husband get frustrated because he has to wake up and help calm the kids (usually night wakings are my realm since he works outside the home and I don’t). It seems like no one in the whole house gets any sleep, so I wind up nursing/rocking the baby to get some peace and sleep for everyone.

You had to have dealt with this kind of thing when you had Ezra and Ike, right? Please tell me you (or your fabulous readers!) have some tips on helping an older sibling sleep through the baby’s sleep training.

Thanks in Advance!
So. Very. Tired.

I have to be honest here, at the risk of you hating me and refusing to read past this sentence, but my older children generally slept through the younger sibling’s nighttime caterwauling/sleep training most of the time. They are very heavy, deep sleepers, and when they do wake, they don’t tend to go zero-to-crying-distress like your daughter, so I never had to deal with a three-ring sobbing/sleep circus in the middle of the night.

That said, oh, man, do I ever sympathize with your situation. So I’m choosing to “answer” your question in hopes that we can all collectively come up with some ideas for you.

Off the top of my head:

1) Is there anywhere else you can sleep train your son? Like maybe start with a Pack-N-Play in your room until you see some actual forward progress with it? I know your husband probably won’t be thrilled by that idea, but since he’s waking up anyway once things go off the rails with your daughter, maybe keeping the disturbances contained to just you two for a couple weeks would be preferable? Or set it up somewhere completely different and away from everybody? Living room? Someplace where you can sleep on the couch just out of his view, but close enough to do the Ferber back-patting entrance/exit thing without having to walk too far? This wouldn’t be a perma-solution, but it could get you through the initial hump until he learns some self-soothing skills and his wakings aren’t quite so frequent and loud.

2) Is there a way to reduce/cancel out some of the noise for your daughter? Get some FLOR tiles or cheap throw rugs for the floors. Buy her a white noise machine or an MP3 player dock with soft music or nature sounds. Hang some pretty DIY fabric-wrapped panels on the shared wall. (You can also buy specialty sound-proofing panels and materials at hardware stores and online, if you want to go hardcore.) Get her a pair of noise-canceling earmuffs and teach her to put them on when she wakes up — not only will they reduce the baby crying sounds, but she might find the soft pressure on her ears to be soothing in and of itself, since she sounds super-sensitive to noises. (Noah wears these kid-sized earmuffs a lot when he gets overwhelmed/overstimulated and I often find him wearing them in bed — probably to block out Ezra’s singing/chattering in the bottom bunk.)

More than anything, though, is DON’T GIVE UP. Stick with it, stay consistent. Sorry, Husband, but he will have to suck it up and help, because you guys BOTH need to prioritize the training over his sleep — just so you aren’t constantly undoing everything by caving and nursing all night for everybody else’s sake.  Not to mention that the consistency is the thing that will GET YOU THROUGH THIS MUCH FASTER. And I clearly don’t need to tell you that the ability to self-soothe and get enough sleep at night are wonderful, essential things for babies and toddlers. (And moms and dads, because surprise! We are human beings with human bodies who also require adequate sleep to function.)

Published May 5, 2014. Last updated October 29, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jean

    May 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I agree with Amy on the sound machine. We bought one when our son (now 10) was a baby and he still has it! It works wonders in blocking out sounds that disturb his sleep and was really helpful when getting him to learn to sleep on his own.

  • Rebecca

    May 5, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    A humidifier might also work if you are in a dry climate. It makes a soothing white noise sound and I have found that my daughter sleeps much more soundly because the dry air isn’t making her cough/clear her throat while she is sleeping. 

    My daughter was / is also a very light sleeper and  now, at 7, I find she sleeps much better with her humidifier on. We don’t use it all the time because it is a royal pain to keep it clean, but when I notice she has a run of poor sleep I pull it out and plug it in.

  • Jen

    May 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    This post could have been written by me several years ago! The first thing I want to tell the OP is that my oldest daughter did not sleep through the night until 22 months and then I had a baby just 6 weeks later, but things do get better! My girls are now 7 and almost 5 and they rarely wake me up anymore. My sleep disturbances are all caused by cats now. 🙂

    I had the same “how do I sleep train without waking my oldest child” question when my youngest daughter was 9 months old, so what my husband and I did was switch up the sleeping arrangements for a few days. We only have two bedrooms in our house, so my 9 month old slept in the crib in one bedroom, my oldest daughter slept in our bedroom and we slept in the living room. It was uncomfortable for a few days, but it worked. After my then 9 month-old had been “trained” (for lack of a better term) we moved our oldest daughter back in the room and we returned to our bed. I remember there being some bumps in the road, but nothing completely unmanageable. Good luck!

  • Rebecca

    May 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Oh, and,… When we sleep trained, my husband (who works out of home) had to be the one to soothe the babies (first our daughter, later our twins) because they had all come to expect to nurse when I came in to get them. Once they realized dad was the one responding at night, they began to settle much faster and eventually either quit waking or learned to go back to sleep on their own. 

  • Kacie

    May 5, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    For me, it’s easier to guarantee noise than it is to guarantee quiet, so we are big on sound machines and just general background noise. When my 3rd baby was born, we never were “quiet because the baby is sleeping!!” because zomg with a 3yo and 5yo, no way.

    Also, my baby is 7mo now. She sleeps with me, and still wakes like once per night to nurse. Maybe more, idk. She is cutting her first teeth right now so she has had a fussier time the past few days.

    My firstborn SUCKED AT SLEEP and now you can’t wake him with a crying baby. I hope your oldest gets to that point asap and your youngest gives you a break soon. 

  • Katie

    May 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    “(usually night wakings are my realm since he works outside the home and I don’t)”

    I am sorry, but PUHLEAZE! Tell me, OP, are you taking long leisurely naps during the day or are you dealing with two small, needy people who you also dealt with for much of the night? I have never understood this rationale. It is a cop out and your husband needs to stop getting “frustrated” and start being a member of the team working to solve you family’s sleep issues!

    • Amber_S

      May 5, 2014 at 3:02 pm

      Yup. Agreed. Sorry hubby, parenting’s a full time job for you, too – even if you also have a job outside the house.

      I did a lot of the night waking in the first few months because it was easier on ME than waiting for my husband to get up and prep a bottle. But that changed once I started night weaning (at 8 months), because the baby associated me with food.

      I’d have Dad get up with the baby and Mom get up with the toddler.

    • Kim too

      May 9, 2014 at 12:21 am

      Right there with you.  My husband always took at least one night feeding.  It was his time alone with his baby girls.  Plus, it kept me sane.  My first did not nap – if I’d had to coax her to sleep all night as well as all day, neither one of us would’ve made it.  Yes, he had to stick to a schedule, but otoh, he got to go to the bathroom whenever he chose, by himself, with the door closed.

  • sassy

    May 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    My son is a horrible sleeper. At 19 months he’s been sleeping through the night for a little over one month. We tried several training methods and weaned completely at 15 months but he just had to be ready. And now I sleep. Sleep is my bestest friend ever now instead of my battle to fight every night. I also stay home with the baby and am the night caretaker, but I will say when we night weaned around 12 months the only thing that worked (and why it took us so freaking long) was finally convincing my husband that he had to take care of night waking duty for a week. After that, little dude got the message. I also second the white noise idea. Around 9 months, when he woke up he’d wake up screaming and inconsoleable and it took forever to calm him down and get him back to sleep. A friend suggested music, and we play our local classics station very low and it was like a miracle. He still woke up at night for awhile but it was just a matter of laying him back down and patting him for like less than a minute and we gradually were able to extinguish ourselves from the process. He also sleeps through our noise much better now, as we have a one story house and can’t really keep it quiet unless we also go to bed at 7p. But we don’t have to tiptoe and wear headphones to watch tv anymore! Yay! Hope you all start getting more sleep soon! 

  • leslie

    May 5, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Want to second (third, fourth?) two things already mentioned. A noise machine for your daughter. And, most importantly, it needs to be Dad that goes in to deal with the baby at night. The minute your baby smells your milk, it’s game over, so you have to eliminate that option. Maybe not for every waking right away, but for some of them to start and then all of them once they get fewer. I agree with Katie (though she was a bit harsh) that there is no reason your husband shouldn’t be helping you at night. You are working all day, too. IMHO (and I work full-time outside the house) your job is way more stressful and demanding. Being sleep deprived and watching too small children by yourself all day is A LOT. So, hubby needs to get on bored with helping for a couple of weeks while you guys get this all straightened out. It won’t be fun for him while it’s happening, but the end result will be much better for everyone.

  • Tara

    May 5, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    I agree with all of the above, but I would flip one thing. Instead of sleep training with your son in a different space, can you sleep train him in his room/crib but move your daughter for a few nights? Camping downstairs with daddy? Weekend at grandma’s? My fear is that you’d sleep train your son in a pack and play in your room or the living room and then when you moved him back to his space, you’d lose ground a bit. The first 2-3 nights were always the worst for us, so if you could move her temporarily out of her room for a long weekend, maybe by the time she came back, you’d be in good shape…?

  • Jeannie

    May 5, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    I agree with most of the comments, but I did want to point out — while I also agree that Dad has to get on board, I want to just note that this might not work for their family. Maybe he has a job where he REALLY has to be alert. Surgeon? Air traffic controller? Pilot? Not everyone has a job that can cope with sleep deprivation.

    I agree though — if he doesn’t have a life-or-death situation, then dude … get up! 🙂

    • Jessica

      May 5, 2014 at 6:28 pm

      If the husband’s job is soooo super speshul that he can’t face a few interrupted nights of sleep then he needs to take some vacation time. A job is not an excuse to not parent your own children.

    • Kat

      May 6, 2014 at 1:44 am

      I agree with Jeannie. I also wanted to note: just because Momma is getting up to quiet the baby doesn’t mean that Dad is just peacefully sleeping through it. When we dealt with sleep training/night waking issues it was actually just easier for me to handle it, even when I went back to work full time. My husband doesn’t wake up quickly, and tends to be really groggy and out of it in the middle of the night (always has been), so by the time he was up and able to deal , baby had escalated to the point where it took quite much longer to settle everyone down. He would wake up, and ask me if I needed help, but he wasn’t one to jump out of bed alert like I seemed to be able to. Seems to me that sometimes it ‘s not always a “he doesn’t get up because he works” type thing, it’s just who is better suited to the job. And to Jessica’s point below – sometimes taking vacation isn’t an option for everyone. Especially if the time isn’t paid and you are living on a single income.

    • Marina

      May 9, 2014 at 2:51 am

      Or, you know, driving to work. I work outside the home and my husband is a full-time stay at home dad. I tried to do an equal share of night wakings, but on bad nights when there were like 6 wakings that lasted upwards of 30 minutes each, it started being genuinely dangerous for me to drive to work the next day.

      And thank you very much for the insulting implications, but my husband taking more night wakings did not make me ANY less of a parent. My job supports my family, and if I got fired for absenteeism because I prioritized taking an equal share of night wakings over showing up at work, I’d be a pretty terrible parent, wouldn’t I?

      That said, taking one or two night wakings shouldn’t excessively compromise anyone’s sleep, and he does need to step up a little.

  • Britt

    May 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    I too have a 21 month old and a baby!  And I am so obsessed with sleep that I protect my toddler’s sleep with my life.  But…with the addition of the littlest one, I am learning that one of the benefits of having a sibling is that you get to learn that sometimes, the world isn’t perfect, and you have to cope anyway.  Which is a pretty darn important lesson to learn.  It’s quite possible that you could sleep train your youngest, and have some seriously “fun” nights and days with your toddler for a few days, and then everyone will be sleeping.  And your toddler won’t die, you’ll just need an extra large dose of wine and chocolate for those days.

    The other thing I want to say is that some kids just cry as they fall asleep.  I had one of those, too!  And up until recently, she also cried randomly throughout the night for no apparent reason.  As much as it made me sad, I finally came to accept that she cries to unwind, and sometimes cries in her sleep.  Once I stopped seeing it as a problem, I stopped worrying so much about finding a solution for it.  Easier said than done, I know.

    Finally, don’t forget that your 21 month old can understand so much more than she can say.  Be sure to let her know what all the crying is about, and she may handle it much better.  They get so protective of their younger siblings, so if she knows that he’s okay, she might not worry so much? 

    Good luck!  And be sure to write back with any tips you develop – I’d love them!

    • IrishCream

      May 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      I was going to add that too! My two are 22 months apart, and my oldest was very frightened initially by hearing the baby cry at night. We had to remind her before bedtime every night for a couple of weeks that the baby would cry, and might (did!) cry for a while, but that mommy and daddy were there and were taking care of the baby.

  • Hope

    May 5, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    I’ve never fully understood the rationale for one parent slowly going crazy as the sleep deprivation piles up… just because they don’t work outside the home. Yes, if one parent has the option to take a mid-day nap, then it’s pretty reasonable for them to get up a time or two during the night. But almost every hour? And Daddy’s sleep is sacrosanct?  No way, man. 

    When you’re getting up five times a night, naps just aren’t going to cut it. Which means that Dad needs to start making some sacrifices too. I wish that I had been more insistent about making my husband help out with the nighttime wakings when I was on maternity leave. He *did* help out a bit (and he ended up taking the brunt of sleep training), but it wasn’t good for me or our marriage to try and play superwoman. It made going back to work that much harder for me. We’ve worked things out and are better co-parents in the middle of the night now. I wish we’d worked it out sooner.

    As far as practical advice goes…. is there someone who can take your daughter for a long weekend while you do the sleep training? Can you and your son go somewhere for a long weekend just the two of you? I bet, if you remove the pressure of keeping things quiet for your daughter, it will take the pressure off of you. I don’t know how your relationship with your parents is, if they’re still around, if they’re local enough to drive to… but if I were in your shoes, I’d go stay with my mom for a few days with the baby. It would be a safe place where I’d feel comfortable letting him cry, and I know my mom would take on some baby sitting during the day so I could nap. If your parents aren’t an option, maybe there’s a friend or relative who could fill a similar role for you?

    Good luck! I remember feeling like I’d never be well rested again. But, it does get better! 

  • Alison

    May 5, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    This is our situation right now. Sleep training our 6 month old, while our light sleeping 2 year old is next door. Hardwood floors and the rooms are basically separated by a couple feet of hallway. While the training is much longer than expected (sigh) our older child is sleeping soundly with a sound machine in both bedrooms and (what really helped) a large floor fan, turned on high and placed in the hallway between the two rooms. I’ve been in my older child’s room while the baby was crying and it’s almost impossible to hear him, but because the fan is out in the hall the white noise is muted and not too overwhelming. That part of sleep training has been working out great (double sigh).

  • C

    May 5, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    My kids are spaced 15 months apart as well, so I feel like I know what you are going through.  I have a sound machine in my youngest’s room and a really loud fan between their rooms in the hall (all three of our rooms are really close together).  The fan does a great job drowning out noise.  

    At 6 months I feel like most moms hit a wall with sleep deprivation, so I would worry now about taking care of yourself and your son’s sleep issue and handle your daughter’s secondly. She may wake up and need some help going back down or she may not.  You really will just have to try and see how she handles it.  My oldest would wake up at first when her brother cried but now she is completely oblivious.  I think I read it just becomes part of their sleeping and they don’t recognize it anymore.   You may need to go back and fix your daughter’s sleep once your son is sleeping.  I remember going from my youngest’s room directly into my oldest’s room at night a few times during the night, but that only lasted a short time and not even every time.  

    I can’t even imagine getting up that many times and then be able to function all day.  I know that I did it too, and I remember being exhausted, short-tempered, and frustrated.  If your husband can’t help maybe a mother or mother-in-law?  Can you get some extra help on the weekends so you can just sleep?

    Lastly, if your daughter is having trouble getting to bed and getting into a deep sleep, could she be overtired?  Usually, that caused the most problems at bedtime for us.  Maybe an earlier bedtime for her would help her out.  

    I know it won’t make you feel better now, but once your son starts to sleep, you will feel better again.  During this stage you can’t even get into a deep rest because your body is just waiting for the baby to start to cry.  I’d just get a plan in your head and push forward.  It may be a struggle for a week for both kids, or they may handle it like champs.  Good luck.

  • Amy Renee

    May 6, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    One other thing to add – step up your nursing during the day if at all possible. If baby has reached the easily distracted stage, he might be taking in less during the day and then waking to nurse often at night. Cutting off night nursings all at once is asking for a tanked supply, mastitis or both

  • Emily Huston

    May 7, 2014 at 6:53 am

    OOOh, I was not aware of this kind of machine being available in the market that aids in baby sleep. I have passed through various sleepless night till my LO becomes 7 month old. Afterward, he sleeps on his own by playing with different toys.

  • MR

    May 9, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    I have a slightly different take on it. I would actually put both kids in a room together. It will be a bit rough for a few days, but you tell your older daughter, if you wake up from brother, just go back to sleep. He’s ok, and Mommy is helping him get back to sleep. This is easier to do if you are all in the same room. The benefit from this is that your daughter will learn to sleep through her brother waking up, and baby will learn to sleep through his sister waking up. This happened with my girls, who share a room. They will wake up to other things, but their sister waking in the middle of the night and crying hysterically does not disturb their sleep in the slightest. And since my oldest has started having night terrors, having her sister be able to sleep through them has been incredibly helpful.

  • BMom

    May 11, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    My kids are farther apart in age, but the crying baby definitely worried my 4-yr-old daughter. She was also a terrible sleeper from the start, so we let her come sleep on the floor in our room when she woke up. That lasted about 10 months but it wasn’t much trouble… She could settle herself down most nights. Then she just stopped one night! With such a littler one, ymmv but it helped us out.

  • Nicole

    May 12, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    First of all, do what works for your family. Don’t let other people’s idea of what is fair and not fair sway you. And what works now probably won’t be permanent
    . Revisit as necessary.
    Second, your letter doesn’t clearly state whether your little one is waking to nurse, or waking and then using nursing to settle back down. My daughter woke every 1 1/2 to 2 hours until she was 22 months. She was waking to nurse, and it was pretty clear when that switched. So if that’s the case, you might be better served with reframing your perspective than trying to get him to sleep through the night. He’s only 6 months old! Just because some people can sleep train that young doesn’t mean it’s right for your son or family. Trust your judgment.

    This may not apply to your situation, but I wanted to throw it.out there.

  • Alicia

    May 13, 2014 at 11:13 am

    We have a 3.5 year old and 7 month old; they’ve shared a room since the baby was about 8 weeks old and getting too big for her co-sleeper in our room. When we sleep trained–and when we need to revisit due to the inevitable disruptions that come with a cold, teething, etc–we lay out a sleeping bag on our floor for the older child. We have a white noise machine in their room but once the baby gets going that’s not going to cut it! When the baby’s crying gets too much for the 3 year old, he calls for us, we get him, and put him right in the sleeping bag. He conks out right away. The key is we don’t let him our bed because that would become a habit we’d then have to break for him as well.
    I’m terrible about not going in to soothe a crying baby, so on those training/boot camp nights I go sleep in our office or on the couch so I don’t hear it and my husband deals. He just has a higher threshold for it, and we both agree that it’s important enough for baby to sleep through the night.

  • Heidi

    May 15, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    I know this is 10 days late, but we JUST went through this. Our almost-3-year-old transitioned to his “big boy bed” (you know, his crib converted so he can get out of it easier) and then a week later it became clear that we had to train our 4 month old (I know. I know. But I’m sorry, we both work, it had to happen. I still nurse her twice a night). 
    We did the sound machine thing, and that helped a little. EXCEPT somehow when we were explaining why we were introducing the white noise machine our son thought it was so that he could hear baby sister crying better, not so that it would be muffled. He thought it was a special communication device between the two rooms (because we put one in her room too, hoping that would double muffle). Anyway. That was a mistake and he would get out of bed and turn the white noise machine off when she was crying. 
    But here’s my actual answer. After two terrible days of the Ferberizing with checks sleep training, no one was getting any sleep. I was an emotional mess, the older kid was getting out of his bed and going in to check on her himself, or coming to check on us, etc. So… on night 3 we went with extinction. No checks. We let her cry until she fell asleep. And then when she woke up if it had been at least 4 hours since she last ate, I nursed her and then repeated. 
    One bad night. 
    And now she falls asleep without crying at 7pm, wakes up and talks a little at some point between 1 and 3 to nurse, falls right back asleep, wakes up between 5 and 6 for a diaper change and feeding, falls back asleep until at least 7 / whenever her brother is too loud. 
    SO all told 3 bad nights. If it had been 5 I bet we would have given up. Instead we had 3 bad nights followed by bad days. On that 3rd night we ended up with one parent sleeping on the floor of the older kid’s room on and off just so he would be comforted and wouldn’t get out of bed–we didn’t want to have to train HIM after that. 
    My husband NEVER participates in the night wakings, even though we both work, because boobs, but he did that night. 

    No matter what you decide — good luck. I am now a convert to Weissbluth’s basic formulation that when you do checks you are actually making it a little harder for the kid to figure out what is going on, just for the sake of making yourself not feel like a terrible parent. 

    Just remember, sleep is SO important. and GOOD LUCK.