Teachable Moments

Neuroscience of Sleep Part 1: Rock the Baby

Sleep as a Nutrient for Babies

Watching a sleeping baby can be a truly joyful experience. No matter how challenging the day has been or how sleep deprived you are, watching your sleeping baby melts the day away.

“There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson


The serenity of sleep can make it seem simple, but sleep is one of the most nurturing necessities for a child’s healthy development.

Sleeping is an act that all humans engage in and yet, it still has to be learned. Most children need guidance on how to recognize and honor their natural sleep cycles. Children need to learn from loved ones how to self-soothe so they can fall asleep and stay asleep.

While every child is unique, most children begin to develop a personal circadian rhythm (a cycle of sleep-wake) around 6 weeks. A newborn will still have an irregular sleep schedule. Around 6 months, a baby’s sleep schedule will become more regular.

This information can act as a general guideline for understanding development but actually surviving through the night the first few years can be quite challenging for many sleep deprived caregivers.

There are some strategies that can be of use to help get your baby to sleep but for the most part the goal of this article is to provide neurobiological information on child development that will support you as a parent.

It may seem crazy but when it comes to rocking a baby to sleep I bet you are already doing what is best and do not need any parenting advice. Caregivers all around the world rock their babies in very similar ways. Soothing, rocking, and carrying babies until they fall asleep is part of our collective wisdom that has evolved over time.

My goal is to honor your innate intelligence as a parent to inspire your family’s ability to thrive. I will offer paradigm shifts on how you think of your child’s behavior and it is in these shifts that you will learn effective parenting strategies.

Rocking the Baby to Sleep

Moving towards a time when your child sleeps through the night can be an overwhelming hurdle. You may want to sprint to the finish line where your bed and a full night’s sleep awaits. Oh what a dream…

Your baby may wake up numerous times throughout the night crying for you. This behavior is communicating to you that he or she has just moved through a sleep cycle! We all, regardless of our age, enter into a moment of wakefulness after the completion of a sleep cycle. However, as adults we know how to fall right back asleep and so we barely notice this pattern. When a child finishes a sleep cycle and is awake he or she will scan the room looking for comfort from a loved one. When the child does not see a caregiver, the result may be cries of distress.

This means that getting your baby to sleep includes helping him or her learn to self-soothe through sleep cycles as the night progresses. As I discussed in my article, Authentic Alignment, a bawling baby depends on the parasympathetic nervous system of a caregiver to regulate. When you rock your baby or carry your baby as your pace around the room you are training her brain to recognize moving from high arousal to low arousal. This will help strengthen neural connections that will later result in an ability to self-soothe independently.

The process of picking up a baby, rocking, and carrying is a universal recipe for relaxation. Many caregivers have found that once their baby has been soothed and an attempt is made to lay their baby down to sleep he or she instantly wakes up crying again. Especially for an already sleep deprived caregiver, the result may be a desire to explode in frustration or puddle into a pool of self-doubt.

This behavior is not your babies attempt to control you or demand all your attention at the cost of a good night’s sleep as strategies like the “cry it out” method may purpose. It is a phenomenon that happens in all babies around the world and can be explained by an understanding of what is going on in the brain!

Neuroscience can nurture your understanding of your baby’s brain and empower you to see the importance of soothing your baby to sleep even when you are exhausted. I will then offer strategies that will support your stresses as you sway through your child’s sleep symphony.

In 2013, a research study was published in the journal, Current Biology, reporting the universal similarity of soothing that occurs when a caregiver is trying to put a baby to sleep. They found that all mammalian infants have an automatic calming response when carried. Babies have been neurobiologically designed by nature, over the span of evolution, to stop crying when carried. This response is caused by an interplay of cardiac, motor, and central regulations.

Kumi Kuroda, from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, found that this occurrence is orchestrated by the parasympathetic nervous system in a concerto inside the cerebellum. Babies detect sensory input from the biofield as well as the external senses such as touch and sound. One of the jobs of the cerebellum is to keep you safe. It is located in the reptilian brain, which is your place of autonomic function regulation. The cerebellum is constantly vigilant for anything that may put you in danger. If something is detected it will send your body into fight-or-flight mode. The only time that the cerebellum has a chance to rest is during REM sleep. When a baby is picked up and gently rocked a signal is sent to the cerebellum to simmer down, resulting in a soothing effect (including a lower heart rate). Sometimes when a baby is set down the cerebellum kicks back up into high gear causing the baby to cry once again.

In addition, babies are calmed when held due to the processes of proprioception. Proprioception describes the ability to sense and orient body movements. Proprioception is driven by the central nervous system and aids in coordinating movements. Proprioception is at play at times when your body sends warning signals to your brain, for example, when your finger is getting close to a flaming candle.

A baby who wakes up multiple times in the night and needs a caregiver’s love to soothe is displaying the beauty of brain development. Even though this process may be frustrating it is a natural and universal aspect of a child’s healthy development.

Trust in your wisdom as a parent. Allow your knowledge of brain development to guide you. Melt away your frustration and stress with the serenity of your sleeping baby.

Tips and Tricks for Soothing the Baby to Sleep

When you are struggling to soothe your baby to sleep or back to sleep there are some strategies you can try. The goal of these tools is to ensure that you are still nurturing your child’s brain. You want to empower your child’s ability to fall asleep independently. In order to do this, the child needs experiences in regulating to a level of arousal that will allow him or her to fall asleep.  Your child needs to feel safe enough to shut down the cerebellum.

I do not recommend strategies like the “cry it out” method. In this article, I will not be going into great detail on why this method is detrimental for children, but I will touch on one of the most toxic hormones a baby can experience: cortisol. When a baby is very upset like when they are crying for a caregiver there is a possibility of synapses damage. When a baby is “crying it out” without a caregiver’s touch the hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol in excess kills neurons. A baby’s brain at 40-42 weeks is only 25% developed. We do not want to kill any of the foundational neurons of a developing brain. Proponents of this method do not often discuss the long-term outcomes for the baby. Emphasis is placed on short-term goals of getting a baby to sleep so parents can sleep or “get back to their lives.” While this method may (debatably) produce short term satisfaction there can be serious long-term side effect for the baby.

With the knowledge of brain development and neuroscience I have provided it is clear that for long-term health and well-being babies need to be soothed.


A baby whose circadian rhythms have begun to regulate can benefit greatly from a relaxing routine before naps and bedtime. Having a consistent routine provides predictability which allows a child to feel comfortable and safe. When setting up a routine take into account how long it takes for your baby to wind-down. A baby who is very active will need a longer amount of time to relax to a point where falling asleep is accessible. It may take a few days to figure out the perfect routine but go slow with changes and remember that it may take time for your baby to adapt. 

Temperament and Multiple Intelligences

Your child’s unique temperament and multiple intelligences can be a huge contributing factor to how your child would like to be soothed. Some babies respond best to physical touch while others would rather not be touched while they are calming down. A baby who is strong in natural intelligence might be most soothed by fresh air and being rocked outside. The key is to have an awareness of who your baby is and from there you can build effective strategies for soothing.


Look around your baby’s sleep space. Make sure it is a calming environment. Think about incorporating a white noise machine or gentle music to help your baby sleep. Use music to help a baby fall asleep, not a tv or iPad video program. Programs like Baby Einstein, which are used by some parents to relax babies into sleep, have been linked to autism and attention deficit disorders.


The Neuroscience of Calming a Baby

Children and Sleep