Liz in her co-sleeper calm, sleepy, but awake.

Liz in her co-sleeper calm, sleepy, but awake (3 months old)

“My baby cries when placed in her cot. How can I ever put her down calm, sleepy, but awake.” (Said by many mothers, myself included).

This is the first of a series on emotion management and sleep. Babies need to develop a range of skills to learn to fall asleep by themselves. One important skill is to regulate their emotions such that they can calm down enough to sleep. Emotion management and ability to settle and resettle to sleep are strongly intertwined. Poor sleep leads to poor emotion management, and inability to manage emotions can also disrupt sleep (1).

To listen to an audio version of this post see “Baby emotion management: Interpreting emotions

Step 1 in emotion management: Interpreting emotions

Babies and toddlers look to their parents to help them interpret and learn to respond to ambiguous emotions. This tendency appears to develop gradually from about 6 months of age, and peak around 12 months of age or just after (2, 3). A classic study showed that when unsure about crossing a Perspex cliff, 12 month old babies looked to their mothers and didn’t cross if their mother showed fear, rarely crossed if their mother showed anger, but were likely to cross if their mother showed interest (4). This is called social referencing and applies to a lot more than just physical danger. For example, 5 and 8 year old children’s desire to eat disliked foods increased when the food was displayed with a picture of someone enjoying eating that food (5). Anxiety about novel objects can also be learned from a parent’s emotional reaction (2, 6).

Social referencing occurs predominantly when there is some ambiguity (7). You can see this in action when babies and toddlers fall. If they hurt themselves, they cry then look to their parents for help. If they’re not really hurt, they look to their parents and then cry if their parents express concern.

Interpreting emotions and sleep

Social referencing is likely to apply to putting your baby down for a sleep. The sensation of being put down would include a gradual falling sensation, and loss of multiple comforts, such as warmth, the secure restriction of a hug, and parental smells and sounds. If your baby doesn’t immediately decide this is a negative sensation, they may look up at you to interpret whether these sensations are threatening. If you show fear or concern, they may feel threatened and get upset. Showing only happy confidence when you put your baby down is easier said than done, especially when you are dead tired, or need baby sleep time to complete a thesis as I did earlier this year. A strategy I have found helpful is having Plans A, B, C, D, and E ready to go. As a rule of thumb, they progress from least to most effort, and least to most likelihood of success. That way I don’t really expect or rely on Plan A working, and so am more relaxed when implementing it. My current plans with my 3-month-old look like this:

Plan A: Baby carrier until sleepy, put in cot sleepy but awake, wrap, then pat if needed.

Plan B: Pick up and hug/rock/bounce until calm, put back down.

Repeat Plan B if it is getting easier to settle each time.

Plan C: If it is getting harder to settle each time revert to plan A then B.

Plan D: Resign myself to putting Liz down asleep. Go for a walk with Liz in the carrier, and/or feed Liz to sleep.

For the majority of naps I succeed after Plans A and B. Usually I stick to the planned order, but I also refer to my mother’s instinct and feed Liz at any point if she seems to be getting overly worked up.

Please post your Plans A, B, C, D… in the comments with the age of your baby.

For an app that provides age-appropriate plans see RockABub for iPhone and Android.

For a list of emotion management resources, and other subscriber only resources please sign up.


  1. Dahl, R. E. (1996). The regulation of sleep and arousal: Development and psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8(01), 3-27.
  2. Aktar, E., Majdandžić, M., de Vente, W., & Bögels, S. M. (2014). Parental social anxiety disorder prospectively predicts toddlers’ fear/avoidance in a social referencing paradigm. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(1), 77-87.
  3. Walden, T. A., & Ogan, T. A. (1988). The development of social referencing. Child development, 1230-1240.
  4. Sorce, J. F., Emde, R. N., Campos, J. J., & Klinnert, M. D. (1985). Maternal emotional signaling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental psychology, 21(1), 195.
  5. Barthomeuf, L., Droit-Volet, S., & Rousset, S. (2012). How emotions expressed by adults’ faces affect the desire to eat liked and disliked foods in children compared to adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(2), 253-266.
  6. Aktar, E., Majdandžić, M., De Vente, W., & Bögels, S. M. (2013). The interplay between expressed parental anxiety and infant behavioural inhibition predicts infant avoidance in a social referencing paradigm. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 54(2), 144-156.
  7. Kim, G., & Kwak, K. (2011). Uncertainty matters: Impact of stimulus ambiguity on infant social referencing. Infant & Child Development, 20(5), 449-463.