Every parent dreams of a full night’s sleep. But for more than 50% of parents, a full night’s sleep evades them until well into their baby’s third year of life. Fortunately, if you’re in the majority of sleep deprived parents there is a way to beat the statistics. Evidence-based research reveals the secret to why (and how) some babies sleep through the night within the first year and how parents can improve the chances of a good sleeper. One of the key factors that determines whether a baby will sleep through and have good long term sleep habits, is whether they learn to self-soothe in the first 4-5 months of life.
As the name suggests, self-soothing is when your baby can calm and settle themselves back to sleep again without needing to be fed to sleep, pacified, rocked or any of the other settling techniques that we may resort to, to lull babies to sleep day or night. Babies who learn to self-soothe sleep for longer periods and don’t have as many night wakings – meaning better sleep and more rest for you and your little one.
The benefits of baby self-soothing behaviours
While self-soothing is important for sleeping through the night, your baby will also use the tools they learn to self-regulate and calm themselves when they’re feeling stressed or irritable. We all use techniques and strategies to calm ourselves or cope with stressful events – often without even thinking about it. And for your baby, learning to self-soothe is as important a milestone as smiling, crawling, or walking.
Here are a few significant benefits of self-soothing:
- When your baby learns to self-soothe or stay calm in the presence of stimulation, they begin to regulate their mood, meaning colic and other ‘early infant fussing’ will subside. This typically only happens after 12 weeks of age.
- If your little one self-soothes when they come into the light sleep state, they will be more likely to settle back to sleep. This means that they link their sleep cycles and sleep longer and when appropriate, sleep through the night.
- When your baby is skilled at self-soothing, your life will be more predictable and settled too. It is much easier to parent a baby who self-regulates than a high needs little one who needs constant intervention to settle and sleep.
- Long term, we know that babies who self-regulate become toddlers who manage their tantrums better and as older children, they are less impulsive and concentrate better in school.
10 Common baby self-soothing behaviours
If self-soothing is so valuable you may well be asking what it is. Self-soothing strategies typically involve the mouth or face and the midline of the body. Examples include:
- Sucking the hands or fist
- Sucking a dummy/pacifier
- Sucking a bottle they hold themselves
- Holding hands together at the midline
- Touching their ears or nose
- Sucking on a ‘doodoo’ blanky
Babies also use self-soothing behaviours involving sensory stimulation. In other words, they calm or settle down with the sense of touch, pressure, vibration, or movement. These self-soothing techniques include:
- Rocking their head from side to side
- Humming that creates a vibration in the chest
- Rubbing their lip or hair
- Rubbing the tag of a blanket between their fingers
When to encourage baby self-soothing behaviours
In the early days, your baby cannot manage to voluntarily control their hands or movements enough to initiate (and successfully execute) self-soothing strategies so they will be heavily dependent on you to help settle them to sleep. It’s the same reason why you may well find your newborn falling asleep on the breast or needing to be rocked or patted to sleep. This is normal and does not mean you’re setting your little one up to develop bad habits. Before three months old, babies don’t develop habits or expectations. Contrary to popular belief, your baby is not ‘manipulating’ you nor are you ‘spoiling your baby’ by helping them to fall asleep.
As your little one approaches 4 months, they will develop the capacity to self-regulate or self-soothe to sleep. Some babies learn to self-soothe with ease where another needs support to learn this new age-appropriate skill.
How to encourage baby self-soothing behaviours
To encourage baby self-soothing behaviours early on, ensure that your baby can get their hands to their mouth or midline. The easiest way to do this is by swaddling their hands up towards their face or towards the chest (as opposed to swaddling their arms at their sides).
Another way to encourage self-soothing is to allow your baby to derive pleasure from self-initiated actions – for example, if you see your little one sucking their hand don’t remove their hand from their mouth. They are not teething, hungry or going to be a thumb sucker simply because they are self-soothing – allow them to use this strategy to settle.
Finally, give your baby time to settle. The temptation, especially with our firstborn, is to jump in and soothe them as soon as we hear the first squawk. Resist the temptation and instead, let your baby (after 4-5 months of age) have a few seconds to settle or find a strategy themselves. This does not mean leaving your baby to cry – it simply means that you take a deep breath and listen to their communications – if they are groaning and moaning, leave them to settle. If they are really crying, respond by finding out why.
Practices to avoid
While you don’t need to worry about habits forming in the early days, habits can and do become entrenched after 5 months of age. If you consistently soothe your little one or put them to sleep using strategies that they will be dependent on you for, it is reasonable for them to learn to expect this type of soothing every time they cry or go to sleep. Habits to avoid include:
- Feeding your baby to sleep or every time they cry
- Rocking to sleep
- Driving them around in the car to get them to sleep
- Pushing them in the pram
- Lying with them to help them fall asleep
- ‘Dummy’ to sleep – popping the dummy in their mouth every time they fuss or wake
- Stroking mum’s hair to get to sleep or similar
These practices can seem like a quick, handy solution for parents desperate to sleep. Rocking your baby to sleep might be cherished bonding time in the early days, for instance and so what’s the harm in taking the shortcut? The tough part comes when you have to break these habits and help your baby learn to self-soothe.
Bear in mind that changing bad habits is only necessary for babies older than 6 months of age. Before 6 months, simply giving your baby the opportunity to self soothe will probably make all the difference because habits are not yet firmly entrenched. After 6 months though, if habits are ruling your life you need to help your baby learn new strategies to self-soothe.
Teach your baby self-soothing behaviours in 8 days or less
Teaching your little one to self-soothe need not be a grueling process but it will require some commitment to the process. By following the tried and tested technique to teach your baby to self-soothe, you can start looking forward to more sleep in just over a week.
Watch what your baby tends to do to settle or look out for something they like – it may be a favourite blanky, teddy or even a muslin or dummy/pacifier. For the first four days, offer this tool every time your little one fusses in daylight hours. As they cry, lift the soothing object to your shoulder and then cuddle them with the soother. In this way, they will learn to associate the calming object with your comfort.
Over the next few days, your baby will develop an association of soothing with this object, and you can start to help them use it at night. To do this, wait two minutes from the time they begin to cry at night to give them the opportunity to use the new tool. After two minutes, go to them and put the object in their hands – this is instead of the usual crutch they are expecting like feeding, rocking, or patting. This step is a tough one because in a sleep deprived state you and your baby may resist the change – the old soothing strategy may be the easier course. But by being consistent for these four nights, you will teach your baby a new skill. Don’t leave your baby while they fuss, just be CALM and CONSISTENT in teaching the new strategy.
By day 8, your baby is ready to do it themselves so instead of putting the object in their hands, put at least two of the objects (if not more – in the case of dummies put 5) in the cot for them to find themselves at night. When they fuss, leave them for 5 minutes and they will probably piece it together and put themselves to sleep.
When your little one reaches this milestone, you can be very proud of yourselves – you have successfully taught your baby self-soothing behaviours – a new and important skill and the answer to sleepless nights. Not only will your household get more rest, but you and your little one can count on more settled and predictable days too.
It’s true that some babies might take to learning self-soothing behaviours with little fuss or coercion and that others might need a full four to eight days to learn, adjust and implement this new technique – whatever your baby needs, persevere! In the end it will be well worth it not just for the sake of sleep but also to build confidence in your ability to parent with sense. For expert advice and access to Meg Faure’s Sleep Sense online course, download Parent Sense – the all-in-one baby app that takes the guesswork out of parenting.