Every parent dreams of a full night’s sleep! Yet for more than 50% of parents, a full night’s sleep evades them until well into their baby’s third year of life. Recently research was published that looked at the secret behind babies who sleep through the night during the first year of life. One of the key factors that determine whether a baby will sleep through is whether he learns to self-soothe in the first 4-5 months of life.

The benefits of self-soothing

Self-soothing entails using self managed tools to settle down to sleep or to calm one self when stressed or irritable. In fact, we all use strategies without even thinking to calm ourselves or cope with stressful events. Learning to self-soothe is as important a milestone as smiling, crawling or walking. There are a few significant benefits of self-soothing:

  • When your baby self-soothes, he can regulate his mood and when he learns this skill, colic and other ‘early infant fussing’ will abate.
  • If your little one self-soothes when he comes into the light sleep state, he will be more likely to settle back to sleep and in this way link his sleep cycles and sleep longer and when appropriate sleep through the night.
  • If your baby is skilled at self-soothing, your life will be more predictable and settled too. It is way easier to parent a baby who self-regulates than a little one who needs constant care and interventions to remain settled and sleep.
  • Long term, we know that babies who self regulate become toddlers who manage their tantrums better and as older children are less impulsive and later can concentrate better in school.

Common self-soothing strategies

If self-soothing is so valuable you may well be asking what it is. Usually self-soothing strategies involve the mouth or face and the midline of the body – so examples would include:

  • Sucking hands or fist
  • Sucking a dummy / pacifier
  • Holding hands together at the midline
  • Touching ears or nose
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Sucking a ‘doodoo’ blanky
  • Sucking a self-held bottle

On a sensory level, most self-soothing strategies use either the sense of touch, pressure, vibration or movement.

  • Rocking head from side to side
  • Humming that creates a vibration in the chest
  • Rubbing a lip or hair
  • Stroking the tag of a blanket between the fingers

When and how you can start encouraging your baby to self soothe

In the early days, your baby can not voluntarily control his hands or movements enough to self initiate soothing strategies so he will be heavily dependent on you to help him settle to sleep. This means that 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 result in habits because before three months old babies don’t develop habits or expectations. Contrary to popular wisdom, your little baby is not ‘manipulating’ you nor are you ‘spoiling your baby’.

As your little one approaches 4 months, he 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.

To encourage a self-soothing strategy early on, ensure your baby can get his hands to his mouth or midline. The easiest way to do this is by swaddling his hands up towards his face or towards the chest.

Another way to encourage self calming is to allow your baby to derive pleasure from self-initiated actions – for example, if you see your little one sucking his hand – don’t remove his hand from his mouth – he is not teething, hungry or going to be a thumb sucker simply because he is self-soothing – allow him to use this strategy to settle.

Finally, give your baby time to settle himself. The temptation, especially with our first babies is to jump in and soothe them as soon as we hear the first squawk. Instead, let your baby (after 4-5 months of age) have a few seconds to settle or find a strategy himself. This does not mean leaving your baby to cry – it simply means that you take a deep breath and listen to his communications – if he is groaning and moaning – leave him to settle. If he is really crying – respond by finding out why.

Practices to avoid

While you don’t need to worry about habits in the early days, habits can and do become entrenched after 5 months of age. If you consistently soothe your little one or put him to sleep using strategies that he will be dependent on you for, it is reasonable for him to learn to expect this type of soothing every time he cries or goes to sleep. Common habits to avoid include:

  • Feeding to sleep or every time your baby cries
  • Rocking to sleep
  • Driving him around the block in the car to get to sleep
  • Pushing him in the pram
  • Lying with him to help him fall asleep
  • ‘Dummy’ to sleep – popping the dummy in his mouth every time he fusses or wakes
  • Stroking mum’s hair to get to sleep

The tough part comes when you have to break these habits and help your baby to learn to self-soothe. Bear in mind this is only necessary for babies older than 6 months of age as prior to this simply giving your baby opportunity to self soothe will probably make the differences as the habits are not firmly entrenched. After this time, if habits are ruling your life you need to help your baby learn new strategies to self-soothe:

Day 1-4

Watch what your baby tends to do to settle or lookout for something he likes – 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 he cries, lift the soothing object to your shoulder and then cuddle him with the soother. In this way, he will learn to associate the calming object with your comfort.

Day 4-8

Over the next few days, your baby will develop an association of soothing with this object and you can start to help him use it at night. To do this, when he cries at night wait two minutes from the time he begins to cry – to give him the opportunity to use the new tool. Then go to him and put the object in his hands instead of the usual crutch he is expecting (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. By being consistent for these four nights, you will teach your baby a new skill. Don’t leave your baby while he fusses just be CALM and CONSISTENT with teaching the new strategy.

Day 8

On this day your baby is ready to do it himself so instead of putting the object in his hands, put at least two of the objects (if not more – in the case of dummies put 5) in the cot for him to find himself at night. When he fusses leave him for 5 minutes and he will probably piece it together and put himself to sleep. When he reaches this milestone, you can be very proud of both you and him – he has learnt a new and important skill.

Self-soothing is the answer to sleepless nights and will help you and your baby have more settled days too.