Self-soothing – why your baby needs this skill to sleep well

Self-soothing is the answer to sleepless nights and will help you and your baby have more settled days, too, says author of 'The Baby Sense Secret' Megan Faure

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How can your baby learn to self-soothe and what difference can it make to your baby’s sleep routine? Well, research was recently published* that looked at the secret behind babies who sleep through the night during their first year. One of the key factors determining if a baby will sleep through is whether he learns to self-soothe in the first four to five months of life.

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What does self-soothing involve?

Self-soothing involves using self-managed tools to settle down to sleep or to calm one self when stressed or irritable. In fact, we all use strategies to calm ourselves or cope with stressful events without even thinking about it.

Usually, self-soothing strategies involve the mouth or face and the midline of the body, such as:

  • Sucking hands or fist
  • Sucking a dummy
  • Holding hands together at the midline
  • Touching ears or nose
  • Rubbing eyesSucking a blanky
  • Sucking a self held bottle

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

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

Self-soothing – the benefits for your baby and you

Learning to self-soothe is as important a milestone as smiling, crawling or walking. The big benefits of self-soothing are:

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

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

As a newborn

In the early days, your baby can’t manage to voluntarily control his hands or movements enough to initiate his own self-soothing strategies – 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 doesn’t result in habits because before 3 months of age, babies don’t develop habits or expectations.

From 4 months of age

As your baby approaches 4 months, he’ll develop the capacity to self-soothe to sleep. Some babies learn to self-soothe with ease, others need support to learn this new 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 get pleasure from self-initiated actions. For example, if you see your baby sucking his hand, don’t remove his hand from his mouth – he’s not teething, hungry or going to be a thumb-sucker simply because he’s self-soothing. Allow him to use this strategy to settle.

Finally, give your baby time to settle himself. The temptation, especially with our first baby, is to jump in and soothe him 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 doesn’t mean leaving your baby to cry, it simply means that you take a deep breath and listen to his communications. If he’s groaning and moaning, leave him to settle. If he’s really crying, respond and find out why.

What to avoid

While you don’t need to worry about habits in the early days, habits can and do become established after 5 months of age. If you consistently soothe your baby or put him to sleep using strategies that he’ll be dependent on you for, it is reasonable for him to learn to expect this 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 in the car to get him to sleep
  • Pushing him in the buggy to get him to sleep
  • Lying with him to help him fall asleep
  • Popping the dummy in his mouth every time he fusses or wakes to get him to sleep
  • Stroking your hair to get to sleep

The tough part comes when you have to break these habits and help your baby learn to self-soothe. Bear in mind this is only necessary for babies older than 6 months of age. Before this, simply giving your baby the opportunity to self-soothe will probably make all the difference because the habits aren’t yet ingrained. After this time, if habits are ruling your life you need to help your baby learn new strategies to self-soothe. Here’s how:

Day 1-4
Watch what your baby tends to do to settle or look out for something he likes – it may be a favourite blanky, teddy or even a muslin or dummy. For the first four days offer this tool every time your baby 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’ll 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 opportunity to use the new tool. Then go to him and put the object in his hands instead of the usual crutch he’s 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’ll teach your baby a new skill. Don’t leave your baby while he fusses, just be calm and consistent with teaching the new strategy.

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Day 8
On this day your baby is ready to do it himself. Instead of putting the object in his hands, put at least two of the objects in the cot for him to find himself at night – in the case of dummies, put five! When he fusses, leave him for five minutes and he’ll 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.

*J Henderson, K France, J Owens, N Blampied, Sleeping Through the Night: The Consolidation of Self-regulated Sleep Across the First Year of Life, Pediatrics, October 2010

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