First and foremost – you don’t need to teach your baby to self-soothe. However your baby falls asleep – whilst feeding, being rocked, with lullabies, with heavy rock metal, with a dummy (pacifier), on your chest, in your arms, snuggled next to you… even if you’re one of those parents driving your baby around in the car to get them to sleep (we’ve all been there), as long as you and your baby are happy with the situation then there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.
Don’t let anyone make you feel you need to do things differently if you don’t want to – and kick anyone who uses the word ‘spoiled’ in the shins.
That being said, if you’re exhausted and not getting enough sleep and if you’re at the end of your tether, you might be looking for some tips on how to teach a baby to self-soothe. And there’s nothing wrong with that either!
When I say ‘self-soothe’, I don’t mean leaving them to cry or letting them be distressed, I just mean helping them to learn to gently fall asleep in their own time.
The two types of sleep training
Essentially sleep training seems to be divided in to two categories – how not to screw up your baby’s sleep and what to do once you’ve screwed up your baby’s sleep. Both have the same goal – teaching your baby to self-soothe so that they can sleep longer periods without input from mum or dad.
This blog looks at some ways to help younger babies learn to self-soothe. It can be applied to older babies too but see my separate post on other ways to help older kids.
Creating Positive Sleep Associations
If you’re reading this and you have a newborn then I realise that you’re probably exhausted and just wanting a quick guide, but it helps to understand baby sleep, so if you’ve had enough caffeine then check out this quick summary of what to expect from baby’s sleep.
Essentially babies spend a lot more time in light phase sleep so they wake more frequently and easily during the night. When your baby is born they start trying to understand the world they live in – we are programmed to want order and explanations, so when something happens and there is a consequence from it, babies expect the same thing to happen next time.
For example, if your baby feels tired, gets rocked and then falls asleep then the neurons in their brain make that connection and they start to expect that to happen next time. The more the same experience leads to the same outcome, the more baby continues to expect that to be the case.
This is what I did with my eldest, L. She loved to be rocked to sleep with her dummy and soft music, so that’s what I did. Every night. For naps she usually fell asleep whilst feeding and then slept on my chest. I loved it, but after a while she would only go to sleep being rocked or when feeding. So every time she woke up, that’s what she wanted.
She had learnt that she needed fed or rocked (or both) to sleep so when she woke up and was still tired, she cried so I would come and help her get back to sleep. She didn’t know how to do it herself. The problem for me was that babies wake up a lot and every time she woke up, she expected to be rocked and fed. I was shattered.
The good news is that, especially in the newborn phase, you have the opportunity to help them to form positive sleep associations and so to learn to self-soothe. Babies are smart and would far rather fall asleep on you and/or feeding -who wouldn’t prefer to fall asleep cuddled up with someone they love?
This is normal and one of the best bits of parenthood, but you may not want them to think that this is the only way to sleep. The more different ways that they learn they can fall asleep, the more associations they will have so try to give them an opportunity to sleep in different ways that you want them to – in the car, in their pram, in their cot.
If you have the same routine e.g. ‘milk, story, nap’ or ‘milk, bath, story, bed’ then your baby makes these associations and comes to expect sleep at the end of the routine, so they are pre-programmed to fall asleep.
Try to help your baby create as many different positive sleep associations as you can. The younger you do it, the easier it will be.
Drowsy but Awake
Learning to self-soothe means that they learn to put themselves to sleep without assistance from you. This is where putting them down ‘drowsy but awake’ comes in. When L was little this phrase used to make me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork, as putting her down drowsy but awake just meant that she woke up. It was torture.
However, when my youngest, J, came along, I understood earlier that I needed to help him learn how to associate being tired with falling asleep by himself. Don’t get me wrong, he also got all the cuddles, the rocking, the dummy, the lullabies… but I made sure that he learned that he didn’t always need these things. Part of it’s luck, he’s naturally a better sleeper than L, but it was also partly that I understood that I wanted him to know how to help himself, rather than always relying on someone else to help him fall asleep.
So when I knew he was starting to get tired (J starts staring in to space and becomes less interactive when he’s tired) I would do his sleep routine, then pop him in his cot when he was still awake. Sometimes he would just fall asleep, but sometimes he would get annoyed so I’d pick him back up. Sometimes we’d lie down together and he’d fall asleep with me just lying beside him.
On his crankier days he wouldn’t be up for that so I’d go for the ‘drowsy but awake’ option – rock or feed or cuddle or sing, whatever it took, until he was falling asleep but not quite there (the stage where they’re closing their eyes but keep opening them again) and then pop him in his cot. If he fell asleep, great, if that failed I tried the eyebrow stroke (see video below). No idea why this works but it usually does!
Some days none of this would work and he would just go to sleep however the hell he wanted. But where possible I let him put himself to sleep and over time it paid off. When he wakes in the night a lot of the time he falls back to sleep on his own and I think that’s at least partially because he’s learned how to associate being tired with falling asleep, without always relying on someone else to help him.
How to get a baby to fall asleep in 2 minutes, even in a noisy house surrounded by chatty family members:
There are a lot of infant sleep aids out there to help babies to self-soothe, please see my separate post on these.
A Final Note of Caution
As I write this post J is asleep on my lap. Why? Because sometimes I fancy some baby snuggles. They aren’t little for long and I don’t want to miss out on how lovely it feels to have my baby cuddled up with me. I hope that these strategies are helpful in assisting your baby to learn to self-soothe, but please remember that every baby is different and no-one can tell you how to raise your child.
Trust your instincts, accept that there will be good and bad days and on the bad days, try to just enjoy the snuggles, because I look at L and I can’t believe that she was once small enough to sleep on my chest. Even though it didn’t feel like it when she was a baby and I was exhausted, those days pass really quickly. They don’t last forever so don’t get so caught up trying to teach your baby to fall asleep alone that you forget to enjoy how much they need you.Please follow me on social media!