Teaching your baby to self settle
Everyone talks about self settling...but why is important?
Why should you bother to teach your baby to settle himself at bedtime? Why not just continue feeding or rocking your baby to sleep?
If you are happy with how much sleep you and your baby are currently getting, then read no further!
But if your baby needs more sleep during the night or catnaps and is constantly over-tired during the day, then learning to self settle will likely make a huge difference to your baby's sleep and overall well being.
If your own physical or mental health is suffering as a result of lack of sleep, we highly recommend you start helping your baby learn to self settle. For example, Australian research showed a significant number of cases of post natal depression can be resolved quickly by teaching the baby to sleep.
Continued exhaustion makes life with a baby stressful and often not much fun. Sleep deprivation can impact on all relationships, your ability to parent and work, your outlook and enjoyment of life with your baby. We think it's OK to want a decent sleep once your baby is well past the newborn stage...it doesn't make you selfish!
Teaching or encouraging your baby to self settle will mean more sleep for everyone and it certainly does not mean using cry it out...we don't recommend that at all!
If you know you want a gentle technique, swap to our 'Gently Encourage your baby to self settle' article now.
- When does self settling become important?
- 4 month sleep regression
- Sleep Associations
- Self-settling & Dummies
- What age can I start to teach my baby to self settle?
- Choose a technique that's right for your family
- Get everyone on board
- The Self Settling Techniques
When does self settling become important?
Once all babies are around 5 months old, their sleep cycles will change considerably. Rather than drift in and out of light sleep throughout the night, babies start to wake fully between sleep cycles. So ALL babies start waking 4-6 times, or more, each night.
So babies over 5 months don't actually 'sleep through' - if they can self settle, they can go back to sleep 4-6 times during the night without your help.
But if your baby can't fall asleep without your help at bedtime, he is likely to need your help to go back to sleep each time he wakes in the night. Generally babies want or need the same settling technique during the night that they rely on at bedtime to get to sleep. So if you feed your baby to sleep at bedtime, it will seem that nothing apart from feeding to sleep will settle them in the night!
Babies who continue being helped to sleep at bedtime and through the night develop a reliance, or habit, on such help. In the following months their night waking often gets worse rather than better as they get older.
All babies, children and adults stir and wake many times in the night. But you can encourage your baby that he can go back to sleep without needing your help, and this is when your baby will 'sleep through the night'.
You will be surprised at how quickly your baby will learn they can resettle themself in the night, once you decide on a plan and use it consistently.
The 4 month sleep regression
For some babies this change starts earlier, and some people call this the '4 month sleep regression'.
But it can be a sign for parents that it's a good time to start encouraging your baby learn to settle without help, or their sleep will likely worsen rather than get better.
One of the key issues to address with encouraging self-settling is sleep associations. Basically this means, what does your baby think he needs to fall asleep?
If your baby has a sleep association that involves you, then he will think he needs you to fall back to sleep. He's likely to continue to need this help until YOU change how you settle him.
If you are currently feeding to sleep, rocking or holding your baby while she falls asleep, this is likely to be the main reason your baby can't go back to sleep without your help.
Lots of babies who can fall asleep without help at bedtime come to rely on night feeds to go back to sleep and therefore have a 'feed to get back to sleep' association. So while they have the ability to self settle, they learn over time not to self settle as they are given a feed (warm milk, sucking and a cuddle) instead.
Click here for more information on Sleep Associations& Self Settling
Self settling & dummies:
If your baby has a dummy, now is a good time to have a think about whether you are going to continue with this.
Dummies are well known as a negative sleep association and are rightly blamed for a lot of night waking. They usually need Mum or Dad to reinsert the dummy many times a night, at least every time baby comes into a light sleep or wakes between sleep cycles.
However once your baby can use the dummy herself (so Mum or Dad doesn't rush back to put it in), a dummy is an excellent tool to encourage self settling and sleeping through.
Once your baby is over 5-6 months, you can teach her to put it back in herself and therefore use it as a tool to self settle.
We find this works best if you have several dummies in the cot, a gentle nightlight and a breathable mesh bumper to keep the dummies in. Some parents find a safe comforter toy, like a Sleepytot also handy for this stage.
So there is no hard and fast rule that says a baby can't have a dummy if they are going to learn to self settle. It depends on how you use it and that your baby is clear that you are not going to put it back in every time it falls out or they get to the end of a sleep cycle.
But if you plan to stop using a dummy, then we recommend you do it as a part of your plan to teach your baby to self settle.
What age can I start to teach my baby to self settle?
Usually newborns need a lot of help to fall asleep, and its common to need to rock or carry a baby to settle them. Feeding to sleep is also a common way to get babies to sleep when they are little.
If you have a baby under 3 months, we recommend first looking at your routine, and we recommend using the Feed, Awake Time, Sleep routine. We have an article on this topic or you can read the excellent book 'The Secrets of The Baby Whisperer' for more detail. Using the feed, awake, sleep routine is a really good start towards encouraging self settling, as it will mean you aren't relying on a feed immediately before every sleep to settle your baby.
You can start teaching your baby to self settle from day one by putting your baby down drowsy rather than sound asleep. Also having some naps every day in baby's bed rather than being carried or cuddled for all sleeps.
However once your baby passes 4-5 months, self settling becomes an essential skill if you want to your baby to be able to do longer stretches of sleep through the night.
If your baby is under 6 months of age, you might want to start with reading our information on Resettling Techniques for Babies 3-6 months.
We recommend starting on self settling once your baby is over 4-5 months. The sooner you do it, generally the quicker your baby will learn (as there is not months and months of habit to unlearn). Different techniques are suitable for different age groups.
It's a good idea to start teaching your baby to self settle when you have help from your partner or a family member. Also ensure that there are no other disruptions such as visitors staying or that you are going on holiday in the near future.
Ensure your baby is in a good routine, preferably with reasonably set times for day sleeps and bedtime. This ensures your baby knows what you expect and when you expect it, and this helps your plan work much faster than if your schedule is completely flexible. The Sleep Easy Solution has excellent routines for feeding and sleeping, or you can see our Sleep Plan for ideas.
You may also need to have a good think about whether you are ready to commit to embarking on teaching your baby to sleep independently. For example, if you really love having your baby sleeping in your bed, nursing whenever he needs to resettle, then the conditions and timing might not be right to start a sleep program. If you would like to read more about this, read this excellent article by Elizabeth Pantley 'What is Preventing Your Baby From Sleeping Through The Night'.
If you are going to use a settling method that involves leaving your baby to cry for periods of time, make sure you have a clock or watch you can read in the dark. 10 minutes crying can sound like 2 hours in the middle of the night! We also recommend writing down how long it takes to settle your baby at each waking, so you can see you really are making progress.
If at all possible, have your baby in their own room when you teach them to self-settle. The Ministry of Health recommends having baby in your room for the first 6 months to reduce SIDS risk, so ensure you have minimised all other SIDS risks and your baby is over 4 months. The highest risk for SIDS is mothers who smoked in pregnancy (90% of SIDS deaths), so if you did please stick to having baby in your room for 6 months.
Choosing a self-settling technique which is right for your family
So once you have decided it's time to stop rocking, feeding to sleep, driving round the block or however else you are getting your baby to sleep, it's time to choose a plan of attack.
There are a number of different ways to teach your baby to self settle. It's very important that you choose a settling technique that you are comfortable with, and can follow through with consistently at every sleep time and night-waking. Recent research showed that all sleep programs eventually work, the key factor is to choose one approach and use it consistently. If you chop and change, and only try something for a day or two, your baby just continues to be confused. Remember you are teaching your baby a new skill, and learning always takes lots of practise. Think howlong it takes to learn to walk!
Which technique you choose to teach your baby to self settle is a very personal choice and one for YOU to make! Like so many parenting issues, there are strong & divided opinions about what is appropriate with teaching babies to sleep, including some blogs with very anti-sleep training opinions! However we think it is important to note the majority of the opinions are just that, opinions. Even the ones that claim to have scientific information which shows sleep training is detrimental are based on extrapolation and/or very selective quotes or incorrect conclusions from research.
The age of your baby should also be taken into consideration when deciding the most appropriate settling technique for your baby. Generally gentle techniques are the best option for babies up to 4-5 months. Beyond that any of our techniques below could be used with your own judgement and as long as the technique is only used for a few days, by which time you should see a significant improvement in your baby's sleep.
However we do support you in your choice of self settling technique, as we firmly believe the whole family benefits when everyone gets sufficient sleep. While parents need to expect sleep deprivation with a newborn, we do not think parents need to carry on being sleep deprived 6, 12 or 18 months later. Continued parental sleep deprivation does impact on parental mental and physical health, your relationship, ability to work, safety and potentially your ability to parent your children. Sleep deprivation is also a major factor in road accidents, and drowsy driving can be very dangerous.
Get everyone on board!
If you have other people helping to settle your baby, ensure that everyone involved in your baby's care agrees to follow the same settling technique and to support you in what you are doing.
If your partner has different ideas to you, suggest they read this article too. Compromise might be needed but it's much better to find a common ground and support each other!
We really recommend being in agreement before you start - agree on what outcome you want and the plan of attack to get there.
The self settling techniques - Gentle technique:
Gentle or 'No Cry' sleep technique:
Yes you can teach your baby to self-settle and sleep through the night, with little or no crying in some cases. It's always a good idea to try a gentle technique first to see if this improves your baby's sleep!
Our gentle technique can take longer to work, but if you are consistent with the technique, introduce a good routine and new positive sleep associatons, the technique will work for a lot of babies.
These sleep programs work on the basis of gradual behaviour change, as you slowly move your baby towards being able to fall asleep without needing you there.
They are most logical, and often most appropriate, place to start if you have been feeding or rocking your baby to sleep, and want to gently teach your baby to sleep independently. These techniques are also the best option if you co-sleep with your baby, and wish to continue to do that.
Read our detailed article on 'Gently encourage your baby to self settle' here.
No Cry Sleep Solution - suitable for babies aged newborn to 2 years. Covers techniques for weaning off feeding to sleep, needing a dummy to fall asleep and rocking or needing a parent to fall asleep.
Sleeping Like a Baby - suitable from newborn to toddlers, this book covers a simple plan to gradually teach baby to fall asleep without needing a parent present. It is especially suitable if you have been co-sleeping or have a strong attachment parenting philosophy.
No Cry SleepSolution for Toddlers& Preschoolers - appropriate for children 1 - 6 years. Gradual behaviour change to teach children to settle at bedtime, solve settling for naps, dealing with settling issues during the night when children visit parents bed, weaning off feeding to sleep and more. Highly recommended for toddler settling issues.
Verbal reassurance check-ins (also known as 'VR'):
This is technique used most often by our customers for teaching babies to self settle, as it works so quickly with the majority of babies. We have had feedback from many hundreds of our customers telling us how much happier their baby is once they are getting sufficient sleep and how quickly the technique made a significant difference. It has also made a major difference to many parents lives, who were at the end of their tether and often suffering physical and mental health issues from being so sleep deprived.
Our information on this technique comes from Jill Spivak LCSW and Jennifer Waldburger LCSW , family psychotherapists from Sleepy Planet. They have worked with thousands of families and conduct lectures on children’s sleep for doctors and medical professionals at UCLA and at pediatric practices.
Yes this technique will involved some crying, but feedback from parents who have used this technique is that generally the crying is far less than they anticipated and overall was far far less than their baby would have cried in the future if they had done nothing. So weigh up how much your baby already cries....from being over-tired, from not being able to fall asleep regardless of what help you offer, from waking up grumpy from a catnap, waking in the night. While some websites think babies should never cry, the reality is many babies cry regardless of what their parents do!
This technique involves 'checking-in' with your baby after 5 mins, 10 mins, 15 mins. The check-in is a 30 second verbal reassurance from just inside the bedroom door, there is no patting, sssshing or cuddling involved.
This works well for babies who get more irate if picked up or patted, then left again.
We recommend using a Safe T Sleep or Babe Sleeper in conjunction with this technique, as it means your baby won't be standing up or crawling round the cot.
Not suitable if you aren't comfortable with leaving your baby crying for short periods.
Visit our Discussion Forum on Facebook for lots of chat & support on this technique.
We highly recommend you invest in The Sleep Easy Solution DVD. This excellent DVD as it shows you the reasons why babies wake and a step by step plan to teach baby to sleep through, with actual parents & babies going through the process of learning to self settle using this technique. There are also audio CDs available for birth to 1 year, 1-2 years and 2-5 years.
Pick-up Put-Down technique:
This is an option which falls in between a 'gentle' technique and verbal reassurance.
It may involve crying or grizzling but you will be there to respond quickly and help your baby calm down in your arms.
Basically you give your baby a cuddle, say it's time to sleep, then put her in her cot. Then if she grizzles or cries, you pick her up and help her calm down. Then put baby back into bed calm and awake, and have another try and settling in bed. Repeat until baby is calm in bed and falls asleep.
You need lots of patience to use this technique as it can take a while but it is very gentle.
"When it's bedtime/naptime you lie them down. If they cry (or fuss depending on how you want to do it) you pick them straight up for a cuddle, back pat etc until they are calm (not necessarily asleep) and then lie them back down again. If they cry/fuss again, pick them up, cuddle until calm, lie them back down... This cangoon for a long time....But I think it does teach them that its ok to be lying down to sleep. Also, sometimes now I can just pop in and kiss him and he's already used to the idea that he's going to stay there! I've done this from really tiny, so no idea how it would work on an older baby! Of course I'd still use a bit of judgement as to whether or not to stick a feed in if it had been a really long time (particularly at evening bedtime) Also, I tend to only sort of say shhh.. night times, time for sleeping in at little whisper rather than really talk to him. And if he starts to fuss on the way down I just stand back up again! " Alice
For more information on this technique, see Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. Suitable for any age.
Parental Presence technique
This is an option which falls in between a 'gentle' technique and verbal reassurance.
It is likely to involve crying as you give your baby the opportunity to fall asleep without your help, however you remain with your child while they are falling asleep.
Basically you give your baby a cuddle, say it's time to sleep, then put her in her cot awake. You can choose to pat and ssssh, hold her hand, leave your hand on her tummy or just be there next to the cot.
You can also use a simple phrase in the same way as the verbal reassurance technique does, such as 'Mummy's here, go to sleep now' and repeat this regularly.
This technique may be used as an intermediate stage. For example, you could do this technique and pat your baby to help her calm down, then once she learns to fall asleep with that, you can start to wean her off then start to reduce the amount of patting you use.
Be aware that most babies will still cry even if you are there but not offering the settling technique they usually rely on, such as being fed to sleep. It can take longer for a baby to fall asleep when you are there however you may feel better that you are there with them as they fall asleep.
There is also some additional information on the 'Parental Presence' technique on the Tresllian centre website here - click for the pdf.
Cry it Out Method - not recommended:
Sleep and behavioural psychologists call this the 'extinction method', and it generally means leaving your child to fall asleep without any help or check-ins.
While some anti sleep-training websites consider all types of sleep training to be the same as cry it out (or CIO) we consider this technique completely difference as the child is left alone, not checked on, and not offered any verbal or physical comforting.
We absolutely do not recommend you use this 'Cry it Out' technique.
Are there any negative effects of teaching your baby to self settle?
Well that depends who you talk to and what you read!! At The Sleep Store, our firm view is that families do best when everyone gets enough sleep...the negative effects of sleep deprivation are huge on both children and adults. So teaching your child to sleep is essential to reduce the effects of sleep deprivation for both you and your child.
If you are interested in the relationship between sleep training on cortisol, have a read of our article 'Cortisol & sleep deprivation'. this offers our view and research on the relationship between the stress hormone 'cortisol' and sleep....and gives a different perspective to the alarmist views of some attachment parenting advocates about sleep training.
You may also want to Google to see what other views are out there on this topic, as you are bound to find a wide range of opinions. But remember the most important opinion is yours!!!
We consider 'sleep training' to mean teaching your baby to self settle and sleep through the night, which really is an essential skill that all children need to learn at some stage. The key really is to choose a sleep training technique you are comfortable with and can be consistent with. Choose one of the gentle approaches ifthis is what feels right toyou.
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