Self soothing is when babies can settle back to sleep independently, either at night or during a nap, without the need for help from their parents. During the first year your baby may sleep well for several months, and then start to wake up frequently at night. Self-soothing is the key to your child (and therefore you!) being able to sleep through the night again.
Most babies will need to be rocked or nursed to sleep in the first couple of months, this is normal. As time goes on though, you will want to wean your child from this habit - without using harsh methods like leaving them to cry it out.
Parenting is very rewarding, but not getting enough sleep can make life difficult. I've been there myself, and that's why I'm so passionate about helping new parents. I have been teaching this simple program for years, and it gets life-changing results.
You may have heard this classic sleep advice before: just put them down while they are awake. Sure, in an ideal world, children could be put down while awake and then sleep peacefully through the night. However, this method simply does not work for most babies. There is a better way.
In my program we use well-defined, progressive techniques and a bit of patience instead. It is absolutely possible to help your little one learn to soothe themselves at night - the gentle way.
My Gentle Self Soothing Method
So, when can we start to help our babies with learning to sleep independently? Unless your baby is a natural self-soother, the age at which you can expect them to self-soothe consistently can vary from anywhere between 3-4 months old up to 1 year old or even later for some.
At any time, it is important to do the preliminaries ("setting the stage") and to try and encourage your little one to settle on their own. But if it doesn't work easily, trying to force things in the wrong way will be a waste of time and harm future success.
The most effective and proven no-tears methods to teach your little one how to soothe themselves are not complicated. By progressively putting your child down earlier in the sleep stage, they allow you to gradually go from feeding, holding, rocking, in the swing, or co-sleeping to simply having you nearby. The power of the techniques lies specifically in their being progressive, rather than trying to go 'cold turkey'.
By progressing a little bit at a time, your baby's body and mind are going to have time to adapt and truly learn the skill of settling themselves to sleep.
In the first step of the process you'd hold or otherwise help your little one and only put them down when deeply asleep.
Then, little by little, put them down a bit earlier. Just by a minute or two at first. Then, a few nights or naps later, put them down a little earlier again. In this way, you gently move from putting them down asleep, towards half asleep, then drowsy, less drowsy, and finally awake.
You will probably need to do this several times in a row, or take a couple of weeks off if it doesn't work at all. But when your child is ready and they feel your determination - they will do it.
For best results you also need to set up all preliminaries (without which there is not much chance of success) and apply the right techniques adapted to your baby's age. Refer to my 3-step guide to wean from any dependent sleep situation for more information.
Also think about:
A bedtime routine and quiet dim nights: a bedtime routine helps your child recognize time-to-sleep signals and physically helps their body to get ready for the night. Keeping interaction calm and lights low at night is crucial to keep them ready to go on sleeping without waking up completely.
A nightlight: a dim but visible night light helps reassure your little one and that may be all an infant needs to go back to sleep when waking up.
Your presence: for some babies, knowing that you are still around (sitting next to the crib, walking around their room or the corridor) may be enough reassurance to allow for self soothing.
A transitional object: a soft cuddly toy, blanket or cloth can become your baby's best friend. If it is near them when they wake up at night or from a nap, it can truly help babies settle back to sleep again. Health & safety guidelines require that nothing is in the crib with your baby for the first few months. Even if a toy or blanket may only truly become a transitional object from 8 months to a year or so, it is good to introduce one early. For safety then, choose a toy you can attach safely to the crib sides so your child can feel it, touch it and smell it, but cannot pull it close or get entangled in it.
Top tip! wear a little scarf or cloth on yourself during the day (so it has your smell). Then hang it near them for naps and nights. Smelling you will remind your little one of you and that can be a powerful soother!
A musical mobile or toy: SAFELY attached so it cannot be pulled into the crib, a musical mobile helps many babies sleep extremely well. If you can find one that attaches to the side, and that children can operate (for example by pulling a string - as in the picture), WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO PULL IT INTO THE CRIB, that can work wonderfully well.
As your child grows, they will learn to switch it on by themselves. If they're used to hearing it at bedtime, it can work wonders for self settling
A pacifier: some babies thrive with a dummy. This can be a valid and truly helpful prop while learning self-soothing. Many parents worry that their baby will become too dependent on it. You might (expect to) find yourself running over to the crib to help find the dummy and put it back in their mouth during the night. My complete sleep program, Overcome Frequent Waking, has several solutions to turn the pacifier into a helpful ally while your baby is learning self-soothing.
Why is it so important to help children learn self soothing?
Because no one (babies and adults) really sleeps through the night without waking. Our sleep comes in cycles: we go through the different stages of sleep several times a night. In-between cycles, there is a brief awake moment. The skill of settling ourselves helps us go straight back to sleep without waking up completely.
Babies who cannot self soothe yet will wake up completely at that moment, need your attention, and possibly cry.
Of course some people (friends, family members or even pediatricians) will advise crying it out as an "efficient" - forcing - way to teach how to settle down alone. However, crying it out rarely gives lasting results, and leaving your little one to cry alone is something most of us don't want to do.
You may find the first few months of parenting difficult due to the lack of sleep. But rest assured, the gentle techniques discussed above will help your baby self soothe at night gently, consistently, and with long-term results. Please know that I and the team are always here for you and it's super easy to contact us.
Heidi Holvoet, PhD, is the founder of the Baby Sleep Advice website and movement, an award-winning author, baby & toddler sleep consultant with 14+ years experience as well as a certified lactation counselor.
Over the years, Heidi has received several awards inluding a Mom's Choice Award (MCA) and National Parenting Awards (NAPPA) for her Baby Sleep Advice website, programs and books.
She is also a member of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants of which she was one of the earliest contributors. She obtained her PhD degree in physics at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
Heidi is passionate about helping babies and their parents sleep more and better, with her trademark approach that has been proven and praised time and again by parents worldwide to be effective and truly no-tears. Respect for you as a parent and your baby, is at the heart of Heidi's warm and kind support. Her approach always keeps in mind a baby's needs and abilities at any given age, is based on pediatric science and the most up to date knowledge in infant care and sleep science.