Self Soothing to Help Your Baby Sleep Through The Night

Latest fact-check: February 2, 2020

Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Self soothing is the key to help your baby sleep through the night. But what if putting down awake just doesn't work (and it usually doesn't!)? You may find your baby crying unless you rock, hold or nurse her to help with settling. How to wean from this habit - without needing to cry it out?

Gorgeous baby asleep with hand on the side

The most effective way is by following my complete award-winning 3-step self soothing program.

A baby who can easily settle herself to sleep can be put down awake and sleeps.

And when waking up at night, she's able to go back to sleep without your help.

The importance of self soothing explains the all-time classic sleep advice: put her down awake. Indeed, in the ideal world, she is put down awake and then sleeps peacefully. She will then most probably also soothe and settle herself back when she wakes during the night.

But simply putting down awake does not work for most babies. With well-defined progressive techniques and a bit of patience though it is absolutely doable to help them learn to soothe themselves ... the gentle way.

Gentle Self Soothing Method

Unless your baby is a natural self-soother, the age at which you can expect her to self soothe * really and consistently * can vary from anywhere between 3-4 months old up to 1 year old or later for some.

Baby's head held in mother's hands

At any time, it is important to do the preliminaries ("setting the stage") and to try and encourage your little one to settle alone. 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 baby how to self soothe are not complicated. They allow you to wean from nursing, holding, rocking, in the swing, co-sleeping, having you near, ... by progressively putting down earlier in the sleep stage. The power of the techniques lies specifically in their being progressive.

By progressing a little bit at a time, baby's body and mind have time to adapt and truly learn the skill of settling themselves to sleep.

In the bare simple version of the technique you'd hold or otherwise help your little one and only put her down when deeply asleep.

Then, little by little, put her down a bit earlier, just a minute or two at first. Then, a few nights/naps later, put her down earlier again. In this way, you gently move from putting her down asleep, towards half asleep, drowsy, less drowsy, ... and finally awake.

You will need to do this several (many for some) times in a row, or wait for a few weeks if it doesn't work at all. But when your baby is ready and she feels your determination - she 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 technique adapted to your baby's age. Refer to my 3-step guide to wean from any dependent sleep situation for that.

Also think about

  • A bedtime routine and quiet dim nights: a bedtime routine helps your child recognize time-to-sleep signals and physically helps her body to get ready for the night. Keeping nights and interaction dim and low at night is crucial to keep her ready to go on sleeping without waking up completely.
  • A nightlight: a dim but visible night light helps reassure and that may be all she needs to go back to sleep when waking up.
  • Your presence: for some babies, knowing that you are around (sitting next to the crib, or walking around her room, or the corridor) may be enough reassurance to allow self soothing.
  • A transitional object: a soft cuddly toy, blanket or cloth can become your baby's best friend. If it is near her when she wakes up, it can truly help her settle again. Crib safety guidelines require not to put anything in the crib with your baby in the first months.
    Even if a particular object may only truly become a transitional object from 8 months or so, it is good to introduce it early. For safety then, choose a toy you can attach safely to the crib sides so baby 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 her 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

    Pull-string musical toy

    into the crib, a musical mobile helps many babies sleep extremely well. If you can find one that attaches to the side, and that baby 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 baby grows, she'll learn to switch it on herself. If she's used to hear it at bedtime, it can work wonders for self settling!
  • A pacifier: some babies thrive with a dummy. Do be careful when she becomes too dependent or you may find yourself running over to the crib to help find the dummy and put it back in her mouth ...

Why is self soothing so important?

Because no one (babies and adults) ever really sleeps through. 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 to settle 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 (friends, family members or even pediatricians) will advise crying it out as an "efficient" - forcing - way to teach how to settle down alone ... But crying it out rarely gives lasting results, and letting baby cry alone is something most of us don't want to do.

Rest assured, with patience and determination, the gentle techniques as discussed above will help your baby self soothe, gently, consistently and with long-term results.