Self-soothing skills are one of the key components of healthy sleep. Newborn babies make it look like falling asleep is innate, but in actual fact, as babies get older, they actually find it harder to just fall asleep. This is because learning to sleep and self-soothe are actually learned skills. So how can you go about teaching self-soothing skills with your baby, or toddler.
What are self-soothing skills?
Self-soothing skills means the ability to fall asleep on one’s own. For babies this means being able to put themselves to sleep without sleep associations like rocking, patting, nursing or any other help from parents.
Babies can use self-soothing skills by sucking their thumb, holding or stroking a blanket or talking or singing to themselves. Even some low level crying can be part of the self-soothing process.
Important aspects of teaching self-soothing skills.
When you have a newborn baby, teaching self-soothing skills is all about practice. You may not always be successful with getting your baby down to sleep independently, but the more you do it, the better at self-soothing your baby will become.
As a very little newborn baby swaddling can help with self-soothing, as well as sucking on a pacifier (if you are comfortable with introducing one). These two things can help your baby feel calm and relaxed enough to fall asleep.
Early on it is important to try and put babies down to sleep drowsy but awake. The earlier you start trying to do this the easier it will be for your baby. If you are not sure what this is, consider it about 8 out of 10 on the sleep scale. If you practice putting your baby down drowsy but awake, this gives them opportunities to learn how to tip themselves over into full sleep using self-soothing skills.
When you put your baby down drowsy but awake and your baby cries, there are 2 things you can do. If the crying is low level, give your baby some time to see if they will relax and put themselves to sleep. If your baby starts to cry harder, then you can pick them up and soothe them. While they are newborns (and under 4 months) you are practicing the art of self-soothing, so it is okay if you are not always successful.
You may wonder what to do when your baby wakes at night. If it is a normal time for your baby to need a feed, then you absolutely feed them. However, if your baby should not require a feed or other interventions (like a diaper change) then it can be a good idea to delay going in for a few minutes, to give them an opportunity to fall back to sleep. Much like falling asleep at the beginning of the night, returning to sleep at normal brief awakenings is a learned skill.
Bedtime routines and a strong sleep schedule also help when teaching self-soothing skills. Bedtime routines that are done consistently every night (and abbreviated for nap time) provide a cue to your baby that sleep time is coming, which prepares their brain for sleep. Strong age-appropriate sleep schedules also help. If your baby is going to bed at the wrong time or too late then they will have a harder time falling asleep when you attempt to put them down drowsy but awake.
When your baby is around 3 or 4 months old their sleep becomes more adult-like. This is why we talk about it being okay to start sleep training at 4 months adjusted age. If your baby has yet to develop self-soothing skills this is when you can look at starting sleep training to help teach those skills. There are different methods that you can choose from, based on what you feel is the best choice for your family.
If your baby seems to always need a breastfeed to fall asleep and you are looking to teach your baby to self-soothe to sleep without this sleep association, one thing that you can do is get the non- breastfeeding partner to be the one putting your baby down to sleep (when possible). This can help break the connection between feeding and falling to sleep, especially when your baby can’t smell the breast milk.
Teaching self-soothing skills is easiest when you start early. Resolve to practice as often as you can while your baby is still a newborn (0 – 4 months), but if you find your baby is now older than 4 months, you may need to consider whether you want to start sleep training to help improve their sleep and get them sleeping on their own.
If you are still not sure where to start after reading this article, please do not hesitate to reach out. Little Big Dreamers can help you devise a sleep plan that is right for your baby and family to help you on the road to wonderful self-soothing skills. Sometimes the best next move is to engage a Child Sleep Consultant who can take the guesswork out of what to do and support you through making sleep changes with your little one.