Gently encourage your baby to self settle

Self settling often comes up in conversations about sleep, but sometimes parents assume  that this means sleep training involving lots of crying. That encouraging your baby to self settle means not meeting their needs and would never be suitable for parents following a gentle parenting approach or attachment parenting.

This article offers information on a gentle way forward towards more sleep if you feel ready for more sleep for you and your baby.  So we're going to proceed on the basis that if you are reading this, you are sleep deprived, and /or you feel your baby needs more sleep, and you're investigating a gentle approach to encouraging more sleep.

We're not suggesting feeding to sleep or co-sleeping or offering constant care through the night is not wonderfully nurtering and right for some families. But for a lot of parents we help, there has come a point where their physical or mental health means more sleep is needed.  And there are a lot of babies or children who need more sleep too.

 

So join us on this gentle and gradual path to more sleep through encouraging your baby to self settle.

 

Contents

This is a long and detailed article! You can click these links to get to the info you need:

  1. Why is self settling important?  

  2. Is the time right for you to encourage your baby to self settle?

  3. When does self settling become important?

  4. Sleep Associations and Self Settling

  5. Dummies and Self Settling

  6. When I start to encourage my baby to self settle?

  7. Preparation

  8. Things that generally help with encouraging self settling

 

1. Why is self settling important in helping babies and toddler to sleep?

Self settling is the way that babies and toddlers can join their sleep cycles together and begin to sleep for longer than 1-2 hours at a time.  If a child is not able to consolidate their sleep into longer stretches, they will generally continue needing resettling many times through the night.

So if a baby is fed or rocked or cuddled to sleep, this can often mean an exhausting cycle of feeding to sleep at bedtime and many times through the night to get baby back to sleep each time.

So to cut a long story short, generally babies and toddlers need to learn to self settle in order to sleep for longer stretches and eventually sleep through the night.

As above in the intro, if you and your baby are getting sufficient sleep despite many wakeups,  then self settling is not an issue you need to look at!

2. Is the time right for you to encourage your baby to self settle?

It depends 100% on you and your baby!  If you are happy with how your baby is sleeping and how you are sleeping, then there's no need to change anything. Babies waking through the night is completely normal.

Or perhaps you want to investigate if there are some small changes you can make to get more sleep, and still feel you are meeting all your baby's needs and avoid any actual 'sleep training'?

Or mayby you are really exhausted and know something needs to change.

At The Sleep Store we firmly believe the whole family benefits when everyone gets sufficient sleep.  Life with a baby, particularly if you have more than one child, is exhausting and challenging. Managing your family without enough sleep makes everything harder. 

Continued parental sleep deprivation impacts on parental mental and physical health, your relationship, the ability for either parent to work, safety particularly with driving and potentially your ability to parent your children. 

So while some parenting websites recommend waiting it out and continuing on multiple night feeds and frequent night waking for as many years as it takes your child to grow out of it in their own time, we want to give you practical and effective tools to gently encourage more sleep for your family when the time is right for you.

Ithink this quote from Dr Sears sums it up really well (from his article "Night Weaning: 12 Alternatives for the All-Night Nurser")

"if you are sleep deprived to the degree that you are barely functioning the next day, you resent your nighttime parenting style (and your baby), and the rest of your family relationships are deteriorating, you need to make some changes in your nighttime feeding schedule"

3. When does self settling become an issue?

Once babies are over 5 months, their sleep cycles change considerably. Rather than drift in and out of light sleep throughout the night, babies now wake fully between sleep cycles. So babies ALL wake 4-6 times or more each night once they are over five months.

So babies over 5 months don't actually 'sleep through'. But if they can self settle, they know how to 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 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 often 'start waking again' once they are 5 months old, when this change occurs. In the following months their night waking often gets worse rather than better until learn to self settle.

All babies, children and adults stir and wake many times in the night. But you can encourage your baby to go back to sleep without needing your help, and this is when your baby will 'sleep through the night'.

4. Sleep associations

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.

Also there are lots of babies who can fall asleep without help at bedtime but come to rely on night feeds to go back to sleep. This can develop once they start waking fully after 5 months or may have developed over time as they have always been fed for every wake up.    So while they have the ability to self settle at bedtime, they learn over time not to self settle during the night as they are always given a feed (warm milk, sucking and a cuddle) instead of the opportunity to go back to sleep.

If you are currently feeding, rocking or holding your baby while she falls asleep, this is likely to be the main reason your baby is not able to get back to sleep without you.

Click here if you would like to read more information on Sleep Associations and Self Settling.

5. 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.

Click here for more information on dummies.

6. When can I start to encourage my baby to self settle?

The sooner you start to gently encourage your baby towards self settling, the sooner they will be able to fall asleep at bedtime without your help and sleep for longer stretches during the night.

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.

For babies of all ages, you can start putting your baby down drowsy rather than sound asleep. Also encouraging your baby to have one or two naps in their bed each day rather than being carried or cuddled for all sleeps is a good first step towards self settling.

We recommend starting gently moving towards self-settling from about 4-5 months if your goal  is for your baby to be able to resettle during the night and sleep for extended stretches. However since this technique is very gentle you could use it from earlier, and it is effective with older babies or toddlers too.


7. Preparation

It's a good idea to have the support of your partner before you start making changes to how you currently settle your baby at bedtime and resettle during the night. Often making changes will be easier if you can work together and take turns with settling, particularly if you are trying to encouraginge your baby to resettle without their usual feed.

Having your baby in a routine can make a big difference, and once your baby is over 5 months we find a routine with set times for day sleeps and bedtime very effective. This ensures your baby knows what you expect and when you expect it, and helps their body clock know when to be sleeping. If a routine with set times isn't your cup of tea, then using feed/play/sleep is another good option which will help with self settling.

Now is also a good time to reflect on whether you are ready to encourage your baby to sleep independently and resettle without help during the night. 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 encourage self settling and you may end up with a very confused baby if you are not likely to be consistent. 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'.

You may also want to consider if your baby is going to continue sleeping in your room,or your bed if you have been bed-sharing. Some parents like to make all the changes at the time they are encouraging their baby to self settle, or you may want to make some gradual changes first then move your baby once he is able to get back to sleep with less or no help.

8. Things that generally help with encouraging self settling:

Playing white noise at bedtime and on repeat through thenight

If your baby uses a dummy, put several in the cot and use a nightlight to make it easier to find one.

Use a sleeping bag so baby is just the right temperature all night

Introduce a comforter (put it down mum's top to absorb her scent and introduce it during nursing)

Using a Safe T Sleep can help with babies who wriggle all over the place, won't lie down or who like firm pressure on their tummy.

Choosing a self-settling technique which is right for your family

So once you have decided you are ready to gently encourage your baby to start self settling, you can decide on a plan of attack!

There are a number of different techniques outlined on our other article 'Teaching your baby to self settle', but several of the techniques listed will likely have some crying involved so are not what we class as 'gentle techniques'. The main thing is to choose a technique that feels right for your family, and nevermind what your friends, family and random blogs have to say on the subject!!

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 practice. Think how long it takes to learn to walk!

The technique below has been developed by The Sleep Store based on feedback from our customers and resources such as the excellent 'No Cry Sleep Solution books by Elizabeth Pantley.  While it is certainly a gentle technique, we can't promise there will be absolutey no crying...all babies are different, and no matter how gentle and gradual you make your changes, an over-tired baby will sometimes cry! And as anyone with a colicky or refluxy baby knows, some babies do just cry more than others.

 

The Sleep Store gentle self settling technique:

This technique works on the basis of gradual behaviour change, as you slowly move your baby towards being able to fall asleep without needing you there or needing you to do something for them.

This technique is ideal 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.

The example below uses rocking but you can easily adapt it to gradually wean your baby off what he currently relies on to get to sleep, such as being cuddled in your bed, being fed each time he wakes or being fed until he is asleep.

Basically the smaller and slower you make the changes, the less your baby will object!

 

1.  Make any changes to your routine or introduce a routine while you carry on with your current settling technique.

2.  Introduce some additional positive sleep associations and allow several days for your baby to become attached to them before you start teaching self settling. For example, start putting your baby into a sleeping bag before you rock her, give her a comforter to cuddle while you rock her and play white noise as she falls asleep.. These associations are going to replace YOU as her main sleep association (ie what she needs to fall asleep).

3. Your first step is to teach your baby she can actually fall asleep in bed, rather than on YOU - this is the most significant aspect of the weaning process.  So if you currently rock your baby until she is asleep, change to only rocking baby until she is drowsy. Then puther into bed and then pat/sssh/put firm pressure on her tummy etc until she falls asleep IN BED. 

4.  Once your baby can fall asleep in bed OK, change to rocking until calm and use your patting to get baby get drowsy in bed. 

5.  Then you can work on moving from rocking to cuddling, so there isn't movement before baby goes into bed. 

6.  Finally gradually reduce the amount of patting you do to help your baby get drowsy orfall asleep once he was put into bed relaxed after a cuddle.

 

Other tips!

CONSISTENCY!!!!  The more consistent you are, the less confused your baby will be!  We recommend you do the same for any night-waking! So if you are up to putting baby into bed drowsy but awake at bedtime, then do the same during the night....if you rock your baby completely asleep in the night, you are confusing your baby and the weaning process will take longer.

If you have a really sucky baby, consider using a dummy for bedtime and during the night settling. Once babies are over about 5 months they can learn to put a dummy back in for themself, which means you don't need to feed them back to sleep.  This can be a very good way to check if your baby is really hungry or is wanting to comfort suck to get back to sleep.

 

Does this technique really work???

Yes it does! It will require more patience and time than using a technique like verbal reassurance, but for a lot of families this gentle approach will work very effective to encourage your baby to fall asleep without help and sleep through the night.

Here's a post from our Facebook Page on this technique:

"We did the gentle approach with our son who is now 18 months old. We started around 10 months old where we night weaned and made sure he slept the whole night in his cot (in our room), and he was rocked to sleep each time he woke. Once he was okay sleeping in his cot and weaned we gradually introduced no rocking, only patting in his cot. Slowly the next step was no patting only a hand on the back, eventually no hand on the back only standing next to his cot. Then slowly moved him to his own room, had one night of a very short cry it out and viola! sleeping through the night baby!"  Sara.

I will mention that this technique is most appropriate where babies have been helped to sleep, so you are weaning them off help like feeding or rocking. It is much less relevant where baby won't fall asleep even with a lot of help!

 

Additional information

There are 'No Cry' resources appropriate for babies and toddlers of all ages.

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 Sleep Solution 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.


Read our article on feeding to sleep for more info

Read our article on Gently Wean your child off being rocked to sleep

Gentle sleep techniques for toddlers

 

Where to now?

Read more gentle sleep articles

Read about other parents experiences on our Discussion Forum.

I've already tried this gentle technique and it did not work for my baby! Have a read of our general article on Teaching your Baby to Self Settle and see if there is another technique that may work for your family.