How to help your baby learn to sleep independently, and why it is an important skill.
Sleeping is an innate process. We don’t have to think about it-it just happens. However, settling before falling asleep is a different matter. We all have little things we do before we fall asleep. For some, this happens fairly quickly. For others, it’s a longer process.
Babies develop their way of settling to sleep over time and with practice. Some find their way into sleep without much struggle. Others need more support until they are comfortable settling themselves.
Helping your little one fall asleep when they are very young is often necessary. Newborns need lots of support to transition from being awake to falling asleep. They are often restless and dysregulated during this transition, and rely on outside support to settle.
However, at a certain point, if nursing/feeding, rocking, bouncing, and/or walking are the only ways your baby will fall asleep, you may want to let them spend more time working on the skills needed to find their unique way of settling to sleep.
This does not mean that if your baby nurses or rocks to sleep and stays asleep, you need to change what you are doing. Everyone has to follow their timetable for when they give their baby the chance to settle themselves. There’s nothing wrong with nursing or rocking to sleep if it works for you and your baby.
That said, if you nurse or rock your baby to sleep, only to have them wake as soon as you stop, or as soon as you try to transfer them to their crib, then it may be time to try a different approach.
Independent sleep means your baby knows what to do to settle themselves, and can re-settle themselves when they wake early from a nap, or in the middle of the night. It does not mean you have to leave your baby to scream themselves to sleep. It does not mean you can’t be close by while your baby falls asleep. It means that your baby can find their way into sleep without you needing to be too involved in the process.
Learning independent sleep skills takes time and practice. It helps to provide a consistent sleep routine that lets your baby know it is sleeping time and they are safe and comfortable where you lay them down. You are giving them time to work on those skills before you step in to help.
Why is learning to settle to sleep independently so important?
Because independent sleep gives you a chance to do other things while your baby is asleep.
Because it means others can help throughout the day and night.
Because it gives you much-needed sleep yourself.
Because it means your baby feels safe even when you aren’t right there.
Because it gives your baby the best chance of settling back to sleep when they wake early from a nap or in the middle of the night.
How does a baby learn these skills?
First, know that babies in the first 3 months are likely going to need help settling, especially if they are swaddled. You can certainly lay your newborn baby down awake to give them a chance to settle, but know that most babies this age need some support to settle to sleep. Once your baby is no longer swaddled, they have a better chance of finding ways to self-soothe.
Second, you do not have to leave your baby to cry for long periods. They may cry some, but you do not have to “sleep train” your baby for them to learn the skills needed for independent sleep.
There are many approaches to helping a baby learn how to settle independently. Here’s mine:
Create a predictable, consistent sleep time routine for naps and bedtime. Give your baby time to wind down and make the transition from being awake to settling for sleep.
Put your baby down in a darkened room with a sound machine on (if you choose to use one).
Be sure your baby is not swaddled and is in a sleep sack that allows freedom of movement.
Put your baby down on a firm surface on their back. Make sure it is a safe place for your baby to sleep, and there is plenty of room for them to move.
Talk to your baby in a calm, soothing voice about what you are doing and what is coming next.
Put your baby down awake (does not have to be drowsy).
Let your baby know it is sleeping time and they are safe, and you will be close by. Rub their head and tummy for a minute.
Move out of your baby’s line of sight, or out of the room.
Give your baby time to move and make noise. They may be very active during this time. They may yawn, yell, fuss, kick and turn their heads. They may put their hands to their mouth, or bat their ears. These are all ways a baby gets ready to let go. It may not look like settling, but this is often what self-soothing looks like.
If your baby escalates into upset crying and their body becomes stiff, it’s time to help them calm down. You can then help your baby settle to sleep, and transfer them into their crib.
Each day, try again and wait a little longer before you help your baby settle to sleep. Each day watch, wait, and listen to see if your baby can find their way into sleep.
It usually takes a few days of consistent trying. Then one day, your baby will move and fuss and squirm and then, slowly let go. It’s quite amazing to witness this process.
Each baby has their unique way of settling into sleep. By giving them time to practice, they will eventually learn what to do.
I can help you develop a customized sleep plan based on your baby’s age and stage of development. Having a plan that you feel good about will give you the confidence you need, and your baby the best chance of learning the skills necessary for independent sleep. It’s important to trust the process, and know that your baby will figure out what to do. Each baby has their timetable for when this happens, but believe that they can and will learn how to find their way into sleep!
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.