Sleep Basics: Sleep Routines, Self-Settling, and Support
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
When it comes to sleep most parents would love a magic formula to make it a smoother transition. Some kids do sleep well from the start, but for those of us who have kids that struggle with sleep, we want answers, and fast!
Being sleep-deprived takes a toll on your ability to manage all aspects of your life, so it makes sense to want to come up with a solution to your sleep challenges as quickly and easily as possible.
The problem is that no one solution works for every child. I wish! It takes time for kids to learn to sleep better, or get back to sleeping better after a setback. There isn’t a quick fix, I’m afraid, but there are things that you can do to help move the process forward.
We hear about how important routines are, but what exactly is a sleep routine and why is it so important?
The importance is based on the idea that consistency helps children feel secure, which helps them settle to sleep more easily. If a child knows what is coming next they don’t have to wonder and worry every time there is a transition from being awake to going to sleep.
Creating a consistent sleep routine cues your little one that sleep is coming soon and lets them wind down as they get ready. They may not like knowing that sleep is coming, as they don’t want to miss anything that might happen while they are asleep (FOMO is real!), but it gives them a chance to move through their protest and to recognize that they are indeed tired and can find ways to get ready to let go.
A routine doesn’t have to take a long time, but it is helpful to do each activity in the same order so your kiddo gets used to the process. You want to create a routine that any of your child’s caregivers can follow.
The other important factor in doing a sleep routine is to connect with your child before they go to sleep. Babies and toddlers, and older kids as well, thrive on this connection with you and need that focused time before they feel secure enough to let go.
Here are my recommendations for sleep routines:
Before you get started with your routine offer a snack (either food or milk). You want to know that your little one isn’t hungry when you put them down either for a nap or at bedtime.
Talk to your child about what is coming next. Even if you have a newborn baby, talking to them is a good habit to get into. It sets up a dialog between you and your little one, even if all they do is coo (or fuss) back. Use a calm soothing voice and talk to them about how it is time to get ready for sleep, and you will help them get settled. Let them know they are safe, they have a cozy bed, and you will be close by. Talk them through each part of your routine.
Change their diaper, or have them go potty. This is an opportunity to make eye contact and offer physical connection and closeness.
Spend time reading a book and singing or humming a song. Try to slow down and take some time to just sit with your child for a few minutes.
Then close the curtains, turn off the lights, turn on the sound machine (if you are using one), and say goodnight to your little one. Let them know they are safe, and you are close by and you will see them soon. (For toddlers, before you put your kiddo down, say goodnight to everything in their room. Let them know everything will still be there when they wake up.)
This is a term used to describe the process a child goes through to find their way into sleep. When you give your little one a chance to learn this skill they will have an easier time finding their way back into sleep when they wake during the night and if they wake early from a nap.
Self-settling can look quite different depending on your child’s temperament, age, and stage of development. For some, it is an active process with lots of squirming and moving. For others, it is quieter and might include hair twirling, or sucking a thumb or fingers.
Giving your kiddo time to figure out how to self-settle doesn’t mean you have to leave your little one to scream and cry themselves to sleep. But the less you do to get them settled, and the more they do to get there on their own, the better their overall sleep will be (yours too!).
Here are my recommendations for self-settling:
Be sure your child isn’t hungry and is tired enough to be ready for sleep.
Go through your sleep routine so they know that sleep is coming.
Put your kiddo down awake (they don’t need to be drowsy first).
Reassure them they are safe and it’s time for sleep.
Then either leave the room, or sit nearby, but try not to interact much. You are holding the space for them to move through their unique sleep process, even if you aren’t in the room with them.
If your child becomes agitated, you can offer comfort and reassurance.
Each day, little by little, they will get better at knowing what to do to settle themselves to sleep.
First, it’s ok to offer your child comfort if they are overwhelmed! The point of self-settling is to give your little one time to try, but not to the point of distress.
Offering support is not giving in! You are responding to your child’s need for help. The trick is to give help without overhelping. You want to offer just enough help to comfort and reassure your child without taking over their process. This is not always easy to figure out, but through trial and error, you will find what works for you and your kiddo.
Trust that your child will learn what to do to self-settle, and know that they can trust you to offer support if needed. You are not teaching your child to cry to get what they want. You are teaching them that if they need it, help will come.
Here are my recommendations for support:
Wait to respond. Listen to make sure your child needs you. Sometimes a little one will make noise as they adjust their sleep position, or as they go through a change in the stage of sleep they are in. Give your child time to settle back on their own before you respond.
If you do need to go in, offer the least amount of support first. Use your voice, then your touch, and then a feed if needed. You don’t have to try for long with each step, but by slowing down and not going straight to a feed you give your kiddo a chance to settle with less support.
If you can, send in the non-nursing parent/ support person first. If you are breastfeeding, your child will likely expect to be breastfed if you come in. They may protest quite loudly if you try to offer comfort without nursing. You can certainly try, and if you don’t have someone else to send in, then you can make it work, but if possible, it’s helpful to delay going in. If your little one won’t settle without a feed, then, by all means, go in and nurse.
Stop rocking or bouncing or feeding once your child is close to sleep. Hold your little one in stillness before you try to transfer them down. If you keep rocking until they are all the way asleep and then lay them down they will likely wake up when they feel they are not being rocked anymore.
If your kiddo is squirming in your arms as you try to comfort them, put them down and give them time to work on settling themselves. Sometimes a child needs time and space to work on settling after you have come in to check on them.
If your child has just gone through an illness or some other disruption to their sleep, then going back to sleep basics can help you get back on track. It may take a few days/nights, but if you hold steady on your sleep routine, give your child time to self-settle, and offer support when needed, they will most likely get back to sleeping better soon. See my blog on when sleep derails for more tips. Here’s the link
And if you would like help with the sleep basics, please reach out here. I’d be happy to work with you on getting your little one sleeping better so you can get the rest you need!
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.