Self-settling: when baby won’t sleep without your help
My baby won’t sleep on their own!
A newborn baby won’t sleep without your help. They usually can’t self-settle until they are 12 weeks of age. While some need only a little help and some need a lot, most babies need to be taught how to be great sleepers.
If there is one thing that all parents should be told before they have children, I would love it to be that. Just like everything in your child’s life, sleep is another skill they need to learn, and you as their parents are also their principle educators so you have to be the ones to teach them how to sleep. So you need to be prepared for that and you really need to start from day one.
For the vast majority of parents, their baby won’t sleep without their help for at least the first 12 weeks and probably well beyond then. Babies are used to being in a warm, enclosed environment and coming out into the world is a shock. It’s like if you had to go to do a new job that you’d never done before and had no training for, in a new country, with a different language and it was suddenly freezing cold and very loud all the time; you’d be pretty confused too!
What’s so good about self-settling?
I have friends who can’t go to sleep without listening to a podcast. And they’re 37 years old! Now, that’s fine for some people but woe betide this guy’s wife if he loses his headphones! It would be much easier for him if he could lie down, shut his eyes and drift off to sleep.
Many adults struggle to truly self-settle so it’s not surprising that babies don’t always do it easily.
The reason why it’s desirable is because at some stage, you want to stop having to cajole the baby back to sleep – if a baby can’t self-settle and needs you there every time she settles, you will always have to settle them during the night if they wake up. This is often the cause when I get calls from mothers telling me that they have been sleeping in their baby’s room and they wake up with a dead arm because they have been putting their hand on their baby all night asleep next to the cot. Very difficult times.
How do you encourage a baby to self settle?
Here are my tips for getting a baby to self settle:
1. start out as you mean to go on
You need to start out as you mean to go on, so if you want to have a baby that can sleep in their own cot and be able put themselves to sleep then you need to start out with that in mind. Even knowing that newborn babies are not able to self-settle, you can still employ settling techniques that encourage your little baby to learn to put herself to sleep from the very beginning. But don’t worry, if you haven’t started early and you’re coming a little later to the party, it’s not too late.
2. Have a baby routine
It really is important to establish a routine with your baby. Having a predictable rhythm which includes a story, a bath and a feed means that a baby starts to understand where the day is going and even feel some control over the day. It might sound odd but when a baby knows what’s coming, they start to feel a sense of calmness and control and this disposes them to sleeping when they are supposed to.
3. Don’t let a baby get overtired
Like all of us, when a baby is overtired, they find it hard to do new, complicated things. For us, that might mean if we’re tired at work, we’re not very effective. For a baby, it means they can’t do a complicated new skill like sleeping if they are tired and overwhelmed. Start settling them when you see the very first tired sign.
4. Leave and listen
It might seem obvious, but you have to leave the baby alone in order to give them a chance to self settle. This means every time you take them to bed, you should put them in, swaddle them (if they’re still using a swaddle) or zip them in their bag then walk out while they’re still awake. Even if it doesn’t work many of the first times you do it (maybe for weeks and weeks) it’s still worth doing. They will never settle on their own if you don’t give them a chance. Then listen to them from the door to see if they’re going to sleep on their own. They might make noises and that’s ok but I don’t advocate waiting if they’re crying. If they’re upset, I believe they need a bit of help. In the early days, they might need to be patted or helped all the way to sleep.
5. Gradually reduce the amount of help you’re giving them to get to sleep
As they age, it’s important to reduce the amount of help you’re giving them to sleep. Try to leave them while they’re still awake and let them do the final part themselves. Even if you can’t do that, stop the patting or jiggling for the last bit and just leave your hands on them if that’s still required. Keep trying to lower the amount of intervention and give them a chance to do it on their own.
In time, babies do get better at settling. There are very few 12 year olds who can’t sleep on their own 😉 But I understand if you don’t want to wait until then so following these tips will give you a head start to get them self-settling from three months. If you’ve tried everything to get your baby to self-settle, you might want to consider getting some professional help. You can check out the services we offer here.
All the best
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Photo credit: Sleeping Lion by William Warby.