The secrets of self-soothing

Co-author of the best selling baby care series, Baby Sense, Sleep Sense, Feeding Sense, and Your Sensory Baby, Meg Faure explains what self-soothing is all about, and how you can get your little one to calm herself down.

Most moms and dads dream of getting a full night’s sleep, yet for more than 50% of all parents, a full night’s sleep evades them until well into their baby’s third year of life. Research that looked at the secret behind babies who sleep through the night during the first year of life was published in the journal Pediatrics. One of the key factors that determines whether a baby will sleep through the night is whether or not she learns to self-soothe within the first five months of her life.
On a sensory level, most self-soothing strategies use either the sense of touch, pressure, vibration or movement.

ALSO SEE: 5 baby sleep strategies that work

Common soothing strategies include:

  • Sucking hands or fists
  • Sucking a dummy
  • Holding hands together at the midline
  • Touching ears or nose
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Sucking a blanky
  • Sucking a self-held bottle
  • Rocking head from side-to-side
  • Humming to create a vibration in the chest
  • Rubbing lips or hair
  • Stroking a tag of a blanket between the fingers.

Encourage your baby to self soothe

  • In the early days, your baby won’t be able to voluntarily control her hands or movements enough to self-soothe, so she’ll be heavily dependent on you to help her settle to sleep. This means that you may well find your newborn falling asleep while she’s breastfeeding, or needing to be rocked or patted to sleep. This won’t result in the formation of bad habits; contrary to popular wisdom, your newborn isn’t ‘manipulating’ you, nor are you ‘spoiling your baby’.
  • As your little one approaches four months, she’ll start developing the capacity to self-soothe.
  • Encourage self-calming by allowing your baby to derive pleasure from self-initiated actions. For example, if you see your little one sucking her hand, don’t remove it from her mouth – she isn’t teething, hungry or going to be a thumb sucker; she’s simply self-soothing, so allow her to use this strategy to settle.
  • Finally, give your baby time to settle herself down. The temptation, especially with a first baby, is to jump in and soothe her as soon as you hear the first squeal. Instead, if your baby is about four or five months old, let her have a few seconds to find a settling strategy herself. This doesn’t mean that you should leave your baby to cry – it simply means that you should take a deep breath and listen to her communications: if she’s groaning and moaning, leave her to settle. If she’s really crying, find out why.
  • Self-soothing is the answer to sleepless nights and will help you and your baby to have more settled days too.

ALSO SEE: What is sleep training and should you try it

The benefits of self-soothing

Self-soothing is when your baby manages to settle herself down to sleep, or can calm herself down when she’s stressed or irritable. In fact, we all use self-soothing strategies without even thinking about it to cope with stressful events. There are a few significant benefits of self-soothing:

  • Your baby can regulate her mood, and early infant fussing will decrease
  • If your little one self-soothes when she comes into a light sleep state, she’ll be more likely to settle back to sleep and will sleep for longer
  • Your life will be more predictable and settled. It’s easier to parent a baby who self-regulates than one who needs constant care and intervention
  • Babies who self-regulate tend to manage their tantrums better when they’re toddlers, and are less impulsive.

Things to avoid

While you don’t need to worry about habits forming in the early days, habits can and do become entrenched after five months. If you consistently soothe your little one or put her to sleep, she’ll be dependent on you for this
type of soothing every time she cries or goes to sleep. Common practises to avoid include:

  • Feeding your baby to sleep, or feeding her every time she cries
  • Rocking her to sleep
  • Driving her around the block in the car to get her to sleep
  • Pushing her in the pram
  • Lying with her to help her fall asleep
  • Popping the dummy in her mouth every time she fusses or wakes
  • Allowing her to stroke your hair to get to sleep.

ALSO SEE: 4 ways you could be sabotaging your baby’s sleep

Breaking bad habits

The tough part comes when you have to break these habits and teach your baby to self-soothe. This is only necessary for babies who are older than six months, as before this, the habits aren’t firmly entrenched. After this time, if habits are ruling your life, you need to teach your baby new strategies to self-soothe:

Day 1–4

Watch what your baby tends to do to settle, or look out for something she likes – it may be a favourite blanky or dummy. For the first four days, offer this item every time your little one fusses in daylight hours. As she cries, lift the soothing object to your shoulder and then cuddle her with the soother. She’ll learn to associate the object with your comfort. If your baby favours one thing over another, choose one and stick with it.

Day 4–8

Over the next few days, help your baby use the object at night. Leave it in her crib. When she cries, wait for two minutes to give her time to use it. Then go to her and put the object in her hands. Don’t resort to the usual crutch (feeding, rocking or patting). This step is tough, because in a sleep-deprived state, you and your baby may resist the change. Don’t leave your baby. By being calm and consistent, you’ll teach her a new skill.

Day 8

On this day, your baby is ready to soothe herself, so instead of putting the object in her hands, put at least two of the objects (if not more – in the case of dummies, put five) in the cot for her to find herself at night. When she fusses, leave her for five minutes and she’ll probably piece it together and put herself to sleep. When she reaches this milestone, you can be very proud of yourself and your baby – she’s learnt a new and important skill.

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