How to Help Your Baby Self Soothe at Night
August 18, 2021
There are so many joys to being a new parent. The little coos, smiles, and personality of your baby are amazing and infatuating. However, as every parent knows, sleep and self soothing can be huge hurdles toward sleeping through the entire night. During the first few weeks parents are fully absorbed in feeding every few hours and basic care taking. There’s no way around it. But, as the baby develops they should start sleeping for longer stretches and showing the ability to go down without too much fussing. This type of self soothing development does not always come easy, and too many nights without a good sleep can leave both parents and baby a little worse for wear.
Whether you’re planning ahead in anticipation of some difficult nights or you’re currently having difficulty understanding how to soothe your baby, we’ve compiled practical tips and tricks to help you and your baby sleep better at night.
Why Babies Struggle With Self Soothing
During the infant stage, babies have virtually no ability to regulate many bodily functions. They’re learning how to control their limbs, breathing, eating and many other new things that were on autopilot in the womb. One of the biggest challenges facing infants is learning the difference between daytime and nighttime, and getting their bodies more regulated toward a 24-hour cycle. Once this cycle becomes clearer, they will be better suited to learn healthy sleeping habits. Though it might sound odd to an adult, sleep is actually something that our bodies have to learn.
Self-regulation isn’t the only area where babies struggle in the first few weeks and months. Babies are also used to being constantly held, comforted and fed! It’s a rude awakening to try and impose a new routine while also lacking some of the essential comforts that can help quiet, soothe, and calm newborns.
Even babies that are considered to be “good sleepers” will have short sleep cycles. Sleep cycles describe the length of time (and rhythm) that characterizes typical sleep schedules for a baby. Most babies have a 45-minute sleep cycle. This means that after 45 minutes of sound sleeping, it’s much more likely for your baby to either wake up or enter a lighter phase of sleep (sometimes called “active sleep”). Expect them to wake up often during this period, especially when they are very young.
The point at which babies enter active sleep is often when they have trouble falling back asleep because they’re craving a comfort measure to help. Once awake, they might begin crying or searching for mom, eventually struggling to put themselves to sleep without intervention.
So, sleep issues can occur when a baby is first put down for bed, or when they wake up during active sleep. And, babies struggle because they haven’t developed circadian rhythms or weaned from dependence on comfort measures.
Simple Tactics to Help Your Baby Self Soothe
While there’s no guaranteed way to get your baby to self soothe faster, there are some time-tested techniques that will aid you in learning how to help your baby self soothe at night. Although there will be times when schedules have to be abandoned or routines are thrown out due to sickness or travel, the number one piece of advice from most infant sleep experts is to be consistent.
Your baby is working very hard to understand entirely new patterns, and constantly changing the schedule based on how your baby is acting will only prolong (in many cases) their inability to self soothe effectively. In other words, once your baby is 6-8 weeks old, you should be establishing a fairly strict and standardized pattern of sleep even if they aren’t following it well. Yes, it will be hard in the beginning. But, having your baby “conform” to a basic routine will help shape their habits, expectations, and overall development as an independent sleeper. Below are six helpful suggestions for getting your baby to be a better sleeper and self soother.
- After the first 6-8 weeks (and sometimes as early as 4 weeks), keep your baby on a schedule and help them understand the difference between daytime and nighttime. Your schedule should include some basic version of the “eat, play, sleep” formula. This schedule means that after breastfeeding your child is set up for approximately 20-30 minutes of independent play, and then will likely want to sleep again. Repeating this schedule will help build structure for playtimes and nap times when your child is a few months older. Also, during the morning and daytime hours make sure that your baby is exposed to light, open the blinds, take walks outside and take any other measures that can help ensure your baby is exposed to natural light. While infants don’t typically go down for a full night, you can still turn off lights, light candles, close blinds, and generally try to dim the room before preparing for sleep.
- Establish a bedtime routine. As you’re preparing for what will (hopefully) be a slightly longer stretch of sleep, maybe even up to 3 or 4 hours, do the same activities every night to soothe your baby before placing them in their bassinet or other sleeping area. Common methods of preparing your baby for sleep include changing their diaper, putting on pajamas, application of body oil or some type of infant massage to relax them, a good feed, and a baby soother toy when they’re a bit older. This entire practice might feel unnecessary at first, but it goes a long way toward signalling to your baby that it’s nighttime and time to sleep. Be sure to use a swaddle during your bedtime routine as this is essential for keeping unintentional muscle spasms and other uncontrolled movements from waking your baby up. Keep those little limbs tightly secured to their sides!
- Eliminate physiological issues that might be causing discomfort or distraction. Dirty diapers, hunger, over tiredness, wet pajamas, rashes, gassiness, and other issues might be significantly hampering your baby’s ability to self soothe. Make sure that they are clean, dry, well fed, and that other potential discomforts have been addressed to the furthest extent possible. If you know that your baby is likely quite comfortable and is still struggling to self soothe you’ll be better prepared to let them cry for longer while they’re learning. If you think that they are suffering you’ll want to continually rush into their room to help ease their discomfort - and that’s natural!
- Create a dark, quiet environment that’s optimally suited for sleeping. Minimize any potential disturbances like foot traffic, excess noise, fluctuations in temperature, etc. Since babies have very little body fat when they’re first born, keeping the temperature a little warmer in their nursery or your bedroom will help them stay comfortable and relaxed. Use a white noise machine for consistent sound that makes it easier for your baby to focus on falling asleep.
- Feed your baby until they are full when they’re going down for their longest stretch of sleep. Infants love to be fed to sleep and they’ll often drift off while nursing. While this is a tempting way to get them asleep, you’ll eventually want to get them used to going to sleep after being fed. If they’re full you’ll know that they aren’t crying due to hunger. When you’re working through self soothing issues, every possible factor you can eliminate is a huge help.
- When you’re in the thick of self soothing or sleep training, don’t soothe your baby right away if they wake up crying, especially if you’re just learning how to help your baby self soothe at night. We completely understand that this sounds and feels counterintuitive to every parent’s instincts. However, the point of learning how to help your baby self soothe at night is precisely because they cannot and should not be dependent on their parents to fall or stay asleep. They should be able to put themselves back to sleep without assistance. To help them learn this skill, give your baby comfort measures progressively as they practice self soothing. Practically, this means that you’ll need to establish rules and a routine for helping them to learn. Many parents do something like the following:
- Place your baby in their bassinet, crib, or bed after their nighttime routines.
- Softly shush while placing a hand on them for comfort.
- Slowly and quietly leave the room.
- Let them cry and fuss for a few minutes (usually no more than 3-5 minutes).
- Re-enter the room and place a hand on them while shushing.
- Slowly reintroduce other comfort measures if they are unable to soothe themselves at all (over tiredness is a common reason that babies grow more hysterical during the phase where they learn to self soothe).
- If needed, eventually resort to holding them or trying more feeding before placing them back in their sleeping area.
When you first practice how to help your baby self soothe at night, count every short period that your child sleeps on their own as a big win. Each time that they sleep while not being held or put themselves to sleep with a self-reliant comfort measure is a significant milestone towards total sleep independence.
Signs That Your Baby is Learning to Self Soothe
There are a few common signs that show you’re having success with understanding how to help your baby self soothe at night; these include:
- Moving back and forth, or their head from side to side as they try to find a comfortable position.
- Pauses while crying, even if it’s only for a few seconds. Longer periods of time in between fits of crying or fussing are a strong indicator that they are not in pain or discomfort, and that they are working on calming themselves down.
- Preoccupation with a baby soother toy, toes, fingers, ears or hair can indicate that your baby is starting to find comfort in repetitive actions or is more interested in something other than having you immediately present.