Frustrated when your baby doesn’t fall asleep on his own? Learn how to start teaching your baby to self soothe to sleep with these effective techniques.
When my kids were babies, even past the newborn months, I rocked them to a drowsy state. Just enough to put them down and hope they’ll learn to sleep on their own. Except the minute I put them down, their eyes flew wide open and out came the cries.
My first reaction? I picked them up and repeated the cycle.
Now I learned that teaching your baby to self soothe starts with believing in their capabilities. And this is hard. I had grown used to rushing to their side at the slightest whimper. I rocked to oblivion until my knees gave out. And I couldn’t stand the shrill sound of their cries and did anything to stop it.
But rescuing them from every discomfort didn’t give them the opportunity to self soothe. And all babies experience stress, though probably not in ways you imagine. I’m not talking about lack of affection, food or comfort.
I’m talking baby stress like feeling frustrated because their pacifier fell out, or their diaper itches. And yes, the frustration from not being able to fall asleep on their own.
Teaching your baby to self soothe
Self soothing starts with helping your baby manage his frustrations. Each baby develops his own self soothing techniques, and what works for one may not for another. Here are a few common ways to encourage your baby to self soothe.
Establish a set bedtime and routine.
It’s never too early start a bedtime routine and aim for a regular time for sleep. Even when my kids were newborns, my husband and I would put them to sleep around the same time every night. At first, this was at 8pm. Now, my three-year-old twins sleep at 7:15 and my six-year-old at 8pm.
Besides a regular bedtime, follow a routine every night. A routine is doing the same things every night to lead up to sleep. You can start with a bath, followed with a baby massage, putting on PJs and reading books. Then you might cap it off with a bedtime feeding, singing songs and saying good night.
Kids thrive on regularity and predictability. The more familiar your baby is with his bedtime routine, the more he’ll come to expect what happens next. He knows when this sequence happens, from bath to turning off the lights, that it’s time to sleep.
Don’t pick your baby up right away.
If you’re like me, you picked your baby up at the slightest sound. I’d stop what I was doing, rush in, and comfort my baby as if I was saving him from the worst possible experience. Sometimes you’re so tuned in, you’d hear him in your head even when he wasn’t crying.
I’ve since learned not to freak out or overreact. Yes, if your baby was in grave danger, then that warrants running in to save her from calamity.
But for most of us, a baby’s cry is his way of letting his needs known. Yes, he can be hungry, but he’s not injured or starving. He might want company, but you’re not neglecting him for hours on end. Try not to overreact when you hear your baby cry. Why?
- For one thing, it stresses you out when you don’t need to be. In hindsight, it’s a baby crying, not the end of the world.
- Second, your baby senses your anxiety and will feel even more stressed.
- And third, related to this article, is your baby doesn’t have a chance to self soothe.
Not rushing in immediately doesn’t mean your baby will go back to sleep because you waited. (Although sometimes that happens!) Instead, not rushing in teaches your baby to wait. That little pause shows him that feeling uncomfortable is inevitable and okay. That he’ll be all right, even if a second ago he felt uncomfortable.
Leave his arms unswaddled.
As much as I relied on swaddles for my kids to fall asleep, their downside is that it traps their arms arms. The problem? One of the best ways to self soothe is sucking. They might suck any combination of their fingers or even a part of their hand or their knuckle. While pacifiers can come loose, a baby can always find a hand or thumb.
Whether regularly or once in a while, give your baby a chance to sleep with his arms out. It might be what he needs to experiment and realize he can always suck on his hands for comfort.
Put your baby down drowsy but awake.
Not knowing what I was doing, I put my eldest down to sleep knocked out each time. I figured that’s the best way babies fall asleep, since it happened so easily. Except by putting him down asleep, he couldn’t experience what it’s like how to fall asleep on his own. Plus, he got confused when he fell asleep in someone’s arms only to wake up in the crib.
Instead, help your child fall into a drowsy state. This might mean looking at his cues, or even the clock, to know it’s time for a nap. Or (slightly) rocking him until he looks sleepy. And making his room conducive for sleep by keeping it dark and adding white noise.
Then, set him down and see if he can fall asleep from there. If he doesn’t fall asleep right away, it’s okay to step away, especially when he’s not crying. Many times my twins fell asleep this way. Just when I thought I was screwed and they’d never fall asleep, they ended up dozing off after a few minutes of laying down with their eyes open.
On that note…
It’s okay if your baby is lying down awake.
One of the issues I struggled with was when my kids would lay in their bassinet or crib wide awake. I thought they would be sleepy, but they weren’t falling asleep as I hoped they would.
And when this happens, it’s tempting to rush in and scoop them back up. Maybe rock them for a few minutes until they’re drowsy again. Or stick a pacifier in their mouths hoping they’ll fall asleep.
You don’t need to do that. It’s okay for your baby to lie down awake. Don’t feel like he’s on a timer and needs to be asleep by a certain time. Follow his lead. This awake time in his crib can help him learn to self soothe. Just as you don’t knock out the minute your head hits the pillow, so too might your baby need a few minutes to fall asleep.
Feed your baby after he wakes up.
The problem with feeding your baby as a way to lull him to sleep is that he’ll rely on feeding to do so. Yes, it’s easier to get a baby to fall asleep right after you nurse or bottle feed. The sucking motion is comforting, and it’s likely close to nap time. But feeding to fall asleep means he doesn’t have a chance to self soothe and put himself to sleep.
Instead, feed him after he wakes up. He can use other ways to sleep, such as sucking his hand, rocking his head side to side, even cooing. And drinking milk after sleep gives him energy to play during his awake time.
The only time I fed my kids before sleep was for the bedtime feed. Otherwise, all feedings happened after waking up.
Give your baby a comfort item.
My kids all sleep (and continue to!) with these animal lovies. They’re small blankies they’ve grown attached to and sleep with every night. Having a comfort item to hold or even have nearby can help calm your baby. The familiar toy is something he can turn to if he feels frustrated, sad or any other difficult emotion.
By now, you’ve learned that a hurdle in self soothing is our own desire to squash our babies’ frustrations. Except doing so doesn’t allow your baby to handle discomfort. Or he relies on you to solve it for him each time.
Instead, try different techniques to help him self soothe. This could mean finishing what you were doing before tending to his cries. Or leaving an arm out of a swaddle so he can suck on his hands. And putting him down drowsy but awake, making sure to feed him after he wakes up, not before.
And you need to trust that he can do it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and awkward to watch your baby try to soothe himself. We don’t like to see our kids frustrated, no matter their age. But you need to believe that your baby can put himself to sleep and self soothe—all on his own.
Want more resources to help your baby sleep well, especially if he only sleeps in your arms? I created a guide just for you! Learn about “How to Get Your Baby to Sleep without Being Held” here.