Frustrated when your baby doesn’t fall asleep on his own? Learn how to teach your baby to self soothe to sleep with these effective techniques.
I was on a rocking cycle, rocking my baby until he fell asleep in my arms. Because once I placed him in the crib, his eyes flew open, forcing me to start the cycle again.
So then I tried another approach: I rocked him until he was completely knocked out. While he didn’t wake up immediately, he eventually would a few minutes later, realizing he was no longer in the same place.
In the newborn stage, I understood the need to help him fall asleep. He was dependent from birth and remained so during those early months.
But those months came and went, and I worried I’d always need to do put him to sleep or continue to repeat the cycle for the many times he’d wake up. I had heard of parents rocking toddlers, and was afraid I had relied on habits that, like all habits, don’t always go away on their own.
Teaching your baby to self soothe
By the time my twins came, I knew I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes. They were still too young to sleep train, but I also wanted to do away with habits I knew would make it hard for them to self soothe.
So I made changes, starting with my mindset. I went from helping them fall asleep to helping them learn to fall asleep. Where I had once scoffed at the idea of not rushing in, I now saw the value in letting them self soothe.
I began to apply sleep habits I should’ve implemented with my eldest from the start—best practices that allowed them to develop the skill to fall asleep.
As soon as I did, I noticed changes. I could lay them down and expect them to fall asleep on their own. I didn’t always have to nurse or rock them so long, and they found other ways to fall asleep.
As it is with kids, not everything is ever 100% guaranteed, but I gave them the opportunity to at least try. Because yes, there were moments when I resorted back to rocking and nursing, but at least those methods became the last resort, not my first go-to moves.
Below are the self soothing techniques for babies I did, starting with the most important step: adjusting my mindset.
1. Change your mindset
I thought my job was to stop my baby’s tears as quickly as possible, or even to prevent them from happening. If he fussed from waking up, my job was to soothe him back to sleep. I never considered the potential downsides of doing so.
But then I learned two insights that changed how I viewed my baby’s sleep. I needed to:
- Give him a chance to at least try to self soothe, and
- Believe he was capable of doing so
This was hard. I was used to rushing in at the slightest whimper. I rocked my baby until my knees gave out, and I couldn’t stand the sound of his cries and did anything to stop them.
But rescuing my baby from every discomfort didn’t give him the opportunity to self soothe.
All babies experience “stress,” though not the kind of stress you might imagine. This isn’t the stress from lack of affection, food or shelter. Instead, this is stress like a pacifier falling out, a diaper itching, and falling asleep on his own.
Our job isn’t always to save them from every discomfort, but rather to equip them to handle discomfort. For teenagers, this might mean giving the autonomy they need to make decisions, while for babies, it can be as simple as waiting a minute before we go in.
And the most important part? We have to believe they’re capable of doing so. Our own doubts can be the very factor that prevent them from falling asleep, especially when we’re pulled to rush in and don’t want to see them unhappy.
Because no one likes to see their kids uncomfortable, especially when rocking or nursing seem to do the trick. And yes, we should soothe our babies when they can’t manage on their own and are inconsolable.
But letting them try to self soothe as a first attempt helps them experience what it’s like to fall asleep on their own.
2. Establish a set bedtime and routine
Imagine spending your days without knowing what comes next, or that each day is completely different from the one before. Without a routine, you and your baby feel like you have no order or predictability.
But with a simple routine in place, your baby can thrive with regularity. The more familiar he is with your routine, the more he’ll come to expect them and know what tends to happen next.
He understands the sequence (for instance, bath, pajamas then bed), as well as the general time of the day things happen.
How does this teach your baby to self soothe? The predictability helps him feel less anxious when he knows what to expect. He’s also less likely to resist events in your day, including sleep, when he knows this is expected.
So, now that you know how important a routine is for your baby, how do you implement one?
Routines are two-part: First, you have a structure of your day, or what I call “pillars,” such as playtime, meals, naps, bath and bedtime. Then, you have the rituals that signal each of these events, such as your bedtime routine.
Do the same things around the same times, such as naps at 10am and again at 3pm. Or at least do them in the same order, such as play time, lunch and nap.
Look for patterns in your baby’s day, such as noticing he tends to be awake for two hours, or eats every three.
Even if naps don’t end up exactly at the same time every day, try to keep bedtime consistent. For instance, adjust or wake your baby up from his last nap so he can still feel sleepy come his 7:30pm bedtime.
3. Don’t pick your baby up right away
If you’re like me, you pick your baby up at the slightest sound. He could be whimpering from waking up mid-nap, or crying after you had just put him down. You’re tempted to stop everything you’re doing, rush right in and comfort him, almost as if you’re saving him from a catastrophe.
Except I learned that reacting so quickly has its own set of problems:
- Your baby has no chance to settle on his own. He doesn’t have an opportunity to learn what it’s like to calm down.
- Your baby associates waking up with needing external sleep aids to help him fall asleep. Instead of waking up and realizing it’s okay to wait or find ways to self soothe, he relies on outside sources only.
- Rushing in stresses you out. You’ve likely had more than one moment when you’ve rushed into his room in a panic, then felt stressed that he’s fussing yet again.
- Your baby senses your anxiety and will feel stressed as well. He’ll have a hard time calming down when you feel stressed.
Once I learned the downsides of rushing right into my babies’ room, I stopped reacting to their cries as if they were in the worst danger. Instead, I finished any quick tasks I was doing before going in.
And I didn’t overreact. I understood they cried for many reasons, and that they weren’t hungry, injured neglected. Not picking them up right away didn’t always mean they went back to sleep (although that did happen!). Instead, they learned the value in waiting.
The younger the baby, the quicker we meet their needs. But eventually, it’s also okay to finish that dish you were washing or reassure your child it’s not time to wake up yet. Discomfort even in the slightest level is inevitable, but he’ll know he’ll still be okay regardless.
4. Leave your baby’s arms unswaddled
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Swaddles can be the sanity-saving tool we need, especially in the newborn days when the Moro reflex is in full force. Other times, babies need that snug feeling to fall asleep, which can feel so different from the wide open space of their cribs and bassinets.
The downside though? Swaddles make it nearly impossible for babies to suck their hands, which is one of the best ways to self soothe.
My babies took to sucking any combination of their fingers, knuckles, and even their fists. While pacifiers can come loose, a hand is easy to find. And after the newborn stage, they no longer have the Moro reflex, so the need to keep their arms snug isn’t as necessary.
Whether regularly or once in a while, give your baby a chance to sleep unswaddled. Try it as a first resort before putting him in a full swaddle.
Or if he’s already deep into a swaddle routine, try leaving an arm out so he can experiment with sucking. And another alternative is to use the Magic Sleepsuit to transition him out of a swaddle.
5. Put your baby down drowsy but awake
Not knowing what I was doing, I put my baby down fast asleep each time. I thought that’s how I was supposed to put him to sleep. And it seemed to work, for the most part: At least I knew he’d fall asleep so long as he started off in my arms.
But only minutes later, I’d hear his cries from the other room, a telltale sign that he’d woken up realizing I was no longer there.
He seemed confused when he woke up in a new environment he didn’t remember falling asleep in. And worse, he was unable to fall back asleep and needed me to repeat the rocking cycle.
Because I’d been the one putting him to sleep, he wasn’t able to experience falling asleep on his own—I had never given him the chance to.
Then I learned to put the baby down drowsy but awake. You want him drowsy enough that sleep comes easier, but not so knocked out that he won’t recognize his new environment once you lay him down. Plus, being slightly awake gives him the chance to sleep without being held.
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How to put your baby down drowsy but awake
Look for sleep cues to determine when it’s time for him to take another nap. Make sure he’s not awake too long that he goes from sleepy to simply overtired (and harder to put to sleep). You can even rock or hold him slightly, just to get him to that drowsy state.
Make the room conducive to sleep by keeping it dark and adding white noise so your baby has a better chance of falling and staying asleep. Then, set him down drowsy but awake and let him fall asleep on his own.
Once I learned this trick, I made the “drowsy but awake” my first attempt before assuming I needed to rock or nurse. Many times I’d lay them down—even with eyes wide open—and later find they’d fallen asleep after a few minutes.
What if your baby cries and cries after you put him down?
Let’s say you get your baby drowsy enough, but each time you lay him down, he not only wakes up wide awake but is crying. What then?
Use discernment. If your baby is whimpering, you may be able to let him know it’s time to sleep and see if he can settle down after a few minutes.
If he’s angry and upset, then you’ll likely have to calm him down. But if you have to help to your toddler or use the bathroom yourself, it’s also okay to leave him a few minutes to tend to that before consoling him again.
6. It’s okay if your baby is lying down awake
See if this sounds familiar: You put your baby down to sleep, but the minute his head touches the mattress, his eyes fly wide open.
This happened to me whether I had rocked him to sleep or even to a drowsy state. No matter how sleepy I thought he was, he’d shoot straight to awake mode. He didn’t seem to have a “drowsy state” lying down. Things is, he wasn’t crying, but he was wide awake and didn’t look sleepy at all.
So I did what I thought I should: I picked him up and rocked again.
I didn’t know it was possible—that it was okay, even—for babies to lie awake. I imagined the worse: What if our schedule gets thrown off? What if he never falls asleep, or stays awake for hours?
When I later had my twins, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I wondered if it really was possible for a baby wide awake to eventually fall asleep on his own.
Turns out, many times they would actually fall asleep, even when earlier they’d been wide awake.
And yes, sometimes they cried and fussed, at which point I’d either give them a few minutes to settle down or rock them to a sleepy state again. But I also realized I had missed many opportunities in the past by not allowing them the chance to fall asleep on their own.
I learned that it’s really okay for a baby to lie down awake, especially when he’s not even crying. After all, you and I don’t even knock out the minute we lie down—It can take us a few minutes to settle in.
Don’t feel like your baby is on a timer and needs to be asleep by a certain time. Follow his lead, and look at his time awake in the crib as an opportunity to self soothe.
7. Feed your baby after waking up
Once I realized how quickly my baby fell asleep from nursing, I fed him to sleep every time. But then I ran into a problem: he’d only fall asleep with nursing (and rocking). I created a habit that made it hard to put him to sleep in other ways.
Then I learned about feeding a baby after he wakes up. Giving milk no longer became an external sleep aid he needed to fall asleep. He was less likely to wake up mid-nap crying for milk.
Feeding him after waking up encouraged him to find different ways to sleep, such as sucking, rocking his head side to side, even cooing. He had the energy to play during awake time and was able to digest while he was awake, reducing the chances of gas and digestive issues during sleep.
The only times I would feed and expect my babies to sleep afterward was at night, starting with the bedtime milk. That said, I still encouraged them to fall asleep drowsy but awake by making sure they didn’t sleep during a feeding.
8. Give your baby a comfort item
I was able to encourage my kids to self soothe with a little help from their lovies.
Comfort items like lovies help kids adjust to difficult situations, including being away from us. When I first heard about lovies, I googled and found this popular one on Amazon that had raving reviews.
Well, you can add me to that list.
All three kids have taken to their lovies. They held and found comfort in their special toys and associated sleep with their lovies. To this day, their lovies offer the familiarity they can always rely on.
What age can you apply these tips?
This article is geared toward young babies in the early infant stage. Habits like establishing a routine and feeding your baby after waking up can start from day one.
Make the tips a “first attempt.” For instance, try to lay your baby down drowsy but awake. If it doesn’t work, then continue with the methods you know will help him sleep. But at least give it a try and allow your child the chance to self soothe in different ways first.
Find a balance of giving your child an opportunity to try with helping him when it gets too tough. Don’t focus on minutes but instead on not panicking or dropping everything to rush to your baby the second he cries.
It’s okay to finish washing the bowl you had in your hands or help your toddler with using the potty before determining why your baby is crying.
The younger the baby, the more dependent he is on you for everything. But as he grows up, you may be able to follow a sleep training program to help him sleep through the night. (Ask your pediatrician when he’s ready.) These tips are about establishing the habits that make sleep easier in the meantime.
By now, you’ve learned that helping your baby self soothe is possible, especially when you start with the right mindset. That sometimes the biggest hurdle is our own desire to squash our babies’ frustrations.
Try different techniques to help him self soothe. Finish what you were doing before checking in, or leave his arms unswaddled so he can suck on his hands. Put him down drowsy but awake and feed him after he wakes up, not before.
And you need to trust that he can do it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for your baby try to self soothe. We don’t like to see our kids frustrated, no matter their age. But you need to believe that your baby can self soothe—or at the least, give him the chance to try.
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.
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