What is it?
Self-settling is a term used to describe the ability to go from awake to asleep without assistance. It often carries negative connotations, evoking images of parents leaving their baby alone in a cot to cry themselves to sleep. This is just one misunderstanding surrounding modern day 'sleep training'. Self-settling does not mean that you don't comfort your child or respond to their cries. It involves teaching your baby an important skill that will improve their sleep quality and quantity. On average, infants who are able to self-settle take longer naps and sleep longer overnight. Sleep is essential for brain development, immunity, growth, memory and mood - just to name a few. A well-rested baby is a happy baby (and this in turn equals a happy mumma!).
Why would I teach my baby to self-settle?
At around 4 months of age, infant sleep cycles go through a major permanent change. Instead of drifting from one sleep cycle to the next, they begin to wake fully between sleep cycles. ALL babies will go through this change, and this means ALL babies will go through a catnapping stage and wake frequently overnight. The way babies fall asleep at the start of naps and bedtime plays an important role in their sleep from this point forward, as if you are assisting them to sleep they will likely require this same method of assistance in order to go back to sleep each time they wake.
It can therefore become problematic when babies rely on a parent-controlled sleep association to fall asleep such as feeding or rocking, as when they wake after a sleep cycle they will often need you to once again feed or rock them back to sleep. Moving away from these parent-controlled sleep associations and teaching your baby to fall asleep independently will mean that they can go back to sleep without your assistance when they wake.
It is also important to also consider your own emotional wellbeing. Sleep deprivation and continual exhaustion can take a mental and physical toll; it can impact relationships and work, and detract from your ability to enjoy your baby. You may have reached your tolerance threshold or feel that the way things are going is unsustainable. You are NOT a bad parent for wanting to teach your baby how to self-settle, and also take care of your own sleep needs once your baby is past the newborn stage. You are also NOT a bad parent if you want to continue rocking or feeding your baby to sleep. If you and your baby are happy and healthy, and what you are doing is working for you and your family then you don’t have to change a thing.
When can I teach my baby to self-settle?
Babies are physiologically and developmentally capable of learning how to self-settle from around 4 months old, but most will need assistance to get there. Instead of just falling asleep, babies will need to learn how to put themselves to sleep, which becomes an active process after around this age. Learning to fall asleep independently takes time, practice & repetition just like learning any other skill, and patience and perseverance on your part.
How can I teach my baby to self-settle?
If you are trying to introduce some independence around sleep, put your baby in their cot drowsy but awake as often as you can to provide more opportunities and practice for self-settling. It is important to be prepared for some protesting as if your baby is accustomed to being assisted all the way to sleep it is likely that anything less than this will be met with some resistance. You have to work within your comfort levels and if you are feeling too overwhelmed or stressed please do what you need to do to get your baby to sleep. There is no specific age that your baby needs to be self-settling by; but generally speaking the earlier they learn the easier it should be, as they probably don't have months of really well established habits to break. There are many different settling techniques that do not involve the 'cry-it-out' sleep training method, so it will be a matter of finding one that feels right for you and that your baby responds best to. But that's a topic for another blog...
Important considerations for self-settling
Babies under 4 months aren't capable of truly self-settling. It is perfectly fine and sometimes necessary to assist your newborn all the way to sleep. Don't worry about creating any bad habits at this age and soak up those newborn cuddles. You can instead focus on setting up solid sleep foundations like a relaxing wind-down routine, and positive sleep associations such as a dark room, white noise, swaddle or sleeping bag.This way when you decide to start with self-settling, all you will need to change is the amount of assistance you are providing.
From 4 months onwards is a great time to slowly begin introducing some independence around sleep. If you are feeling overwhelmed you can choose to start with just one nap per day, and if you have no success, move on and try again next time!
You can expect some protesting as babies get used to any changes.
Make sure you are nailing those awake windows as babies find it difficult to settle and fall asleep if they are not tired enough, or overtired.
Make sure your baby isn't hungry, as this will make it difficult for them to settle. Consider a top-up feed before their long naps.
Self-settling doesn't equal leaving your baby to cry to the point of psychological harm. You can be gentle and responsive to your child's needs, whilst setting them up for great sleep now and in their future.
If you and your baby are ready to begin working towards independent sleep but you don’t know where to start, please reach out. I am here to help!
Better sleep is coming...
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