Teaching a Baby to Self Soothe
It’s the age old advice that you get when you first have a baby, and something that you strive for with each nap and bedtime. Being able to put your baby down in the crib, completely awake, eyes wide open, and walk away. You can close the door, go downstairs, and have that much deserved cup of coffee all alone! Sounds glorious right?!? It is possible and most babies are capable of doing it pretty early on. So what’s the secret trick? No secret, just a lot of work on our end.
The first thing that you have to look out for is an appropriate awake time. This is something that is constantly changing with age, so it’s important that the awake windows are appropriate for the baby’s age. Awake time is how long a baby can stay awake before needing to take a nap. A 6 week old baby can only stay awake for about 45 minutes on average, and that includes feeding time! So aim for naps to be about 45 minutes after a baby wakes up. For a 6 month old, it’s more like 2 – 2.5 hours.
The second most important thing is to create a consistent and soothing bedtime routine. You can also do this for naps, just have it be a shortened version since you’ll be doing it multiple times a day. It can be as simple as walking into the nursery, swaddling, and placing down in the crib. Or you can do an extended routine at bedtime with a bath, massage, story, lullaby, etc. It doesn’t matter so much what you put into the routine, what matters is that you are doing the same sequence of events, EVERY SINGLE TIME. Although mundane to us, it creates a secure environment for your baby, as they can count on the routine happening the same each time. Consistency pays off because eventually simply doing the bedtime routine in and of itself will make the baby feel tired.
If your baby is used to falling asleep while nursing or getting a bottle, then you’ll want to break that feed to sleep association. The easiest way to do this is move their feeding session from the end of the routine to the beginning of the routine. If your normal routine is: bath-jammies-feed-bed, then you change that to feed-bath-jammies-bed. When baby is having a really hard time staying awake during feedings, take them into a brightly lit room for the feed, and remove the nipple from their mouth each time their eyes roll back and they are about to fall sleep. This sends a clear message that feeding and sleeping don’t go together.
Place your baby in their crib completely awake, not drowsy. This is the scariest part, but with practice the baby will catch on and it will work. When they’re in the first few weeks of life, just wait and see what they will do. Depending on their temperament, they may be happy to be alone in their crib, or start screaming bloody murder – but we won’t know until we try. Build up the time from there.
Pick a behavioral training method that you’re comfortable with and stay consistent with it. Avoid trying a method for 1-2 nights, giving up, and trying another one right away because you end up feeling like nothing works. If you feel confused about what is happening, imagine how your baby feels! Some methods involve baby being on their own in their sleep space, while others will have you be present and then systematically faded out. All of the methods out there are effective, so long as you stay consistent.
Lastly, make sure their sleep environment is on point. It’s hard to settle down and feel calm if your environment is out of whack. Blackout curtains (think of a Vegas hotel room) where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, white noise (pure static that doesn’t shut off the whole night/nap), cool temperature (68-72 degrees), air flow, and neutral colors are the main components to a calm nursery.
Remember that it takes time! Don’t expect your newborn or infant to figure it out immediately. Coach them along the way and be flexible in how they soothe. Some babies will suck their thumb, play with their hair, rub their feet on the mattress, chew on their lovey, or even tap their head against a wall. These are all normal self-soothing techniques and if your baby can find theirs, go with it and don’t look back!