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Oh Joy / 8 Tips to Encourage Self-Soothing

We've finally crossed over that 3 month newborn hump where things are starting to fall into place a little better over here. I'm still tired and haven't slept a full night in three months, but I can see the light at the end of the sleepy tunnel as Coco gradually sleeps for longer stretches at night.

I'm always hesitant to talk about sleep training because even the phrase "sleep training" can stir up so much controversy between parents who believe in cry-it-out vs. the no cry method vs. co-sleepers vs. independent sleepers and every variation of parenting or sleeping style in between. With Coco being our second, Bob and I knew how we'd do things differently (and implement things sooner) with Coco this time around...

(click below to read more)

I read a lot of sleep books when Ruby was a newborn, and while I learned a lot, you sort of have to know what style of sleep method you're planning on implementing to make them really helpful. You go into it knowing what you generally believe in and then let the book be your guide. I recently read the new book, The Happy Sleeper, by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright. And what's different about this book is that they discuss sleep on a larger level and give tips that you can implement regardless of your parenting/sleeping style. I found it super helpful as I was starting all over again with teaching my second baby how to sleep. For me, the way they talk about self-soothing made so much sense. In the same way that you might wake up in the middle of the night—but then quickly go right back to sleep—babies need to be given a chance to learn how to do that, too.

I asked the authors to share some highlights with you guys as I found this book to be extra helpful when I was putting Coco on a nap schedule over the holiday break. Since then, she is able to fall asleep on her own and self-soothe herself back to sleep. We know when she's ready to take a nap and get her to sleep before she gets over-tired and overly cranky. No more rocking, no more hours of fussiness. It used to take an hour or two before Coco would finally settle down for the night, and we now have both kids in bed around 7:30-8pm every night. We simply swaddle her up, give her a paci (which she sometimes just spits out), she makes some sounds for a bit, but then she's able to fall asleep on her own within 5-10 minutes. The key in making every aspect of her sleep better was teaching her to self-soothe.

Here's an adaptation of my favorite part of the book which gives some quick tips on helping your baby learn how to self-soothe...

Oh Joy / 8 Tips to Encourage Self-Soothing

Helping Your Baby Become an Expert Little Sleeper

Here’s a question for moms and dads of little ones: Which babies wake up more at night, the “good” sleepers or the “bad” sleepers?

The answer is they’re the same! Both groups stir and wake multiple times a night (just like we do). The “good” sleepers just know how to self soothe, so we don’t hear from them. They open their eyes slightly, roll into a comfy position, maybe tuck their loveys under their chins, and drift back…

It’s no surprise then, that self-soothing is a really important sleep skill for your baby, both now and in the future. Many sleep problems for children of all ages (preschoolers and school age kids too) have to do with trouble self-soothing, so it’s great to understand and support this ability early on.


How Self –Soothing Develops

Newborns need a lot of soothing from us—remember they have been nestled, carried, and bounced naturally for nine months. In fact, the “vestibular” sense, or the sense of motion, is one of the very first senses a fetus develops (at just 10 weeks after conception—when baby is still smaller than a fig!), so she has spent almost all of her precious little life feeling your movements. The first few months are also the time when soothing and responding to baby’s cues is essential. As you do this, your baby builds trust in you; as she builds trust, she will naturally feel more relaxed. Babies who feel this security will explore more, develop naturally, and become more independent over time.

Gradually, your baby will go from needing a lot of external soothing (shushing, rocking, and so forth), to taking over this job herself. When she starts to self-soothe, she might do this by tucking her legs up, moving her head from side to side, or making little noises to get comfortable—whatever she figures out as her own personal technique. It’s really sweet to see babies find their special ways of self-soothing. 

As the parent of a newborn, you get to watch this process unfold. As you nestle with her, pat, feed, and bounce her, you can also look for chances to let her flex her budding sleep skills. The following tips will help you with this goal.


8 Tips to Encourage Self-Soothing

1. Follow your baby, not a schedule. Little babies aren’t built to follow a schedule. They have their own little patterns (like becoming drowsy after 90 minutes of awake time) and feeding frequently. Hang in there and allow for your baby’s natural biological rhythms to mature. It takes about 5 or 6 months for most babies to mature enough to sleep through the night (if they wake to feed after this age, most are able to self-soothe and fall back to sleep after the feeding rather than being rocked and fed into a deep sleep).

2. Put your baby down awake. Make it a goal to put your baby down awake at least once a day. A major reason babies wake up and cry is because they find themselves in a sleeping place they didn’t go into knowingly. Every baby is different, though, so don’t worry if yours can’t fall asleep on her own yet—she will get there! Some parents find it takes many months of practice to encourage this skill.

3. Loosen the feeding-sleep association. Gently remove breast or bottle at the end of a feeding before baby falls asleep. You can repeat this over and over until your baby is comfortable falling asleep without feeding. It can take persistence!

4. Discern your baby’s sounds. Babies are super noisy! If your baby is fussing, whining, grunting, squawking, babbling, (in other words, not truly crying), resist the urge to swoop in! Babies make all kinds of sounds on their way to self-soothing.

5. Use the “Soothing Ladder” to avoid over-helping. If your baby wakes up at night and cries for about a minute, be curious about the least intrusive thing you can do to settle her. Briefly try the sound of your voice, a gentle pat, or reinserting the pacifier before going straight to feeding. If you do this repeatedly, your baby has space to show you when she’s ready for less help from you.

6. Daytime independence.  Look for moments during the day when your baby is happy to hang out solo. What better way to nurture confidence and self-regulation. If she's alone and playing with her hands or staring at shadows on the wall, don't feel like you need to entertain her.

7. Transitional object.  Also known as a lovey or blankie, this is a soft, special object your baby can use to help her self soothe.

8. Tummy time.  Tummy time is important for your baby’s sleep. Once she can roll and move (usually around 4 months), your baby has skills for getting comfy and sleeping well – being able to move and choose her own sleeping position will be a huge benefit to her when it comes to sleeping through the night.

-- Adapted from The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age, by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright. (Tarcher/Penguin Random House, December 2014)

{Top photo from our newborn photo session by Luke & Katherine of Max and Friends, bottom photo by Oh Joy}