You’ve rocked your baby to sleep. Sung them to sleep. Breast- or bottle-fed them to sleep. You’ve felt like your hands were about to fall off as you rubbed their back until they fell asleep.
You’re an expert at sending your baby to dreamland, but after months of perfecting this skill, you’re wondering: How long until baby can do it on their own? Is there any way to speed up the process?
When your little one is able to self-soothe themselves to sleep, it’s a big deal. While every baby is different and no one solution will work for everyone, we’ve compiled some tips to help make the process as quick and easy as possible.
Many parents start noticing their infant demonstrating self-soothing behaviors by 3 to 4 months. By 6 months, most infants are capable of going 8+ hours without needing a feed in the night, so it’s an ideal time to encourage them to self-soothe themselves to sleep — and back to sleep if they wake up.
It’s usually best to encourage self-soothing behaviors before separation anxiety kicks in full force, around 8 to 9 months. It can be hard for your little one to learn to soothe themselves back to sleep when they’re already worried about being separated from their favorite adults.
There are many benefits to creating routines around going to sleep. Even when they’re simple — like reading a book, singing a song, or taking a bath — sleep routines can provide the body with the signal that it’s time to relax and go to sleep.
Sleep routines also provide consistency. Consistency is key in helping children to know how to respond to situations. Even if they’re not able to understand the words being spoken to them yet, a young baby can learn from consistent cues when they’re expected to go to sleep.
Because of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) risk, you don’t want to leave blankets, pillows, and toys in your child’s crib during the first year of their life. (When in doubt if something can safely be left in your child’s crib, contact their pediatrician.)
But if your child is older, a soft toy or blanket that they’ve created an attachment to can offer an anchor to help with self-soothing themselves back to sleep.
If your child isn’t yet old enough for a stuffed animal or lovie to be in their crib with them, a pacifier can help the self-soothing process.
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Additionally, to help prevent SIDS, a slightly cool environment is considered better than a warm one.
Like sleep routines, the use of consistent sleep times can teach the body to expect sleep. Body rhythms can be trained to align with going to sleep at specific times — and this can help your child to feel sleepy at the exact time you want them to fall asleep. There are benefits to not only having a bedtime routine, but also a bed time!
If your baby is falling asleep while drinking from the bottle or breast, they aren’t actually self-soothing or learning to self-soothe. By moving the bedtime feeding session to a slightly earlier part of the bedtime routine, you can encourage your little one to learn to self-soothe while still ensuring they get enough food.
Although this is a fairly simple change to most sleep routines, it can lead to some upset crying as your child is required to find other ways to soothe themselves asleep.
Particularly in the beginning, you may need to stand next to the crib offering verbal assurances — or even the occasional back rub — as your child learns to self-soothe without the aid of liquids and full body human contact.
Once your baby is overtired, it can be difficult to convince them to finish the last few ounces from their bottle or not cry out in distress about every change in their environment.
For many reasons, their ability to control their emotions and self-soothe will be greatly reduced if they’re too exhausted. (Even as adults, it’s easy to fall apart and lack self-control when we’re overtired!)
By anticipating your baby’s needs instead of reacting to them, your child will be prepped for success. They’ll be more likely to end the evening in a happy mood, which will make it easier to fall and stay asleep on their own without assistance.
Ideally, baby falls asleep in their crib and remains in their crib when they wake up in the middle of the night.
If your child falls asleep in your arms — which, we admit, is one of the sweetest things ever — and is then transported to the crib, they’ll rouse to an environment different than the one they fell asleep in. This can be jarring and lead to distress that makes it harder to self-soothe back to sleep.
And keep in mind that even fairly young children can fall into habits. If the habit they learn is falling asleep in the crib, this will aid with self-soothing.
So when putting your baby to bed, put them into their crib in a drowsy, but not-yet-asleep state. This will give them time to adjust to the environment of the crib as they finish falling asleep.
If your child wakes in the middle of the night and you would like to acknowledge them, talk or sing softly to them or lightly pat them while they remain in the crib. This can aid them in falling back to sleep — without having them fall asleep on you.
Although your child may be able to fall asleep in an unsafe sleeping position or location, they should never be left alone unsupervised in a place that is less than 100 percent safe.
If you want your child to be able to self-soothe without you present, it’s essential that they be put to sleep in safe locations and in safe ways. Rockers, car seats, swings, and other devices aren’t the same as cribs. Babies shouldn’t be left asleep alone in these locations.
You’ve decided that you want your baby to be able to soothe themselves back to sleep, and you’re prepared to make some modifications to your current routine so your baby can learn to sleep on their own. Good for you!
As one last step before you begin, you may want to touch base with your child’s doctor. They’ll be able to advise you further.
And as you look forward to the nights when your child doesn’t need you to fall back asleep, also remember to enjoy the current midnight cuddles. Sometime in the near future, you’ll be missing them!