Teaching your baby how to self-soothe is an important milestone that can help them fall asleep independently and self-settle when they wake in the night. While some babies seem to pick up self-soothing skills on their own, others need a bit of guidance from parents to learn how to calm themselves. Here are some tips on how to teach your baby how to self-soothe:
What is self-soothing?
Self-soothing refers to your baby’s ability to calm themselves down and fall asleep without needing external assistance like rocking, feeding, or pacifiers. Babies aren’t born knowing how to self-soothe – it’s a skill they develop over time. Self-soothing skills include:
- Sucking on hands or fingers
- Finding a comforting position, like fetal position
- Making soothing noises like cooing or heavy breathing
- Reaching for or touching a security object like a blanket or stuffed animal
- Moving in a rhythmic or repetitive way, like rocking side to side
Babies who can self-soothe are able to put themselves to sleep independently at bedtime and go back to sleep on their own when they wake up at night. Teaching self-soothing helps babies learn to rely on themselves to meet their own needs.
When can you start teaching self-soothing skills?
Most experts recommend starting to teach self-soothing skills around 3-4 months old. However, every baby is different. Signs your baby may be ready to start learning to self-soothe include:
- Falling asleep easily when rocked, nursed, or walked but waking up as soon as you put them down
- Waking frequently overnight and needing help resettling
- Seeming frustrated when they can’t get themselves back to sleep
- Sucking on hands/fingers when upset or tired
If your baby is under 4 months, focus on responding quickly to their needs. Once they reach 3-4 months, you can start implementing self-soothing techniques.
Tips for teaching your baby to self-soothe
Here are some tips to help your baby learn to self-soothe and fall asleep independently:
Establish a bedtime routine
A consistent, soothing bedtime routine signals to your baby it’s time to wind down and sleep. Try to do the same sequence of activities in the same order each night. Things like a warm bath, massage, pyjamas, story, song and hugs/kisses are great bedtime routine activities.
Put baby down awake
Rock or nurse your baby until they are drowsy but still awake, then put them down in their crib. This helps them learn to fall asleep in their crib without being rocked fully to sleep. Stay nearby and gently reassure them if they get upset.
Use transitional objects
Introduce a special blanket, stuffed animal or musical toy. These transitional objects can help comfort your baby when you are not right beside them.
Do checks at increasing intervals
When your baby cries, wait a minute or two before responding. Continue to increase the waiting period between checks as they learn to self-soothe for longer. Brief, loving checks reassure your baby without undoing their self-soothing progress.
Pay attention to wake windows
Ensure your baby isn’t overtired when you put them down. At 3-4 months, your baby’s awake periods are usually 1-1.5 hours. Adjust as needed if they seem overtired or undertired.
Use white noise
White noise like a running fan, ambient noise machine or shushing can help calm your baby. The key is keeping the volume consistent and not too loud.
Swaddle during early training
Many babies find swaddling comforting. You can transition out of the swaddle as your baby gets better at self-soothing hand movement doesn’t wake them up.
Let your baby suck on a pacifier or their fingers/thumb if needed for comfort. This sucking instinct is very calming for newborns.
Troubleshooting common self-soothing problems
Implementing self-soothing techniques doesn’t always go smoothly. Here are some common challenges and how to handle them:
Baby gets angry or upset
It’s normal for your baby to protest when you put them down awake or resist soothing themselves. Stay calm and consistent – with time, your baby will learn self-soothing skills.
Self-soothing takes a while
Some babies take weeks or months to really get the hang of self-soothing. Have realistic expectations and stick with it. Progress will come!
Baby keeps crying after checks
Increase the waiting period between checks gradually as your baby learns to self-soothe for longer. If they work themselves up too much, you may need to intervene and then try again later.
Sleep associations developed
If your baby relies on nursing, rocking, etc. to fall asleep, they won’t have learned to self-soothe. Work on putting them down awake and letting them fall asleep independently.
It’s normal for sleep training progress to go backwards sometimes, like during leap weeks or illness. Stay consistent and keep working on self-soothing skills.
While the tips above are very effective for teaching self-soothing, here are a few other options you could try:
With approaches like the Pick Up/Put Down method, you let your baby set the pace. Follow their cues for when they need support versus space to try self-soothing.
No Tears methods
No Tears methods like the Sleep Lady Shuffle focus on progressively moving away from your baby while reassuring them you are still present.
This method involves sitting by your baby’s crib while they fall asleep, then moving your chair further and further away each night.
Instead of checks based on crying, give checks at scheduled 5, 10 or 15 minute intervals to reassure your baby as they learn to self-soothe.
Many parents worry about teaching self-soothing. Here are some common concerns and how to handle them:
Letting baby “cry it out”
No Tears methods and graduated extinction ensure you respond to all of your baby’s needs. Self-soothing techniques should never involve leaving your baby to cry endlessly.
It will damage our bond
Responding consistently to your baby’s needs builds trust and attachment. Brief periods of supported independent sleep enhance your bond.
My baby will feel abandoned
Frequent check-ins and reassurance ensure your baby feels safe and knows you are still present while they learn self-soothing skills.
It’s harmful for development
There is no evidence sleep training impacts development or attachment when implemented respectfully. Quality sleep is crucial for babies’ growth.
I should always soothe my baby
Self-soothing is an essential life skill. You are teaching your baby to rely on themselves, not depriving them of care.
My baby will never sleep without me
With time and consistency, babies can learn to self-soothe. Have patience – independent sleep will come!
What if self-soothing isn’t working?
If you’ve worked on self-soothing consistently for 2-4 weeks without much progress, some next steps are:
- Troubleshoot your techniques – are you putting baby down awake and using check-ins?
- Consider outside help from your pediatrician, sleep consultant or support group.
- Rule out any medical issues like reflux or allergies interfering.
- Adjust your timing and go back to basics – are wake windows age appropriate?
- Try a different self-soothing approach like Pick Up/Put Down.
- Accept and accommodate if chronic poor sleep runs in your family.
With time, troubleshooting and support, your baby can learn to be an independent sleeper.
Setting your baby up for self-soothing success
Here are some key tips for setting your baby up for success with self-soothing:
- Start early, around 3-4 months old
- Be extremely consistent with timing and techniques
- Ensure needs are met during the day – full, clean and stimulated
- Use an age appropriate, soothing bedtime routine
- Allow time for progress – it may take weeks or months
- Remain calm, responsive and loving through the process
- Troubleshoot challenges compassionately and promptly
- Lean on your partner and supports during difficult periods
With time, patience and consistency, your baby can learn to reliably self-soothe and become an independent sleeper.
Teaching your baby to self-soothe is an important process that leads to independent sleep. Start between 3-4 months using loving but firm techniques like putting baby down awake and check-ins. Consistency, troubleshooting challenges promptly and allowing time for skill development are key. While self-soothing can be challenging, the payoff is an amazing sleeper. Have realistic expectations, respond to all of your baby’s needs and you’ll see self-soothing progress!