Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Self-settling. This is a term most of us mums are familiar with. It is a somewhat infamous term when it comes to babies, their sleep maturation and the ability for your wee one to sleep well or through the night. It is a term that is often misunderstood and sometimes even associated with hard-out regimented cry-it-out sleep training.
We’d like to share some information with you around exactly what “self-settling” means, the science behind your baby’s sleep behaviour and how you can manage this phase in your baby’s development.
Self-settling refers to your baby’s ability to be able to go from awake and alert to sound asleep, without any help from you. Just like how you go to sleep at night.
At this point I would like to say that we by no means advocate that your baby MUST be able to self-settle at any particular age - each of us has our own tolerance level in terms of sleep and if you are happy feeding or rocking your baby to sleep then we are absolutely not here to question your parenting decisions. You are not going to ruin your baby’s life if you don’t teach them to self-settle until they’re a bit older or until they naturally do it themselves. I can assure you that no 5-year-olds need to be rocked to sleep all through the night! But some of us, myself 100% included, have very low breaking points when it comes to sleep and if you’re in the same boat as me you will want to be doing everything you can to ensure your baby (and you) are sleeping well! I learnt early on in my parenting that I am a sleeper - I need a lot of sleep in order to function on any acceptable level. My husband, IRONICALLY, is an insomniac and able to function on far less sleep than me. It was super important to our family, to my mental well-being, to our relationship, to my parenting, that I was getting sleep.
If you’re in the first boat and happy to go with the flow sleep-wise, this blog probably isn’t for you. If however, you have reached the point where you’ve said “OK, enough is enough, where do I go from here?”, or if you’re simply curious as to what this magic “self-settling” phrase means, then READ ON!
Self-settling really only becomes an issue around the 4 month mark and beyond. Up until 3 months, we think you're fine to settle your baby to sleep if needed or overtired, while at the same time fostering good sleep habits by using a super dark room, loud white noise (get our Perfect Shhh - honestly, it's amazing!), swaddle or baby sleeping bag. The idea is that once you set up those perfect positive sleep associations you will only be removing one of them - your assistance - when your baby needs to learn to self-settle. They will still have all those other things to positively associate with sleep, so it will be a lot easier for them than implementing a complete and total change to what they're used to. If your older baby is needing to learn to self-settle, using these tools is a crucial starting element.
If you have read our blog on the 4 month sleep regression you will know how a baby’s sleep changes at around the 4 month mark. The part of their brain responsible for sleep matures in a way that means they begin to fully wake between sleep cycles rather than drift through sleep cycles like they did as younger babies. This can mean your baby catnaps in the day (35-45 minute naps) and/or wakes every 2 hours overnight. Until your baby can COMPLETELY settle themselves to sleep, without patting, rocking or feeding, they will continue to catnap and wake every couple of hours in the night once they hit 4 months of age and beyond because they will be looking for your help to go back to sleep every time. For a baby who has been encouraged to find their own sleep from a younger age, or been following our Sleep Programs for a while, you could well coast through this stage in your baby's development. Older babies will need more help.
[VIDEO: "How do I teach self-settling without crying or using the cry-it-out method?"]
We need to remember that over 4 months, the skill of self-settling becomes a cognitive ability and is something your baby needs to be guided to do, with consistency and perseverance. There are many methods out there, everything from leaving your baby to cry all night long (which we would never advocate) to gradually reducing your presence or assistance night by night. We have several gentle methods (which vary according to your baby’s current sleep dependency and age) in our Sleep Programs.
Like learning to read, self-settling is a skill that doesn't simply develop overnight. It is something completely new for babies and they need a process of coaching, consistency and the chance to learn to do it themselves. Us giving in and continuing to settle them at the first grizzle means we’re denying them the chance to work on this new skill; we’re not doing them any favours in the long run.
If you are in the middle of or contemplating some gentle coaching with your baby, it helps to remind ourselves that we are providing them with a crucial skill set that will mean they are able to sleep well for years to come; something that is vital to their growth and development AND at the same time we are investing in our own sleep needs, for the benefit of our mental and emotional well-being as mummies.
Key things to remember when approaching self-settling:
- babies under 3 months aren't capable of any sort of "traditional sleep training" - the best you can do is to encourage good sleep habits at this age
- from 4 months you can gently begin to guide your baby to self-settling
- you can expect a bit of protesting as babies get used to these new skills
- a baby who is overtired or under tired will find it really hard to learn to self-settle (take the guesswork out of when your baby actually needs sleep with our Sleep Programs)
- consistency is absolutely key - don't give your baby mixed messages by allowing them to self-settle some of the time then settling them other times
- a dark room, white noise, swaddle (for babies under 5 months) or baby sleeping bag are excellent positive sleep associations which greatly help your baby's chances of learning this new skill
- a hungry baby won't settle no matter what you do
- have high expectations of your little one and work hard to achieve them
Luckily babies are quick learners, meaning they’ll form new habits really fast and, depending on which process you’re using (and their age), your baby can learn the valuable new skill of self-settling in under a week - it really is up to you!
Paul IM, Savage JS, Anzman-Frasca S, Marini ME, Mindell JA, Birch LL. INSIGHT Responsive Parenting Intervention and Infant Sleep. Pediatrics. 2016 Jul;138(1). pii: e20160762. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-0762. PubMed PMID: 27354460; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4925087.
St James-Roberts I, Roberts M, Hovish K, Owen C. Video Evidence That Infants Can Resettle Themselves Back to Sleep After Waking in the Night, as well as Sleep for Long Periods, by 3 Months of Age. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2015 Jun;36(5):324-9. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000166. PubMed PMID: 26035139; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4459553.
Dewar, G. (2008-2014). Baby sleep patterns: A guide for the science-minded. Retrieved from Parenting Science: http:// www.parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-patterns.html
de Weerth, C., R.H. Zijl, and J.K. Buitelaar. Development of cortisol circadian rhythm in infancy. Early Hum Dev. 73(1-2): p. 39-52. 2003.
Gunnar, M.R., N.M. Talge, and A. Herrera. Stressor paradigms in developmental studies: what does and does not work to produce mean increases in salivary cortisol. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 34(7): p. 953-67. 2009.