Learning how to teach a baby to self-soothe not only helps your child’s development, it has benefits for moms and dads too.
In fact, there are certain behaviors that every parent wants their child to learn as quickly as possible, and how to self-soothe is one of them. While many parents get just as much emotional reward from the soothing process as the child, there will come a time when your child will need to settle themselves down without your assistance or needing to breastfeed to sleep. This is a natural step in child development that will prepare your little one to survive the world even when you’re at work, out on a date, traveling or simply trying to sleep through the night.
There will come a time to resist the urge to rush in an breastfeed your sweet baby back to sleep immediately. Why? One of the key factors that determines whether a baby (and as a toddler!) will sleep through the night is whether or not she learns to self-soothe within the first 6 months (Goodling-Jones, 2001.) Babies who do not develop these coping mechanisms by one year, often have the issue persist into toddlerhood and preschool which is not fun for them or mom and dad!
Common Baby Self-Soothing Strategies Include:
- Sucking thumb, fingers or fist
- Sucking a pacifier
- Holding hands at his or her belly
- Rubbing eyes
- Snuggling a blanket or soft toy
- Rocking head from side-to-side
- Humming or cooing
- Rubbing hair
- Stroking a tag of a toy or blanket between the fingers.
What Age Can Baby’s Start Self-Soothing?
There is no predetermined time that dictates when your child should learn to self-soothe. Every child has their own temperament and personal needs, and some will cling to their caregivers longer than others. Watching the personality of each child develop is part of the fun of parenting, but it also gives you some flexibility when making timeline decisions for your baby.
You should pay attention to how well your baby naturally self-soothes for short periods of time when given a stuffed animal, pacifier or another object of comfort. You may notice that your child is naturally more independent and seems to settle down quite well with or without your help much of the time. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need you or that you won’t have to work to achieve a higher level of self-soothing behavior, but it is a good sign that the job may not be as hard as you expected.
As a general guideline, Dr. Sears recommends encouraging a baby to self-soothe around the six- to nine-month mark (Parenting, 2005). Others say it is possible as early as 4 months, but depends on your baby’s temperament.
This is a wide range in terms of baby development, but that’s because every baby develops a bit differently. If your child has special needs that may prevent him or her from self-soothing before they turn one, keep that in mind when timing this type of training. The right time is ultimately determined by your baby not a professional’s guideline, but your doctor is a great resource for help if you’re uncertain.
Benefits of Teaching Baby to Self-Soothe
1. If your baby can learn to self-soothe from a light-sleep state, he or she can settle back into a deeper sleep and be more rested, sleep for longer periods and when appropriate, he’ll also sleep through the night. (YAY!!!)
2. Your baby will be able to manage his or her mood better when playing or learning a new skill.
3. He or she will remain settled longer and be easier to parent without constant intervention!
4. Long term, babies who can soothe themselves are more likely to grow into toddlers who manage their emotions better, have less anxiety and fewer tantrums. (Goodling-Jones, 2001.)
5. If baby is happier and more rested…you will be too!
Effective Strategies to Teach Self-Soothing
The simplest way to encourage a baby to self-settle is to stop responding immediately when they send out any sign of distress. Parents naturally rush to their baby when they hear a cry or whimper in those first few months, but you will eventually learn to recognize a serious cry that demands attention and less urgent sounds that indicate your baby just needs a bit of comfort or reassuring.
Babies naturally learn to send out those whimpers and cries whenever they need anything at all. It is their way of communicating, but your goal now is to teach them that being picked up or rocked isn’t the only response that they may receive.
You can respond to those less serious sounds with vocal recognition rather than immediately picking the baby up. You may ask them what’s wrong, tell them that you’re finishing up with the laundry and will be right there, or that you know he’s hungry and you’re be there to nurse shortly. The sound of your voice may be enough comfort to delay picking your baby up, and you’re taking the first step to giving your baby the skill of self-soothing.
This tends to work particularly well during the day when you are within sight of your baby, and you can work to go longer periods of time before your baby demands physical contact with you. In addition to this, there are other strategies that you may use to teach self-soothing. Here is a quick list that covers some of the most effective options:
1. Take advantage of toys that your baby can safely manipulate without help. Save a couple of your child’s favorites for those moments of upset, and then hand it to them when they start to get upset. As long as they don’t have a serious need like a dirty diaper or an empty tummy, you may find that the right toy is just enough distraction for them to go back to a state of happiness.
2. Don’t rush in immediately every time. One of the most helpful things to teach them to sooth themselves is to simply respond slower than you may have in the past. For instance, if you hear your baby rustling around in bed and fussing a little….don’t rush in. Let him or her have a chance to settle first. If you rush in immediately, you don’t offer them a chance to just settle without help. Often they can do it already…they just needed the opportunity!
3. If you mainly want your baby to self-soothe when going to sleep, start transitioning from your arms to their bassinet, crib, swing or other sleeping area a bit earlier each day or perhaps every couple of days. Most parents know the joy of watching their baby fall asleep in their arms and then trying to smoothly stand up, lay the baby down, and tiptoe out of the room.
Your goal is to move to the second step of that process a little earlier, and then a little earlier, until he or she is comfortable being put down immediately after eating if necessary. These small steps are less stressful to your child than suddenly being put down wide awake and left to cry. They gradually adjust to subtle changes, and with time, they become an independent soother.
Pay close attention to your baby to determine how long you should wait before taking the next step in this process. Some babies respond rather quickly while others may require days or weeks to accept each small change in their routine. Working with your baby’s temperament is key to making this method work.
4. Safely provide toys and other comfort items that your baby may latch onto in the crib. You don’t want to place stuffed animals, loose blankets, or toys in the crib until your baby is at least one year of age, so this typically means toys and soft comforts that can securely attach to the edge of the crib. If there is any chance that your baby can get the item loose or get tangled in loose or flowing pieces, it isn’t safe for the crib.
Some parents even carry these items around occasionally so that they pass their scent onto the comfort item. This gives the baby the sense of having the parent around even when they aren’t physically there.
Keep in mind that soothing items can entertain any of the senses, so it’s not all about touching a soft blankie or smelling something familiar. A small mirror that allows your baby to see himself can entertain your little one, and there’s a reason so many musical mobiles are sold for over-the-crib use. You may have to try several items until you find something that your baby likes, or you may have to wait until your baby is old enough to understand the value of these items.
5. Stop swaddling your baby. Wrapping your little one up into a soft, cuddly package is one of the joys of parenting, but that position prevents your baby from sucking his or her thumb and taking other actions that are important to self-soothing. Giving your baby some freedom to move around a bit more may help him or her develop ways of calming down when you don’t come running immediately to their side.
This technique may seem to apply only to naptime or bedtime, but it can apply to daytime activities as well. Once they reach the self-soothing age range, make sure that your baby can move his or her hands and legs while in the car or in the swing. This may help them learn to self-soothe when you’re driving or otherwise cannot respond immediately to their cries.
How Long is Too Long to Let Your Baby Cry?
This is a matter of some controversy…so the most important thing is to trust your instincts. You know you and your baby best!
When your baby is in distress, you are naturally in distress as well. This is what makes letting your baby cry so difficult, but there are times when it is necessary. You can use the strategies detailed above to teach your baby to self-soothe in less dramatic ways, but there will come a time when you either can’t respond right away or you want to delay your response to see if your baby can make that transition from crying to soothing without you.
You may want to rush in and hold your baby instantly, so setting a time limit on how long you will wait does two things:
- Makes it easier for you to show restraint, giving your baby that opportunity to self-soothe even if it is agonizing for you.
- Ensures that you don’t wait too long and turn a teaching moment into a traumatic experience for your baby.
Just like determining when to start teaching your baby to self-soothe, there is no set amount of time that you can safely allow a baby to cry. The first step is to learn the difference in your baby’s cries so that you know the difference between an urgent cry and a cry that doesn’t necessarily require immediate attention. When those less severe cries are heard, you can take a couple approaches.
How to Teach a Baby to Self-Soothe: The Gentler Approach (More Work for You):
One option is to peek in at your baby about every minute or so for five minutes. You may say something to your baby reassuring, but don’t pick the baby up. If they haven’t settled in five minutes, give the baby a moment of attention by picking him or her up for a quick cuddle or perhaps rubbing the baby’s back or eyebrows for just a moment. Then go back to what you were doing, giving the baby another five minutes or so to self-settle. If they don’t settle in that amount of time, you may need to give your baby more attention and try again later.
This is a gentler approach than simply allowing your baby to scream for a long period of time during the day when you’re up and alert. You may find that you can go even longer than five minutes when your baby is just quietly whining or pouting, but that is a decision for you to make based on your baby’s behaviors and patterns. Since you’re checking in on the baby about every minute, this approach may allow you to let the baby cry a bit longer than you would otherwise allow. +
How to Teach a Baby to Self-Soothe: The Tougher (Cry it Out) Approach
If you don’t have the time or patience to look at your baby and speak a comforting word every minute, you may want to go with the old-fashioned method of just letting the baby cry it out. There is a lot of debate amongst parents and professionals over this method, but it is what most parents did in previous generations and many parents today still use it and claim it is a success for them. You have to determine where your own comforts and beliefs lead you. (We don’t judge…we just give you information to decide what is best for YOU!)
Some parents will allow their baby to cry for an hour or even longer while others draw the line at 20 minutes. You may start out with a 10 or 15-minute rule and then gradually stretch that out as you realize that your baby will self-soothe if given closer to 30 minutes. You have to start out within your comfort zone and then set time limits based on your baby’s response to the training. What you don’t want to do is respond too quickly because your baby will learn that screaming will eventually get you to come around.
Rather than setting a time limit on when you will respond, you may also decide to keep it more flexible. Place a video monitor in the baby’s room or sleeping area so that you can keep an eye on your baby and know that he or she is okay without walking into the room. Pay close attention to changes in your baby’s screams. You will notice if they go from the annoyed cry to the cry that does warrant an immediate response. This will tell you when it’s time to give your baby the attention that they demand.
You don’t want your baby coughing and choking because they are screaming too hard for too long. While there is no set time limit that applies to every baby, gradually extending the amount of time that you wait may help you determine where the limit is for your little one.
Final Tips for Self-Soothing Success
Before you go pick up that baby – or decide not to – arm yourself with a few final tips for helping your baby succeed at self-soothing:
- If your baby seems unable or unwilling to self-soothe no matter what you try, reconsider your timing. Perhaps your baby needs a bit more time before taking this step toward independence. You may need to enjoy another month of co-soothing before you try it again.
- If there is something that you need to get done that doesn’t involve your baby, try to spend some time playing with him or her before you jump into that task. Your baby may be less likely to demand attention because you have just given him or her some valuable bonding time.
- Babies can get bored just like adults. Make sure to keep the toys and other safe distractions on hand when you must focus on other things. A baby lying in one place staring at the ceiling is more likely to get upset than a baby happily playing with their favorite toy.
- When trying to get your baby to self-soothe at nighttime or naptime, make sure that the environment is calming and relaxing. Dim lights are better than bright lights or complete darkness. What your baby is wearing to sleep and their bedding can also make a big difference. They can’t tell you if they are uncomfortable, but they can scream in hopes that you get the message. If your baby seems to get upset each time you place them in a certain sleeping area, there may be something in that environment that is uncomfortable or bothersome.
- Finally – remain consistent. This is the key to most of the good things in life.
Learning how to teach a baby to self-soothe and then following through with the plan may not be the easiest thing to do, but whatever method that you choose…it is important to understand that teaching a baby self-soothing habits is not being mean or uncaring. It is teaching him or her to find comfort when you are not right there immediately. That is a good thing for everyone and helps to create a healthy, happy and content child.
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