Self Soothing: How To Teach Baby To Self Soothe (And When)

What Is Self-Soothing, And When Do Babies Learn To Do It?

November 25, 2020 Updated March 18, 2021

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It’s practically a Pavlovian response for new parents — your baby shows signs they’re ready for sleep, so you spring to action with your arsenal of tricks for sending baby toward sweet dreams. You rock, you pat, you sing, you feed, you snuggle. You do what it takes to help your little one get some zzz’s. But at some point, you’ll wonder when your baby might be able to put themselves to sleep (or back to sleep). Enter, self-soothing.

It goes without saying, of course, that every baby is different. What works for one may not work for another. But generally speaking, the following insight should give you a good idea of what self-soothing is and how you can teach your baby to do it.

What is self-soothing?

By definition, self-soothing is when an infant or child stops fussing or crying without comfort from a parent or caregiver. With babies, self-soothing can take place when they first go down for the night or if/when they wake up in the middle of the night.

Why is it important?

In terms of baby milestones, self-soothing may set your baby up for a lifetime of good sleeping habits. It’s believed that babies who can self-soothe become toddlers who can self-soothe through tantrums, and so on. Plus, we probably don’t have to stress to you (read: one tired mama!) how much of a relief it can be not to have to wake up every single time your baby rustles in the night. Or underscore the joy of the freedom you gain when you don’t have to spend an hour — or more — each night trying to get your little one to fall asleep. Yes, you treasure that togetherness. But it’s also nice when baby can self-soothe and you get to squeeze in a bit more sleep.

However, it also merits mentioning that the concept of self-soothing isn’t without controversy. Some camps believe that babies and toddlers lack the ability to regulate their emotions and, therefore, cannot self-soothe.

When can babies self-soothe?

Around three to four months old, your baby may start exhibiting behavior conducive to self-soothing (i.e. falling to sleep easier, sleeping for longer stretches at night, minimal fussing if/when they wake, etc.). And between four to six months old, most babies can metabolically sleep through the night without feeding. So, this is a prime time to try teaching your baby to self-soothe.

How do you teach your baby to self-soothe?

Teaching your child to self-soothe is sort of a multi-prong process. You must first implement other elements of healthy sleep before your little one can master the self-soothing milestone. So, consider the following your pre-game:

  • Putting baby to sleep in a consistent place
  • Establishing a consistent bedtime routine
  • Creating and following an age-appropriate nap schedule
  • Getting baby to sleep before they become overstimulated or overtired

Once these elements are in place, you’re ready to move on to self-soothing skills. To nail this fine art with your little nugget, try these tips and tricks.

Make Sure Everyone’s on the Same Page

Discuss your plan with your partner before you begin. Just as it’s true with sleep training, consistency is key when it comes to teaching your baby to self-soothe. In fact, anyone who will be involved with your baby’s sleep — caretakers, grandparents, night nurses, etc. — should be apprised of your plan.

Put Baby to Sleep When They’re Awake

While it may seem easier now to sneak baby into their crib or bassinet once they’ve fallen asleep, you could be doing yourself and your child a disservice in the long-run. If baby is snoozing when you put them down, you aren’t giving them the opportunity to learn how to fall asleep without you there. To this end, you’ll want to move away from feeding baby to sleep at bedtime.

Practice Positivity

You’ve probably already noticed that your baby feeds off your energy, right? When trying to teach them to self-soothe, there will likely be frustrations. You’re tired, baby’s tired — there will be more than enough crankiness to go around. But as much as possible, try to exude positivity. Encourage your little one with an upbeat attitude. The hope here is that your confidence and positivity will reassure baby and facilitate their transition to self-soothing.

Introduce a lovey

Babies crave comfort, especially when they’re being put to sleep. If your kiddo is old enough to have a toy or blanket in the crib with them, give them one. Instead of your baby crying for you, they’ll cry for their favorite stuffed animal. And unlike you, the lovey has tons of leisure time to ease your baby into every nap.

Remove the Bottle (or breast) During Nap Time

If your baby always falls asleep with a breast or a bottle in their mouth, it’s time to break that habit. When your child depends on being fed in order to sleep, they aren’t self-soothing. So before nap time, feed your child and then wait a bit before putting them down. 

Be Present But Don’t Pick Them Up

It’s bedtime, and your baby is crying in the crib, so what do you do? Instead of picking them up, just say hello. Acknowledge their presence, but do not touch them. This shows your baby that you’re there for them, but will not coddle them. You can provide some comfort without indulging them completely. 

Give It Time

Anytime you introduce something new to your baby or try to make a transition, it takes time for your baby to adapt. This feels especially true where sleep is involved. After all, your little cutie has been enjoying the comfort of your soothing since birth. They’re going to need a minute to get used to the idea that you aren’t doing that anymore. So, how long does that take? Generally speaking, many babies adapt to a new sleep routine within a few weeks.

If your baby doesn’t, though, don’t panic. Again, babies hit milestones at different paces. If your little one reaches six to eight months old and you’re still struggling to get them to sleep through the night, talk to baby’s pediatrician for more insight.

What are some tips on safe sleep for babies?

Before leaving your baby alone to sleep in their crib, it’s important to create a safe space.

  • Put your baby to sleep on their back.
  • Avoid putting your baby to sleep on the couch or sofa chair. The safest place for your child to sleep is in their crib, or on a soft and sturdy surface.
  • Avoid using anti-roll pillows in their crib. They can cause suffocation.
  • Check your baby’s crib for small toys or objects before laying them down.
  • Avoid sharing a bed with your baby and let them sleep alone in their crib. It’s cool if you and baby are hanging out, but when they fall asleep, carry them over to their crib. And we get it, Mama. Sometimes you and baby may accidentally end up taking a nap together in your bed. However, try extra hard to avoid this if:
      • your baby is younger than four months.
      • your baby was born prematurely.
      • you or your partner are smokers.
      • you have a waterbed.

Following these tips will prevent your baby from choking and avoid sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).