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At a basic level, self-soothing is the art (and science) of teaching your child how to put themselves to sleep. But it’s also the final stage in a process of helping the whole family get their zzz’s.
No matter your child’s age, current sleeping situation or your parenting philosophies and beliefs, you can and should teach your child this very important skill that will prepare them for a lifetime of restful sleep.
Here’s how to teach your baby to self-soothe:
Step 1: Start with a strong foundation.
Most people think of sleep training simply as the task of teaching a child self-soothing skills, but that is not the case.
There are five elements of healthy sleep, the fifth being the ability to self-soothe. If the other four are not in place, a child will have a very hard time learning this skill. Therefore, it is crucial to lay the foundation that will make this seemingly daunting task much easier on all.
The first four elements of healthy sleep are:
1. Provide a consistent place to sleep.
2. Create a consistent pre-sleep routine.
3. Ensure that your child’s nap schedule is age-appropriate and follows their body’s circadian rhythms.
4. A bedtime that takes place before your child can become overtired.
With these four elements in place, your child will have a much easier (and faster!) time mastering the art of self-soothing.
Step 2: Create a plan to teach self-soothing.
Successful self-soothing means that baby (or child) can both put himself down to sleep and calm himself if he rouses during the night.
Teaching self-soothing is often a fraught topic in new motherhood, but I believe in a straightforward approach that allows families to make the right decision for themselves.
Talk with your partner.
Sit down with your partner and anyone else who is highly involved in your child’s sleep to come up with a solid plan that everyone can follow.
Our children learn what we expect from our consistent example, so the key is choosing a method to teach self-soothing that everyone is comfortable with and can follow at any time—even in the wee hours of the morning or alone during a stressful long afternoon.
Make sure everyone is on board.
If Grandma watches your little one for all naps and will never ever allow him to cry alone, then take that into account and choose a gentle method that she can consistently implement.
Consider removing sleep props.
Don’t forget to take sleep props like the breast or a special blanket into account. For example, if your baby currently nurses to sleep, you may want to move nursing to the very beginning of your pre-sleep routine so that your child can learn to fall asleep on his own without the breast.
If your little one relies heavily on a pacifier, you can give it to her at the beginning of naps and the beginning of bedtime, but after that, try not to replace it if it falls out after that initial offering.
Older kids can have sleep props, too. For example, will your toddler only go back to sleep if you give them a drink of water? Decide how to handle it so you can preempt these needs and include them in the plan, too.
Know where to start.
Are you ready to just get it done and are you OK with some tears? Then check out the “Extinction” or “Ferber” methods, which some call the “cry-it-out method.”
Not OK with your child learning this skill on their own? Then for your family, I suggest searching for gentle methods like “The Chair,” “Pick-Up/Put Down” or “Camping Out” methods.
Any of these tactics will work; the key is picking the one that you know you can carry out with absolute consistency, as that is what your child needs in order to learn.
Note: Writing it all down tends to help keep everyone on track and accountable.
Step 3: Put your plan in motion.
Once you have figured out what you will do for the fifth and last element of healthy sleep—self-soothing skills—add in the first four elements to your plan and then go for it.
Start at bedtime.
It’s best to start your new plan at bedtime, as that is the easiest time for a child to learn a new routine and then continue the next day with nap time.
Our children feed off our energy, negative or positive. As your child will be able to pick up on your mood and demeanor at sleep times, try to outwardly exude as much confidence as you can. If you are confident and upbeat about this new routine, your child is apt to be confident, too. If your child is over a year old, try talking to them in advance, maybe at dinnertime that night, about the new process. For some children, knowing what to expect can be the key to success.
Remember that consistency is the most important part, as it is what will enable your child to be successful. Be patient and do not give up too easily, and keep this new routine the same for consecutive nights.
Self-soothing takes time.
It takes most children two full weeks to learn a new sleep routine, which makes sense. They had months (or even years!) to learn the old way of doing things. With all five of these elements in place, your child will soon establish great sleep hygiene.