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5 Tips To Help Your Baby Learn To Self-Soothe and Sleep

May 20, 2014 27 Comments

teaching baby self-soothingA term that we use a lot in our work with our Baby Sleep Site® clients is ‘self-soothe’. Is this a term you’re familiar with?

Simply put, a baby who can self-soothe is a baby who can calm himself down, and regulate his emotions - usually by sucking on his fingers and/or toes. (Yes, some babies have a strong toe preference!)

When Do Babies Learn To Self-Soothe?

Sounds pretty basic, right? Except that it’s not. See, babies aren’t born knowing how to self-soothe - it’s a learned skill. When a baby is born, he’s not yet capable of regulating his emotions, and he really does need mom or dad to step in and comfort him when he’s upset, by rocking or holding or singing to or feeding him.

But as baby grows, and as his brain matures, he becomes capable of managing his own emotions, and soothing himself. Experts don’t agree as to precisely when a baby becomes capable of self-soothing, but it’s generally accepted that while babies shouldn’t be expected to self-soothe before they are 3 months old, they are definitely capable of self-soothing by the time they are 6 months old.

In our work with families, we’ve found that the 4-7 month window is a really good time to work on helping a baby learn to self-soothe; your baby’s sleep patterns have matured by that point, but she’s still too young to have formed very strong sleep associations that will be difficult to correct. Will she always be perfect at self-soothing? Most likely not. They will still need us some of the time after all!

Why Does Self-Soothing Matter?

Simple - babies who can self-soothe tend to sleep better and longer than babies who can’t! Research has shown this again and again - babies who are able to self-soothe are able to fall asleep independently, which means that whey they wake at night during non-feeding times, they are usually able to quickly fall back to sleep without mom or dad’s help. This results in more sleep over the course of the night (for everyone - mom and dad included!)

5 Tips To Help Your Baby Learn To Self-Soothe

So, how can we help our babies learn this crucial skill? Here are 5 tips designed to do just that:

  1. Wean your baby from the swaddle. Babies need to have their hands free for self-soothing, so gradually wean from the swaddle, if you haven’t already. (Hint: a ZipadeeZip is PERFECT for this - we recommend the Zippy all the time to parents looking to wean from swaddling!)
  2. If you are parenting your baby all the way to sleep (by rocking or feeding to sleep, for example) start changing this by still parenting her, but laying her down drowsy but awake for one nap each day. Then, you can gradually build up to doing this for all naps, and eventually at bedtime and during any night wakings. Or, for an even gentler approach, start by gradually shortening the amount of time you spend parenting to sleep - rock your baby for just 5 minutes, for example, instead of 10 minutes.
  3. Create strong, consistent sleep routines. If you haven’t already, institute a consistent nap time and bedtime routine. These routines serve as signals to your baby that sleep time is approaching.
  4. Allow some time - even just a minute or two - between hearing your baby cry and rushing in to comfort her. Waiting even just a minute gives your baby a chance to find her fingers or toes and start calming herself down - and this is a key part of learning to self-soothe.
  5. Don’t wait too long to encourage self-soothing. In a 2002 study on self-soothing, researchers found that children who had not learned to self-soothe by the time they were 1 were more likely to still have trouble falling asleep by age 2, and to continue to wake at night up to age 4. This makes sense; in our work with families, we have learned that it tends to be harder to correct a toddler’s sleep associations than it is to correct a baby’s.

Of course, if you find yourself needing additional help in guiding your baby towards learning to self-soothe (and, by extension, towards sleeping through the night), my team and I can provide that. It’s why I created The Baby Sleep Site® in the first place! Visit www.babysleepsite.com today, and check out our abundance of baby and toddler sleep coaching resources - many of them are completely free!

Tired of endless night wakings and short (or non-existing) naps? Want your baby to learn how to self-soothe, but not sure how to make that happen? We can help! Parents from all over the world visit The Baby Sleep Site® each month to find solutions for their childrens sleep problems. Visit today, and download a copy of our free guide, 5 Ways To Help Your Child Sleep Through The Night. You CAN reclaim your sleepand we can help! And, for a limited time, enjoy up to $50 off all Baby Sleep Site® products and services, during our More Sleep For Moms campaign.

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Nicole JohnsonWritten by Nicole Johnson from the Baby Sleep Site

Nicole Johnson is a married mother of two wonderful boys, as well as the Lead Baby Sleep Consultant and owner of The Baby Sleep Site®. When her eldest son was born, he had a lot of sleep problems - he would wake every one or two hours, all night long! By thoroughly researching key literature and scientific reports, Johnson became an expert in sleep methods, scheduling routines, baby developmental needs, and more. She overcame her son’s sleeping issues in a way that matched her own parenting style, and knew it was her mission to help other tired parents “find their child’s sleep”. Founded in 2008, The Baby Sleep Site® - under Nicole’s leadership - is now doing just that. Over 500,000 parents visit The Baby Sleep Site® each month to find solutions to their children’s sleep problems, including personalized, one-on-one sleep consulting, comprehensive e-Books on topics like sleeping through the night and creating nap schedules, free articles and blogs on timely topics, and strong parent community.

Photo Credit: Hamed Saber via Compfight cc

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27 Responses

Nikki
Nikki

April 11, 2017

I have a 41/2 month old. For most of his life he was sleeping 5, 6, sometimes 7 hours at a time at night. Then he got a few colds and the last few weeks I am lucky if he goes 1- 2 hours without waking. He is very dependent on the swaddle at night, and I’ve tried easing him out one arm at a time which wakes him. He needs a paci and bouncing to fall asleep, and will go back down with my hand rubbing his head until he falls asleep or if I give the paci back. Currently he sleeps in the pack n play in our room, but we have caved and used the rock n play a few times which will give us 3-4 hrs. Naps are a nightmare- he fights going down and just wants to be up constantly. We continue the same routine before bed.
Any suggestions are greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Lakesha thaddis
Lakesha thaddis

March 23, 2017

I’m a first time mom and my daughter is great, but lately she has not been wanting to sleep by her self. Really she wants to bring held while she sleeps, now she only 1 month old but I was told that this is the time they start to pick up habits. I could be wrong but I pick her up every time she fuss. I think my baby wants me to be uncomfortable just for her to be comfortable. I just wondering will this pass I don’t mind getting up for feeding and changing I just don’t want her to be the baby where she has to be held while sleeping.

Cindy
Cindy

March 06, 2017

My son just turned 5 months. We had some success with him sleeping in his crib for 5-6 hour stretches. Then suddenly he’ll hit a milestone (tooth, hard stool etc.) and won’t stay in his crib. For the last 2 weeks he wakes up screaming and will only soothe if I nurse him back to sleep in my bed . He wakes up sevrsl times throughout the night and I’m not willing to let him cry it out but I’m also exhausted. Please help!

Melissa
Melissa

February 21, 2017

I have a 41/2 month old. He had about a month where he was sleeping 5, 6, sometimes 7 hours at a time at night. Then he got sick and the last few weeks I am lucky if he goes 2 hours without waking. I try leaving him for a few minutes but he just fusses and cries. He won;t take a pacifier. Currently he sleeps in a rock n play next to me. We continue the same routine. He wakes so much that I have just been letting him sleep with me in bed, even when I try to put him back down he wakes up and contiues to wake and cry.
Any suggestions, we are debating whether to try the ferber method and putting him in his crib in his room. THanks soooo much

Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

February 17, 2017

@Cassidy, thank you so much for writing me! I have so been there! I just sent you an e-mail with a few tips that might help! If you have any questions, please let me know. I am here to help! :)

Cassidy Divver
Cassidy Divver

February 17, 2017

I absolutely need to get more sleep, especially as a mother of 3 with a husband that works out of town for weeks at a time!! My son is just shy of 12 weeks old & he fights sleep like I’ve never seen before. He also has a 4 or 5 hour crying spell every night from about 9pm to 2am and nothing that I’ve done soothes him, I feel like I’m failing him as a mother!! The only way I’ve had any success getting him to sleep is in his side to side swing and now I’m concerned that he’s dependant on the swing to fall asleep & I desperately want to sleep in my bed and not on the couch!! I’m at my wits end and don’t know what to do, I feel mean and guilty letting him cry it out or cry himself to sleep, but I’ll never go for longer than 7 – 10 minutes. Any help is greatly appreciated!!

SleepingBaby
SleepingBaby

December 20, 2016

@ALMA , great question! Can you please send me an e-mail to support (at) sleepingbaby.com? Thank you so much! :)

SleepingBaby
SleepingBaby

December 20, 2016

CHRISTINA, those are great questions! I have some ideas that might help. Can you please send me an e-mail to supportsleepingbaby.com? Thank you so much! Have a lovely day!

SleepingBaby
SleepingBaby

December 20, 2016

@THADSHIGA and @SARANYA, A lot of little ones love to suck their fingers through the Zipadee-Zip so I think it will be the perfect solution for them… it will still provide that cozy womb-like environment but the ability to suck on fingers… so it’s double soothing! hehe! The Zippy tips will get a bit wet but I can assure you that won’t bother your little ones because my son does the same thing and sleeps great! When my son isn’t wearing a Zippy, he is an AVID thumb sucker! :) Hope that helps! :) Thanks for reaching out with your question and Merry Christmas!

Christina
Christina

December 12, 2016

I’m confused. I just got the zipadee zip today. She’s already woke 3x’s before 10pm. Looses binky. My confusion lies with the self soothing by suckling fingers or thumb. The Zip covers the hands. She is a few days shy of 6mo and I’ve been trying to sleep train for a month now. Wakes 5+ times a night. 2 which are feedings. My first one found her fingers at about 3-4 mo and has never had an issue sleeping. But still sucks fingers at 22mo.

Alma
Alma

November 24, 2016

My baby has no problem sleeping through the night, most nights. She usually sleeps 10 hours at night. My problem is getting her to nap. She only wants to nurse to nap and while napping. It is exhausting and I don’t think she gets the rest she needs. Any advice?

Saranya
Saranya

November 09, 2016

Thanks for sharing! My baby is three months old. She has found her fingers and is able to soothe herself for about 15 mins before starting to fuss. However she is unable to fall asleep when placed in her crib drowsy but awake. She sucks on her fingers and then transitions to fussing and then full blown crying. How and when should I intervene? I don’t want to let her cry it out, but also want to make her self soothe. Any ideas?

Thadshiga
Thadshiga

November 02, 2016

Is it okay to let my 3month old to suck his fingers or thumbs. My son started sucking his fingers and I’ve been trying to get him to stop but after reading this post I’m confused. I’ve read horror stories about people who still suck their a thumb.

Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

September 13, 2016

@Britni, great question! I think all moms feel unprepared at one time or another! You might take a look at this vlog on common sleep issues and sleep training that our owner, Stephanie, made. She talks a bit about little ones who cry and fuss more than others… it might be helpful!:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDxboIffDdo&mc_cid=8c137577c4&mc_eid=31421e8a45

Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

September 13, 2016

Hello, Katherine!
Thank you for writing me! I agree you should try to stay away from co-sleeping… there are safer ways to have a baby sleep beside you like a rock and play or one of those sleepers that attaches to the side of the bed. You CAN start teaching self-soothing GRADUALLY. soothing a baby while they are laying in their bassinet or crib is an easy way to start… rubbing that belly and shhhing! Those are easy things you can do now…now of course youecan be more readily available to pick the baby up if they cry a bunch… because at this stage they could still be cluster feeding still so the need for momma to be near is more prevalent! :) I started younger with Maverick … around 4 weeks old and it really paid off with him! The same tips for self-soothing applies to this situation but you won’t want to let the baby cry as much at this young of an age because they are more than likely crying for food. I would encourage you to have skin on skin as much as you can though because it’s sooo important for that early age. I would zip Maverick up inside the hoodie I’d wear and he’d lay on my bare chest. He loved it and so did I! :) You can still teach self-soothing and have that special skin-to-skin contact that is so needed for newborns! I hope that helps! Have a great day! :)

Britni Smalling
Britni Smalling

August 11, 2016

I’m a first time mother who is basically raising my son on my own i barely get sleep but I would love help. I’m only 20 and my son was a happy surprise I wasn’t ready and honestly i sometimes feel that I’m still not. How, do you teach a teething child to self-sooth he won’t stick to a certain sleep schedule no matter what. I need help please.

Katharine Rosenstiel
Katharine Rosenstiel

August 08, 2016

I have epilepsy and my health visitor is inisting that co sleeping should not be happening, however she also says my son should be learning to self sooth, my son isn’t 2 weeks old till tomorrow! Any tips before I start believing i’m useless?

Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

July 14, 2016

Carina! I hope the self soothing is going well. If you have any questions, I am happy to help. Please send me an e-mail at supportsleepingbaby.com. Thank you so much! :)

Pat Corrigan
Pat Corrigan

June 29, 2016

I am returning to work in three months. My little guy is 3 months now. I am working on establishing a good sleep routine that will help us with my transition back to work.

Carina
Carina

June 19, 2016

My baby was ready for sleep training at four and a half months but we are in the middle of a move so the chaos was too much to commit to that. A month later and we’ve got some poor sleep associations to break. I could use all the help I can get. I would like to know which issue to tackle first would be best.

Melissa Ayoub
Melissa Ayoub

June 08, 2016

I am excited to learn more, I really hope this works for my baby. I have read several books and tons of articles online however I cannot get my baby to self soothe! My husband and I need sleep!!!

Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

April 28, 2016

Carrie, I hope this helps! If you have any more questions-please send me an e-mail at supportsleepingbaby.com! Thank you so much! :)

Carrie
Carrie

March 23, 2016

We need help. Thanks for providing this!
Xoxo,
Exhausted mom of 2

Nat Laskey
Nat Laskey

February 17, 2016

Thanks for the opportunity! From a very drowsy mumma.

Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

February 08, 2016

Jennifer and Theresa! You both are so sweet! I hope the self soothing tips helped with your little ones. I am always here to help-support@sleepingbaby.com.

Jennifer Howell
Jennifer Howell

January 20, 2016

I’m a first time mom at the age of 39 and thought that being older would mean I’d have more experience to deal with tough life situations. Well, nothing prepared me for how difficult it would be to get my baby to sleep on his own. He just turned 5 months and I’ve read a handful of books on how to get your baby to self-soothe and sleep through the night in his crib. So far it hasn’t worked yet and he still depends on my to get him to sleep and then wakes up several times through the night. I’m hoping your method will help. This mama is tired! But most importantly I want to be able to give my baby the tools to self soothe so he can sleep 12 hours each night and continue to grow and develop in a healthy manner. Thanks!

Theresa Kilduff
Theresa Kilduff

January 19, 2016

I would love more sleep as a single mother! Thanks for the opportunity.

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Sizing Charts

Zipadee Zip

SIZE AGE HEIGHT WEIGHT
Small 3-6 months 24-28 inches ~12-19lbs
Medium 6-12 months 29-32 inches ~19-26lbs
Large 12-24 months 33-40 inches ~26-34lbs

Flying Squirrel PJs

SIZE AGE HEIGHT WEIGHT
12-24m 1-3 years up to 39 inches ~26-34lbs
2/3T 3-6 years up to 48 inches ~34-49lbs
4/5T 6-10 years up to 56 inches ~49-87lbs