When supporting our little ones towards falling asleep and resettling independently, it’s so important that we understand what’s normal for their age.
It might surprise you to know that almost 30% of 18 month olds still wake at least once in the night. Many of these kiddos will need some parental input to get back to sleep – and that’s normal! Many babies under 12 months will still regularly wake 2-3 times per night EVEN once they’re on solid food.
The first year of life is the most rapid period of change for your baby – and the pattern of sleep in that first year is not linear (it doesn’t consistently get better and better). From birth, our babies are programmed to seek out comforting touch.
Their whole existence in utero has involved a very tight little border around their world. They’ve been warm, cosy and always had a comforting heartbeat to soundtrack their days. Then they’re born, and for some, there’s an expectation that they should suddenly be capable of independence when it comes to settling and sleeping, but these things don’t magically happen overnight!
Our babies are born without an understanding of object permanence. This means that if they can’t smell, hear or see something, they think it no longer exists in the world. So if your baby can’t feel your touch or see your face (and remember they can only see about 30cm – the distance from your breast to your face) they think you no longer exist, and their primal instinct is to cry out.
Here’s a scenario for you: You’ve fed, cuddled and rocked your baby into a blissful slumber. You lay them down in the gorgeous co-sleeper crib that you spent months choosing. You remove your hands ever so slowly like you’re diffusing a bomb. You creep silently out of the room and then BANG!
Crying! This is not your baby expressing distaste at your choice of crib (maybe we should have got the thicker mattress?) it’s their primal instinct for survival, to be close to you, where they feel safest.
Knowing this, we can understand why just leaving babies won’t help them to learn to settle themselves – would you learn better if I sat with you and showed you how to do something, or if I left you alone upset and frustrated and expected you to learn it yourself?
Just like everything our babies learn, they learn by example. Emotional regulation is no different. Would it surprise you to know that our system of emotional self regulation doesn’t fully mature until we’re 21 years old?
This doesn’t mean you’ll still be cuddling your 20 year old off to sleep, but it does mean our babies need a lot of help and a secure, safe environment to encourage independent sleep.
So how do we help encourage them to sleep independently?
Step One – Close contact
In the early months of your baby’s life, keep them in close contact with you as much as possible. Soothing them with positive touch, a gentle voice and comforting sounds helps to teach them how to calm themselves through seeking out similar comforting experiences.
As babies and children get older, we see them reaching out for a cuddly teddy, singing or talking to themselves, or even using repetitive motion like rubbing fabric or ribbon together to make their own kind of white noise or stroking a toy on their face in a particular way. They’re replicating the comfort measures we used when they were tiny.
Step Two – Get your baby used to their sleep space
Start from around 8-12 weeks, acclimatising your baby to being alone in their sleep space. This is best done away from sleep times. Try taking them into their room/your room at intervals through the day and placing them in their cot or co sleeper. You can sit nearby and read or sing to them. Or hover in the room (putting washing away or tidying is a great little bit of busy work).
- Start practicing by ‘popping out’ of the room for 30 seconds.
- If your baby is calm in your absence, try extending it for longer next time.
- If they get distressed, then come back and comfort them.
- Continue to practice this on a regular basis with short pop outs.
This helps your baby to feel safe and comfortable being alone in their sleep space, and also helps significantly with separation anxiety.
We’re teaching them that whenever you leave, you will always return. Reinforcing this is key to helping your little one on the way to independent sleep!
Step Three – Give your baby the benefit of the doubt!
Once you’ve implemented the steps above, it’s time to give your baby the benefit of the doubt.
As parents we often write off our little ones’ abilities.
“Oh I just know she won’t fall asleep!”
“She never has, so why would she do it now?”
“We just tried a few days ago and she wouldn’t do it, so there’s no way she’ll do it now.”
We doom ourselves to fail before we’ve even started.
The key with supporting your little one, gently, to fall asleep by themselves is to give them the opportunity. Once you’ve got a good routine in place and you know your baby is appropriately tired – just give it a go!
If your little one shows signs of being upset or distressed, then provide comfort, settle them as you normally would, and try again in a few days or few weeks.
Just as they’re changing all the time and this can sometimes disrupt their sleep, they are also developing in a positive way which can enhance their sleep, so we need to persist with giving them a chance!
The important thing is to continue returning to provide that comfort. Once you’ve settled and calmed your baby, and placed them in their crib, use a repetitive routine like a goodnight phrase or singing the same bedtime song, then leave the room.
If they get upset, return, comfort them until they’re calm, repeat your bedtime phrase or song and then leave again, and repeat! We’re helping them to learn that whenever they need you, you’ll come back, so they will eventually fall asleep feeling safe and secure.
Step Four – Be consistent
Babies and children LOVE routine. They like things to be reliable and predictable (but hey, don’t we all?). We find this reassuring. Imagine if you slept in a different bed every night, or if you woke each morning to find your car keys weren’t where you left them, the tea wasn’t in the same cupboard or your car was parked in a different spot. This would be very disconcerting (almost a little scary!).
Bedtime and nap times need consistency and predictability for our little ones to feel safe and secure. If we have fairly consistent sleep environments and work through the same bedtime routine, our babies know what to expect and this helps them to wind down for sleep as well as feel comfortable and safe enough to fall asleep – absolutely key when helping our little ones to fall asleep independently.
Step Five – Accept the ups and downs
Your baby is developing rapidly in the first few years (particularly the first 18 months) and each of these milestones will naturally disrupt sleep. When their brain is rapidly developing, or they’re learning to walk, talk, crawl, they will find it harder to wind down for sleep.
Imagine yourself with a huge deadline the next day, or a job interview, or when you’re fighting with a friend or partner. We often lay awake in bed for hours with thoughts churning around in our heads struggling to shut down and fall asleep. THIS is the effect these developmental milestones have on our babies.
You will experience periods of ups and downs with sleep. A few weeks of great nights followed by some tough ones.
- Try to look at the big picture (are they suddenly moving more, trying to crawl, saying new words, practicing a new skill?)
- Give them a longer wind down period/bedtime routine before bed
- Be prepared that they may need more assistance to settle/fall asleep. Some children will need you present in the room, others may need more frequent pop ins or other comfort measures.
- Most importantly, try not to drastically alter your routine during these times. It can be tempting to think you should buy a nightlight, or a different swaddle/sleep sack, or change their sleeping location but try to keep the big things consistent. Most of these changes will be a temporary phase.
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