How can I teach my baby to self-soothe at bedtime?
It’s all about setting the stage for him to learn to settle himself down on his own as long as he is old enough (around 12 weeks old, give or take) – and it can take some practice, and definitely some consistency! By the end of this process, you will want to be able to do his bedtime routine, put him down awake, leave the room, and have him drift off to sleep on his own. Here are a few steps to help you get there.
Create a bedtime routine that works for your family
The first step is to commit to creating a bedtime routine that you can do at the same time each night. This might sound daunting with everything else on your to-do list, but you can do it! Choose 3 to 4 activities that you can do with your little one each night. Make sure they are calm, relaxing, and most importantly that they work for you and your family. Many families do things like taking a bath and giving a massage, reading books, telling stories, singing songs, saying prayers, or simply having a few minutes of quiet time. Be sure to make any feeding at the beginning of the routine (or even before the routine and outside of the room if you choose) to avoid any association between feeding and falling asleep. End the routine where you would like your little one to sleep each night to make the transition to bed and sleep easier for everyone. I recommend spending a few nights to a week simply getting the routine down – you can even continue to hold him or do whatever you usually do when he is falling asleep.
Focus on how you end the routine, and go from there
Next, focus on how you end the routine and start making some changes if necessary. What do you usually do? Do you typically feed or rock him to sleep? Do you pat him? Do you sing and bounce him around the room? Or, are you just sitting there quietly while he’s in his crib? Regardless of what you do, he is now relying on those things to fall asleep at bedtime AND probably when he wakes up naturally throughout the night. So, the trick to this is to start reducing those associations he has with falling asleep while building new ones. To do this, you can take one of two main approaches. The first approach is to go all in and simply start putting him down awake after the routine, leaving the room, then returning to the room as often as you’d like while providing a consistent verbal response such as “goodnight, I love you,” or “it’s night-night time,” or really whatever else you want that lets him know that 1) it’s bedtime, and 2) that is all you are going to say about that – every time. Consistency is key here.
The other approach is more gradual – no better or worse, just different. You should feel confident to choose the one that feels right for you and your family. If you change things more gradually, just make small changes every few nights moving toward that final step of putting him down awake, leaving the room, and returning with a consistent verbal response. So, if you are now rocking him to sleep while singing, you can spend a few nights rocking without singing until he falls asleep, then a few nights holding him without rocking, then a few nights putting him down in his crib and patting him (or even briefly picking him up then putting him back down to pat him), the next few nights staying in the room/doorway until he falls asleep providing those consistent verbal responses, then the next few nights leaving the room but consistently checking on him. Doing things this way may take a little longer, but if it is more comfortable for you then it might be the way to go.
If he still wakes during the night at first, do what you usually do to get him back to sleep as quickly as possible
While you’re helping him learn to self-soothe at bedtime (or, essentially doing a bit of sleep training), he may still wake up during the night. If he does, do what you typically do to get him (and you!) back to sleep as quickly as possible during the night. Most of the time the skill of falling asleep independently at bedtime, or self-soothing, generalizes overnight to help little ones return to sleep on their own after natural night wakings (that all babies have).
About Dr. Erin Leichman