What have you heard about self-soothing babies?

Watching your baby’s eyes gradually fall shut in sleep, after rocking and singing while dropping gentle pats on their back is an amazing experience.

But as your baby grows older – and you return to your regular activities – they need to be able to calmly ease themselves into dreamland, on their bed, without your help.

At this point, you start thinking about baby self-soothing and wonder if your baby can do it.

Well, guess what? Your baby can self-soothe. However, before you get all carried away with sleep training your baby through self-soothing, let’s talk a bit about self-soothing.

What’s in this article?

A little backstory:

Editor’s Note: This is quite a controversial milestone, especially because the topic is now synonymous with sleep training (an even more controversial topic). This article addresses self-soothing as a milestone; however, it refers to some of its controversies.

At first glance, the word, self-soothing, sounds just as it is – soothing yourself, and when it comes to self-soothing babies, then it’ll mean babies (trying) to soothe their needs.

But once you find yourself on Google, and you happen to check out say 2 or 3 pages about it, then you’ll be all shades of “in awe.”

Why?

  1. Because many persons are of the opinion that self-soothing babies sleep longer (all through the night) than “non self-soothing babies”
  2. While others believe that that’s not a feature of the self-soothing milestone, but rather it’s something that happens as infants grow older
  3. Then there’s the group of people who say all babies eventually self-soothe
  4. And those who say not all babies self-soothe
  5. Lastly, the last set are those who think self-soothing is a prerequisite for sleep training your babies (oh wait, there are those who think babies shouldn’t be sleep trained as well, because they find the techniques used “disturbing”)

Now, that’s a lot of opinions and you shouldn’t worry about picking a side. What should you do? Take a deep breath and keep reading!

What is self-soothing for babies all about?

Self-soothing is a “skill” babies use to calm themselves down and relax. It’s another milestone in the baby’s first-year calendar.

So why is self-soothing a big deal when your little one is about 4 months old? Simple, babies might self-soothe when they feel sleepy. However, they also do this when they’re hungry as well.

The commonest mode of self-soothing for babies is sucking the thumb, and when some babies are hungry, that’s exactly what they do.

But for some babies, it’s both a cue for sleepiness and hunger. Lest I forget, babies also self-soothe when they’re crying and can’t wait for a comforter to come to pick them up.

Ever seen a baby crying and all of a sudden, the baby plugs in their thumb and start sucking?

Why is baby self-soothing beneficial?

Baby self-soothing is beneficial to both the parents and the baby.

Other than the joy that comes from watching your little one learn a basic life skill such as learning to soothe themselves (don’t you self-soothe?), there are other benefits of your baby self-soothing. They include:

  • It’s a hunger cue for some babies, and with such an obvious hunger cue around, you wouldn’t have to worry so much about determining when your baby is hungry
  • Your baby can temporarily comfort themselves when in pain or discomfort – before you come to their aid
  • 4-month-olds and older babies who are more adept at self-soothing might sleep for longer hours, especially during the night – it takes just a thumb on most days!

Another perspective on the last point: Some experts do not quite agree that it’s self-soothing that makes babies sleep longer at night when they’re older. The fact is as babies grow older; their sleep patterns evolve as well.

When can babies self-soothe?

when can babies self-soothe
Photo by Edwin Ariel Valladares from Pexels

Self-soothing is a social and emotional milestone just like peek-a-boo or your baby smiling back at you. It’s quite different from physical milestones such as sitting up, crawling, walking and talking.

And like other milestones, there is an age your baby is expected to get to before being able to self-soothe like a pro (intentionally).

At age 4 to 6 months, some babies start to exhibit self-soothing behaviours. However, during this period, the number of times they wake up and yell at night starts to reduce as well.

This is because they can relax and return to sleep without help, and of course, their evolving sleep pattern.

Self-soothing strategies in babies

Babies employ different strategies for self-soothing. Some of them include:

  • Self-soothing with hands – thumb sucking. Most times, a baby who’s still learning the ropes might use two or three fingers, but the “pro” baby goes with one finger
  • Rubbing a part of their body like the ear or mouth
  • Sucking a pacifier or a comforter like their blanky
  • Sucking their lips
  • Moving their heads in different directions
  • Snuggling a security object like a stuffed animal

Whichever strategy your baby chooses to self-soothe is perfect as long as it’s safe.

Babies self-soothing with hands

Let’s discuss this self-soothing strategy a little.

It’s generally known that this is the most common self-soothing strategy in babies. People’s mind generally jumps to fingers-sucking when the word self-soothing is mentioned.

It’s commonly believed to be the best form of self-soothing, and by the age of two, most babies would have stopped this – so, don’t worry too much.

If your baby is a finger-sucker, fine. If he’s not, still fine. Self-soothing is not a skill that can be forced on children. It’s something that comes naturally, most times, or introduced to a baby who then decides to ease gradually into the flow.

But if after introducing a technique to your baby, and (s)he doesn’t ease into it, then leave it be – don’t force it.

If your baby can’t self-soothe with hands, don’t force it. Watch out for other self-soothing behaviours that they exhibit and help them nurture them.

Here are a few ways you can help your baby get the hang of sleeping through the night

If your baby doesn’t fancy sleeping through the night yet, here are a few ways to get your little one excited about IT

Though the topic of self-soothing as a sleep training technique is a controversial one, here are a few things to try if you want your baby to sleep for longer hours during the night  

PS: You don’t have to teach your child how to “sleep”, and if your child isn’t sleeping for hours yet, relax, they eventually will.

Make the environment comfortable

Even as adults, we find it difficult to fall asleep in bright or noisy places. Your baby is no different. One of the many reasons babies love being carried is because of the warmth of the human body.

If the environment you want them to sleep in isn’t warm and cosy enough for them, they’d find it difficult to relax and fall asleep.

Turn off the lights (if it’s too dark, use a dimly lit nightlamp), bring down the curtains, and keep the noise out! In an environment like this, your baby will find it very easy to fall asleep without your help.

Create a sleep routine

Babies are just starting so, they pick up habits quite faster than adults. That is why it would be very easy for them to get used to any sleep routine you introduce to them.

Do you hum or sing to your baby? Or you pat them gently on their back while they lay in their crib? Or perhaps you read them bedtime stories? Make it a routine and be consistent with it. These little things help them relax and put them in a sleep mode.

Fix a bedtime

Newborns, generally, sleep while feeding or afterwards because they’ve got nothing else to do! But their sleep pattern changes when they are 4 months old. At this time, it’s easier to note their sleep pattern and fix a bedtime for them.

Fix a bedtime and help them adjust to it by laying them in their crib when the time comes and allowing them to ease slowly into sleep on their own.

Put them down before they fall asleep

Some mothers are fond of holding their babies until they fall asleep completely before putting them down in their cribs. If you want to help your baby learn how to sleep on their own, you need to break away from this habit.

The best time to put your baby down is when they are feeling drowsy but still awake. With this, they’d have the space to warm up to their bed and relax into sleep.

Pro Tip: If your baby wakes up when you put them down, try one of the techniques in number 2 above – hum or gently pat them.

Satisfy them before bedtime

A tired baby cannot self-soothe for long, neither can a hungry baby – as a hunger cue, some babies will ditch the sucking and cry if food isn’t forthcoming. They’d get cranky, and kick, and scream until their needs are met – even an adult can’t sleep well with an empty belly.

Hence, you should feed, bathe, and play with your baby before putting them down, only then will they happily fall asleep on their own.

Introduce a comfort object (for older babies)

Comfort objects, soft toys, or loveys are items that are offered to children as psychological support during sensitive times or bedtimes. They are soft textured materials like blankets or stuffed animals.

Babies can snuggle these comfort objects and this might help drive them to la-la-sleep land.

These items should be introduced to older babies because of the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in younger babies.

Leave your baby to stay in their crib when they wake up

Parents are often tempted to carry their babies out of their bed immediately they wake up.

Instead, allow your baby to relax in their bed when they wake up. You can acknowledge their presence but don’t pick them up because the baby may still be feeling sleepy but only woke up to check out the environment.

Final note…

Self-soothing is another milestone to watch out for in your baby’s first year, although, very controversial.

As rightly said, behaviours are a means of communication, and self-soothing babies might just be trying to tell you that they’re hungry, sleepy, tired, bored, or just being a baby.

Just like every other milestone, this, your baby self-soothing like a pro, is quite beautiful to watch. And while you might want to take advantage of this opportunity to sleep-train your baby, take a moment and ask yourself if it’s necessary.

Baby self-soothing should be about your baby comforting or soothing themselves.


Pat Asanga

Pat Asanga is a science writer with a passion for fact-based storytelling. She has a background in Animal and Environmental Biology.

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