Self-settling… this is every parent’s dream. For some, it sadly stays just a dream at least until the child is older (I don’t know many adults that still need their mummy to help to get them to sleep). However, for others it can actually become an amazing reality and one that makes bedtime and naptime stress-free, predictable and most of all a God-send! It usually enables the baby / toddler to be able to sleep through the night. I’ve read a few books on this subject and most agree that this is something you must teach your child… I don’t really like the phase ‘train them’ but I have to agree from personal experience these tiddlers need a bit of encouragement and consistency until they get the message it’s sleep time.
I’m going to talk through a few things I’ve found to be useful, some techniques we’ve used and I hope this can help another sleep deprived parent out there. I’ll tie this in with breastfeeding weaning as I feel encouraging self-settling for us tied in with night weaning and stopping breastfeeding at bedtime.
1) Establish a Routine
The idea of just going with the flow seems appealing at first. Babies seem unpredictable initially and you don’t always know when they’re going to get hungry or tired. Eventually a little routine does appear, even from as young as 3 months, if not younger. In my personal experience it is hard work, if not impossible, for a baby to self-settle to sleep when they are overtired. My baby only starts showing obvious sleep cues when she is already overtired and so by the time I tried to settle her to sleep it was hard work… lots of tears, rocking, sometimes just breastfeeding to sleep. I soon realised I was going to have to clock watch and make sure I jumped in there before we reached the dangerous overtired realm.
I remember when my baby was 5 months old and it was a morning when my family were visiting and she was quite happily playing. I picked her up and said “right it’s time you had a sleep”. My mum immediately said “but she doesn’t even look tired”. I took her up to her cot, brought down the video baby monitor and showed her the picture of her fast asleep and she was shocked! I’d like to say every nap time was that smooth… by all means it was NOT! However if you keep at a good routine, your baby will learn to know what happens next, you know what your day will look like and when to arrange trips out, and most importantly you will have a much happier, more content baby (not to mention mum!).
2) Controlled Crying for Wimps
Once you’ve got a nice routine established it’s time to start gently encouraging your baby or toddler to fall asleep on their own. Different people find different techniques work and generally up until 4 months the ‘shush, pat’ technique works well. We started controlled crying at about 4 months. There’s text-book controlled crying which has good recommendations by the NHS and then there’s “controlled crying for wimps” that we did. For nap times and bedtimes I’d go through the same routine in this order (except adding in bath, milk and stories at bedtime):
1) Change her nappy whilst ssshhhhing
2) Put her into a sleeping bag (and pjs at bedtime)
3) Say “it’s sleepy time now, night night” whilst drawing the curtains (also used a Gro Anywhere Blackout Blind)
4) Put her down awake in the cot and walk out the room.
… and initially she’d cry. I timed 1 minute… a very, very long minute. Then went back in and she’d need calming. Then I’d walk out again and she’d cry again. I got braver and timed a longer 2, maybe 3 minutes. I kind of made it up really by listening to her cries. If she cried on and off with pauses I gradually learnt this was her way of ‘crying down’ to sleep and I could leave her longer and only went in if the cries became continuous and accelerated. I found going back into her usually made her crying worse so listening to her cry and the type of cry was really important. Some days she’d just ‘cry down’ for a couple of minutes until she fell asleep. The longest was probably 15 mins of on and off tired crying but I knew it was worth it when she needed the sleep and woke a refreshed and happier baby!
If the cries accelerated and she was overtired I’d usually just breastfeed her to sleep. If I got the timing right I could just put her down and she’d go off to sleep without any fussing which is brilliant! I found it all comes down to timing and getting the routine right and making adjustments as they get older.
3) Weaning off Feeding to Sleep; our version of “Pick Up, Put Down”
So you might be thinking “but controlled crying worked for you so why did you start doing pick up put down?” Well… we went through period of colds, hand, foot and mouth, another developmental leap, holidays and the combination of all those, plus starting to spend days at nursery when I returned to work, put her out of sync and overtired. She really struggled to self settle so we became reliant on the pram or car for naps again and feeding to sleep at bedtime and the night wakings had started again. This all took its toll on me as I needed sleep to function at work and my neck pain flared up during breastfeeding.
When we decided to re-teach self-settling at 12 months and wean off breastfeeding at night, controlled crying more often than not caused the cries to accelerate and we found she calmed better with cuddles. Returning to work was also a hard time of separation so I found this method best for both of us. My husband took over bedtime and if all else failed I stepped in with the boobies! It actually went surprisingly well and we started seeing a difference within the first week.
– breastfeed earlier downstairs
– husband took up and changed into pjs and read stories
– played in the cot with dim lighting to get her used to it.
– started fussing so he rocked her, walked around the nursery and sang until she settled in his arms.
– put her down in the cot once settled and she cried so left room for a minute
– went in and rocked again until asleep and put her down asleep.
– during night she woke once at 10:30 and wouldn’t settle rocking so needed a short feed.
– bath and change into pjs
– breastfeed in light room then hand over to husband
– read stories whilst rocking in chair
– put down in cot and screamed so rocked her until calm (2 minutes)
– put down and was quiet for 30seconds then stood up and cried so rocked again until calm (30 seconds)
– put down in cot, rolled over and slept!
– woke once in the night and husband rocked to sleep.
Continued as above for first week with husband going in during the night if she woke and gradually reducing the rocking motion and putting down as soon as settled. If she cried when we put her down we’d leave for 1-3 mins before returning to pick up.
By the second week she’d cry when first put down but after leaving her for a minute we pick her up and she mostly goes calm straight away within 10 seconds. We’d then put her down awake but calm and she would be able to get herself to sleep. We continued doing the same if she woke at night which worked 90% of the time. Some nights it was easier to just give a quick breastfeed if she really wouldn’t settle.
3) Weaning off Breastfeeding onto Other Sources of Milk
I was quite fortunate when my baby was little that I was able to interchange the breast and bottle whenever was convenient. My husband would do the dream feed until 11pm with a bottle of expressed milk which we started reducing at 6 months and completely stopped at 7 months. If I ever went out I was confident she’d be fine with a bottle. When I started back at work when the tiddler was 10 months old I’d breastfeed morning and night and she’d take a bottle in the afternoon from the childminder.
At around 11 months old I started introducing a bottle a bedtime but until we taught self settling she’d need a breastfeed afterwards as part of her wind down to sleep routine. My plan was to make bath, bottle, bed her routine and encourage self settling however… At 12 months old the tiddler suddenly decided she no longer wanted to take a bottle. Now in hindsight this wasn’t a bad thing as she now confidently drinks from a cup but at the time it ruined my weaning plan!
I tried milk in every kind of other cup initially, it didn’t matter whether it was cows milk, formula or expressed milk she just suddenly seemed disgusted by all of it!!!! I was so frustrated at time. Anyway one day she was hankering after my (luke warm) cup of tea so I let her have a sip and she seemed to love it. So I had a brainwave and decided to put a decaf tea bag in an inch or 2 of boiling water, filled the rest with full fat milk and pretended it was my cup of tea. Sure enough she was desperate to try some. It was a bit messy so I put a straw in for her and she drank the lot! Over the next week I gradually made it more milky until one day just switched it for all milk and she didn’t notice a difference!
Since 13 months our routine has been like this:
- 6:30-7am wake
- Milk on waking
- 7:30/45am breakfast
- (9:30am catnap for 15-20 mins until dropped this consistently at 15 months)
- 11:30-12 lunch
- 12pm nap for between 1.5-2.5 hours (able to make this later start if had a morning nap)
- 3pm snack
- 5pm tea
- 6pm bath
- 6:15-30 milk and stories wind down in bedroom
As your baby grows developmentally you may need to find other tricks to encourage self-settling as we found we had set backs, especially during the ‘leaps’ and periods of illness. We also struggle with not having a set routine every day as with the childminder she won’t sleep for very long and therefore is overtired by bedtime. This sometimes has an impact on the next day and I still occasionally breastfeed if she wakes early or won’t settle rocking. I’m finding now at 16 months she is less interested in feeding and will just snuggle into our shoulders when she’s tired. I can’t say our breastfeeding journey is completely over yet as we still sometimes have set backs with self-settling and recently when she had a vomiting bug and wouldn’t drink water I knew she was getting fluid through comfort breastfeeding. When she’s well though she settles well and mostly sleeps through the night.
I’d be interested to hear what techniques you’ve used to help your baby to sleep through the night, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked? There’s so much controversy around different techniques people use but at the end of the day you have to do what works for you and your family so you all get a decent night’s sleep!