Babies and toddlers being able to fall asleep on their own – whether at the start of a nap, bedtime or when waking throughout the night, is called ‘self-settling’. I know, in my many years of experience as The Parent and Baby Coach that this can be a controversial topic so I wanted to share some of my expertise and tips for unpicking the science behind it and providing you with some guidance, if it is something that you wish to help your little one to implement, as I know it is a key area of getting solid sleep.
Falling asleep independently, self-settling and self-soothing – the biggest questions I get asked!
The term self-settling and what it means
When I talk about self-settling means your baby’s or toddler’s ability to fall asleep on their own completely, from awake to asleep, without relying on you. So that might be whether you’re rocking them, patting them or feeding them to sleep, that would be a reliance on you so they’re not self-settling. If they are able to, they won’t need you in the room, your hand on them or for you to be holding them. It is an ability to fall asleep on their own without any external help or support.
I know that ‘self-settling’ is not the best term, so I often call it falling asleep on their own or falling asleep independently. It’s often mixed up with the term ‘self-soothing’; what that means is basically to be able to self-soothe their own emotions, for example if they are very upset they would be able to self-regulate and if you’ve worked with me on my Toddler Behaviour Course, we know that they can’t fully self-soothe until they are adults. These are two very different things and I think it is really important to understand the difference in terms, as this can alter any support that you seek.
Why encourage them to fall asleep on their own?
If a baby or toddler can fall asleep on their own without needing you or anything else, you will often find that there are three knock-on effects to this:
- There will be less night-time waking because if they can settle themselves to sleep, when they come into light sleep (which we all, as humans, naturally do!) they will be able to settle themselves back to sleep and join their sleep cycles.
- Early morning waking can decrease, as little ones can sleep longer if they can self-settle.
- Longer daytime naps can develop, because little ones can self-settle, when things like dummies or patting are removed.
The outdated advice that helps them fall asleep on their own is that you should put them to sleep “drowsy but awake”. In my experience, the problem with this advice is that the word ‘drowsy’ can be incredible subjective; so your baby being drowsy will be very different to my baby being drowsy. Therefore, some could go down slightly sleep, whereas, others could be going down almost entirely asleep, which is obviously not the same thing! When my clients come to me and say “they’re a bit sleepy!” I encourage them to put them down to sleep awake. I want them to be awake and calm but not drowsy. This means that you don’t need to help them and they can learn to fall asleep on their own, independently. If you’re making them a little bit drowsy, then there’s still a chance that they will need some kind of help or support at early wakes, daytime wakes and night-time wakes! I’d really recommend trying to get rid of any drowsiness and put them down to sleep when they are awake so that they learn to fall asleep by themselves.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you should rush! It’s still important to create a lot of calmness in the sleep environment, but it doesn’t mean getting them halfway to sleep.
Can all babies settle themselves to sleep?
My personal opinion is YES! It is a natural skill that we are born with and our bodies know how to fall asleep, but some of us need a bit more help than others to switch off. You might be confused or inconsistent about approaches, which might not be working, and some emotional support can really help – click here for my Sleep Courses that come with a forum afterwards to ask questions on.
In my experience the only reason that children don’t progress with sleep is that there is an underlying issue; they are not a “bad” sleeper!
Norms and how they impact our decision to help our babies to fall asleep alone
The people who are against helping your child learn to fall asleep on their own are out there. They will say that it’s normal to sleep with your children and there are cultures that do it – this is true! Many countries promote co-sleeping and that is normal for them. It is, also, normal for a child to want to be with you. I believe, however, that in our culture a lot of Mums are now working, often have six months off with their baby and then need to return to work, they live away from their families for support, childcare or help is expensive and we live quite isolated lives so if we are forced that the idea of baby sleep is normal it can be overwhelming, particularly in the UK. There is absolutely no right or wrong way of your baby or child sleeping but I do believe that it is important to point out that our culture doesn’t really give us as much as it could in terms of giving us skills to help them sleep at night.
Ultimately: you do you.
If you’re happy to co-sleep and that works for you; then brilliant!
If you’re keen to encourage your child to fall asleep on their own; great!
I am here to share my ideas and experience from helping thousands of families with their babies’ sleep – and as a Mummy of two boys who sleep really well and have self-settled to sleep from a very young age.
When can you start helping them to self-settle?
From observing your child when they get tired, you can start to get your baby to fall asleep on their own from the very beginning! The issue with newborns, of course, is that they need feeding regularly so I would really advise that you are familiar with their own signs and make sure they’re comfortable that they are ready. Practise! Look at their awake windows and work from there. You can find these on my Instagram Story Highlights or I go into detail about them in my Newborn Sleep Course.
If you would prefer to book some 1-1 support with myself or one of my wonderful team, please click here.