Every new parent faces this dilemma: “How long do I let my baby cry while trying to go to sleep?” “How long should I wait before I pick him/her up?” While many behaviors are innate (not learned), a baby can be taught to soothe him/her self to sleep. Until about 4 months of age, most babies are not likely to be able to fall asleep alone without some help; like rocking, backrubs, etc. Gradually, a child can be taught to “self-soothe”, and go to sleep on his own.This is also a first lesson in trust. Learning to trust their parents, and learning to trust the world. Since this is a skill, it will require patience and practice. You should expect bumps and some frustration. but is you are persistent, it can be one of the most important first skills you can teach your child.
Here are some tips for getting started:
- Establish a bedtime pattern, and stick to it. Babies thrive on routine, i.e., bath, bottle, cuddling, etc. will provide your baby with a predictable sequence.
- Help your baby to get to know his crib/sleep area as a place associated only with sleep. This is a signal to him/her. Try not to use the crib for other activity like play. This will reinforce sleep behavior, and your baby will begin to understand that the crib is for sleeping.
- Provide safe and familiar objects for baby to touch/smell/snuggle with so that he can transition to sleep comfortably. One idea is a t-shirt worn by mom, as mom’s smell is one of the earlisest and most powerful associations of safety and belonging. Other objects, like pacifiers, a favorite blanket, or a night light are often helpful.
- If your baby cries at bedtime, and you are concerned that it is serious, check the obvious first: wet, hurt, or hungry. If you are sure that the baby is okay, you can reasonably assume that the cries are related to separation.
- Try to gradually increase the time in which you respond to the cry. To do this, wait 2-3 minutes, let the baby see you, then “reassure, and retreat”. Next time, do not go all the way into the room, but “reassure, and retreat”. Gradually and consistently, increase the distance, and time in which you respond. (i.e. after a week or so, just peek into the room, and say goodnight”.
Teaching a child to fall asleep independently, and learning to separate from mom or dad at night is often more distressful for parents that it is for baby. With persistence and patience, you may have a quiet household, and a well-rested baby!