By now some helpful friend or stranger has probably told you that your baby should be self-settling… And odds are, this isn’t happening yet. Maybe you are confident enough to laugh this off, or maybe you have a small, nagging voice telling you that this is your fault. Most of the sleep experts will tell you that you just aren’t trying hard enough.
The truth is, your baby is a unique little human, with a personality, constitution and genetic inheritance, just like everyone else. I doubt you sleep for the same number of hours and have the same bedtime as your partner, neighbour or brother.
Nurture and nature are 50:50. You may have come across that loud woman in mums’ group who boasts about her baby being a ‘good sleeper’. My guess is she attributes it to whichever book or parenting technique she subscribes too. I can’t help thinking that the baby was naturally a good sleeper, whatever techniques they chose, because I know many babies who won’t sleep much no matter what you try. My heart goes out to you if you’ve got one of the more wakeful babies.
Self-settling, self-soothing, controlled comforting, controlled crying… Whatever you call it, it’s a contentious issue. On one hand, you’ll be told your baby will be brain damaged if you do it, on the other hand, you’re told your baby will be spoiled if you don’t.
Here’s the truth about self-settling. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Some babies find it easy and learn young; others take many years to figure out how to get themselves to sleep.
Your parenting choices are your business. I want you to feel empowered and supported in your decision making. I support mums who choose natural birth or plan a caesarean. Some of my client's bottle feed and some breastfeed. Some of them vaccinate their babies on schedule and others delay. I try and share information rather than my opinion, and whatever your decision, if you feel positive about your parenting then my job is done.
What really worries me though, is when I see mothers driven to parenting decisions they are unhappy with. If you feel like you are leaving your baby to cry for much longer than you are comfortable with, then something is wrong. Or, if you are made to feel like you are not meeting your baby’s needs if your baby so much as squeaks, then something is wrong too.
Where has our culture arrived if mothers feel driven to choose between their own mental health and their babies? Or, feel like they have to listen to a book or expert instead of their baby?
Our society has found yet another way to vilify women, rather than supporting them. We have abandoned our mothers, and then blame them when they ‘abandon’ their children.
So, what has all this got to do with self-settling? I guess I just really want you to know that you can make a small difference as a parent, but you don’t have to. Parenting won’t change your baby’s built-in sleep needs, and you can just go with the flow if you are both happy with that. But, if you want to give self-settling a go, here are the 4 steps to self-settling that I suggest.
Respect this tiny little person. Your baby is a competent and whole human being. Your baby can learn and your baby is quite capable of communicating needs. Your baby wants to learn to sleep, they might just not be able to yet.
Trust yourself too. No one knows your baby like you. Tune into your mother’s intuition and listen, really listen, to what your baby is telling you.
Just put your baby down to sleep and observe. It really is that simple. It will either work, or it won’t. You just want to keep giving your baby the opportunity to learn to sleep. Keep practising. Don’t expect your baby to get it right straight away, although sometimes babies surprise us! Many babies take years to learn to sleep alone, and I know 8-year-olds who still need comforting at bedtime. That’s ok too.
Your job as a parent is to stay in tune with your baby and assess how well they are coping with the situation.
Learning a new skill is frustrating, and it’s possible your baby will make lots of ‘effort’ noises whilst they are trying really hard to figure out how to get themselves off to sleep.
Calm down about crying. There are no wolves. If you find yourself reacting strongly to your baby’s crying it may be worth delving into your own experience. Have you spent too much time crying alone in your life? Have you bottled it all up? Don’t project your experiences of crying onto your baby. Your baby is safe. Just wait.
Notice that I’m not giving you a strict time frame or a type of cry to listen for? Only you know that. Waiting for your baby might be 1 minute, or it might be 10 minutes. Your baby’s effort noises may sound like a passionate howl, or a gentle grunt. You are the expert.
By now your baby will either be asleep, or not. You’ve given your baby the opportunity, and a safe space to learn if and when they are ready. Now you can help your baby if they need it. A cuddle, a lullaby, a stroke on the back. Only help as much as your baby needs you to, no more.