A baby who can self-soothe will fall asleep on their own and play calmly without your intervention. It’s a process, and a skill, that will help throughout their lives. Follow these tips to get started.
It’s naptime — thank goodness. But your baby isn’t having it. They cry. They fuss. So, you bounce them, rock them or even drive around town until they fall asleep.
It’s the question on the top of your mind (and you’re not alone): When — and how — will my baby learn to self-soothe and calm down without so much effort?
Pediatrician Matthew Badgett, MD, answers this important question, and shares ways to help your baby learn to self-soothe.
Why is self-soothing important?
When your baby self-soothes, they can calm down on their own and they:
- Fall asleep without your help.
- Fall back asleep if they wake up in the middle of a nap or during the night.
- Sit or play calmly by themselves.
But self-soothing isn’t just for little ones. It’s an important skill throughout your life. Whether you realize it or not, you use your own self-soothing methods to feel better when you’re stressed or anxious.
“Self-soothing is a way of regulating your emotions,” Dr. Badgett explains. “Babies might suck their thumb or hold a stuffed animal. Adults might listen to music, take a walk or do yoga. The type of self-soothing you use changes throughout your life, but it’s a key part of your emotional health.”
When can my baby learn to self-soothe?
Every exhausted parent wants to know: When will my baby lie in their crib and drift off to sleep without my help? Or When can I put them in their bouncy seat for five minutes without screams of protest?
“In general, don’t try to teach your baby to self-soothe before they are 3 months old,” advises Dr. Badgett. “Newborns need you to help soothe them because they don’t have the ability to control their emotions. Learning emotional control is a process that takes years, so don’t expect too much from an infant or toddler.”
And self-soothing is a gradual process — not a switch you can flip. “Self-soothing is really co-soothing because the parent is still involved,” says Dr. Badgett. “Your baby plays a more active role in soothing, but you set them up for success. You figure out how your baby can calm down with less of your help.”
Self-soothing tips and techniques
If your baby is past the newborn stage but still cries relentlessly when you put them down, there is hope. These tips can help your baby gain self-soothing skills:
1. Meet your baby’s needs first
Before you assume that your baby is just cranky, review their list of needs. Your baby won’t be able to self-soothe if:
- Their diaper is wet or soiled.
- Their clothing is too hot or too cold for the environment.
- There are too many distractions in the room, like a noisy TV or other children.
- They have gas or need to be burped.
- They’re hungry or thirsty.
- They’re overtired.
After you’ve ruled out those issues, move on to the next steps.
2. Set a schedule
Babies love routine. Try to put your baby to bed at the same time every day. Don’t skip naps or keep your baby up late. A schedule keeps them from becoming overtired — that’s when any hope of self-soothing goes out the window.
“If your baby goes to bed at the same times each day, their body clock will get used to it,” Dr. Badgett notes. “Then, they will start to feel sleepy right at naptime or bedtime. Babies that are drowsy, but not exhausted, are better able to fall asleep on their own.”
3. Use white noise
The sound of a fan or a white noise machine can be music to your baby’s ears. “Many babies prefer a steady sound over a perfectly quiet room,” Dr. Badgett says. “It helps drown out other sounds that could startle them, and it has a calming effect.”
Turn on the white noise machine when it’s bedtime. This can serve as a cue for your baby to learn when it’s time for dreamland.
4. Stay close without picking them up
After you place your baby in their crib or seat, don’t leave right away.
“If you give your baby some attention without holding them, they learn that being put down isn’t a bad thing,” Dr. Badgett explains. “Talk to them, or gently put your hand on their belly. After a few minutes, calmly leave the room.”
5. Try a pacifier
Pacifiers are a useful tool for babies under the age of 1. But use caution. It can be hard to take the paci away from a baby who can’t calm down without it.
“Pacifiers help young babies learn to self-soothe before they learn other techniques,” Dr. Badgett says. “But limit pacifier use to naptime and bedtime. Use them with other methods, like white noise and a consistent routine. That way, your baby won’t learn to rely on the pacifier alone.”
6. Wean them off feeding to sleep
It’s normal for young babies to fall asleep at the bottle or breast. But as your baby grows, they need to learn other ways to drift off.
“Don’t feed your older baby right at naptime with the sole purpose of getting them to sleep,” Dr. Badgett suggests. “They might end up overeating or relying on the nipple even when they’re already full.”
You can avoid the feed-to-sleep method if you:
- Stop feeding if you see your baby getting sleepy.
- Gently burp your baby to wake them up a little if they fell asleep feeding. Then, use the other self-soothing techniques to help them calm back down.
With a little persistence, perseverance and patience on your end, your little one could be self-soothing to sleep in no time.