Dorothy Waide is one of New Zealand’s most in-demand baby sleep consultants. The Karitane mothercraft nurse is often called The Baby Whisperer and has worked with stars, such as actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. She has a new book called Simply Parenting – From 12 weeks to 12 months, which helps parents navigate the trials, surprises and milestones after navigating the hazy first few months. This excerpt covers self-settling for babies.
Babies love to be held close. So think of yourself as your baby’s buffer; your presence confirms that their world is safe and that they are secure, which in turn helps your baby to build their sense of trust and confidence.
This is the hallmark of nurturing – and it is not spoiling or indulging. It is about laying a foundation that will support your baby in learning healthy sleep habits and, in time, mastering the skill of falling asleep unaided.
What is self-settling?
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Put simply, self-settling is a learning process which lays the foundation for babies to learn how to fall asleep independently without the use of aids or props, and with intervention from you only when needed. The objective of self-settling is to provide your baby with a sense of feeling completely protected and emotionally secure in their environment so that they can fall asleep independently or with some intervention from you when needed. Although it can be hard to listen to, it is healthy and normal for a baby to cry a little before falling asleep.
Terms of self-settling
Self-settling is often referred to as ‘spaced soothing’ (meaning the spaces of time between interventions): pick up and put down, in and out of the room, and so on. The way I like to define self-settling is: ‘It is all about “being” (touching or engulfing your baby) rather than “doing” (cupping and shushing).’
In other words, ‘being’ is about being physically present for your baby by either engulfing in your arms or their cot and being still; and ‘doing’ is about being physically present but also cupping and shushing. Before starting the journey to help older babies learn the art of self-settling, it is important to understand that you are endeavouring to change lifetime habits and that this will take time. It is therefore important to look at what is happening in their wake cycles before starting to show your little one how to self-settle.
The things I usually consider here are:
• The length of wake cycles in relation to their age – some older babies have short wake cycles, as their sleep cues can in fact be hunger signs, which are often misinterpreted as tired signs.
• How often are you feeding in each wake cycle? Trying to get older babies to self-soothe can be difficult when they are hungry at the same time as being tired.
• What types of foods are you feeding your baby? For babies with digestive issues, some foods can affect their sleep.
• For night-wakers, I consider their daytime routine to see what is happening, as often by sorting out their daytime routine we can get the baby to sleep well at night.
Where to self-settle
• In your arms.
• In the cot.
• A mixture of the two.
• For older babies, lying next to an adult. This can be on the bed if you have one in your little one’s room, or on a bed elsewhere in your home. If your little one’s room is too small to house an additional bed, then I suggest lying on the floor with them. (I have been known to do this on several occasions.)
Then, when ready, you can transfer your little one back to their cot. Whichever method you choose, remember it is about you and what works for you, your little one and your family.
Appropriate time and appropriate noise
The length of time you let your baby cry for before intervening is very much governed by instinct and what you and your partner are comfortable with. It is also dependent on your baby’s age, but above all it is critical your little one feels secure at all times and knows that you are close by to reassure and help them self-settle rather than being left on their own in their cot for an extended period of time.
Interpreting cries and knowing when to act
• A grizzle – I am happy to leave a baby who is grizzling, but you need to decide whether you are happy to leave this cry.
• A cry that is off and on again – I am happy to leave, as long as the cry is more off than on. I also take into account the length of time and the age of the little one.
• A cry that reaches an unacceptable peak or is constant – I am not happy to leave this baby alone.
• An older baby who screams immediately after I leave the room – I would go back in. If they stop shortly after I leave the room, as is often the case, then it is quite okay not to go back in. Remember, it takes approximately 20 minutes for a baby to find their sleep, so if the noise is acceptable (not constant or reaching an unacceptable peak for your baby’s age) then:
• it is okay to step back
• it is also okay to be in the room when they are settling
• it is okay to have hands on your little one while settling
• it is okay to pick up your little one and either ‘engulf’ them or lie next to them.
Older babies may cry on and off for up to 20 minutes before finding their sleep. Remember, ideally you will not leave your little one if it is a full-on, constant cry. Reassurance is so important when self-settling.
Remember, it is about appropriate time and appropriate noise. Therefore, you always need to STOP, LISTEN and ACT and respond accordingly to the type of cry it is.
Ask yourself when you hear them cry: What are they trying to tell me? Would you, for example, ignore a little one who was banging and screaming at the bedroom door?
A reminder of what self-settling is not!
Self-settling is not extinction crying (letting them cry it out).
Self-settling is not when you are doing all the steps to get your baby to sleep, such as large movements, nor is it about ‘plugging’ or feeding your baby to sleep. These steps are parent-led methods where you, the parent, are doing all the ‘doing’ and your baby is doing all the ‘being’. More often than not these parent-led steps do not work so well, or at least take longer to work as your baby approaches 16 weeks when they have their first big progressive developmental milestone. It is important though that if you are happy doing all or any of these steps to get your baby to sleep until they are old enough for you to just lie with them until they go to sleep, then it is okay, but some parents find this way of parenting too hard to carry on through the years, and the older the baby is the harder it is to change their habits
Simply Parenting – From 12 weeks to 12 months by Dorothy Waide is available now from bookstores or babyhelp.co.nz. RRP: $39.99.