What’s the best time to teach self-settling
Often considered the holy grail in terms of aspirations for our children’s sleep, self-settling is the ability for your baby to put themselves to sleep independently, or without the assistance of a parent.
While it’s common to think of self-settling as a biological imperative – sleep is vital to our survival after all – it’s actually a skill that we need to learn.
It’s most parents’ ultimate goal for good reason. Once a child is self-settling, the magnitude of other sleep problems – from short naps, to early waking and broken nights – usually disappear.
So, we know it’s worth the effort. What many parents don’t realise, however, is that teaching your child to self-settle looks very different across the different ages and stages.
So, is there a best time to teach a child self-settling? (Spoiler alert; there is a sweet spot!) Obviously all children are different, but there are common things that you can expect, or that can help the process, based on the age of your child.
Newborns and self-settling
The research, and a good dose of common sense, tells us that it’s not ‘neurologically appropriate’ to have self-settling as the ultimate goal of a baby under 12 weeks old. Any efforts at this time are about starting to establish good sleep habits, at best.
When it comes to sleep, it’s 50% genetic and 50% nurture. You could be blessed with a relatively easy sleeper who, with a bit of nurturing (in the form of good timing, consistency, and gradually backing off) appears to start self-settling by 12 weeks.
Or you might have the genetically more challenging sleeper who, despite all the same input, needs to be patted or rocked to sleep. And that’s OK too.
As you are nearing the three month mark, you might be finding your baby starts to get harder to settle; this could be a sign that they’re ready to start learning the new skill. It’s all about reading your child.
3 – 5 months
Beyond the three month mark, it’s likely that your baby will start to develop more of an ability to self-settle. You might even notice that sometimes they appear to be able to put themselves to sleep, while at other times they struggle.
That is totally normal.
Most of the strategies at this stage are still quite hands-on and require a lot of patience. Your child likely still responds well to patting, cuddling and nursing, which are strategies that help to calm them (at this age) while you start to work on self-settling. Although now still might not be the time to dive into full self-settling, it is a good time to start backing off the sleep props, like dummies, swaddling, or a reliance on movement to get your baby to sleep.
Focus on sleep hygiene at this time, alongside gently encouraging them to settle more independently. Ultimately, it’s totally OK to help them though – they are still young!
5 – 7 months
If you haven’t started doing so yet, this age range is the sweet spot for teaching self-settling, and they’re old enough for some of the hands-off methods if you want to try that route.
Ultimately though, at this age your baby is likely to still respond to being picked up and cuddled and will calm with nursing. Dr Marc Weissbluth believes that if we can teach self-settling at five months, parents can avoid 29 months of sleep regressions.
We’re not sure if that’s 100% accurate, but there are plenty of reasons why this is an ideal time. For starters, your child has probably started rolling, so can start to choose how they want to sleep, which can help them to be more settled. On the other side of that, they are likely still limited in mobility; they can’t crawl yet and are not likely pulling up to stand, so they’re not too busy trying out their new tricks in bed.
Most in this age range are less stubborn and persistent in nature still, and they have a greater sleep pressure – they can’t stay awake as long as, say, a 10 month old. That said, because they can still stay awake for longer than two hours, there is enough sleep pressure there for more than a 45 minute nap, so it’s a good time to start teaching them to link sleep cycles.
Finally, most babies in this age range will be starting solids, which allows their parents to put their minds at rest and rule out hunger-related waking. Usually babies can drop to just one feed overnight by this point, so there are still overnight opportunities to teach them to fall back asleep more independently too.
8 – 12 months
From here on, teaching self-settling begins to get more difficult – although it’s not impossible. By now your child is much more mobile and trying out all their movement tricks.
As well as commando crawling and pulling themselves up, your baby is also beginning to learn cause and effect.
They’re realising that the louder they scream, the faster you run – and they’ve seen what happens if they throw the dummy out of the cot.
Babies older than eight months become increasingly persistent too. They’re becoming able to stay awake for 3 – 4 hours at a stretch if they want to, so trying to teach self-settling for naps becomes more challenging (albeit not impossible).
We have known of children who start doing nap strikes, for at least a few days, as they don’t have the same sleep pressure.
By this age, your child is likely becoming less responsive to being picked up, cuddled, or nursed, or they’re starting to find those interventions confusing.
Parents often find themselves running out of hands-on strategies to calm them while teaching them to self-settle. It is still possible to teach the skill gently, but it’s going to be a less hands-on process than it was in the earlier days.
12 – 18 months
If you are teaching your child to self-settle at this age, bear in mind that you’ll be having a very different experience to your friend who is doing it with a six month old.
We often talk to parents concerned that it “doesn’t seem to be working”, because their techniques are not as effective as they were when their child was younger. It’s common that parents have had their child self-settling when they were younger and experienced a regression, or inconsistency has made things progressively harder.
Knowing how hard it is to re-work on self-settling in these older age brackets, be careful about starting new habits that you can’t sustain at this age.
Again, anything is possible, but you’re likely to have more of a battle on your hands, as your child grows more stubborn and persistent and can likely vocalise more.
18 – 24 months
As a toddler, your child can stay awake for six hours in a stretch easily, so if self-settling is a goal here, we would recommend attempting it only for night sleep.
Trying to change how they take their nap is likely to be more of a challenge than it’s worth. As resistance, many children will give up their naps in protest – but it is still possible to work on night sleeps. At this age, if you are teaching self-settling, chances are you need a personalised plan. Consistency is absolutely paramount, so avoid dipping and diving between different techniques.
Toddlers are very smart and can latch onto inconsistencies very quickly. And while self-settling can still be taught gently at this age, we would avoid picking your toddler up or using nursing to calm them throughout, as toddlers will quickly start to use those things as excuses for not sleeping.
As a final thought, we’ve observed that parents often struggle to see behaviour around sleep in the same way as they observe behaviour around other activities. Because of that, they often respond differently. By way of example, imagine the battle you might have around getting your child strapped into their car seat. Despite their resistance, you’re not going to renege on them being buckled in. Most don’t meet bedtime behaviour with the same resolve, however. Remember that at this age, a tantrum is a tantrum.
Knowledge is power; forewarned and forearmed
Although temperament will play a small part – and what we have here is only a general guide – it really is very different to teach self-settling at different ages.
However, knowledge is power, and knowing that what you are experiencing is normal – because your baby is nine months and therefore not the same as at four months – is helpful. It’s good to have realistic expectations, to know that you’re not doing it wrong, that your kid is not broken and that it’s possibly not even “not working”.
Instead, you might just need to adjust your strategy for your child’s age.
Lastly, although there is a path of least resistance in terms of supporting your child to learn how to self-settle – and the longer you leave it, the harder it is likely to be – ultimately the best time is when you are ready. Parents tackle it at different times for a range of reasons, but we’d also urge you not to wait it out.
The perception among parents is that later stages will get easier, but it’s the opposite when it comes to self-settling. It’s possible at any age though, so go with what is right for you and your child.