What does science have to say about self soothing babies…

A significant milestone of early baby development is the organization of sleep patterns, falling into a predictable day/night pattern, and over time consolidating their night sleep.

If babies don’t do this, we start to label the way they sleep as a sleep problem.

The most common sleep problems we hear about at Baby Sleep Consultant are…

  • Problems going to sleep.
  • Problems around excessively waking at night.
  • Problems with naps.

Usually these very common problems originate in an inability to self-settle for the baby. Reassuringly these sleep problems are common, and generally around 20% of babies are having troubles with sleep.

Since the root problem is often the inability to self-settle, lets look at the origins of self-settling behaviors, and some potential factors that might help with self-settling skills.

Organized sleep patterns

There are 2 biopsychosocial processes involved when it comes to organized infant sleep. Let’s look at both of these processes now.

Sleeping through the night, or otherwise referred to as night sleep consolidation means your baby is gradually developing a diurnal sleep pattern. Longer sleeps at night, and more wakefulness during the day. We know this has to be a very gradual process as newborn babies cannot stay awake for more than 1-1.5 hours, it is not until we see 2.5-4 hour awake windows that we see babies sleeping through the night with a clear diurnal sleep pattern .

Self-regulation is referring to a baby’s ability to control internal states of arousal and fall asleep without help initially and when re-settling. We commonly refer to this ability as self-settling.

As we all know new-borns need to eat a lot!

Both day and night, but what we also know is that over the first 6 months night sleep consolidation becomes less about hunger, and more about your babies maturing circadian rhythm which is entrained by cues such as light, food and social interaction.

This is why experts always encourage minimal light and social interaction during night feeds. This also explains why settling without feeding becomes important to really entrain that circadian rhythm.

Previously scientists thought there were two distinct temperaments of babies when it comes to night sleep. Those who self settle after a sleep cycle, and those who call out and have external support to go back to sleep. However after further observational study, they realized there are infants who call out, and don’t receive external support to go back to sleep, the babies self settle after calling out/crying, and there is a fourth group, who don’t cry or call out, but receive assistance none the less.

One particular study “Night waking, sleep-wake organization and self soothing in the first year of life” looked into a group of infants using video recordings to see how sleep developed and if self soothing or self settling resulted in longer sleep.

One interesting finding was the change in proportion of quiet and active sleep. Newborns spend a lot of time in active sleep, and this decreases from 3-12 months, while quiet sleep proportions increases.

Another super interesting observation was the fact that the number of wake ups over night didn’t decrease from 3-12 months, but the number of times a baby was removed from their cot did. The babies were settling themselves back to sleep, and parents were allowing this to happen as the babies got older.

What else contributes to longer stretches of sleep as these babies moved from 3-12 months?

Most babies at 3 months were sleeping in their parents rooms, while by 12 months, most were in their own room.

Another big factor to consider… at 3 months a lot of the babies were placed in their cots asleep, while by 12 months most were placed in their beds awake. If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know this is always the first place we can make changes for a better night sleep.

Parents in this study also checked on their babies more when they were 3 months old, (even checking while asleep), and checked much less by the time they reached 12 months.

Researchers grouped the 4 sets of babies as described above into 2 groups, self-settlers and non self-settlers. Those who called out/cried and didn’t receive intervention just self settled back to sleep, and those who didn’t call out but woke and self settled.

Note here the researchers don’t call these babies neglected or abandoned or that they have learned to not both signaling as no one is coming, they classify them as self-soothers. The other category was the babies who called out/cried and were assisted back to sleep, or those who didn’t call out but were assisted back to sleep regardless. These two sets were grouped together as the non self-soothers.

The results showed the babies in the self-soothing group had the longest sleep period by mor than 1 hour. The self-soothing group also had a longer total sleep at night by 40 minutes on average. The non self-soothing group was out of their cot for 5% of the night, while the self-soothing group only 1%.

The self-soothing group vocalized 81% of the time when they woke up, and the non self-soothing group 89%. Again, great to see even those babies who self soothe at night, still make noises when awake. Whether this is crying, chatting, babbling, cooing.

They are not lying their scared, alone and feeling forced to be silent like some anti sleep trainers would like you to imagine.

In this study we see confirmation that babies aren’t robots, expecting every night and day to be identical can be disheartening to parents.

Understand your baby’s night sleep and even nap sleep will be slightly variable depending on what has happened that day.

The researchers noted that a stressful event that day would lead to more wake ups that night. This could be as simple as a well child check, or a busy day running errands.

The final observation from this study was that the babies who were placed in their cots awake were more likely to be self-soothers than those who were put in their cots awake.

This amongst other studies confirms the idea that bed time routines, and working on self-soothing at bed time is a great place to start if you are looking for a better night sleep in your house.

Emma Purdue

Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn’t working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.

Our Baby Sleep Program helps tired parents TO DEVELOP HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS BY FOCUSING ON NAPS, SETTLING AND NIGHT SLEEP.

  • Empowered: Feel empowered as a Mum as you learn to understand your growing baby’s needs and cues.
  • Simple effective setting: Gentle, proven self-settling, evidence based techniques.
  • Content happy baby and parents: Better sleep creates content babies & happy parents.
  • Freedom: Predictable routines and longer nights creates freedom. Solve your sleep problems for more freedom.
  • Work with your babies circadian rhythm: Work with your biological clock for faster results.
  • Awesome naps & nights: You’ll create consistent naps and nights with our support.

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