Self-soothing means that a baby is able to fall asleep, or return to sleep after waking, on their own with little or no crying. Whether a baby can self-soothe may depend on their age, temperament, and sleep environment.
It is normal for babies to wake at night during their first 12 months of life. However, frequent waking can take a toll on the mental health of parents and caregivers. This leads many people to consider various techniques for encouraging self-soothing.
In this article, we look at what self-soothing is, whether it is beneficial, the age at which babies may be able to self-soothe, and techniques for encouraging this behavior.
Babies who self-soothe are able to fall back asleep on their own with little or no crying. They may wake, briefly make noise, and then fall back to sleep.
Some babies learn to self-soothe naturally as they get older. However, in other cases, parents or caregivers try to encourage the behavior through various techniques.
Many approaches exist for encouraging babies to self-soothe, ranging from the extinction method, or “cry it out” (CIO), to more gradual approaches.
The methods that people use for self-soothing can be controversial. Some people believe that babies cannot or should not have to self-soothe, while others believe it to be vital for their well-being.
However, there is no conclusive evidence that babies who can self-soothe are more healthy than those who cannot yet self-soothe.
There is also no consensus on whether the techniques people use to encourage it are beneficial or harmful.
Sleep is important for health and child development. A 2018 review notes that better infant sleep is often associated with a calmer temperament and adaptability in the child.
However, a 2020 study on two large groups of infants found that it is normal for babies’ sleeping patterns to fluctuate during their first 2 years of life. As such, babies can sleep better or worse depending on their stage of development. This does not necessarily cause any harm to infants.
Self-soothing may be most beneficial to parents and caregivers. Infant sleep problems are associated with higher levels of distress and depression among caregivers. According to the 2018 review, some studies find that sleep training reduces symptoms of depression in caregivers.
As sleep deprivation can harm both babies and those in their households, the ability to self-soothe may have significant advantages for those who are finding it challenging.
The age at which babies are able to self-soothe can vary depending on the baby and their sleep environment.
Newborns are not typically capable of self-soothing, and encouraging them to do so can be harmful, as their sleep patterns are irregular, and they need to eat frequently to gain weight.
By around 3 or 4 months, it is possible for some babies to self-soothe. As the baby gets older and their sleep patterns become more regular, self-soothing becomes easier.
The authors of an article in The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing note that it is normal for babies to wake during sleep until the age of 12 months but that sleep starts to improve and stabilize at 3–6 months.
A small percentage of babies do not begin to self-soothe by 3–6 months, and some may struggle to self-soothe at all.
The most effective techniques may vary depending on the age of the infant.
While newborns typically cannot self-soothe, establishing a sleep routine and healthy sleep habits from birth may help the baby sleep well later on. Parents and caregivers can try:
- putting the baby to bed at the same time each night in a quiet, dark room
- establishing a bedtime routine, which may include a bath or a bedtime story
- being warm and affectionate at bedtime so that the baby feels safe
- not letting the baby nap for more than 3 hours during the daytime
A 2019 study found that newborns whose caregivers soothed them using different techniques slept for longer than other newborns. The researchers taught caregivers the 4S soothing techniques, which are:
- swaddling (until the baby can roll over)
- holding the baby on their side or stomach
- swinging or rocking the baby
- shushing the baby or using white noise
These techniques may help parents and caregivers get better sleep until the baby can start sleeping through the night.
Older babies and toddlers
For babies who are old enough to self-soothe or show signs of being able to, caregivers can try:
- giving the baby a separate sleep space
- putting the baby to bed drowsy, but not asleep
- giving the baby a moment to calm down before going to them after they wake up
- soothing the baby without picking them up, such as by rubbing their back or shushing them
- allowing them to sleep with a security object (if the child is old enough), such as a blanket or soft toy
Many families use some form of the CIO or extinction method to encourage babies to self-soothe. This involves putting babies in their crib while awake and letting them cry for a certain amount of time until soothing them, or avoiding soothing entirely until they fall asleep unassisted.
This parenting choice is the subject of ongoing debate among families and child development researchers. Studies differ on whether CIO techniques are beneficial, harmful, or neither.
A 2020 paper looking at the evolution of parenting techniques over the last 200 years argues that CIO became a common practice due to fear-based messages, such as the idea that comforting a crying baby will spoil them.
A 2017 article also notes that many online sources teaching caregivers how to sleep-train their babies are not based on evidence.
However, a 2020 study found that CIO methods did not have a negative effect on babies’ attachments to their caregivers and that this method decreased crying overall at 18 months.
Caregivers who wish to try CIO methods may benefit from speaking with a pediatrician or another medical professional about the potential advantages and disadvantages.
People must consider which approach works best for them and their baby and is most consistent with their parenting philosophy.
Wakefulness during the first year of a baby’s life does not usually indicate a health problem. However, if a baby is frequently waking up at 6 months or older, caregivers may wish to speak to a pediatrician.
It is important to see a doctor if:
- a baby is not gaining weight or begins losing weight after sleeping for longer periods
- a baby struggles with sleep because they are in pain, have reflux, or seem unusually anxious
- a parent or caregiver feels depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed because of sleep deprivation
- a parent or caregiver needs help deciding whether it is safe to sleep-train a baby who was either premature or has health conditions
Pediatricians may have differing views on sleep and self-soothing. As a result, it can help to choose a pediatrician with a similar philosophy on parenting.
There are many viable options for getting a baby to sleep, and not all strategies will work for everyone. Parents and caregivers should trust their instincts, pay attention to the baby’s cues, and seek expert help when they struggle.