This episode of Voices of Your Villages answers one of the most common questions I’ve gotten as a sleep consultant over the past six years, which is, “How do I teach my kid to fall asleep independently?”
Babies can start practicing falling asleep independently as early as infancy - shoot for once a day where that kiddo isn’t falling asleep at the breast, in your arms, or at a bottle. This will allow them to start building the toolbox they need to be able to do this - habit is real, and routine is powerful.
Kiddos learn what to expect based on how we respond to them. If they cry and we do x, y, and z, that is what they will expect to happen when they cry. For example, if they cry and we hold them until they fall asleep, that’s what they will think they are supposed to do. So, how do we teach them to fall asleep independently?
Make sure they have been fed and they are awake, then swaddle them, face them out, away from the breast, bounce, rock, or sway back and forth, and give them white noise directly in their ear, which mimics the sound in the womb. If they are still fussing at this point, offer a binky if they take one, or a finger. Once they are calm, transfer them into their safe sleep space. Keep the white noise on, and dim the lights. They might start to cry when you lay them down, but wait 20-30 seconds - if we react immediately, we send the message that “it’s not safe here.” If they are still crying at this point, put your hand on their chest and gently rock them. Still crying? Up the white noise, and do not make eye contact because that stimulates them. Just bring the calm. Kiddos feed off of your cortisol if you are producing it - it’s called “mirroring,” so you need to stay calm and just breathe and remain relaxed. Try a binky again if they continue to cry. If none of this is working, pick them up, and help them find their calm again, and then start the process over. Again, in the newborn stage, just trying this once a day is good practice. Then, over time, they will know they have this tool, and will eventually be able to put themselves to sleep. In our online sleep class, Awake Kiddos, Snoozy Parents, and in the Newborn Sleep Guide, there is more in-depth information and videos demonstrating how to do this. I go over the importance of awake time in newborns, and you can dive into that in-depth in episode 65.
5 - 9 Mos
If you missed the boat on teaching your tiny human this skill as a newborn and want to try during this phase, don’t fret! You still have time. Around 9 months, kiddos develop object permanence, so they know you exist even if you’re not in the room. This can be very challenging for sleep. Just like the newborn stage, it’s important that kiddos aren’t put down when they’re in distress and must be calm. We want to develop a 15-20 min sleep routine for bedtime and about a 5-minute sleep routine for naptime that is consistent. If your kiddo is used to falling asleep at the breast or bottle, you want to move this feeding to the beginning of your sleep routine. Feed them, go through your routine, sleep or rock them, say “I love you,” and put them down. You can continue to soothe them at this point by staying crib-side, rubbing their back, etc., but begin to pull back on the amount of time you stay there as time goes on. You also want to be sure there is a coping mechanism in the crib for them to tap into - a safe lovey or a pacifier - something that is a safe tool for when you are not there. If your kiddo cries when you leave the room, you can practice intervals - leave for a specific amount of time, go back in and soothe them, and leave again, continuing this until they fall asleep. The intervals can start at as little as a one-minute interval but gradually get longer. If their cry ever changes from a protest cry to a distressed cry, pick that kiddo up and try again later. Once they are falling asleep like this at bedtime consistently, you can introduce it at naptime. Once they learn this new routine, it will be what they expect. It’s hard right now because it is new to them, and they are going to be surprised. It’s okay. They are going to have transitions and learn new skills their entire life. Do not make them stop crying for your comfort. We don’t want to teach them that it’s not safe here or that you can’t handle their big emotions. It’s not going to be easy, but change only happens when we change. Kiddos are not going to initiate a change on their own.
9 - 15 Mos
Gross motor development causes a negative change in kiddos’ sleep. As they’re learning to roll over, sit up, pull to stand, crawl, walk, etc. you will see a change in their sleep. If their sleep has been fine and suddenly it is “off,” wait 7-10 days and see if they begin crawling or begin practicing a new skill, like rocking back and forth on their hands and knees. Just ride out their sudden sleep issues for that week or so until they’ve mastered the new skill. If it is not related to gross motor development and is, instead, separation anxiety, what that kiddo needs to know is that you exist and they are safe in a space without you. The way that we send this message is by giving them emotional support and then leaving, because if we stay, the message we are sending them is that they are only safe if we are there with them.
The first three nights of trying something brand new are the hardest. After three nights of a consistent routine, your kiddo will know what to expect. Without consistency, it is very difficult for your kiddo to learn what to expect. It is so important to have a plan because consistency and routine are two of the best gifts we can give to kiddos; if there is no plan, this is very difficult to achieve.
As kiddos get older it can be more difficult to implement a change in a sleep routine, but it is still possible. If you need more support, snag our Newborn Sleep Guide, or our Awake Kiddos, Snoozy Parents classes. I walk you through all the steps in these classes and do a weekly live Q & A as you implement your new strategies and approaches while building these sleep foundations for your kiddos. You can also snag just the Sleep Plan Outline in the Seed Shop on our website. You’ve got this!