It’s scary isn’t it, being a new mum and feeling pressured from all directions to resist cuddling, rocking (or heaven forbid!), feeding your baby to sleep – in case you create’ bad habits’?
The good news is, you can relax: rocking your baby to sleep at four weeks old (or even four months), won’t set him on a path to delinquency, despite the dire warnings you may be hearing right now. Just to get a bit of perspective, imagine you are snuggled next to your partner, you are enjoying cuddles. The love hormones you are both releasing, especially if you are snuggling skin to skin, are making you feel drowsy. You start to drift off, feeling calm, loved and safe. Then, suddenly, your partner pokes you and says, “get onto your own side of the bed! We mustn’t cuddle to sleep. We are creating bad habits! “
Ridiculous isn’t it? But still, you can’t help wondering, if we do rock/cuddle/feed our baby to sleep, will she ever learn to self-settle? Are we depriving her of learning a skill? Are we just postponing the ‘inevitable’ (read, sleep training)?
Most newborns and young babies need some help to fall asleep. This is a complex neurological process that is a reflection of your baby’s developmental stages, not what you have ‘taught’ your baby: for the first four months, babies enter sleep from an active sleep phase and younger babies also have a startle reflex that can wake them randomly, so they will usually need help to calm and settle into a deeper sleep at first. Also, at new developmental stages, your baby’s little brain will be so busy he may have trouble ‘switching off’ and relaxing, so he may need some extra help. The good news is that the help you are giving your baby right now is helping him develop the brain wiring to be able to soothe himself when he is ready – without any sort of ‘training’.
It can be lovely to rock and cuddle your baby to sleep or to watch him doze off, full and contented after a breastfeed. However, even if you aren’t worried about it being a ‘bad habit’, you may still be wondering, will he ever be able to go to sleep all by himself? Or, how can I make changes so he can settle without so much help? You can relax, there are gentle ways to do this without causing stress to either your baby or yourself.
It’s perfectly ok to cuddle your baby to sleep until he ‘weans’ onto bedtime stories as a toddler, if this feels right to you – and even then little ones enjoy bedtime cuddles. If your baby has always been parented to sleep, whatever his age right now, it is respectful and kind to make changes, gradually with love, not suddenly by implementing sleep training that involves tears (for both of you – you will miss these delicious snuggles too!). If you feel ready to see whether your baby can fall asleep without help, give him the opportunity to do this by popping him in his cot when he is comfortable and drowsy, but awake. You may be pleasantly surprised – often at just a few months old babies will have a wee chat and doze off, regardless of how much you have rocked and cuddled previously. Your baby may not do this at every sleep, but if he can manage to doze off by himself sometimes, and has no sleep association with being let to cry, he will feel safe and relaxed at bedtime and will do it more often.
If your baby can’t settle by himself yet, please don’t let him become distressed. Instead, you can try a ‘baby steps’ approach to helping him ‘wean’ off needing to be rocked or fed to sleep – or even to help him give up the dummy:
I explain this in more detail in my book ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’ but, briefly:
Work out a realistic goal, then ‘reverse engineer’ that so you start changing one ‘baby step’ at a time towards reaching your ‘goal’.
For instance, if you rock or breastfeed your baby to sleep but want to change this, start by introducing a more easily discarded cue as rock or feed, such as gentle music and ‘sleepy words’. Simply swapping one cue for another will be stressful and your baby won’t know what to expect so the idea is to ‘overlay’ the new cue (the music).
Play the music on a low volume without making any other changes to your bedtime routine for at least a week. Regardless of promises on CD labels, it will take your baby 7 to 10 days to ‘condition’ him to any music, and you want a positive association with this new routine. Going too quickly can be stressful , so this defeats the process , especially when you have worked so hard to make sleep time a calm and positive experience.
After a week, keep playing the music, but remove your baby from the breast or stop rocking before he falls asleep, just holding him until he dozes off. If he is upset, pop him back on the breast or rock a little, until he settles, then try again. Tip: as you remove your baby from the breast or take a dummy out, press your fingers under his chin and gently hold his mouth closed – he will suck on his tongue a moment and relax, instead of grasping for the breast again.
Once your baby is happily falling asleep in your arms without being fed /rocked to sleep, the next step is to breastfeed him then pop him in his cot drowsy but awake. Keep your hand on him firmly (patting is usually too stimulating) and gently rock him a little if this seems to help.
When baby is settling at this step, you can start moving the bedtime breastfeed back a little and pop him into the cot with his music playing. If he gets upset, always move back a step until he is ready to move forward. With an older baby, once you get to this final stage, you may like to get your partner to start helping at bedtime. He or she won’t smell like milk so cuddles and music will often work very easily.
Whenever you want to make changes, whatever these are, remember the mantra, ‘gradually with love’ and plan backwards from your goal, then work out baby steps and implement these, one at a time. There is no need for distress and if your baby’s ‘habit’ isn’t a problem for you, it’s not a problem at all, whatever your critics might say. If you cop any flack, unless the person giving it is bringing a casserole, you don’t owe them an explanation or an excuse about why you choose to give your baby extra cuddles.
Pinky McKay is the author of ‘Sleeping Like a Baby – simple sleep solutions for infants and toddlers’