Do you hop into bed, close your eyes and fall asleep easily?
Or does your busy brain take a while to switch off as you think about all the things you need to do tomorrow?
Do you need a certain environment or triggers to help you fall asleep – a darkened room? A warm drink? Do you read or listen to music or a meditation? Do you snuggle up to your partner?
Now, imagine being all snuggled up enjoying a cuddle and relaxing in your partner’s arms. Then, just as you are dozing off, he or she bumps you awake and says, ‘get over to your own side of the bed, we need to self –settle or we will create bad habits?’
We all have sleep associations, we don’t bat an eyelid about our own quirks or needs around what helps us sleep. Yet, with even a very young baby, there is pressure to ‘teach your baby to self-settle’ – to fall asleep without any help from you.
‘Self-settling’ has become the holy grail of sleep training. One of the main reasons, apart from the sheer convenience of having a baby who falls asleep without help, is that once your baby can ‘self-settle’, she will put herself back to sleep without disturbing you if she wakes during the night. This is rubbish – apart from the fact that you are growing a little person, not simply managing an inconvenience – many babies who happily fall asleep after being put into bed wide awake will call for help or reassurance if they wake during the night. They don’t have the brain structures to physiologically ‘self soothe’ yet, and they won’t develop these for several years.
There are many reasons for babies waking, from hunger or discomfort to separation anxiety and, just as your baby needs food to grow, she also needs the stimulation of your touch to help the development of her nervous system, her brain, her digestive system and for emotional reassurance. These are all legitimate reasons for your baby to signal that she needs you, day or night.
Why does ‘self-settling’ matter (actually it doesn’t)
Another reason given for placing your baby into bed wide awake is that if he falls asleep in your arms then wakes and you aren’t there, he will be frightened. While this sounds logical, in my experience, most babies simply wake and call out. If you are normally responsive (and you don’t have to be perfect) your baby will trust you to come so he won’t be frightened, at least not for longer than it takes you to come and soothe him (we can all wake from a scary dream with a startle). And what if you do let babies cry themselves to sleep in the first place, are they any less frightened?
A study by Wendy Middlemiss (here) , at the University of North Texas, showed that babies who were left to cry while undergoing sleep training (falling asleep without comfort from parents), released high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. And, even when these babies fell asleep without protesting (after three days of crying to sleep), their cortisol levels remained elevated. This means that although sleep training had achieved a ‘self-settling’ baby, the infants were still distressed.
Neurobiologist Bruce Perry explains this process as a ‘defeat response’. Normally when humans feel threatened, our bodies flood with stress hormones and we go into ‘fight –or- flight’ mode. But there is a third survival response. Babies can’t fight and they can’t flee, so they communicate their distress by crying. When infant cries are ignored, this trauma elicits a ‘freeze’ or ‘defeat’ response . As in research by Middlemiss and her team, babies eventually abandon their crying even though the baby’s brain is flooded with stress hormones. Paediatrician William Sears calls this the ‘shut down syndrome’ – the baby’s nervous system shuts down the emotional pain and the striving to reach out. This is a basic survival mechanism to preserve homeostasis, not a sign that you have ‘taught’ a baby to self –settle or sleep.
So, what can you expect?
Advice to teach ‘self –settling’ is so prevalent that even parents of newborns feel pressured to pop babies down awake so they ‘learn’ to fall asleep by themselves. The thing is, newborns and even many older babies can’t simply switch off and fall asleep without some help.
For the first four months, babies enter sleep through an active sleep cycle, they have a startle reflex and, depending on the individual baby, he may not have the capacity to block out stimulation, so his little over tired brain could have a lot of difficulty switching off. This means most babies will need some help to move into a deep sleep or to move through sleep cycles.
Just in case you are comparing your baby to others who reportedly ‘self- settle’, it may help to consider that if help to fall asleep doesn’t come from a parent, many babies will have dummies or a ‘lovey’. While sucking does indeed help babies relax and it’s your choice whether to offer a dummy, please note, this may impact on feeding if given before breastfeeding is established and it could affect sleep at a later stage as the dummy slips out of baby’s mouth and needs to be replaced through the night.
One sleep trainer (and possibly more than one) advises giving your newborn a ‘comforter toy’ as you train your baby to ‘self settle’ from the earliest days. Apart from the fact that putting anything into a baby’s cot that could potentially cover the baby’s face and pose a suffocation risk, a newborn that has just exited your safe, warm body is biologically programmed to expect comfort from a human body with a heartbeat, breath, familiar voice and smell, and loving arms, not a still, inanimate object like a piece of fabric with a ‘head’ on it.
Some babies DO fall asleep without help
Yes, some babies do fall asleep with very little help or they actually seem to prefer to be put down so they can doze off quietly. One of my own babies was like this at around three months old – I had one ‘self-settling’ baby out of five! I only discovered this accidentally after two baby boys who often fell asleep at the breast, especially if we were out and about in noisy environments – my motto was ‘if in doubt, flop them out’. I then had a baby girl and although I don’t want to sound sexist here, she wasn’t as big or as hungry as her brothers had been so she wasn’t easily soothed by offering a breast. She was born into a hectic environment with two loud, active brothers so was often over-stimulated and prone to crying bouts when she was overwhelmed. Baby wearing was the only thing that helped but even this didn’t work every time.
One day when I was trying to help her fall asleep, I needed desperately to go to the loo. As I popped her down in her bassinet, her whole body relaxed. Whether she had sensed my stress, I don’t know but it was as though she was saying, ‘thank goodness that woman and her boobs have left me alone.’ When I came back to check on her, she was happily chatting to herself and watching her tiny hands so I waited and watched to see what she would do. She fell asleep without any help. So, after this I simply popped her down when she was tired – and she chatted a bit then fell asleep.
Giving opportunities versus ‘training’ your baby
Of course you can give your baby the opportunity to fall asleep without help, but this is very different from leaving your baby to cry in order to ‘teach’ or ‘train’ her to fall asleep on her own. Even mothers who have cuddled or rocked babies to sleep or held or worn their babies throughout a sleep for the first few months are surprised to find that by simply offering the opportunity, when their babies are ready, they will fall asleep with a full belly and a cuddle before being placed in their cot. But please don’t become too excited too soon – baby development is dynamic and just as you feel things are becoming easier, they can change as your baby reaches the next milestone, catches a cold or gets a new tooth. And at these times he may need more help to sleep and he may wake more often too.
Your are not failing or failing your baby
So, if you are cuddling or rocking or your baby needs a breastfeed to fall asleep, whatever his age, you are not failing and you are not failing your baby by neglecting to ‘teach’ him a skill (as self settling is presented). You can’t teach a baby to walk before his little muscles are developed enough; you can’t teach him to talk before his oral structures and the brain wiring that enables this are present and he won’t be able to truly ‘self soothe’ no matter how long you leave him to cry himself to sleep, until he has developed the brain structures and cognitive skills that enable emotional regulation – in other words, the ability to calm himself when he becomes upset.
Infancy is a time of rapid development; a time when tiny brains are being wired. Babies need our help to learn how to regulate their emotions, meaning that when we respond and soothe their cries, we help them understand that when they are upset, they can calm down. As we respond to babies, we are also encouraging the development of brain connections that make it physiologically possible for them to react appropriately to stressful situations and to switch off a stress response more quickly. According to a longitudinal study of school-aged children, responsive nurturing encourages the development of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is key to memory and stress modulation. This means that by responding to your baby now, when she is older, she will have a better capacity to soothe herself and calm down if she is feeling upset, angry or anxious.
Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised and respected breastfeeding expert and advocate for gentle parenting. She’s an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling author of the newly revised ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’.