Nearly all new parents will rock, feed, cuddle and pace around for their baby to fall asleep. It’s natural and there is nothing wrong with this.
However, the more we educate parents on baby sleep and some of the reasons behind poor sleep, the more fearful some parents become about ‘getting into bad habits’ from the start!
You cannot spoil a new baby
I’d like to reassure all new parents that you cannot spoil a new baby and any habits that you get into can be adjusted fairly easily between 5-7 month of age.
Babies take a lot of comfort from your closeness, motion and feeding. These activities lull a baby off to sleep just like they did in the womb. So how do you know if you are creating a bad habit that will lead to a problem or if you’re just doing what comes naturally?
In those early few months some parents will experience such exhaustion that they do what they have to do to muddle through while others find it less tiring and are minded to lay some healthy sleep foundations.
Bad habits beyond the 6 month milestone?
If you have moved beyond the 6 month milestone with your baby or young child and feel you are stuck with some habits which are not serving you well and perhaps the habits are making for worse sleep, here are some questions for you:
- Can you identify the thing that puts your baby to sleep? It may be something your baby needs you to do or provide and it will be the things that send him off to sleep.
- Assess how much your baby needs that ‘thing’. Is it a need or a want? For example, feeding to sleep may be what your baby wants to do because it’s all he knows but he doesn’t need to do that. He could have his feed, feel nice and full and cosy and ready for sleep and then settle to sleep aware that he is doing so (this takes some practice of course)!
- How could you remove or reduce the use of the habitual thing that puts your baby to sleep? Some things can be gradually removed, such as holding to sleep while other things are either there or gone such as a dummy.
- Work on transitioning from using something to put your baby to sleep, to helping him to settle to sleep without that habit and eventually he will be doing it without needing your help!
I describe the process of transitioning away from an unhelpful habit much like learning to ride a bike. The habit means you or something is putting baby to sleep. In some way or other it is ‘doing it for him’
- This is like riding a bike with stabilisers on!
So let’s stop doing it FOR him and instead do it WITH him. This means he is aware and plays some role in the settling process but with your assistance through soothing, reassuring and being there.
- This is like running along holding the bike up for your child once the training wheels are off!
Next, you take a few steps to gradually reduce your input so that he does a bit more of the work to settle to sleep and gets more practice doing so while you are still helping but much less.
- This is where you begin to let go of the bike and run alongside, grabbing hold every now and then!
Finally, he is settling to sleep with barely any assistance from you and you are able to take a step back. He’s got it and he can self settle!
- Needless to say, this is like when they master riding a bike!
In my book I talk about this in my ‘4-Step Fade Out’ approach. It is the softest, responsive way to help a little one learn how to self settle to sleep. It is not something they ‘figure out in their own time’. It is a learned skill. Some learn it very easily just by having a good, consistent routine in place. Other struggle even with the most ideal routine and often these are rather alert little ones who find it harder to rest their busy heads!
Let’s take a look at some popular habits that parents ask me about:
Pacifiers – how do I ditch the dummy?
The dummy is one that you cannot wean. It is either there or it is not. We are told that dummies reduce the risk of SIDS in the first six months so there is no rush to get rid of it before that time. After 6 months, the sooner you get rid of them, the easier it will be for baby to adjust. As they get older and more attached, it can become a slightly bigger challenge to say goodbye.
Once you make the decision, stick to it. If you make the dummies disappear and then, when things get tough one night, you bring one back… Uh, Oh! You just told your baby that you didn’t really mean it and this confusing message will keep him holding out hard for it next time!
Co-sleeping – when it’s not helping and you want it to end
Again, the rule of consistency is paramount. You have to stick to your decision once you make it and your bed will be out of bounds. If you cave in at 5a.m you will create a very strong-willed protest from your little one who simply took the message from you that it was a possible option (because you did it that one time).
Instead, take your loving comfort and support to your little one on their room by their side. This keeps the child’s sleep space consistent and your assistance can be ‘weaned’ very subtly as he gets better at settling there.
Rocking – I can’t put my baby down!?
If your baby has become reliant upon being rocked to sleep you can gently move on from this by holding and just an intermittent rock with some stillness in between. Gradually increase the periods of holding him but staying still without the rocking. Once you are down to just holding to sleep, you can place baby down with your arms still touching for a few moments to help with the adjustment and then gradually remove your arms from the cot. It is slow and gentle transition done over a number of nights at bedtime and then repeat the same steps you did at bedtime for any night wakings that need resettling.
Feeding – it feels like it’s the only way to get baby to sleep
When a baby is used to feeding to sleep, he will likely reject any other forms of comfort that you try at first. This is his way of saying “no that’s not what we do, I want the milk”.
Always feed a hungry baby and after that last feed before bedtime, try to ensure baby is not asleep. It may help to start a bit earlier or change the feeding position slightly to make for a more conscious feeding session.
When baby finishes the feed and perhaps some gentle winding, place him down to sleep and continue your soothing efforts while he is laying in the cot. The more practice he gets at the sensation of falling asleep this way, the easier it will become. You need to stick with it and if baby becomes very upset, pick up to reassure and then place back down again (awake) and carry on.
Remember, bad habits are only bad habits if they are causing a problem and having an unhealthy impact on the family. If you feel worried about ‘habits’ you have forming with a new baby, consider subtly moving away from those habits around 5 months.
The best place to begin is always with a consistent bedtime routine with the same steps in the same order every night and finishing the routine in the room where the baby will sleep – nice and dark and calm to cue baby that it is sleep time. You can start this from just a few weeks old and it is one of the best practices you can get into.
Lucy Shrimpton, The Sleep Nanny® is the Sleep Expert at The Baby Show. She will be speaking on Friday 18th October at 2.30pm.
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