What’s the problem with self settling?
What’s the problem with self settling? I mentioned self settling on a Facebook post the other day and I received some backlash.
And it got me thinking, isn’t it a good thing? Self settling is often the trick to solving your child’s sleep issues; don’t people want their child to sleep well?
But I know where the Nay-Sayers are coming from. It’s their perception of what self settling means. But are they right?
What does self-settling mean?
I run newborn classes, and even at this young age I recommend that parents start encouraging self settling (more on that below). But before I even go there, I like to get past the barriers. Those walls that people put up before thinking it through.
I ask my class this question “what does self settling mean to you?”
And it’s normally the dads who answer most honestly.
The image that comes to mind for a group of parents when I say self settling? it’s …
Is that what comes to mind for you too?
I agree that’s a pretty big barrier. But it’s not what self settling is all about.
Where does crying come into it?
Self settling means having a child who can settle themselves into sleep. They go to bed awake, and then drift off to sleep. In other words, they can fall asleep themselves as nature intended. Without the need for an adult to rock, hold, feed or drive around in the car for hours (yes that’s way more common than it should be).
But that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when the words hit our brain.
It’s sad, but our perception is a powerful thing. So let’s explore this whole self settling topic a little more, and try to get away from this negative association that says teaching self settling (or even the act of self settling itself) means crying it out. Because that’s not what I mean at all…
Let’s start at the beginning with newborns.
Let’s just put it out there now… self settling is limited in newborns.
I liken the newborn phase to the 4th trimester (and I’ll write about that separately soon). A new baby is not equipped to manage on their own so young. Let’s not expect them too. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t encourage them to settle by themselves so it’s easier for them when they’re developmentally ready.
We can let them get use to this self-settling business by exposing them to the environment we’d like them to sleep in, when they’re drowsy and ready for sleep. And you know what, there will be times your newborn can fall asleep on their own. And that includes falling asleep in their own space without you right there.
Your newborn won’t want to be away from you initially. But at some point you will need to put them down – and being able to do this when they’re sleeping does make parenting a whole lot easier in the long run.
By all means, please, hold your sleeping baby in your arms when they’re little. There’s nothing better than holding a sleeping baby. Work up to self settling. It really is worth it, if, at some point, you’d like your child to sleep independently. Start as you mean to go on. But take it slowly at this newborn point.
Yes it does help if feeding is going well, the timing is right and you’re both calm.
And no, it won’t always work straight off. Don’t force it. This is about slowly encouraging the process, not expecting things to happen overnight. Good sleep skills take time.
It’s about healthy sleep habits
I’m all about healthy sleep habits. The truth is, we all wake frequently during the night, even as adults – adults just wake slightly less frequently. And that means, to sleep well, we all need to put ourselves back to sleep multiple times throughout the night. And at some point, it’s going to be beneficial for your child to start learning these skills. So they can indeed put themselves back to sleep when they wake multiple times throughout the night.
This is not about not feeding hungry babies in the night, or not responding to the wakes. It’s about developing healthy sleep habits long term by encouraging that natural ability to fall asleep by themselves – I.e. settle themselves or self settle.
The earlier a baby is exposed to falling asleep where you want them to sleep (vs falling asleep elsewhere and then being transferred) the more natural it will seem to them. BUT it doesn’t mean you have to go hard out and have no compassion or empathy. If your child is upset, you comfort them.
Now there’s normally more to add to the mix; age, temperament, sleep debt and respect for the frustration your child may be feeling can be a factor here too. And all these things should be taken into account to determine the best method for you to encourage self settling. This is especially true for an older baby or child who has never slept independently before in their life. If they’ve always had you helping them to sleep, then you’re changing a habit of a lifetime here.
There is no one size fits all strategy because every child and every family dynamic is unique. Seriously, what worked for a friend, or another Mum on Facebook, may not work for you and your family. That is why I develop different plans for different families.
Let’s just digress a minute to respect differing viewpoints.
The dynamics of your baby’s temperament, mixed with your own parenting style and values, and your individual circumstances, means your viewpoint will be different to that of other parents. We’re all different. That’s why you see such strong opinions and different factions and viewpoints pop up in parenting circles.
It’s actually OK to think and feel differently from someone else (really)! It’s our differences that make the world go round. How boring if we were all the same.
I do think that sometimes it would be nice if we could put the judgement aside and trust that ALL parents are actually doing their darnedest to do the best they can (and chances are you’re in this category too and yet still feel like you’re stuffing up regularly). No one is perfect. Indeed:
“There is no one way to be a perfect parent, but a million ways to be a good one”
For some that means their viewpoint refers to co-sleeping. And when that’s a choice you’ve consciously made and it’s working for you I say go for it – safely of course. I don’t have a problem with that. Seriously. I get that you want your child close.
For others, like myself, that means encouraging self settling and independent sleep. I personally like my space and I know loads of other Mums and Dads who do too. It’s not that I never co-sleep. It’s just that it’s also important to me that my children are able to sleep in their own space too.
Both are different parenting sleep styles, and both are valid. Taking some time to understand why others choose a different path can open our own eyes to different choices.
Parenting is not easy people; let’s play nice.
Self settling is not crying it out
This is what it all comes down to. Encouraging self settling doesn’t mean we need to leave a child to cry. This isn’t about crying it out (leaving a child alone until they literally cry themselves to sleep). I don’t develop plans that do this.
But teaching self settling is acknowledging that sleep is natural and believing that, with a little encouragement, sleep will come; without us intervening too much. Let me qualify that, it’s natural past the newborn phase (remember newborns do need more intervention and help).
Sleep matures around the 12-week mark (give or take), and that’s when a child has the natural ability to self settle. They will often do this by sucking on their hands, so it’s also a great time to stop swaddling.
But it still might take a bit of figuring out on their part. Between 3 – 6 months your baby is learning cause an effect at a rapid rate, so it’s at this age that things can really fall into place for sleep. But it’s also a time when accidental parenting and sleep props might get in the way too (and that’s often when I step in to solve any sleep issues).
But what if there is crying?
If your child doesn’t currently know how to settle themselves, they may cry when put down alone. Especially if they’re overtired.
This is because they can’t self settle – yet.
But remember, sleep is natural and it doesn’t actually take long for your little one to figure it out. Babies have super genius brains that are learning new things daily. They can do it.
And at some point, knowing how to settle into sleep will help everyone.
If you are having sleep issues, chances are that at some point something will need to change – unless you want your 9-year old in your bed because they can’t sleep alone. Don’t scoff, I have worked with a number of children this age, who have either never learnt to settle OR who have forgotten how to.
These older children can then become very anxious sleeping alone, because they’re not sure if they can. Comprehension and motivation changes at these older ages (so does the plan), but the truth is, it’s still the ability to self-settle that can see the difference between a child who can sleep well and one who can’t.
Waking frequently is a phase – they’ll grow out of it
I’m pretty sure most parents whose children aren’t sleeping well have received some unsolicited advice at some point. The advice is along the lines of what they’re going through is just a phase, and at some point their child will grow out of waking so often.
Hmmm, remembering that even adults wake frequently during the night. Unfortunately it is often the case that most children don’t just “grow out of it” until something changes. Yes, there are children who accidentally learn to self settle by themselves. And typically this occurs around three years of age. But there are just as many who don’t learn without a little help and encouragement from you, the parent.
And three years is a long time to wait for your child to accidentally fall into good sleep. What benefits of good sleep are you all missing in the meantime?
Change is hard
No, I can’t guarantee no crying when encouraging self settling – there are a number of factors that determine the response. There may be crying or there may not be.
Whenever you make changes to anyone’s sleep habits, it is still change. And as a general rule of thumb, humans don’t like change. No matter what their age. Humans are creatures of habit. And sleep is one of the strongest habit-forming behaviours we have.
There will likely be an element of protest or bewilderment if you start doing something differently from the way it’s always been done at bedtime. But children are pretty adaptable, and again it doesn’t take long for them to learn. But even making changes slowly (like we would a newborn, by doing this sometimes at calm times and comforting them if they cry) can be a step in the right direction and lead to improvements in sleep.
During this period of change having support can be very helpful. It is wise to consider hiring a sleep professional to help you through it as gently as possible. And, yes, I’d love the opportunity to help you.
Self-settling offers you choice
Having a child who can self settle means that you have your evenings to you. Or at least you can choose to have the evening to you. Once you put your child to bed you can walk out and they peacefully drift off to sleep. This happens calmly and they look forward to sleep.
You can also put your child down for a nap and they’re much more likely to have a decent sleep. Freeing up important you time to use as you will; whether that be doing the dishes, having a shower and/or finishing a hot drink. (And yes, I do want you to have enough time during a nap to get ALL those things in.)
When you don’t have that choice because your child literally can’t fall asleep without you or something you’re doing (or they rely on an external sleep prop that requires intervention), then things become tough. For everyone in the family. And unless you’ve had a bad sleeper, you may not know the extent it can interfere with your mental health, your relationships and even the foundation of a marriage. Things crumble and can crumble fast when sleep isn’t happening.
Why would you withhold comfort?
Just because a child can self settle (or is even in the process of learning to self settle), it doesn’t mean you don’t hug them or cuddle them or spend quality time with them. Like some comments against self settling would have you believe.
I teach healthy sleep habits and good sleep hygiene, and these also help with self settling because we’re setting the sleep process up to be as optimal as possible. In fact, if a child has always relied on help to get to sleep, I generally don’t recommend you just put them down and walk out. In these circumstances I like you to be more present in the process to offer comfort.
Remember we’re not bringing up little robots, we have children who have their own personality, temperament, emotions and feelings. And there will be times they need more comfort from you. That’s just a parenting given.
If your child is sick or in pain (or when older, heart broken), they need more comfort.
And if they are not 100% well, then it’s not a good time to start changing things up. Wait until they’re better, then proceed, with comfort.
Good things take time
Learning the art of self-settling often isn’t an overnight process (although it can be).
As I’ve mentioned above, Newborns aren’t developmentally ready to self-settle initially – it’s a process they slowly learn with your help.
An older baby may still need at least a week or two to get their head around it. If not a month for it to become automatic. For older school children it’s also around a month depending on what other sleep issues are in play. Learning to self-settle takes time, and depending on your circumstances, some patience.
But two weeks to a month is just a drop in the bucket if it means you have more time for you or your other children from that point on. And, because you’re no longer so sleep deprived, you’re much more likely to have a more relaxed parenting style. Making everyone happier all around.
The ability to sleep well is an amazing gift to give a child, and it’s one that can last them a lifetime. Because sleep isn’t just about switching off. It’s where all the amazing physical and learning benefits happen. And self settling is a great means to get them there.
If you’re ready to make a change and give your child the gift of self settling, with a step-by-step customised plan, please book in a free initial call to learn more. I’d love the opportunity to help you get more sleep!