Expert Advice

How to get your baby to self-settle at night

Rocking your baby to sleep no longer works once they're eight or nine months old. Here's all you need to know to get your baby self-settling at night.

You can no longer rock a baby to sleep by the time they're eight or nine months old. By this age they're super-ready to self-settle, says sleep consultant Emma Purdue.

Sleep advice is big business in New Zealand, with hundreds of parents flocking to sleep consultants like Emma Purdue every year, desperate to put an end to night wakings and bedtime battles. How to teach your baby (usually your nine-month-old) how to self-settle at night is one of the questions Emma gets asked more than any others. Here, she gives her advice:

Why do nine-month-olds seem so tricky to get to sleep at night?

There are four main reasons:

Mobility

By nine months they’ve usually started crawling and that developmental leap can have a huge impact on their sleep. Becoming mobile is exciting for them and they want to practice whenever they can, so they tend to crawl around their cots a lot instead of lying still and going to sleep.

Teething

Babies classically start cutting teeth at around six months old until they’re around two years and while the night wakings can begin because they’re in pain, after a while they can be waking simply out of habit, knowing Mum will come when they cry. The difficulty for parents is knowing when they’re in pain and when they’re not.

Getting the solids/milk balance right

By eight months you switch to solids before milk feeds and parents sometimes don’t get the balance right. If the space between their solids and milk feeds is too far apart then the children can reduce their milk feeds too quickly, and the solids aren’t as calorie-rich as the milk feeds. For example, a bowl of broccoli and peas is nowhere near as calorie-rich as a full milk feed. Or it may be that there’s not enough protein/meat in their diet. Both scenarios can result in the child waking up hungry.

Parents panic and ‘regress’

In all three instances parents fall into that accidental trap of thinking they need to start rocking their child to sleep again or patting or feeding their child back to sleep, but by nine months those techniques no longer work. A nine-month-old has outgrown being rocked to sleep and will find it over-stimulating and frustrating – keeping them awake. It goes from being helpful to a hindrance.

So what do parents need to do to get their nine-month-old to sleep?

Firstly, make sure they’re not hungry and/or in pain from teething. Lots of nine-month-olds are super-ready to self-settle so give them the space to do that.

To help your child master self-settling, you could try either of the following two approaches. The one you choose will depend on your child and his or her sleep temperament, as well as you and your parenting technique. Both require you to make sure you’re not doing too much picking up or touching.

Gentle approach:

Put your baby to bed in a sleeping bag after a relaxing winding-down ritual, making sure they’re awake and not drowsy. Stay in the room and sit by the cot to give that emotional support to your baby and allow them to self-settle – then it’s about working out what they need for soothing. If they’re crying can you reach through the bars and rub their tummy or sing to them, shush them or talk to them? If they stand up you could put them down gently. You can do anything to soothe them, it’s just making sure you don’t overstimulate them. The goal is not to make them drowsy; the child needs to learn to go from awake to drowsy to asleep on their own.

You can expect this approach to take one to two weeks.

Controlled crying

With this approach you leave the room after you’ve put them to bed, and then go in to soothe them at five- to 15-minute intervals. You can increase the intervals (starting from five minutes) any way you like – from five minutes to six minutes to seven, up to a maximum of 15 minutes. Or by five minutes at a time up to a maximum of 15 minutes – whatever works best for you and your baby.

As with the gentle approach, do anything you like to soothe when you go in to check and console your child – just as long as you don’t overstimulate them. Stay for a minute or two then leave the room again.

You can expect this approach to take three to four nights.

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