Does this sound familiar? With Alex, after a calming bed routine I’d put him down, he would cry. I’d rock him until calm, put him down – he’d cry. Take him for a walk – put him down – he’d cry. After an hour or two, I’d “give in” and feed him to sleep, crying about my “failure”.
The mindset of “giving in” and “failure” is cultural baggage Mothers do not need. Here is why you should not feel guilty for helping your baby to sleep when they need you to.
Sleep is not everything
It is true that babies may wake more often at night if you help them to sleep than if they fall asleep in their cot. As shown in Figure 1 below, one study of 6 month olds found that only 22% of babies put in their cot already asleep self-settled from night wakings without signaling, compared to 36% of babies who fell asleep in their cot (1). Note the low percentage in both groups though – putting your baby in bed calm but awake improves your chances of unbroken sleep, but it is far from guaranteed. Also, babies who were fed at bedtime and during night wakings were more likely to signal for parental help (1). In another study, babies were more likely to self-settle from night wakings at 12 months if they were placed in their cot awake at 9 and 12 months, but whether they were placed in their cot awake or asleep at 1, 3, and 6 months had no significant bearing on whether they self-settled at 12 months (2).
So, self-settling to sleep improves chances of self-settling back to sleep, but chances of self-settling back to sleep at 6 months of age are still low, and whether or not your baby self-settles this time, does not necessarily predict whether he or she will self-settle next time, or a month or three months from now.
Look at the big picture. Ten years from now, will you care whether your baby self-settled at 3, 6, 9, 12 months? Probably not. What will matter? Things like your 10 year old’s relationship with you, and his ability to regulate his emotions. You are setting down the foundations for a lot more than healthy sleep habits during infant and toddler years.
Responding to Baby’s distress promotes secure attachment
Throughout their first year, infants are forming attachments to their primary caregivers (Attachment theory; 3). The theory is that infants, especially before they are mobile, need their caregivers close to them, especially when they feel threatened or distressed. Learning that their caregivers are there for them when needed is a big part of building a secure attachment (4). Secure attachments develop when caregivers provide reliable and sensitive responses to their babies’ emotional expressions (5). Greater sensitivity from mothers was based on behaviour during play with their 12-month olds as per the Pederson-Moran Q-Set measure. Sensitive behaviour included responses to positive (interest, playful) and negative (distress, concern) cues. Sensitive behaviours relevant to sleep were visibly acknowledging cries and whimpers, responding immediately to distress and when the Baby had reached his or her limits in self-soothing ability, and giving baby enough comfort to satisfy him or her. There are many behaviours beyond these that contributed to sensitivity, and parents interact with their children a lot more than just at bed-time. Therefore, it is unfair to claim that not responding to your baby at bedtime will damage your attachment, nor is there any empirical evidence for this. However, if you do respond at sleep time, as you would at other times, this does send a more consistent message, and would be expected to support a secure attachment.
For babies with a secure attachment, their caregiver becomes a secure base allowing them to explore their surroundings safe in the knowledge that they can return to their secure base for comfort at any time. This is a very healthy foundation for developing independence, and has been associated with a host of benefits including the ability to better regulate emotions and behaviour, and school success (6, 7).
When you respond to your baby’s distress, the only thing you are “giving in” to is your natural urge to respond to your baby’s cues. This is a sensitive response and an important part of building a secure attachment.
Responding to emotions helps develop emotional regulation
As detailed in Teaching Emotion Management: Helicopter Parenting, and Sleep, mothers who are more responsive to their child’s emotions have children who are better able to self-regulate emotions.
Night wakings are not always problematic
If you can function during the day, and your baby is happy and active during the day, night wakings may not be problematic. In the first study cited above (1), babies who signaled often, and babies who self settled from night wakings without signalling did not differ in the percentage of active and quiet sleep. This suggests no impact of night-time signalling on the developing sleep patterns.
See past the cultural misinformation and adult interpretations of child behaviour
The ideal is not a common reality
So many books and mothers would have you believe that if you do everything right, after a calming bedtime routine, you place your baby in their cot sleepy but awake, say goodnight, and they fall asleep. This is possible, I have experienced it, but it is not the norm. In one study of 6 month olds, 6 in 10 parents who put their baby down awake had to intervene at least once before their baby fell asleep (1; I particularly like this study because even though it is old, it used video recording devices in the babies’ bedrooms, allowed parents to do as they normally would, and objectively coded baby and mother actions and interactions). You and your baby are the norm, not the exception if you have to intervene before your baby will settle to sleep. Even then for each 10 babies put in bed awake, 6 would still signal for parental help during night wakings (1).
Babies cannot be manipulative, therefore you are not “Giving in”
To be manipulative implies intentionally trying to make someone do something. For many months, babies still don’t fully realise they are a separate entity from you. This is a gradual realisation that becomes apparent when they begin to cry when you leave their sight. It is not until between 3 and 5 years of age that children begin to realise that your knowledge differs from theirs’ (8). In many cases babies and toddlers probably don’t even know what’s wrong, only that they feel uncomfortable emotions. At most, Baby has learned that when they feel this way, milk and/or hugs makes it feel better.
So when your baby is having trouble falling asleep, they are not fighting you (and you are not “giving in”).
Sometimes it’s not you, it’s your baby
Some babies have difficulty settling without Mum or Dad regardless of what you try. Evidence that babies who settle to sleep independently tend to have more consolidated sleep is taken to indicate that minimising parental involvement in the settling process is best practice. However, the link has been found to go both ways. Parental settling practices influence infant sleep AND infant sleep influences parental settling practices (9). Also, babies with a greater proportion of quiet sleep at 1 month of age, were more likely to self-settle at 12 months of age (10). You can influence your baby’s sleep habits, but some babies are just going to have a harder time learning to self-settle, and will learn to self-settle later than others.
There are advantages of helping your baby to sleep that can sometimes outweigh the disadvantages
Extended attempts to self settle can result in over-tiredness
If you persist for too long at trying to get your baby to self-settle to sleep, he may become over-tired. Even as an adult, you may have noticed that emotions are more intense and it is harder to take a rational perspective when tired. It’s the same for Babies, except that they never could take a rational perspective (see a discussion in the post Response to “Self Settling – What really happens”). The more intense the emotions and the less wakeful energy your baby has to deal with them, the less likely he or she is to be able to self-settle. I doubt Babies learn much about self-settling from falling asleep out of exhaustion.
Trialing different responses promotes your intuition
Experts can make amazing predictions and diagnoses with apparently limited information very quickly. This can be labelled “intuition”. Intuition develops over time through experience, and is more accurate when there are valid cues and feedback (11). Each time your baby cries, and you try to help, you are learning. With time and experience you will learn what your baby does, and how they sound when they are tired, when they have a burp, or wind, or when they are hungry. You learn by trying everything, and getting feedback, such as a burp, hungry suckling, comfort suckling, and noticing what they do before calming down. Doing what you have to do to get your baby to sleep is all part of developing your intuition. You may not be a parenting expert, but you are becoming the most proficient expert in understanding your baby. Until you have developed your intuition and are confident that you are correctly reading your baby’s cues, responding to cries aids in learning what they mean.
As an aside, you need to watch for things that can disrupt this learning process. One is not trying things because they ended badly before. Babies are constantly changing, and you can’t be sure that the problem was the method, not the timing. If you haven’t tried something for a month, it may be time to try again. For example, most babies self-sooth more and more from 1 to 12 months of age (though some babies show the opposite pattern, 10). Even if your baby has never settled to sleep without you there, it is still worth providing that opportunity.
Self-soothing does not always involve crying
The argument goes that if you always help your baby to sleep, you are “depriving” them of the opportunity to learn to self-soothe. It is true that you are reducing opportunities to self-soothe, but opportunities to learn self-soothing come up every time your baby wakes, night and day. Of 6 month olds who called for parental intervention at night, 8 in 10 of them made some attempt at self-soothing first. Some tried for only a few seconds, but others tried for a while before calling in back up. In addition, of the 16 babies who signaled for parental help during the night, 10 also had silent night-wakings where they did settle back to sleep independently (1). This cannot be put down to the babies not really waking up. The settling behaviour during silent awakenings looked very similar between babies who always self-settled and those who sometimes signaled, including thumb-sucking, playing with toys, use a dummy or bottle, or stroking a soft object.
What does this all mean? Sometimes you may have to help your baby to sleep in any way possible. This is not something to feel guilty about. You are not a failure. You are not giving in. The terms “good baby” and “bad baby”, “good mother”, and “bad mother”, are all too dichotomous. Every baby and mother has their strengths and weaknesses. Sleeping may not be your baby’s strength now. This does not make him or her a “bad baby” or you a “bad mother”, nor is a “bad sleeper” always going to be bad at sleeping.
Sometimes your baby may manage to self-settle, sometimes she won’t, perhaps often she won’t. When you have to help, you are laying down foundations for a secure relationship, and emotional regulation skills. Disregard any real or perceived criticism. You are becoming the expert in knowing your child and when he needs help.
I’d love to hear about how these sort of mindsets differ across cultures. Do people always make such a big deal about how babies sleep? Do mothers feel the same pressure to get their baby to self-settle to sleep in other cultures? Please enlighten us by commenting below.
For ideas for gentle methods for promoting self settling, check out the series of podcasts with Associate Professor Sarah Blunden, and the Sleep Options Wizard for 0 to 5 year olds.
Also, if you would like a list of settling techniques that ranges from hands off to in arms, and other free resources, please sign up to my newsletter.
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10. Burnham, M. M., Goodlin‐Jones, B. L., Gaylor, E. E., & Anders, T. F. (2002). Nighttime sleep‐wake patterns and self‐soothing from birth to one year of age: A longitudinal intervention study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43(6), 713-725.
11. Kahneman, D., & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree. American Psychologist, 64(6), 515.