While most things associated with infant care are to be expected (feeding them, changing them, picking them up when necessary), eventually the hours of holding and bouncing them until they fall back asleep can make a parent or caregiver more than weary. Babies learning to calm themselves down, or to even put themselves to sleep, can seem like a pipe dream concocted by another sleep-deprived parent. So is it true? And, if so, when can babies self-soothe? After all, more independence for your baby means more freedom for you, the parent.
According to Baby Center, babies as young as a few weeks old are capable of self-soothing. The site goes on to advise parents that establishing a calm, consistent nightly routine is key to helping your baby learn to settle themselves down and fall sleep on their own. Some ways to achieve this, they say, is to make bed time around the same time every day, and to precede bed time with a nightly ritual filled with calm activities (such as a bath, reading a book, or singing a song). Baby Center also suggests putting baby to bed drowsy but awake, and to not feed the baby to sleep, if you want them to learn to fall asleep on their own. Baby Center does, however, caution parents not to expect baby to learn to self-soothe overnight, as this is a skill that takes time (and some babies take longer than others).
Other experts say that you can expect babies to self-soothe even earlier than a few weeks. Miriam Chickering, a registered nurse and sleep consultant, tells the Baby Sleep Site that babies just a week old are capable of self-soothing. You can notice this capability by observing a newborn sucking on their fists when they are upset or hungry. Most people assume that a baby sucking on their fists is simply the baby showing a hunger cue, but Chickering believes it is indicative of something more, saying:
"While this can be taken as a hunger cue, this is also the baby’s way of regulating and decreasing stress. It’s an instinctual behavior. But, pretty soon, the 3-4 month old baby will, in a very coordinated and deliberate way, suck his fingers to help himself get to sleep. So, on all counts, infants absolutely can decrease their stress without outside help."
Chickering goes on to say that a baby's ability to self-soothe doesn't mean that the baby won't need additional help in falling asleep. There are, she says, additional conditions that must be met first before a baby can begin to fall asleep (a full tummy being one, for example). Chickering explains further, saying that even after those conditions are met, you can't necessarily expect your baby to fall asleep on their own. You likely will still have to wean your baby away from their "sleep associations," so that eventually and over time they will successfully soothe themselves to sleep.
Dr. Garcia Narvaez, in a 2013 article for Psychology Today, references a study about nighttime infant waking and how they still need help to settle back to sleep on their own, saying:
"Recent research by Weinraub and her colleagues confirms how normal it is for babies to wake at night, with 66 percent of 6-month-olds still waking at least once or twice a week and the remaining babies waking even more often. Some babies will cry when waking at 12 months of age — even babies who have settled back to sleep on other nights."
Dr. Narvaez also seems to further Chickering's argument about the importance of parents helping their babies feel soothed. She states that helping your baby become calm and taking the time to comfort them goes a long way towards helping them learn to calm themselves. "Over time," she states, "this leads to a strong, self-settling child who can calm him or herself when challenges arise."
Even if you are not sure of your baby's ability so self-soothe, it doesn't hurt to wait a few moments to listen and see if your baby is just fussing a little or if they really need you to intervene. You can practice this at any age. The site Healthy Children advises waiting a few minutes before responding to your baby's cries, that way you can see if they might even fall back asleep on their own.
You know your baby best. If they're screaming like a banshee you're probably needed. If they're making little whiny noises, perhaps if you give them a minute you might discover them sucking on their hands and staring into space before too long. Again, this doesn't mean they'll be drifting off to dreamland alone just yet, but it is a great start to heading down that sweet dream of them learning to fall asleep without you.