Baby sleep cycles: What’s the difference between self-settling and self-soothing

self-settling vs self-soothing

Do you know the key differences between a baby self settling and self soothing? Let’s explore why understanding the difference is important and how it ties into healthy sleep foundations.

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    Self-settling vs self-soothing. What is the difference? Have you heard these terms being used interchangeably and not sure which one is which?

    Hint they are actually VERY different.

    In this blog I break down both terms to provide a clear understanding of what each term means and how they can be applied from babyhood right through to adulthood. Yes, this is not just related to babies or toddlers, these are life-long skills!

    I also want to dispel the myths around self-settling and self-soothing being synonymous with sleep training (especially any outdated Cry It Out methods which I don’t work with *EVER* in my sleep practices).

    We can improve our little one’s sleep and ultimately our bond and attachment with healthy sleep foundations when we have a better understanding of what these two terms mean and how they can be incorporated into healthy sleep foundations.

    What is self settling? How does a baby self settle to sleep?

    Self settling is about settling yourself to sleep. Simply put, it’s going from an awake state to asleep without someone doing it for you.

    Self settling is the physiological process of falling asleep which is related to subcortical control of the brain. This part of the brain is also involved in complex activities such as memory, emotion, pleasure and hormone production. They act as information hubs of the nervous system, as they relay and modulate information passing to different areas of the brain.

    Developmentally speaking, some babies can self-settle from birth (with the right temperament, sleep structure and given the opportunity to try).

    Humans are pretty amazing beings!

    However, don’t be fooled by this fact because self settling from birth isn’t as common as we would like to think or expect.

    Age appropriate self settling expectations

    Birth to 3 months

    Most babies need hands-on assistance to transition from awake to asleep.  This could be in the form of feeding, rocking, holding, sucking etc. This is the extension of the Fourth Trimester where our babies transition from womb life to room life. More on Newborn Sleep Myths and the Fourth Trimester Realistic Expectations.

    4-5 months +

    As a baby’s circadian rhythm develops, their sleep cycles also mature which means you’ll see a change in sleep patterns. This time is a great opportunity to work on encouraging your baby to self-settle in order to promote longer blocks of consolidated sleep and for them to master the important art of self-settling.

    Expert Tip: Mastering self-settling isn’t strictly achieved by specific sleep training methods and can be broken down into mini goals of gradual reduction in hands-on support over days, weeks or even months as you (the parent) and your baby are comfortable. How you choose to put your baby to sleep is not a problem unless it’s a problem for you.

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    What is self soothing? Can babies self soothe to sleep?

    Self soothing is the ability to regulate emotions. This skill is developed throughout childhood, teenage years and even into adulthood! Yes you read right, even as adults we sometimes need assistance with self soothing.

    Research supports that it takes until adulthood to be able to self soothe. On average for women it’s in their 20’s and for men in their 30’s! Sorry dads!

    Self soothing is something you and your baby will learn over time and your role as a parent is to support your baby through their emotions. Co-regulating and being responsive creates a strong attachment and foundation not only for sleep but your baby’s everyday life.

    I want you to know it’s ok for your baby to have emotions and although these can be uncomfortable to experience at times,we don’t want to suppress their emotions, now or throughout their life. We want our children to learn about their emotions, name them and understand their emotions are healthy to have! These emotions can vary from happy, elated, joyful, hopeful, cheerful and the list goes on…

    But on the flip side, life also brings some really uncomfortable emotions which may include feeling sad, guilty, disappointed, fearful, angry, frustrated or exhausted.

    Expert Tip: The goal is to teach our babies and toddlers that all feelings are ok and they never have to walk them alone.

    Now that we know the difference between self settling and self soothing, let’s take a closer look at how self settling can become part of your baby’s everyday life.

    If your baby or toddler is struggling with these components and their sleep is being negatively impacted, this is where gentle sleep coaching can help achieve restorative sleep which is important for optimal growth and development.

    For example: When a baby or young child relies on someone or something to put them to sleep (more on external sleep associations) this is how their brain has been conditioned to fall asleep and they don’t know any different (and possibly haven’t had the opportunity to practice falling asleep independently).

    Something to be mindful of is when a baby is unable to self-settle to sleep independently, they’re more likely to struggle with transitions between sleep cycles. The reasoning behind this is what helped them fall asleep initially is now missing – think rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep or the dummy (read more about all things dummy.)

    Here’s Five Ways To Support Your Baby To Self Settle

    1. Read The Cry – Don’t automatically pounce as soon as your little one starts to stir. Stop/ listen and then react. Give your baby or toddler an opportunity by counting to at least 100 before entering the room. Research supports 3 minutes as the golden opportunity if you are comfortable. 
    1. Respond To The Cry – It’s more than ok to respond to your baby or toddler’s cry, but this doesn’t automatically mean taking over. Try to consider what they might be communicating to you? “I’m tired and I want to sleep but I don’t know how?” Rather than swooping in faster than Fireman Sam, can you respond with verbal reassurance? physical touch or perhaps close proximity to reassure your baby they’re safe and just falling asleep or transitioning between sleep cycles.
    1. Consistency –This will always be your single most important aspect when it comes to improving sleep and giving your baby a safe and secure foundation moving forward. As humans we learn through patterns of repetition of events. This means our babies can’t pick up what we are putting down if they constantly get a different response each time they are settled or re-settled. We need to give them an opportunity to see that whilst this is definitely uncomfortable because it’s new and different, it can be safe and secure moving forward if we can build upon this predictable pattern long term.
    1. Mantra Cries – these are partial arousals between sleep. This is especially important in newborns who spend their time 50/50 in REM and NREM sleep. They will grunt, moan, squirm around and even open their eyes, but can actually be in active sleep. If you rush in too quickly you can disturb them and make them more upset then if you left them for those 3 minutes mentioned above to try independently. This doesn’t mean you ignore your baby, but again practice reading the cry as mentioned above.
    1. Confidence – We are the rock to our babies in a wild and windy storm. They emulate our emotions and if we are feeling nervous or uncomfortable, they will pick up on this emotion and mirror it. Think about this when responding and talking with your baby. For instance, responding with “it’s ok, mummy’s here, I know you’re tired and I’m here to support you to sleep”. This is an intentional response. On the flip side we don’t want to over react and be fuelled by emotions which would sound more like, “mummy’s here! It’s okay! Don’t cry! I am here! Please stop, I am here”. Can you see the difference in how your baby or toddler may react to these two different phrases? Also be aware of accidently overdoing it with trying to distract with too much bouncing or approaching them with big reactive responses.

    I want you to always feel you can respond to your baby or toddler’s needs both during the day and night. If you want to feed through the night go ahead, you can choose to co-sleep if this is your choice. Being aware is simply about helping your baby or toddler (as well as you as the parent) get better sleep so everyone can function better and be happier during the day.

    Food for thought: It’s much easier to handle any emotions if we aren’t so tired or sleep deprived, so why is supporting a baby or child to self settle, (fall asleep), so wrong?

    We’re all parents, and we all want to do our best for our children. Please don’t allow someone else to make you feel you shouldn’t ask for help if you feel you need it. There is enough mum/dad guilt out there. Make informed choices that you research yourself, just make sure you search for the right terms so as not to cause yourself further confusion.

    Self settling and self soothing are not one and the same. The processes aren’t synonymous with sleep training and they don’t ever equate to leaving your baby to cry alone. We can support and co-regulate with responsive parenting whilst still creating healthy sleep foundations that will follow your baby through life.

    Want to learn more about healthy sleep foundations from a holistic and evidence based approach. Work with us 1-1 to create a tailored plan and receive personalised advice and ongoing support to navigate your baby or toddlers sleep without compromising your parenting style. Book a FREE discovery call.

    Sleep regressions can shake a parent’s confidence or leave you feeling confused about what you’re suddenly doing wrong. I promise it’s not you. It’s normal and will pass. Check out the Ultimate Guide To Sleep Regressions blog 


    Kelly Martin Sleep Consultant

    Helping babies get a good nights sleep

    Our mission is to empower parents with the knowledge and education about how they can help their little one develop and maintain healthy sleep habits. Are you ready to regain your sleep?

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