I want to put my baby down while he's still awake so he can soothe himself to sleep
I want to put my baby down while he's still awake so he can soothe himself to sleep. How shall I do it?
The BabyCentre Editorial Team answers:
You'll need help your baby by creating the right environment, so that falling asleep comes naturally to him. Given suitable circumstances and the right stage of development, usually between three and six months, it should happen by itself.
It's like learning to crawl. If you always carry your baby, he'll never get a chance to discover crawling, since he'll never be on the floor long enough to work it out. It's the same thing with sleep. If you always feed or rock your baby to sleep, he'll never have a chance to learn how to soothe himself to sleep.
So how do you actually help your baby do this?
You need to set the stage, which includes two essential elements:
* A regular bedtime, which will set your baby's internal clock so that he's naturally sleepy at a predictable time.
* A consistent bedtime routine that lets him know it's night-night time, with a few soothing activities, such as a warm bath, and, in the place you want your baby to sleep, a story or song and a cuddle or kiss.
When the routine is finished, put your baby down in his cot, drowsy but awake. Many babies will surprise you and drift off to sleep without much protest. Other babies, especially older ones who may have come to depend on being fed or rocked to sleep, will need to practise.
If you wish, you can teach your baby all at once, by leaving him after you've said goodnight and waiting outside his room, checking on him at intervals. Or you can make it a more gradual process, where you start by sitting next to your baby's cot or bed and easing yourself farther away over successive nights (sitting in the middle of the room, sitting in the doorway, and so on). See our article on sleep problems for more tips.
If your baby is used to breastfeeding or bottle-feeding to sleep in your arms, you'll need to gently wake him before laying him down in his cot. Or, when you see your baby starting to drift off during a feed, promptly end his meal and finish the rest of the bedtime routine before laying him down.
Although some people believe that you should never wake a sleeping baby, keep the bigger picture in mind. Waking your sleeping baby may seem mad (especially when you're exhausted and have a million things to do before turning in yourself), but when you remember the long-term goal of helping your baby to develop the ability to soothe himself to sleep, it's well worth doing.
What if your baby just can't get the hang of it?
Take a step back and try to work out why. Perhaps he's simply too young and doesn't yet have the developmental ability to self-soothe (just as a three-month-old can spend hours on the living room floor, yet still won't be able to crawl). If this is the case, wait a few days, weeks, or even months before trying again.
Maybe your baby is too tired, and thus too overwrought, to settle down by himself. Try making his bedtime earlier.
Finally, think about whether you're really giving your baby the chance to find ways to send himself to sleep, or are rushing in to comfort him at his first peep.
Keep your target in mind
If it all seems hard-going, keep in mind the long-term benefits. Developing the ability to soothe himself to sleep will help your baby to rest for longer periods and put himself back to sleep when he wakes during the night, allowing him to get the rest he needs to grow and thrive.
What's more, self-soothing is an important life skill that will serve your baby well, and not just at bedtime. He'll learn to feel calm in other situations too, when you are at work, when you momentarily walk out of the room, or when he's just feeling out of sorts.
This article was written using the following sources:
Davis KF, Parker KP, Montgomery GL. 2004. Sleep in Infants and Young Children: Part One: Normal Sleep. Journal of Pediatric Health Care 18: 130-7
Ficca G, Fagioli I, Salzarulo P. 2000. Sleep organization in the first year of life: developmental trends in the quiet sleep-paradoxical sleep cycle. J Sleep Res 9(1): 1-4.
Hames P. 1998. NCT book of sleep. NCT Publishing: London.
Mindell JA, Kuhn B, Lewin DS et al. 2006. Behavioral Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night Wakings in Infants and Young Children. Sleep 29(10): 1263-1276.
Nikolopoulou M, St James-Roberts I. 2003. Preventing sleeping problems in infants who are at risk of developing them. Arch Dis Child. 2003 Feb;88(2):108-11. http://adc.bmjjournals.com [Accessed June 2009]
Sleep J. 2003. A randomised controlled trial to compare alternative strategies for preventing infant crying and sleeping problems in the first 3 months of life. Department of Health, Research and Development, Mother and Child Heatlh (MCH 09-06) http://www.dh.gov.uk [Accessed June 2009]
True D, Flenady V, Woodgate P, Steer P. 2002. Behavioural interventions for children under five years with sleep difficulties. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4. http://www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com [Accessed June 2009]
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