Our clients often receive advice to let their baby self settle, allowing 1 minute of time to enter the room for every week of age e.g. 8 minutes wait to enter for an 8 week old baby.
As a mother, I find it heart wrenching listening to my babies cry, every inch of my being wants to go and soothe them, it’s completely instinctive. I’ve yet to meet a mother that does not feel like this when her baby cries.
So why are we so often advised to go against our basic instincts when our babies cry at night? Surely we can trust that instinctively we know how to care for our babies?
Yes, we can.
Deliberately delaying your response to your baby’s cries to be picked up or fed, or responding in a way that is different to what you know your baby is asking of you, will not significantly help your baby sleep longer at night. Neither will it gradually reduce the amount of crying out behaviour at night, as is often claimed. This is because they have an immature and sensitive Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) that acts like a switch for them (one minute ‘gooing’ and ‘gaaing’ the next minute crying at full volume without stopping to breathe!). There are many strategies that you can use to dial down the SNS such as feeding, rocking and singing. However, an intention to respond is the best way to prevent your baby becoming distressed in the first place because often even feeding can be difficult once your baby is that worked up.
The belief that delaying responses to your baby’s cues will improve their sleep in the first 6 months is not supported by evidence. In fact, the evidence confirms that delaying responses results in more crying and fussing in babies overall and risks a serious communication breakdown between baby and you. The Baby Sleep Practitioners’ advice is to aim to keep your baby as calm as possible in the first 16 weeks of life. Work on building trust with your baby and learning his or her patterns of behaviour through a lot of trial and error.
Anyone that has experienced night waking of the baby kind would agree that it’s not actually the number of times that you are woken but the period of time that you are awake for (either due to baby or your own difficulty returning to sleep – or both) that makes you feel like rubbish. We also know that a modest increase in uninterrupted night sleep does not help a mothers’ mental health.
Self-settling is a developmental milestone and as with sleeping, is not something that needs to be taught to babies.
Once any underlying problems have been resolved in terms of your babies feeding, sleeping and sensory needs, responding sensibly to their cues will make life easier for baby and you both now and later.
Amy and Elspeth