This blog in the bedtime miniseries is all about how you settle a baby to sleep at bedtime. I will be revealing what settling to sleep actually means and what it looks like. Why it’s important and how it’s going to help you with the whole picture of sleep all around and how to actually do it.
Settling a baby to sleep. When we settle to sleep, us, children, babies, we call that part of sleep, the sleep onset. Meaning exactly what it says, it’s the onset of the sleep, it’s the beginning of the sleep, and it’s how sleep comes about. So a baby will go through sleep onset several times a day because they’ll go through the sleep onset at bedtime, then they will go through sleep onset for their naps. That’s what sleep onset is, and so to settle a baby to sleep, we need to help them to get good at their sleep onset.
But why? Why do we need to do that? Why is it important? Why can’t we just rock them or push them around in a pram until they go to sleep and that’s fine?
Well, if that’s fine and it works for you and you are happy, then that is fine. But here’s why it’s important to help a little one with their sleep onset. When a little one knows how to go to sleep and they can put themselves through that sleep onset effectively without needing you to do it for them, they’re more likely to take the longer, more substantial stretches of sleep that their body actually wants and is ready for. Then when that cycle of sleep comes to an end, they’re more likely to drift off into the next cycle of sleep like a miniature sleep onset. They’re likely to repeat it almost subconsciously and go into the next sleep cycle, meaning to you is an even longer stretch of sleep. But for them it’s lots of small stretches pushed together.
They’ll get better at falling back to sleep as well when they wake between cycles or partially wake. And it will also help with naps because when they settle to sleep at the start of the nap, they’re more likely to take the full length of naps that they need rather than waking up after 30 minutes and going, “Hang on, I’m stuck. I need to do that sleep onset thing again.” It’s really important for all round health of a baby’s sleep, and it’s one of the first things you can teach them in terms of self-regulation. Because as they fall to sleep and they go through their sleep onset, they’re actually calming and soothing in ways that you don’t even see.
So how? How do you do it? It sounds blissful, but how? It’s not that simple, is it? Well, it’s all about practice and you can practice from very early on. But the more you practice, eventually, they’re going to get good at it like anything. They can’t just do it all of a sudden, one day, magically, it takes practice. For people who have this sense that, “Well, they’re not going to have a hard time falling asleep forever. They’ll get up eventually.” Yeah, they will, but through practice, and whether that’s practice that you are consciously helping them to do or whether they just get there eventually through their own practice, then it’s still practice.
But it could take years, and I mean years, if you don’t consciously help and guide them.
Here’s the best message I can give to any new parent and any parent of a baby, but also if you have a toddler or a slightly older one, you can still take this on board and you can still do this.
It’s as that parent, as that caregiver, when it comes to the sleep onset, think about not doing the whole job for them, and that’s it. Don’t do it all for them. Help, assist, guide, support. Those things are all great, that’s your role, but don’t just do it for them. Think about that and further on in childhood, you’re not going to just do the homework for them when they find it hard. You’re not going to ride their bike for them because they haven’t got that skill yet.
You don’t do things for them, you help them, you encourage them, you show them how, you support them as they learn. It’s no different. So when your little one lays down to go to sleep, if you’ve done it for them, you’ve rocked them off to sleep, you’ve fed them so much that they’re passed out on their milk, or they’ve been walked around in their pushchair and fallen asleep with the motion lulling them off. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time when we use those things as a backup plan because we need the sleep and so do they. But if you can at least practice this once a day for naps, and if you can definitely practice this every bedtime for the onset of sleep, not doing it all for them, but helping them along, helping them along.
It comes down to how you show them and guide them, sooth and reassure them. Help them, create the space for them to actually get that practice themselves. Then their little bodies can feel the sensation of falling to sleep, and their brains are going through these amazing, amazing learnings that, “Oh, okay, I’m safe here. This person responds to me. I’m not alone. This is a safe place. I can relax and I can go to sleep.”
They learn then to do this happily. This is not something that creates stress or frustration. Well, it can be frustrating, it can actually be frustrating when they’re like, “I’m just so tired and I really want to go to sleep and I just don’t know how to do it and you’ve always done it for me. Do it for me.” You’re like there going, “Okay, look, I’m not going to do it for you because that’s actually not helping. But I’m going to help you. I’m going to help you as much as I can and you do a bit too. We’re a team.” Like that’s the message you want to send. But they shouldn’t be fearful and they shouldn’t be distressed, and crying does not mean that they’re fearful or distressed. It often just means they’re tired and fed up and they just want to go to sleep.
As long as your list one is fed so they’re not hungry, they’re clean and dry, they are not poorly or unwell in any way, then your support, your comfort and your guidance is all they really need to settle peacefully to sleep.
I hope this has given you a good idea about what sleep onset is and why it is important and how that’s the key to settling a baby to sleep. In the next part of this bedtime series, I’m going to be talking all about how you put a baby down for sleep.
We’re here if you need us, and you can book a free discovery call if you want to know more about getting a good night’s sleep even with the clock change.