Self-Settling and Self-Soothing, what’s the Difference? Sleep Expert Explains

Self-settling and self-soothing. Two terms you’ve most certainly heard during bub’s first year of life.

It’s important to understand the key differences between a baby self-settling and self-soothing and how it ties into a healthy sleep foundation. We can improve our little one’s sleep and ultimately our bond and attachment with proper sleep practices when we have a better understanding of what these two terms mean.

baby sleep routines
Source: Bigstock

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

Self-settling is about settling yourself to sleep without someone doing it for you.

Developmentally speaking, most babies need hands-on assistance to transition from awake to asleep during their first few months. This could be in the form of feeding, rocking, holding, sucking, etc.

Moving into the 4-5 month milestone, a baby’s circadian rhythm develops which means their sleep cycles also mature, so you’ll see a change in sleep patterns. This time is a great opportunity to work on encouraging your baby to self-settle 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 a gradual reduction in hands-on support over days, weeks or even months as you (the parent) and your baby are comfortable.

While you may feel pressure to teach your baby to self-settle, just remember, how you choose to put your baby to sleep is not a problem unless it’s a problem for you.

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

Self-soothing is the ability to regulate emotions.

This skill is something you and your baby will learn over time, and your role as a parent is to support your baby through their emotions as opposed to leaving them alone to cry. Co-regulating and being responsive creates a strong attachment and foundation, not only for sleep, but your baby’s everyday life.

baby awake in cot
Source: Bigstock

It’s important to remember that we don’t want to suppress their emotions and we want our children to learn about their emotions, name them and understand them. Therefore, the goal is to teach our babies and toddlers that all feelings are ok.

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 methods 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, this is how their brain has been conditioned to fall asleep and they don’t know any different.

Something to be mindful of, is when a baby is unable to self-settle or sleep independently, they’re more likely to struggle with transitions between sleep cycles. This is because what helped them fall asleep initially is now missing.

Four 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.

2. 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.

Can you respond with verbal reassurance? Physical touch or close proximity can reassure your baby they’re safe and just falling asleep or transitioning between sleep cycles.

3. Consistency – This will always be your single most important aspect when it comes to improving sleep and giving your baby a 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 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.

4. 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 are still in active sleep. This doesn’t mean you ignore your baby, but again practice reading the cry as mentioned above.

It’s important to know you can respond to your baby or toddler’s needs both during the day and night. Being aware is simply about helping your baby (as well as you as the parent) get better sleep so everyone can function better and be happier during the day.

Need some extra help?

Something I recommend to parents to help give them more peace of mind while their baby sleeps is the Owlet Smart Sock. This smart baby monitor allows parents to track their baby’s sleep in real-time, along with heart rate and oxygen level – the best indicators of baby’s overall well-being. Parents can see and rely on past patterns of sleep to create the best routine for their children.

As parents, we all want to do our best for our children. Make informed choices and be aware of the myths as well as the right methods for your bub. Self-settling and self-soothing are not one and the same, 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.

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About the author 

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Kelly Martin is a certified infant & child sleep consultant as well as a mother of 3. She knows firsthand what it’s like to be a parent and have sleep challenges with little ones. Kelly has had extensive experience working with thousands of parents to help them transform their children’s sleep habits, with a mission to empower parents with the knowledge and education around how they can help their little one develop and maintain healthy sleep habits. 

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