3 Strategies for Better Baby Sleep

A Self-Soothing Approach to Sleep

What Is Self-Soothing? | How to Sleep for Children
What Is Self-Soothing? | How to Sleep for Children

The Premise of a Self-Soothing Approach

Everyone wakes up from time to time during the night. Most of us fall right back to sleep, but this is a skill that infants need to learn, say proponents of the self-soothing technique. So starting when the baby is about 6 weeks old, they begin teaching him to fall asleep without Mom's help. Mom or Dad begins putting baby to bed while he's still awake and refrains from picking him up every time he cries at night.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorses this approach, and the sleep expert Richard Ferber (Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, Simon & Schuster) uses it as the basis for his own methods (starting when the baby is 6 months), which are slightly stricter than the AAP's.

Self-Soothing Approach: A Success Story

Nan and Raoul Gonzalez's son, Conrad, was around 8 months when they began to implement these ideas. But this Scottsdale couple swears by the tips they gleaned from Dr. Ferber's book. When they began, Conrad, who was bottle-fed, had gotten used to falling asleep in Mom's arms during his last feeding. He was also still waking up twice over the course of the night. Nan felt that these wee-hour feedings were more about comfort than food. She was determined to break him of these poor sleep habits.

"First, I got serious about a consistent bedtime routine -- one that didn't involve Conrad falling asleep while drinking his bottle," she says. At 5:30 p.m., she fed him his dinner (baby food and a small bottle of formula). At 7:15 p.m., she gave him his last bottle for the day. Then came a bath, a bedtime story, and a time of rocking him in his dimly lit room. At 8 p.m., she put him in his crib for the night.

"Of course, he looked at me like I was crazy," she says, laughing. "Then he started wailing." On the first few nights, Nan slipped out of Conrad's room and let him cry for three minutes. Then she went in, picked him up, and rocked him for a long time. As he dozed off, she put him down again. At this point, Nan was focused on getting Conrad used to falling asleep without a bottle.

Her next goal was getting him to fall asleep without her. When she put Conrad down at 8 p.m., he always cried when she left. "I started by waiting five minutes outside his room," she says. Then, shunning Ferber's advice, she went in, briefly held him (to calm him down), put him back in his crib, and patted his back for a minute or two. Then she left the room.

But Conrad just wasn't on board. Sensing his mom had left, he began to cry again. This time, Nan waited outside his room for 10 minutes, then went in to comfort him. Again, he cried when she left. Nan upped the waiting time to 15 minutes before going back in. "This went on for an hour," she says. "I'd wait 15 minutes, then comfort him. Fifteen minutes, then comfort him. Finally, he was so tuckered out, he fell asleep."

Nan went through this same routine again when Conrad awoke in the middle of the night. "Yes, I was exhausted!" she says. In fact, after following the same pattern every night for more than a week, she didn't think she'd be able to keep it up. Luckily she didn't have to.

"After eight or nine nights, he finally got it," she says. "He got used to the bedtime routine, and he stopped fighting me on it. And his middle-of-the-night crying dramatically decreased."

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