Watching your newborn sleep peacefully in your arms is a beautiful thing. But having an older baby, or toddler, who is unable to fall asleep without being rocked in your arms is less of a joy, especially when this happens three or four times a night, every night.
Wondering how to teach your baby to sleep alone without using you as a crutch? Read on and discover everything you need to know about helping your baby fall asleep alone.
How to Teach a Baby To Sleep Alone
- Create an inviting sleeping environment, but don’t make it exciting.
- Develop a calming bedtime routine that minimizes stimulation.
- A cuddle before bed is fabulous, but don’t rock your baby.
- Lay your baby down to sleep while they are calm and relaxed, but still awake.
- Do not rush to comfort them at the slightest sound.
- Be prepared to stick with sleep training for several weeks.
When Should Babies Learn To Sleep Alone?
All babies are different. However, most become able to learn to sleep alone between three and six months old (1). The exception to this would be babies with underlying issues, such as an illness, prematurity, or developmental delay.
Are you wondering whether your baby is ready to learn how to sleep alone? Speak with your medical professional to ensure there are no reasons why you can’t move ahead with this. Once you have the all-clear, you can begin when it works for you.
How To Teach Your Baby To Sleep Alone
Many parents and experts talk about “sleep training.” For some people, this phrase is synonymous with leaving your baby to cry themselves to sleep, without intervention (2). As a result, to avoid this association, I’ll talk about teaching babies to sleep and not training them.
Naptime, Bedtime Or Both?
Much has been written on sleep teaching at naptime, bedtime, or both. Unfortunately, there are no consistent, evidence-based answers to this question.
Some experts suggest beginning with when you put down your baby to nap. The theory is that an overly tired caregiver may not be able to stick with sleep teaching in the middle of the night. As a result, they may give up too quickly or cave in and revert to old habits in order to get some sleep.
Others suggest it is more important to “fix” nighttime sleep issues, and that you should tackle those first.
Personally, I agree with the third group. They believe you should look at sleep as a whole, and not distinguish between nighttime and daytime sleep. This way, a baby learns the same associations for falling asleep, no matter the time of day or night.
Having tried almost every sleep teaching technique you can think of, I feel that both nighttime and naptime teaching works best.
In clinical practice, I find that parents are most frustrated by interrupted nighttime sleep, so I recommend solving these issues first. Also, some infants do not take significant daytime naps. These infants will sleep for one or two 10 to 15 minute intervals, yet sleep longer periods at night.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
However, everyone is different, and you should always do what works best for you and your family.
Choose The Right Time
While you may want to begin to teach babies to sleep alone as soon as possible, choosing the right time is critical for success (4).
If possible, plan to begin sleep teaching at a time where there will be as few disruptions to your regular routine as possible. So, avoid beginning shortly before scheduled immunizations, changes to daycare, vacations, and things like that.
But, don’t just consider your baby’s day-to-day routine. You also must be in a place where you can stick with the program. It’s just as important not to begin teaching your baby to sleep alone at a time when you are under temporary, additional pressures (i.e moving to a new home, extended family visiting, etc).
Speak With Everyone Involved
Make sure everyone is on the same page before you begin. This includes everyone in the household who helps with your infant’s care such as extended relatives and babysitters. If everyone is not in agreement, the baby will become “confused” by the mixed expectations. This can result in a very arduous sleep teaching process..
If one person is going to run to your baby the first time they whimper, teaching your baby to sleep alone will not be successful.
In addition, if your baby is in daycare, speak with your childcare provider. It is important to be certain that the same teaching strategies are happening in all settings.
Establishing A Bedtime Routine
Human beings are creatures of habit — we learn by association. So, to help your baby learn how to sleep alone, you have to provide a routine. The routine should have the same steps, in the same order, at the same time, for each sleep period (5).
This way your baby learns that because X has happened, then Y is the logical next step (6).
While the “traditional” bedtime routine is a bath, dressing in pajamas, reading, and then sleeping, you don’t have to take these steps if they don’t work for you. The important thing is consistency, rather than the steps themselves, or the order in which you take them.
However, the one thing you should incorporate into your baby’s bedtime routine is a peaceful environment.
Holding Your Baby Before Sleep
Many parents make the mistake of believing they should not hold or cuddle their baby before laying them down to sleep. Not so! I would always recommend some quiet time being held in a loved one’s arms before bed.
The important thing is to not rock or otherwise soothe your baby in an overtly physical way before they fall asleep. If you do, your baby will associate this rocking, rubbing, stroking, or other physical movements with sleep. They will then need this physical action in order to fall asleep.
Instead, feel free to hold your baby in your arms and enjoy a close cuddle, making but make a clear distinction between this and the next step.
Laying Your Baby Down Before Sleep
This is a critical step to take when teaching your baby to sleep alone. The whole idea is for your baby to learn to fall asleep without you there.
Don’t allow your baby to fall asleep in your arms, or during a feed. Instead, lay your baby down into their crib while they are still awake.
Now, just to be difficult, there is yet more debate on when to do this.
Some advice says to put your baby down when they appear to be drowsy. That would be when your baby’s eyes are drooping and they appear to be almost asleep.
Other advice says they are too close to falling asleep at this stage, and should be laid down to sleep when they are relaxed, but still fully awake.
The only way to find out what works for you is to try. Some will take to laying down while fairly wide awake, while others will need to be sleepier.
My best advice would be that hitting the “right” stage of relaxation or sleepiness can become stressful. Instead, think of it as finding the stage where your baby is no longer showing an active interest in their surroundings.
When To Soothe Your Baby
What to do after you have laid your baby down to sleep is probably the most contentious point of teaching your baby to sleep alone.
In the past parents were told to lay their baby down, close the door, and leave them to cry it out. Today, fewer people choose to use this technique, feeling that it is unkind to leave their baby to cry.
However, some crying is inevitable. After all, it is your baby’s way of communicating with you when they are unhappy. It is up to you, as an individual, to decide how much crying you are willing, or able to accept (7).
Go to your baby too quickly, and they will not learn to sleep alone. Leave your baby to cry for too long, and they will become so distressed that sleep is difficult, if not impossible.
Not only that, but waking in the night to briefly soothe your baby suddenly becomes more appealing than lying in bed, hearing them scream themselves to sleep at 3 a.m.
How To Soothe Your Baby
Soothing your baby can take many forms.
You may choose to stand out of sight, but gently talk in a soothing voice to reassure your baby you are still there. Or you might opt to go into your baby’s room and:
- Lay them back down in their crib.
- Talk to them in a soothing voice.
- Rub their back, arms, legs, or feet.
- Turn on a night light.
Choose what works for you. Many people find that beginning with a more hands-on approach, progressing to hands-off, and then out of the room works well.
However you choose to soothe, to be sure to do so with as little stimulation or interaction as possible. Keep sound, light, and movement to a minimum and avoid eye contact whenever you can. Only pick your child up as a last resort, or if they are obviously upset beyond what is reasonable for you both (8).
Watch Those Feedings
If you are happy with feeding your baby off to sleep, that’s fine. You should continue to do so. However, that also means that now is not the time to teach your baby to sleep alone.
Stick With It
Don’t expect your baby to learn how to sleep alone in the first few days. While some caregivers may be lucky enough for this to happen, most won’t. For younger babies, the process can take a few weeks, but toddlers may need much longer to adjust.
Think about how hard it can be for any of us to learn new habits. Give yourself and your baby time to learn how to fall asleep alone. Once you have decided on a bedtime routine, and how you will soothe your baby, stick with it.
Be Prepared To Adapt
While you should stick to your overall plan, don’t be afraid to admit it might need tweaking as you go along. The best plans are fluid. If you find that things are “kind of” working, be prepared to make small changes.
Other Tips For Teaching Your Baby To Sleep Alone
Remember to appreciate your baby for the individual they are. Just because something worked for your younger child or the baby of a friend doesn’t mean it will work for your baby.
That said, here are a few additional tips you may find helpful.
- Choose wisely when moving a baby to a toddler bed: If you have an older baby, consider teaching them how to sleep alone before they move into a toddler bed. Leaving a baby in their crib is way easier than trying to keep a toddler in their bed. For one of our children, we had to resort to putting a safety gate on their bedroom door to stop them from getting up and wandering unsupervised around the house in the middle of the night. I typically do not recommend transitioning to a toddler bed until a child is either too large for the crib, or repeatedly tries to climb out. Infants do not learn to stand up while holding a crib rail until at least nine months old. Once this milestone is achieved, I recommend lowering the crib mattress to the lowest setting. Doing so usually gives parents about 12 months before transition to a toddler bed is necessary for safety reasons.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
- Be prepared for regression: At times of illness, a baby who previously fell asleep alone may go back to needing you. This is also true of times of upheaval, such as moving into a new home or beginning daycare.
- Make the room as inviting as possible, but don’t overdo it: Too many toys, decorations, and accessories can be overstimulating. They can also scare a small child who wakes in the dark and sees unexplained shapes. Think minimal, but comforting.
- Nightlights or items that play gentle sounds should be used with caution: If they turn off on a timer, your baby may not be able to go back to sleep without them in the middle of the night. That said, many infants find “white noise” comforting, and it can facilitate self-soothing if they wake at night.
- Baby monitors are a double-edged sword: They give you the comfort of being able to see and/or hear that your baby is okay, but you can find yourself rushing to your baby at the first sign of activity. Babies move a great deal throughout the night, and many of them make some weird and wonderful noises. If you can’t see or hear any of these normal, sleeping activities, you won’t mistakenly run to comfort a baby who does not need comforting. On the contrary, seeing a gently aroused but calm baby on a monitor can reassure parents that there is no need to rush in to provide comfort.
It’s Time to Put This to Bed
Choose the right time when deciding how to teach your baby to sleep alone. You should also establish a calming bedtime routine and create an environment where your baby can sleep without you.
As long as you minimize stimulation, remain consistent in your approach, and provide a routine that works for everyone, you do not need to stick with a specific sleeping program or technique. If you feel impatient, remember this phase will pass quickly — and you’ll be longing for the days your child was still a baby.