What is independent sleep? A guide to self settling.

how to teach baby to fall asleep independently

It is very likely when talking about baby sleep that you will have heard the terms self settling or independent sleep. Independent sleep is often discussed as the holy grail for babies and children going to sleep. But what is it and what does it mean?

In this guide we will cover:

  • What is independent sleep?
  • The difference between self settling and self soothing.
  • How can you teach your baby to fall asleep independently?

What is independent sleep?

Simply put, independent sleep is when a child or a baby can go from being awake to asleep themselves, without lots of support or intervention from you. Some call it independent sleep whilst others call it ‘self settling’.

It is very common for small babies to struggle to do this, so if you’re supporting your baby to sleep now, don’t panic, it doesn’t mean that they will never be able to fall asleep on their own!

Some babies naturally fall asleep independently from an early age. We have known babies, of all ages, just do it themselves without their parents, seemingly, having to do anything.

But for lots of us, it doesn’t happen just on its own. We speak to many families who have babies and young children who are struggling to fall asleep for naps/bedtime and then also waking frequently through the night and needing a lot of help to return back to sleep.

Do you need to teach your baby to self settle? Not at all. When it comes to our babies we don’t believe in ‘rights and wrongs’ or ‘shoulds and must dos’. But if you are finding your current sleep situation unsustainable then independent sleep skills may be something you want to work on.

Before we share some suggestions on how you can help your baby settle to sleep more easily, we’re going to share a little more on what we mean by self settling.

The difference between self settling and self soothing.

In discussions about independent sleep and sleep training the terms ‘self settling’ and ‘self soothing’ are often use interchangeably which can lead to much debate.

Self settling simply means being able to fall asleep without needing help to do so.

Self soothing refers to regulation of emotions, something that babies and young children are not developmentally ready to do.

Supporting our children to be able to regulate their emotions and deal with feelings of anxiety, frustration and anger is something that we, as parents, will do over many years as they grow and develop.

Supporting our babies and children with age appropriate sleep habits and routines is entirely different. Simple strategies can help even young babies to achieve restful sleep.

How can you teach your baby to fall asleep independently?

There are some key areas we look at to help us shape predictable and restful sleep habits.

#1 Routine.

Most people naturally feel more relaxed when they wake, eat and sleep at roughly the same times every day.

Babies really like to know what is coming next. A predictable routine helps them feel safe, secure and relaxed. This does not have to be a militant routine where you time your day to the minute. It can be as simple as starting the day at a regular time, making time for play/fresh air/errands and creating a predictable approach to sleep.

We tend to aim towards a regular time for naps as babies get older, based on when they naturally tire and are ready for sleep. For younger babies we will follow their cues for when they show signs of tiredness.

We want to anticipate when they are ready for sleep – trying to put a baby who isn’t tired or is overtired to sleep can prove tricky. Timing sleep well is going to make it much easier for your little one to drift off to sleep.

A predictable pre-sleep routine can help our babies unwind and know that sleep is coming. We wouldn’t be able to just drop what we are doing and fall asleep without any preparation, and our children are the same. It can be as simple as a five minute cuddle/song/story before a nap and a longer bedtime routine with the same set of activities before bed each night.

#2 Sleep Environment

We can optimise the room our children sleep in to make it more conducive to restful sleep. A calm, cool, dark sleep environment is ideal for both naps and bedtime.

We need to be practical and know that some naps will be on the go, in a sling or pram so we can get out and about during the day. But we can also aim to have some day time sleep in a Moses basket or cot at home. If we time sleep well and create a relaxing environment for sleep, without lots of noise or light, then it can make it much easier for babies and toddlers to settle to sleep easily.

#3 How are they falling asleep?

If our babies are ready for sleep and in a comfortable sleep environment but sleep is still hard to come by, then the next area we look at is how they are falling asleep.

There is absolutely no right or wrong way for our babies to fall asleep. Some drift off on their own, happily in their cot. Others might be fed, rocked or use a dummy. However you get your little one to sleep is completely up to you. If you get to a point where your method of settling isn’t working for you or your baby anymore then you may decide you want to make a change.

It is completely normal for babies to wake in the night. Sometimes they need a feed, nappy change or something has disturbed them. Other times they may have naturally woken between sleep cycles and look for the same conditions they had when they first fell asleep to be recreated.

If you find that you are being woken frequently through the night and working hard to help your baby back to sleep each time, then it can be helpful to start looking at changing the way they are used to falling asleep. Your aim might be make small changes such as move from feeding to sleep to rocking to sleep, or your goal may be to help your little one fall asleep independently.

How you go about making these changes is a personal choice based on what you think would work best for you and your baby. With time, patience and consistency it is possible to make positive sleep changes when you feel the time is right for your family.

If you would like to know more about sleep and have guidance on how you can approach achieving a well-rested night’s sleep then check out our online courses.

These are designed to teach you all about how your baby sleeps and to provide practical suggestions for settling techniques and routines to work towards.