Blog Post 16-Self-Soothing

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
by Marc Weissbluth, M.D.

A Healthy Child Needs a Healthy Brain,
A Healthy Brain Needs Healthy Sleep.

“Sleep Readiness” is the title of Chapter 11 of the United States of America Department of the Army field manual (FM 7-22) that prepares young men and women to become soldiers.  It is the official document that describes how all young recruits will acquire necessary skills during the process that is sometimes referred to as basic training or “boot camp.”  Updated in 2020, it is based on empirical data using traditional scientific methods.  Sleep is serious business. 

If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial, from the point of view of the United States of America Department of the Army.  I have lightly edited, added emphasis, and condensed Chapter 11 in order to show you how “Sleep Readiness” can also help parents help their child sleep better.

Initially, I posted Chapter 11 (Blog Posts 1 through 5) to emphasize the value of healthy sleep.  Based on the material presented in Chapter 11 of the Army field manual, Blog Posts 6 through 15 show how basic principles of sleep apply, not only to military basic training, but also to parenting.

Going forward, I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. For now, only read the single, age-appropriate Chapter for your child.  Later, if you wish, read Chapters on What is Healthy Sleep, Why Healthy Sleep is Important, and Preventing Sleep problems.  Finally, if needed, read the Chapter on Sleep Solutions.

            Let’s go!


            A common goal in a sleep plan is to have a bedtime routine that includes soothing (Blog Post 10) followed by putting your child down and then your child falls asleep, without crying.  The idea behind self-soothing is that during the sleep period, your child is not in your arms, swing, stroller, nor riding in the car.  Your child remains asleep without your effort. Also, your child is able to fall into a deep sleep unassisted, or has the ability to self-soothe.  If your child has self-soothing ability, at sleep onset, the transition to deep sleep appears effortless. And importantly, during naturally occurring brief arousals in the middle of the night, your child also has the ability to return to sleep without your assistance.  Thus, consolidated sleep (Blog post 11) is more likely to occur.

            Self-soothing is learned behavior.  How do parents encourage the ability for their child to self-soothe?  The answer is complicated by the fact that specific circumstances (Blog Post 14) might create challenges so there is no one-size-fits-all strategy.  Please keep this in mind as I describe what will help children learn self-soothing.  Hopefully, some of these items will be available to your own family.  Because self-soothing is learned behavior, the earlier you begin to help your child, the easier and faster your child will acquire the ability to self-soothe.  If you start to encourage self-soothing when your child is older, it may be more difficult, for example, because your child associates sleeping only when rocked in your arms. 


            When your child begins to show drowsy signs (Blog Post 9), begin soothing to sleep and bedtime routines (Blog Post 10).  Then your child begins to associate the sensation and timing of drowsiness with a quiet, calm, and relaxing environment conducive to falling asleep.  The association helps establish the habit of falling asleep without crying.


            After bedtime routines and soothing to sleep, one goal is to put your child down drowsy, but still awake.  Then your child will make the transition to deep sleep unassisted and acquires self-soothing skills.  Another goal is to leave the room after you have put your child down.  Parental presence at sleep onset is more common in Asian than English-speaking countries and predicts more night wakings and shorter sleep durations. Research suggests that your child will learn self-soothing better if you leave the room after you put your child down. When thinking about encouraging self-soothing to prevent sleep problems, leaving the room might be something you routinely practice from the get-go. Alternatively, you might feel more comfortable doing this in a gradual fashion, that is, slowly reduce the amount of time that you are present after your child falls asleep.

            After your child has fallen asleep at night, your child will make non-distress sounds (Blog Post 11).  At 3 months of age, delaying a parental response just a few minutes to non-distress sounds predicted self-soothing ability in the child at 12 months of age.  However, an immediate response to distress sounds that includes minimal soothing, but not feeding, might also encourage self-soothing ability.


            During the day, there are many naps because the baby’s brain goes into sleep mode after only brief periods of wakefulness.  The duration of wakefulness varies but it usually less than 2 hours.  It might only be 30 minutes!  Expect many naps of variable duration with no predictable schedule until about 4 months of age.  If you respect the need for many naps, your baby remains calm when awake and is more able to learn self-soothing when drowsy.  If you keep your child up too long, a second-wind develops and then your baby becomes aroused and agitated which interferes with self-soothing.


            Allowing different people to practice soothing and bedtime routines gives the baby an opportunity to practice self-soothing under different circumstances.  In contrast, if the child always falls asleep at mother’s breast, the child might have difficulty falling asleep in other situations.  Before her child is in a deep sleep, a nursing mother, after feeding, can pass her drowsy child to someone else for soothing to sleep.


            Fathers might be more successful than mothers in putting your baby down drowsy but awake.  In addition to directly helping with nighttime parenting, during the day, the fathers support of the mother in general indirectly helps care for the baby.  This general care, during the day, supporting the mother, may actually be more powerful regarding the baby’s sleeping than father’s directly caring for the baby at night.



·  Encourage self-soothing; the earlier the better.  Consider leaving the room after putting your child down to sleep. Provide opportunity for naps based on drowsy signs.  Encourage partner to help care for the baby daytime and nighttime.

•  Plan for healthy sleep by focusing on sleep quality, not just sleep quantity. Provide opportunities for naps. Blog Post 15

•  Make a sleep plan that you are comfortable with; be flexible and tolerant.  Blog Post 14 .

·  Become more aware of the difference between how you feel when well-rested versus mildly sleepy. Blog Post 13.

·  Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule.  Blog Post 12.

·  Try to not respond immediately to every quiet sound your baby makes at night.  Blog Post 11.  

·  Practice soothing to sleep and bedtime routines, every night, if possible. Blog Post 10.

·  Watch for drowsy signs. Blog Post 9.

·  Respect your child’s natural sleep rhythms.  Blog Post 8.

·  Encourage an early or earlier bedtime (even a slightly earlier bedtime may produce better sleep.  Blog Post 6) especially at 6 weeks.  Blog Post 7.

∙ Recognize that a healthy brain requires healthy sleep. Blog Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

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