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When Will My Baby Soothe Himself to Sleep?

I was recently asked by a new mother when her newborn would learn to soothe himself to sleep. This is a common question in our culture, but it would have been unthinkable until relatively recently in human history. For thousands of generations, babies were carried all day until they could crawl and all children slept next to their parents and siblings at night; their cries received a quick response, and their culture recognized their needs as natural and normal. Mothers also had far more support from their friends and relatives (The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff and Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith F. Small have inspiring descriptions of more natural life styles).

Today, mothers are often separated from their own parents and siblings, and have fewer people to turn to when they feel tired, ill, or simply in need of a break from child tending. Because of this, a baby's legitimate needs like being carried, having cries quickly attended to, and being nursed to sleep can feel emotionally and physically overwhelming in our stressful world; it is only natural that tired mothers wonder how to convince the baby to meet their needs. To the baby, of course, nothing has changed - his needs are the same as for all the Stone Age babies whose needs for constant touching and reassurance were more easily met. The problem is that modern mothers, in all their new isolation, are still having Stone Age babies. "Mother's helpers", support groups like the La Leche League, and parenting counseling can all help to reduce isolation.

While a baby's natural needs cannot be forcibly changed without traumatic effect, there are some things parents can try to make life easier, that will help the baby with the transition from waking to sleeping. Breast­feeding mothers should avoid foods and other substances that enhance wakefulness, such as coffee, caffeinated tea, colas, chocolate, certain herbs, and other stimulants, as babies and toddlers are more sensitive to caffeine than are adults. While most of the caffeine-containing foods listed can make it difficult to fall asleep, the type of caffeine in chocolate can bring about night-time waking, with difficulty getting back to sleep. Nursing mothers can substitute a relaxing substance that is safe for breast­feeding, such as chamomile tea1.

Establishing a bedtime ritual, such as a warm bath followed by book reading (Goodnight Moon is relaxing, as the pictures become gradually darker); soft music or singing, or a gentle massage can also be very soothing. Parents should try as much as possible to avoid stressful situations in the evening. Young children are the "emotional barometers" in the family, and can react to stress and excitement even if they are too young to understand the causes of this. Parents should also avoid loud noises and bright lights, especially close to bedtime. A dimmer switch can be helpful in this transition - electric lights, with their sudden shift from brightness to darkness are a new stimulus for a Stone Age baby! Room-darkening window shades can help block out morning sunlight. In a recent study, jasmine scent sprayed on bedding was found to help subjects fall asleep more quickly and to sleep more soundly. I would also recommend monitoring the room temperature, as a cool room, ideally with cross ventilation from windows, is an easy way to improve the quality of sleep. It's better to have the heat off at night, using blankets for warmth, than using a household heater to stay warm. Even in very cold weather, the windows should be open as much as possible. Children are much more sensitive to room lighting, noise and temperature than adults.

"Sleep talking" (talking softly to a sleeping child)2 is another helpful approach, during which a parent can ask the baby or child for help, provide explanations of stressful situations, apologize when needed, or simply express love to the child.

Finally, remember the Motherhood Mantra. "This too shall pass," even when it feels like nothing will ever change. One day every parent will look back on this period with a sweet longing and an amazement that it went by so quickly! These early years are an opportunity to enjoy a baby's love in all its purity.

1 For more information, see "Herbs to avoid while breastfeeding".

2 See "While Children Sleep".

Recommended books:

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.