Babies who self-soothe are better sleepers

According to new research, babies who can settle themselves back to sleep are more likely to sleep through the night.

infant sleep study on self soothing
Jennifer and baby Isaac napping together. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

When Isaac and Gillian were infants, my husband and I did everything we could to get them to sleep through the night. The sleep deprivation, especially in the first eight weeks, seemed unbearable at times. When I say we tried everything, we really did: soft music and white noise in their rooms, bottle feeding, breastfeeding, pacifiers and even the cry-it-out methodwhich was an apocalyptic failure and left everyone in tears.

One day, when Isaac was three months old, I was especially frazzled and bleary-eyed when a well-meaning relative stopped in with a casserole and some “advice”—which was basically, “You’re doing it all wrong.”

“You’re too quick to rescue him,” she told me after I detailed the lengths I’d been going to to get Isaac to not only fall asleep, but stay asleep. It was a multi-step process that started with me (quietly) leaping out of bed when I heard him whimpering on the baby monitor. It was advice I ignored. After all, I was still breastfeeding him and was convinced that nursing and rocking him was the best way to get him back to sleep. I didn’t consider it “rescuing” because my little baby needed me.

But new research published in this month’s Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics suggests that there might have been a bit of truth in the advice my relative was trying to give me. According to the study, infants who resettle themselves are more likely to sleep for longer periods at night. Lead researcher Dr. Ian St. James-Roberts says babies are capable of getting themselves back to sleep by the time they are three months old. “Both autonomous resettling and prolonged sleeping are involved in ‘sleeping through the night’ at an early age,” he adds.

Unique in that the findings were based on a combination of video recordings and parenting reports, researchers at the University of London recorded 101 babies overnight when they were five weeks old and then again at three months old to determine the changes in their sleep and waking patterns. Researchers also looked for instances where the babies were able to fall back asleep without help from their parents.

In both age groups, 25 percent of infants resettled themselves at least once during the night with little crying or fussing. However, at five weeks old, only 10 percent of babies slept for five hours or more, compared to 45 percent of three-month-olds. On average, the five-week-old babies slept for two hours; the older babies for three and a half hours. “Self-resettling at five weeks predicted prolonged sleeping at three months,” says Dr. St. James-Roberts, noting that infants who slept through the night at three months spent more time sucking their fingers, which many have helped them stay asleep.

Another surprising find from the study is that there wasn’t a difference between the resettling or sleep times for breastfed versus formula-fed babies, something that previous studies had suggested.

Sleep-deprived parents might look at this study and believe there’s no need to rush into the bedroom of a fussy baby who may just be fidgeting to relieve gas. And for some babies, that may be true—but remember that the percentage of babies who were able to self-soothe was very small. Whether breast- or bottle-fed, chances are your five-week-old really is hungry (and probably your three-month-old, too), and no matter how much they suck their fingers, your babies will not settle back to sleep on their own.

Believe me, I wish there was a magic way to help parents solve their baby’s sleep challenges but, in the end, it’s about trusting your instincts. If your gut is telling you to (quietly) leap out of bed to snuggle and swaddle, then that’s what you need to do.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
How to get your baby to sleep through the night>
How to survive sleep deprivation>

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