Independence is a term very often associated with older children. But we can actually begin creating strong, confident, independent individuals when our children are infants. Helping your baby learn the skill of sleep is a perfect opportunity to promote independence.
Babies who are independent sleepers are much happier and less frustrated than babies who require a high level of parental assistance with their sleep needs. That said, it can be very hard to give our babies the space they need to develop their independence when we are hardwired to swoop down and soothe them or ‘fix’ the problem and try to relieve their frustration. Sometimes taking a step back and giving our babies the chance to fall asleep by themselves can be one of the hardest things we do as new parents. It’s also hard to know when is the appropriate time to develop sleep independence. Below is my general guide on when and how you can expect sleep independence from your baby.
When babies are very young (typically under 10 weeks), they are often not able to self-soothe and so I do not recommend leaving your baby to cry for extended periods at this age. This is the time that they really need you to respond and potentially help them, so if your baby takes all their naps at the breast or in the swing, it’s ok! Don’t worry about creating bad habits! Enjoy this time with them and don’t feel guilty about it!
For young babies ages 2-3 months I suggest that parents allow their babies to fuss for a few minutes in the middle of the night before attending to them to see if they will get themselves back to sleep. Even these few short minutes can give your baby the chance to fall asleep independently. Babies are starting to develop self-soothing techniques at this time and giving them the chance to do that (even for a short time) can help develop those techniques.
For babies ages 3-4 months, this is a great time to get them to start to fall asleep by themselves at the beginning of the night (if they are not doing it already). We know that babies are able to self-soothe by this age and the beginning of the night is a great place to start. When babies are able to fall asleep by themselves at this time then it is easier for them to fall back to sleep when they wake during the night. This makes it easier to gradually drop feeds at night.
Excluding any special circumstances, babies around 4-5 months are typically able to go through the night without a feed. This is a great time to give your baby the chance to fall back asleep when they wake during the night.
For older babies (6-12 months), start promoting more independence during the day, which often leads to more independence at night. I encourage parents to give their babies the chance to feed themselves as soon as they can (as messy as this may be!) Even if this just means that your baby is picking up small pieces of food while you shovel the rest of it in. Your baby will start to become mobile at this age and allowing your baby to experiment their newfound physical skills and explore in a safe space is crucial to developing independence. Allowing them to feel a little frustration during the day in their movements and their physical activities will help them deal with frustration at night.
Dr. Natalie Barnett is an Infant Sleep Behaviorist and the founder of Seven Oaks Sleep Science. Dr. Barnett is a scientist with postgraduate training in pediatric sleep science. She specializes in teaching healthy sleep habits to babies aged 3 months to 18 months. She brings a scientific yet gentle approach to sleep training and all of her methods are based upon published sleep research. For more information please visit Seven Oaks Sleep.