If your baby always falls asleep in your arms, at your breast, in your partner's arms or with someone by the cot, he or she might not easily take to settling alone. This might not matter to you and may be unavoidable in the early weeks, particularly with a breastfed baby, but if you want your baby to get used to going off to sleep alone it's wise to start putting the baby down before he or she falls asleep right from the beginning or whenever this is possible.
A baby who is allowed to fall asleep on the breast or bottle and is then put in the cot will be more likely to develop the wrong sleep associations. So when he comes into a light sleep thirty to forty five minutes after falling asleep he will be less likely to settle himself back to sleep without your help.
If your baby tends to fall asleep while feeding, put him on the changing mat and rearrange his nappy. This should rouse him enough to go down in the cot semi awake.
It is essential that a baby goes down in his cot drowsy but awake and learns to settle himself. For the majority of babies, if allowed to do this, they will learn to settle themselves within a few days.
How to Self Settle
Once you have said goodnight and left the room, if your baby cries; return for a moment to be sure he's okay, settle him with a kiss, stroking or gentle words and then leave again. If he continues crying, try and let him cry for a few more minutes before going back in and resettling your baby. Try not to pick him up or take him downstairs again, keep communications to a minimum, perhaps only saying 'it's night night time sweetheart' before leaving. Keep extending the time you take to return to settle the baby each time. It may well take hours the first night, but the time your baby takes to settle will reduce steadily night after night. Be prepared to repeat this routine over and over again and for several nights. The important thing is to be firm and not to give in - your baby will (eventually) settle without you there.
Remember that you are allowing your baby to cry not making him cry. Try not to feel guilty if you allow a short spell of crying when your baby goes off to sleep. By letting him cry for a few minutes, he will very quickly learn to settle himself, as long as you have made sure he is well fed and has had enough periods of being awake during the day (but not so long that he is overtired!).
It is worth noting that what you do before bedtimes is almost as important as what you do to help your baby to self-settle:
Overtiredness is a major cause of babies not settling and not sleeping well during the day. A baby under three months who is allowed to stay awake for longer than two hours at a time may get so overtired he goes onto fight sleep for a further two hours. After three months the majority of babies as they get older will manage to stay awake slightly longer, sometimes up to two and half hours at a time. Keep a close eye on your baby after they have been awake for one and half hours so that you do not miss their cue for sleep (yawns, rubbing eyes, staring off into space).
Overhandling prior to sleep time is another major problem with young babies. Everyone wants just one little cuddle. Unfortunately several little cuddles add up and can leave the baby fretful, overtired and difficult to settle.
Overstimulation before sleep time is another major cause of babies not settling well. Babies under six months should be allowed a quiet wind down time of twenty minutes or so before being put down to sleep. With babies over six months in age avoid games and activities that cause them to get overexcited. With all babies regardless of age, avoid excessive talking at bed time and nap times. Talk quietly and calmly using the same simple phrases - for example night night, sweet dreams.
Problems with settling usually creep in when one of the above factors is in play with your baby. By keeping these in mind when embarking on the road to sleep independence with your baby, you are much more likely to succeed in helping your baby self settle.