Teaching Babies to Self-Regulate Themselves to Sleep

When you're this little, even a toy cubby makes a good space to curl up for a nap.

When you're this little, even a toy cubby makes a good space to curl up for a nap.

;By Shari Karmen, TLC Therapeutic Services Manager & Occupational Therapist

Sleep is so important to our everyday wellbeing. Babies, children, and adults all need sleep, along with food, to be self-regulated. Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions and control body functions as well as maintain focus and attention. Self-regulation happens differently over the many stages of our lifespan. Self-regulation in an infant encompasses how an infant deals with a disruption (for example, a loud television) and regains control of their behavior so they can focus on what they're doing (nursing, eating, playing, etc.). In a preschooler self-regulation looks at how a child plays with others, learns to share and take turns.

If a child doesn’t have a healthy sleep and waking pattern, it makes it hard for them to learn. In babies we tend to see two issues with sleep that can cause problems with self-regulation:

1.    Fragmented sleep – many short periods of sleep, but not good long sleep cycles and

2.    Too much sleep, especially during the day. This frequently suggests a developmental issue. Daytime is when sensory stimulation occurs and the sleeping baby is not stimulated.

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in how babies learn to sleep. The amount of support given in the beginning impacts how much caregiver involvement is needed later on. This means if we teach babies early how to fall asleep in a healthy, self-regulating manner, the better off they are for sleep learning. It’s important for the caregiver to recognize:

–   Their decreased role in helping a baby to sleep;

–   Recognizing sleep cues and conditioning;

–   The infant's ability to self-regulate.

Having a consistent place to sleep is another important key to sleeping. Young infants have few self-regulatory behaviors, but as we teach them self-soothing techniques – pacifier, lovey – they become more competent self-soothers. Crying it out doesn’t work because babies don’t have the skills to self-regulate, calm, and then fall asleep on their own.

In the first few months of life babies show clear signs of sleepiness:

–   Yawning

–   Glazed eyes

–   Rubbing eyes

–   Heavy eyelids

–   Decreased sucking during feeding

–   No, or less, interest in interacting

–   Turning away from stimulation in the environment

–   Body movements become less organized

–   Fussy behavior

It’s important to recognize these cues and respond to them while the “sleep gate” is open. If you don’t catch the sleep cues within 15 minutes, “tired is wired.”

Place a drowsy baby in the crib and stay close by without touching the baby. A self-regulating baby will suck fingers, look around and then fall asleep. If the baby cries, wait for a time and then approach with a comforting voice.

If your baby continues to cry, approach and pat, but don’t pick up. Provide reassurance with your voice. If crying persists, re-enter the sleeping area with a “boring” visit. Stand close by, but don’t interact with the baby.

Encourage naps when babies are full. It’s easier to fall asleep with a full belly rather than after a baby has been stimulated with play. Between 6-8 months separation anxiety is heightened so parents are encouraged to move baby out of their room before this period if they are sharing a room.

Routines create predictable patterns. Babies with bedtime routines develop into toddlers and preschoolers with predictable bedtime routines. Sleep in the same location every night. Start to power down an hour before bedtime. Read books, play soft music, have a small snack, and other calming activities are pieces you can add to a bedtime routine.  Developing a consistent bedtime routine is key!

Happy sleeping!

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