Humans young and old generally fall into one of 2 categories: those who pass out and those who put themselves to sleep. A person who passes out does not get the same quality of sleep as someone who practices putting themself to sleep. There is a common misconception that if we run our kids until sunset and feed them “enough” that they’ll sleep through the night, and sleep in without a single wakeup. Yes, exercise, fresh air, and nutrition are priorities and can contribute to a good night’s rest, but are not necessarily linked to the reason your child is restless at night. In fact you might even guarantee a skipped nap, or a worse night ahead of you with a sleep deprived, over-stimulated child (or adult for that matter). The sleep deprivation and overstimulation creates a pattern similar to jet-lag…When and if you eventually fall asleep you often toss and turn from vivid dreams, or wake through sleep cycles.
Those who put themselves to sleep, the best sleepers, lay down at the first sign of sleepiness. Their night wakings are uneventful because they can easily slip back into sleep through sleep cycles. Throughout the night all humans experience phases of deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Those who struggle with putting themselves to sleep often wake cranky during REM sleep, and are unable to fall back to sleep without the sleep pressure that allowed them to initially pass out at the front end of their night. Babies wake more often as an evolutionary defense mechanism, and not necessarily out of hunger or because they are wet. As they grow, if these wake ups continue to be enforced by feedings or some other intervention they depend on, they begin to wake out of habit. In other words, if a baby has gotten into the habit of nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep, or holding your hand to fall asleep they will need that crutch to fall back to sleep as they drift in and out of sleep cycles through the night.
So how do we teach self-soothing to a baby? The first and most important step in doing this is setting a rhythm and pattern to your days that quickly evolves into a routine. It’s important to establish daily eating, activity, and sleeping windows so there is never any confusion about what is coming next. Human beings thrive on routine. Consistency and Practice are key especially when teaching a new skill. Not to mention the comfort consistency brings with it and the anxiety it relieves. So we start there, finding a rhythm.