In the early weeks and months, before children learn to soothe themselves, parents need to actively step in and soothe their children to sleep. The problem occurs when kids get a little older and parents don't phase themselves out of the picture. When we continue to intervene too much—rocking, singing, nursing, walking, snuggling, cooing, back-rubbing—we don't give them the space they need to fall asleep themselves. Ask yourself these questions. If you answer "yes" to any or all of them, chances are your child has not been taught how to self-soothe:
Do I put my child down for a nap or at night completely asleep every time?
- Is my child aware that he's being put down in to the crib or tucked into bed?
- When I put my baby to sleep, is he more drowsy then awake?
- Is he dependent on me to rock, walk, nurse, bottle feed, pat or lay down with him to go to sleep and back to sleep?
- Is your kid aware that you're leaving the room after you tuck him in?
It helps to remember that an adult typically requires 15 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. If you put your head on the pillow and are "out" instantaneously, you are probably sleep deprived. Children also need those 15 to 20 minutes—but we as parents are often too anxious about their falling asleep to give them the gift of a quarter hour. We try to "rescue" them and put them to sleep, before they get a chance to discover what they find comforting themselves.
When we do this, kids become dependent on us to rock them, hold them, nurse them, lay down with them, snuggle them etc. These are what we call "negative associations," behaviors that aren't negative in and of themselves but become negative because kids become dependent on them to sleep. I call them sleep crutches. In fact, some kids need more and more of this assistance as time goes on. Nursing twenty minutes doesn't work anymore, they need forty minutes. Forty minutes doesn't work anymore, and we panic and introduce new sleep crutches, new patterns, new associations. But if you give your child the freedom to learn, he will find his own soothing rituals, and that ability to self-soothe over time also promotes confidence and security. Babies find all kinds of safe things to suck, twirl, rub—corners of blankets, legs of stuffed animals, even their own hair or ears. (Ear-pulling may be a sign of an ear infection, but some babies just think ears are cool.) Some rock themselves, lift their legs up and down, even lightly bang their head against the crib bumper. When they get older, they may murmur or even sing to themselves. In short, your job as a parent is to teach your kid how to self-soothe so he doesn't use YOU as a crutch!