What’s responsive settling?

There have been many changes in the recommendations around how babies should be settled for sleeps. Not so long ago, controlled crying was thought to be the best way for babies to learn how to go to sleep on their own. But now, we understand so much more about how babies develop and what they need.  Babies who are loved and feel secure are more likely to go to sleep and sleep for longer periods. They also grow to learn about trusting relationships and that the people closest to them will help meet their basic needs.  And although there’s lots of intricacies when it comes to responsive settling, it can basically be summarised pretty simply.

Responsive settling is based around parents being emotionally and physically available to their baby when they’re going to sleep.

Some babies have more sensitive temperaments than others. This means they need more reassurance, cuddles and help to feel secure and safe.  Each baby is an individual and although they all share similarities, their unique qualities are what makes them so special. When your baby is sick, growing through a developmental change or just feeling unsure, they’ll need you to be close.


But you used to sleep so well!

Babies sleep is dynamic – it changes all the time.  It’s easy for parents to feel disappointed when their baby reverts back to waking through the night or protesting when going to sleep.  However, it’s important to remember that there is a limit to how much influence you can have over your baby’s sleep. The only thing you can really control is your responses to your baby’s sleep and settling. Whether they go to sleep and how much sleep they have is up to them.


Change your settling responses as your baby grows

Match your settling techniques with your baby’s age and stage of development. Very young babies often go to sleep when they’re feeding and being held. As your baby grows, they’ll be ready to learn skills in settling independently.

Hands on settling or settling in arms are the types of settling responses which most babies need when they’re small. Transition or comfort settling are the techniques which tend to work for babies from around six months of age.


Wrap your baby until they start rolling

Wrapping helps babies to stay in a back position and encourages longer sleeps. Use a light muslin or cotton wrap to swaddle your baby comfortably. Make sure their arms are flexed against their chest. Stop wrapping your baby once they start to turn and roll. A sleeping bag is a good option for babies who are rolling. Check here for what’s safe when it comes to sleeping bags.


Try to think about what your baby needs from you

It’s important to consider your baby’s experiences and use empathy to understand what they need. Sensitive parenting and responses from parents help babies to grow up with a secure sense of themselves and the world.  Sometimes your baby will need more cuddles, reassurance and feeds and it won’t always be obvious why they do.  It’s important to follow your ‘gut feeling’ and do what feels right.  If this means cuddling your baby to sleep sometimes instead of placing them into their cot when they’re still awake, then that’s fine. When you and your baby are ready to make changes, there’s plenty of sources of information.


Look at the big picture and make small steps

If your baby is growing, thriving and reaching their developmental milestones, be reassured that they’re likely to be getting enough sleep. Sometimes it’s easier to make one or two small changes with settling than big changes all at once.

Placing your baby into their cot when they’re nearly asleep rather than fully asleep, offering an extra feed or two or ceasing their dummy could lead to big improvements.


Care well for yourself

Responsive settling means parents being emotionally and physically available to their baby. Make sure you’re not skipping meals, drinking plenty of water and getting ‘enough’ sleep to get through each day (and night).  Aim for simple life if your baby isn’t sleeping well.  If you’re struggling with your mental or emotional health, see your GP.  Post-natal anxiety and depression is common in new parents – around one in five new mothers can be affected. Treatment and support can be immensely beneficial.


Responsive settling strategies for every baby and parent

Always follow the safe sleeping guidelines when you’re settling your baby. Even though you may be exhausted and want to have your baby close to you when you’re sleeping, remember that the safest place for your baby is in their own safe sleeping space for all sleeps, night and day.

If you feel overwhelmed by your baby’s crying, ask another trusted adult to care for them and have a break.  If you’re on your own, place your baby into their cot and have a short time away from each other.

Learn to recognise your own limits and don’t expect yourself to have a never-ending capacity for patience.


And now it’s time for sleep…

Follow a pre-settling routine so your baby knows it’s sleep time. Make sure they have a dry nappy, are fed, dressed comfortably for the temperature and are showing tired signs. Missing their sleep cues could lead to overtiredness. Overtired babies tend to protest more when going to sleep and don’t settle as easily. Yawning, rubbing their eyes, fussing and jerky movements are all classic tired signs.

Think about your own emotions when you’re settling your baby.  Try to stay calm and mindful e.g., ‘in the moment’ with your baby and focus on what you’re doing right now. Try not to become anxious about whether they will or won’t settle.  Do your best and be patient. In the early days of changing your settling responses, it’s important to be consistent and persistent.

Pat your baby using gentle rhythmic patting – at about the same rate as your heart beat.  Say “shsh” repeatedly and keep going with your patting and shshing until they calm.  You may like to use a white noise machine (at a low volume) when your baby is settling for their sleeps. Darken their room if possible.

Help your baby to learn that their cot is where they go to sleep. Being consistent with where they settle is a big part of improving sleep patterns.

Speak with your child health nurse if you’re unsure about how to settle your baby. Before making any changes, it’s important to check your baby is healthy and thriving and growing as they need to.

Written by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, October 2021.