Have you been asked if your baby is a “good” sleeper? You probably have been asked that question many times. Living on your baby’s schedule can feel exhausting. It is a totally different pattern of sleeping and being awake than you were used to before the baby arrived. Many parents wonder when their baby will begin to self-soothe. Nature designed the baby's wake patterns to be protective of the mother’s milk supply.
Sleep pattern and milk supply connections
Babies are not designed to sleep for an entire night. Their bellies are small, and they need to eat more often than we do as adults. It is normal for your baby to nurse every 1-3 hours around the clock. Allowing your baby to depend on you to help soothe themselves is protective of milk supply and proper weight gain, growth, and development.
Prolactin is a hormone released about 30 minutes after your baby begins nursing and signals for more milk to be made.
Prolactin has its own circadian rhythm, and prolactin levels are highest during the night, with a peak between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. (1)
When your baby nurses during the middle of the night with prolactin levels already high, it significantly influences your next day's milk supply.
Prolactin levels are lowest in the afternoon. It is one of the reasons babies cluster feed during that time of day when milk is naturally lower.
During the first 6 months of life, babies' sleep-wake cycle during the night is closely connected to their need to eat. As they get older, during the second half of their first year, they begin to develop longer periods of sleep and follow a sleep pattern of more sleep when it is night and more wakefulness during the daylight hours. Still, sleeping through the night is considered to be 5-6 hours.
Did You Know? It is normal for babies 12 months and younger to wake an average of 3 times during the nighttime. (4)
What is considered self-soothing?
The ability to relax, calm down, and go to sleep or fall back asleep and regulate their own emotions without the help of someone else.
Self-regulation and self-soothing are developmental milestones that don’t happen until the brain is mature enough.
Biologically normal self-soothing mammal timelines
In our society, we focus a lot on independence at nap times and bedtime. They are often the focus of when we expect or hope the baby will self-soothe. The thing is, this doesn’t match your baby’s biological blueprint.
Mammals are carrier animals meant to stay with their nursing parent to meet all their needs.
If young babies were put down in nature, their survival rate would dramatically decrease.
Babies rely on the adult to protect them and help them co-regulate, as do other mammals. (2)
Some mammals rely on their adult for a short period of time, while others, like the Orangutan, are carried or attached to their mother’s body and nurse for 7 years.
Although we have the largest brains among mammals, our babies depend more on us than other mammal babies depend on their mothers. When a baby is born, their body systems are immature.
Being skin-to-skin with their mother allows babies to better regulate their temperature, breathing, heart rate, and nervous system. You might even notice when you are stressed out that your baby gets stressed out more quickly, but if you relax, it can help your baby do the same.
Attachment and self-soothing development
Early brain development has long-lasting impacts. A study that looked at the brain images of preschool children showed that children with mothers who were responsive and more nurturing towards them had greater hippocampal volume. The hippocampus helps regulate stress and behavior and is important for memory. The amygdala part of the brain, responsible for emotion, was positively affected in children with more responsive mothers. (3)
Babies and children who are responded to when they cry learn that when they have a need, it will be met. When left to soothe themselves before they are capable or ready to do so, it may teach them that nobody is there to meet their needs, and they shut down and will stop crying while their stress hormones remain high.
Babies who are held more or always have someone nearby to help them calm and soothe tend to cry less. (5)
Babies who are often carried or held develop a strong sense of attachment and security, contributing to greater independence and the ability to control their emotions later in life. Pushing self-soothing before the baby and their brain are ready makes it harder for them to regulate their emotions and reactions later in life, which can affect all aspects of life. (2)
Tips for soothing your baby and taking care of you
The first few years of your baby’s life go by quickly, but it can sometimes feel exhausting when you are in the middle of it. To best meet your baby’s needs, it is also important to meet your own needs.
Rest or sleep when your baby sleeps to get in a little more rest
Go for a walk and get fresh air and sunshine
Have others help with chores around the house so you can take care of the baby
Nourish your body with nutrient-dense foods
Drink plenty of water
Learn infant massage - it relaxes your baby and you!
Wear your baby in a sling to keep them close and meet their needs while still being able to be on the go.
Myths & Facts about self-soothing:
You have to teach a baby to fall asleep on their own.
When babies are developmentally ready, they will sleep for longer stretches at night, all on their own.
If you let your baby cry it out, they will learn to self-soothe.
Responding to your baby supports later self-soothing and self-regulation. Left to cry, a baby may stop because they realize nobody is coming, but their cortisol level remains high.
Responding to your baby and soothing them develops strong attachment and bonding, leading to healthy emotional development. Allowing your child to be dependent leads to greater independence. When you meet your baby’s needs, they understand their voice matters and the world is safe. You can support your baby’s development of autonomy and self-regulation by responding to their cues, anticipating their needs, and holding them or babywearing. As your baby grows and matures, they will develop the brain maturity and skills to self-regulate. The bond you form with your baby during the early years continues to nurture them and contribute to the quality of their future relationships.