How to Settle Baby

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Settling is the word that Sarah and I use to talk about how to help your baby to sleep; all the time… but especially when it seems like they really don’t want to!

This episode will arm you with a tool belt of settling techniques that will help you help your baby get off to sleep. We'll also share some coping techniques to get you through the toughest of nights.

Plus, we'll answer this week's listener question - how can I settle my baby without feeding?

Five Things About Settling

1 – What is settling

– What is cry it out

3 – Settling techniques 

– How settling techniques change with age 

– How to cope when it’s feeling hard

Transcript of our "How to Settle Baby" podcast episode

Cat: [00:00:00]Hello and welcome. This is a baby sleep podcast for parents by parents, people who just happen to have children and, frankly, really want a good night's sleep. That's got to be all of us, right? Apart from maybe you Sarah! I'm Cat Cubie, parenting blogger, broadcaster and bum wiper of two small children. [laughter] And this is Sarah Carpenter, baby sleep expert who has helped thousands of families get more Z's and whose superpower is being able to function on absolutely zero sleep and 18 flat whites. Together we are The Sleep Mums.

[00:00:35] This week's podcast is all about settling, which is not about settling for your partner or that old school phrase that suggests that once you become a parent, you must settle down. My pink hair is testament to that. Settling is the word that we use to talk about how to help your baby to sleep all the time... But especially when it seems like they really don't want to. So here's five things about settling.

Cat: [00:01:02]I've already kind of touched on what settling is, but I think our first shing, our first shing [laughter] I'm turning into Sean Connery here!

Cat: [00:01:12]Our first thing should be to look more closely at what it is. In the first year of life, babies learn so much; from life skills, like walking, talking, eating, and, of course, doing the Hokey Cokey. These skills are not all automatic. Even the things our body does naturally can take patience and practice to do well. As parents, we know we have to guide babies through learning so many things. It's really a job that never stops: from holding their hands as they totter on tippy toes before walking to scraping porridge, cement like, off the floor when they're weaning. And yet folk often get hard time for wanting to help their baby learn to sleep well. Helping baby to learn the skill of sleep can be as simple as setting up great sleep habits and teaching them to settle themselves. But not always. So, Sarah, what is settling?

What is settling?

Sarah: [00:02:05]Well, first of all, settling is really a broad word to cover absolutely everything that you're expecting of the baby. You know, we talk about settling in the sense of self settling and assisted settling. So when we're referring to babies who are self-settling, that's when they've got to the point where they can just be popped into their cot. You can have a little bit of a grumble or they can just goo and gah and quietly drift off to sleep.

Cat: [00:02:29]Literally the dream.

Sarah: [00:02:30]The dream, exactly, the ultimate goal. Assisted settling or nurturing settling is when you find the thing that works for you and your baby to actually get them to sleep using you but not being on you. So baby has already been put down in the cot but then you're going to go through a sequence of things to find the method that works for you. It could be that baby likes to, depending on their age, they might like to sleep on their tummy so you can rub their bottom or back or pat their bottom and get them off to sleep that way. When they're much smaller it might be that they want a firm hand held on their chest or a little tummy rub, a stroke of the forehead, it's physical touch but keeping the baby in the cot so they're not settling on you and then being put down asleep. They are still being put down awake. But you're using your physical touch or presence to get them off to sleep. And that can be done at bedtime. It can be done throughout the night when they wake up and it can be done for naps and during nap times. You know, obviously up to a certain point, a baby is going to wake up because they're hungry. But once you've established a good routine and you know that they're not waking up because they're hungry, that's when you're going to start to use settling techniques to get them to go back to sleep, during the night or during a nap.

Cat: [00:03:46]Or you can always give a go to try and try and encourage them to go longer between feeds as well. If you were wanting to extend those periods of time.

Sarah: [00:03:54]Definitely, you know, a prime example would be a baby who has been doing the three hours and then around about the sort of three, four week mark. You might want to start seeing if you can push them a little bit more overnight so they might wake up the standard nine, ten o'clock, but you would just try and resettle them. And, you know, initially you might be only going to get another half an hour, but then as the days and weeks go by, that's going to start to stretch and stretch and stretch.

Cat: [00:04:23]It's sort of like having a tool belt, a parenting set of tools that will help to get your baby off to sleep, so and they'll be different between different babies. So for me and my daughter, because she was quite hard work, she needed quite a strong settling technique. So we did the bum shoogle, as we're saying. And she she really needed it to be quite vigorous to take her mind off the fact that she was probably a bit overtired and, oh my goodness me, I spent hours shoogling her little bottom over her cot, but it obviously ultimately worked. And my son was much more easy going. He just wanted to hold your hand.

Sarah: [00:05:08]Super cute! And that's something we are all different. But also, I think it's important to remember that just because you start with something doesn't mean that's what you're going to finish. So you might use the bum shoogle to start to calm them and then move on to the handhold or the head stroke just as they are dropping off and to that proper sleep cycle.

Cat: [00:05:31]Yeah, I definitely had this very solid method of vigorous bum shooggling, more gentle bum shoogling and then just slowing it down to a heavy hand and then leaving the room.

Sarah: [00:05:45] And being confident to leave the room, not trying to leave the room like a ninja.

Cat: [00:05:50]Oh, I'm quite good at that as well.

What is "cry it out"?

Cat: [00:05:55]There is this horrible sleep phrase cry out, which frankly leaves most parents shuddering in their exhausted slippers. It's this idea that if baby isn't sleeping you should just leave them in their crib, walk away and close the door and put some earplugs in, which sounds very old school parenting. But I have to say, even for the most soppy parent like me, it will probably cross your mind at some point just because you get so frustrated with wanting your baby to sleep better. So that's the second thing we're going to talk about. Sarah, what is cry out and how is it different from what we are calling sleep settling.

Sarah: [00:06:32]Cry it Out is a very particular sleep training method. It's not one that we recommend but I would support parents if that was the route they really wanted to go down after going into detail a lot about other methods. Basically, with cry it out what you're suggesting is that you're going to pop them in the cot and you're going to leave them to cry. You might just leave them until they fall asleep or you might do a series of going in and out after a certain amount of time. So, you know, first time you'll go in after five minutes, then you'll go in after six minutes, then you go in after seven minutes and eight. You're always leaving them that little bit longer each time until they have fallen asleep by themselves. That differs drastically to what we're suggesting with sleep settling because we're taking a very hands on, much more gentle approach. So there will be times when you leave your baby in the cot, but we're listening to the cries. We're listening to their needs. So a lot of the time I would refer to a baby's cries like a gearbox of a car. You know, you've got your gears one to five. You're not going to leave that baby when they get up to your five, you're definitely going to be in that room. You would potentially leave them in gear one or two, because that's more of a grumble. A lot of babies will make a noise, they will grumble, they will shout a little bit when they are going off to sleep. So you want them to have the opportunity to do that and then settle themselves, but you're not going to leave them to cry at the point of them actually become an upset and distressed. You're going and you're staying with them until they're calm again. So you really are having that hands on support to get them to sleep and settle them that way.

Cat: [00:08:13]And using the techniques that we've talked about that I think essentially kind of take their mind off the fact that they're a bit wound up. It helps them calm down, to know that you're there and then to allow you to leave the room and, hopefully, if if they're still sort of drowsy but awake to fall asleep themselves.

Sarah: [00:08:33]Yeah. You've reassured the baby of their surroundings. So we discussed it in our previous podcast about bedtime routines. But again, it comes down to, you know, if you have actually settled the baby in their cot, then they know where they are. So they're confident of where they are if they fallen asleep on you and then you've put them into cot and you've had to resettle them. Already, they've come out of their sleep cycle, they're a little bit bamboozled by where they are and everything's going to take so much longer. If you've offered that comfort in the cot, they're one hundred percent confident about their surroundings. They're going to be comfortable, reassured that you are still there, reassured that you're supporting them. But ready to fall asleep.

Sleeping baby in bed, holding a stuffed bear

Cat: [00:09:16]So, we talked about what settling is and what it's not, but the techniques that you use do vary as baby grows through their first year. Our third slice of settling cake should really be chatting through some of those settling techniques. We've touched on a few, but we also talk more about the 'No Lift Settle'. So, Sarah, what are some settling techniques and what is the No Lift Settle'?

What are some baby settling techniques?

Sarah: [00:09:40]Ok, so starting with the No Lift Settle, it is essentially what we've just said, you want your baby to feel safe and confident in their cot. So once you put them down and put them into their sleeping environment, you're not going to lift them. They're going to stay there until they are asleep. So that's when you really need to know your baby's cries. You want to be listening for the changes. You want to be going in and offering support as and when it's required. And there's no time limit on that. You know, with some methods where you are timing things, the No lift technique, you really are listening rather than timing. So there could be a ten minute window where you don't need to go in at all but then there might be a five minute window where you go in three times because you're judging on what the baby sounds like. Once you've committed to the No lift settle, it's really important that you do follow through to the end, because you don't want to offer any confusion. You don't want them to suddenly think that if they shout louder, you're going to go in and pick them up. So you really need to avoid that. So once you start again, it's that consistency and commitment and confidence to the techniques that you've chosen.

Cat: [00:10:51]I've always kind of thought of it like breaking the seal. You know when you go to the pub and you go for a pee. You're done for. So sometimes if you've kind of committed to that no lift settle. So once you pick them up, you're like, right back to the beginning again.

Sarah: [00:11:06]Exactly. And so that's when I would always say if you do pick them up at some point, you know, if something has happened and you've decided that you need to pick them up, reset things by leaving the room. Take the baby out of the bedroom, calm them down and then come back in and start again. You're essentially starting the whole routine from the beginning. That change of scene is going to mean you've got more confidence and baby knows exactly what's expected of them. If you are going to look at doing a lifting technique then it can take a little bit longer to get baby to settle. So what you would be doing is instead of using a hands on approach in the cot, you would be listening to the baby noises and then when you feel it's appropriate, you'd be going in and lifting baby, calming them and then popping them back down into the cot. So you're still avoiding letting them fall asleep on you but there's a little bit more up and down and to-ing and fro-ing with that one. Then you have the techniques within your techniques; so once you've decided if you're going for no lift or the lifting, then then you've got your other settling techniques, like your bum shoogle, which basically is just a hand on the bottom and a really good shuggle or a very firm pat, there's also rubbing the back, holding a hand on the tummy or on the chest and if they're sleeping on their back, you can put a hand on their chest or a hand on their tummy and give them a little rock. There's also stroking the head or the face or offering a comforter of some description. And, you know, if you're using a muslin or if you're using one of the little taggy blankets and you can stroke that across the face or stroke it down their hand and that can be the comforting settling technique that you use. Also using your white noise or a ssssh sound or music, you want it loud enough that it is a distraction. You actually want it so loud that they can hear it over themselves crying. So it distracts them out of the cry, it moves them away, and then they realise that they're sleepy and that's when they're able to self settle.

Cat: [00:13:15]And you can also use a combination of these things, like sometimes I'll absolutely throw everything at it to encourage my daughter to sleep.

Sarah: [00:13:24]Exactly, there's no restrictions.

Cat: [00:13:28]So now we gone through the various settling techniques and touched a wee bit on how they change as baby grows, let's go into a wee bit more detail about how you might switch up your settling in that first year. So that's our fourth thing. So, Sarah, how do settling techniques change by age. Maybe we should look at each stage, I guess, so maybe birth to three months, three to six months and then six months plus. How how would you say settling techniques change?

How do baby settling techniques change as baby grows up?

Sarah: [00:13:54]So the first stage, the birth to three months, your settling is very different. You really are going with your baby. Those initial few weeks baby is going to be asleep when you put them down essentially. They are going to have, or most babies, will have had a good feed, they'll be drifting off, so the key thing at that point is that you're just going to rouse them. You're not looking to have a wide awake baby that's ready to party. You're looking to have a sleepy baby who's ready to go to bed and you can just give them a little shoogle, you know, a little bit rougher when you put them down, just so that we do sort of open their eyes and a bit more aware of their surroundings and then they just gently drify back off into sleep. So really, in those the first three months, you're going to be using firm hand, you can pop baby down and rouse them slightly, use a firm hand then on them. Just to give them that little bit of comfort before you step away from the sleeping environment. They're obviously going to be sleeping on their back. So it is just going to be a hand on the chest or the tummy maybe a little shoogle. Then you're going to leave baby. In that time frame as well, you're still likely to be swaddling. So they've also got that comfort, you know the swaddle is a really, really good settling technique, technique and that keeps them nice and cosy and then you're just using a little hand on them. By three to six months, they're more likely to have comforters. So it might be that the settling technique at that point you are actually giving them the thing that calms them.

Cat: [00:15:18]What age would you recommend introducing a comforter?

Sarah: [00:15:21]So I would always have a comforter safely in the cot from birth if you've decided that you want to use one. So if it's some sort of small blanket style taggy, or one of the things with the animal heads on it or something like that, you just have that down on their feet. So it's not actually near them initially.

Cat: [00:15:40]Just so it becomes familiar and starts to smell of their environment.

Sarah: [00:15:41]Exactly. And same with the muslin, you can just have a muslin somewhere in the Moses basket or cot but below the head area. A lot of babies will actually become attached to their swaddling blanket and that will then become their comforter. So if you've used one of the big, muslin style swaddling blankets that can then become baby's comforter. So around about the time when they're starting to show signs of rolling over and you're weaning them off the swaddle that would then just stay in the coat with them and that's what they used to snuggle their face into.

Cat: [00:16:14]Obviously, you have to be pretty careful with any blanket style comforters.

Sarah: [00:16:18]Definitely the only style of comforters that you should use are breathable ones. You do have to look from the safety side of it. But, you know, muslins are great for that because they are totally breathable. So also the thing that changes in the three to six month mark is that you can roll baby gently onto their side and so you can then start to use techniques like the bottom pat or the back rub. You just got a little bit more of a vigorous settling technique, and then just gently roll baby back onto their back as they're drifting off to sleep. So they're still going to sleep on their back, but you just use different positions to help them get to sleep.

Cat: [00:16:56]And usually that is ideally on their left side because that encourages wind to move through the system...

Sarah: [00:17:05]Yes

Cat: [00:17:05]I do the exact same to my husband to try and get the wind out!

Sarah: [00:17:07]Yeah, it helps the digestive system flow, so it will help if there's any trapped wind and obviously, if your baby's got reflux, then it really helps with that. And then from six months plus, everything changes. You know, that's when a lot of babies are rolling over comfortably by that stage. So they won't be sleeping on their tummy even if they're not fully rolling over well after the six month mark, a lot of them will naturally sleep on their tummy and want their bottom patted and that's the sort of go to one. So it always surprises people... I don't know how relevant this is on a podcast, but I'm going to just...

Cat: [00:17:43]Go for it! That's what we're here for...

Sarah: [00:17:45]Just do a pat on my leg to show... People go in to the bottom part very tentatively but it really is a [loud patting sound] that we're looking for. So it's quite a firm bottom pat, which makes the baby move so baby's getting a little bit of a rock similar to how you would move when they're in their buggy or pram.

Cat: [00:18:06]I think it's worth saying that normally they have multiple layers on of nappies and things like that. That sounded a bit like spanking, but it is more of a comforting pat on a padded area.

Sarah: [00:18:21]Definitely, that was straight on to my legs, so it does sound a little bit different. And then you would alternate between that and the back rub. So, if you're finding that your baby is trying to get up into the crawling position, then you really sort of comforting back rub can really help them to relax and that'll help them to actually lie down. And then much further down the track, the sort of 10 months plus, babies can start trying to stand up in their cot and all these settling techniques become very very difficult. And at that point, what you'd be looking to do, is if a baby is standing up, don't fight with them, don't try and force them to lie back down, you'd be looking at leaning into the cot, letting them sort of snuggle into your shoulder. So you're just leaning sort of over the bar. They can snuggle into your shoulder as you rub their back and pat their bottom as they're standing up and then as they relax, that's when you would gently lifting their legs away and helping them to lay down, on their tummy or back at that point and then just continue the technique that you've started where they've been standing up.

Cat: [00:19:23]That's such good advice, because I think it's really, really tempting when baby gets to that stage and they are standing up, even if you've been doing a no lift settle, to pick them up because you naturally think, oh well they're standing up, what am I going to do and don't want to get into that battle, as you say, where you're trying to take their legs away and they're resisting it. So that's really, really good advice.

Cat: [00:19:47]So your baby's cries can sound a wee bit like a siren in your heart. I think it's one of the hardest parts of settling. Their cry, especially if they're overtired, can sound frantic, and it makes you want to react immediately, whipping them up, holding them close. So that's the fifth thing I want to talk about, settling can be really hard. So let's chat through some tips and coping strategies. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being attentive. It's definitely instinctive as a parent or caregiver. But what I learned over a lot of sleepless time was that by picking my daughter up every single time she cried, I was actually disturbing her and preventing her from learning to go back to sleep. So, Sarah, what are your top tips and any thoughts on coping strategies?

Some coping strategies for when babies won't settle

Sarah: [00:20:34]The biggest one is you're not alone. You know the best way to cope with anything is to have backup and there will be times that you are physically in the house on your own and you do have to follow through by yourself. But if you've got backup, if you've got a partner in the house or if you've got somebody, you can come around and help you over a few of the settlings it will make a massive difference. So rather than you staying in the room and crying with your baby, is there somebody else there that can take over for a bit and give you a breather then do that come out of the room and you reset while somebody else takes over. It's not a failure, you just you've done the right thing by getting the help. So that's really, really important. The second thing is to be consistent. I mean, that is key, especially with settling. If you start trying to do new settling techniques and you do it once and you think it hasn't worked and then you change next time, baby's not going to learn and neither are you, because you're not actually ever going to get to the bottom of their levels of cry right before they go to sleep. And some babies can really crank up and increase the noise level and then just drop off really quickly. And the only way you're going to find those limits as by seeing it through to the end.

Cat: [00:21:52]Totally you have to give them the chance to try and learn what you're teaching them to do and it's not going to happen immediately. I think we've said it before, but you are learning and so is baby and you've got to give both yourself and baby a break and time to get used to it and learn differently.

Sarah: [00:22:14]And once you do start to work on your settling, then do for everything, do it for naps and do it for overnight. Because the more you do and the more baby does it, the quicker you're both going to learn. Also starting with a nap means that you've got way more stamina and starting a bedtime.

Cat: [00:22:32]Yeah. I mean, it can feel pretty painful at 2am or 3am in the morning to be bum shoogling for 20 minutes or longer. I'm pretty sure I did it for a lot longer. But I think also it's quite important to say you are not robots, your baby is not a robot, and neither are you. Yes, consistency is key, but we've said it a million times and I will say again, you know, if your heart is breaking and you want to pick up your baby, pick up your baby, it's OK. It's not going to make it all go tits up or anything. It's not going to spoil all your hard work. We want you to enjoy your baby. It's such an important part of it. But also, I was going to say, just when you were talking about tag teaming with with someone whether it's a family member or a friend, if you're trying to do it yourself, do just take yourself out of the room, if it's getting a bit much. It's ok if you feel like you want to go and just step into a different room and either scream yourself or just have a moment where you kind of gather your wits - I still do it.. or I especially do with a threenager and a four year old with so much sass - sometimes I have to take myself into another room and take a breath because... Parenting is hard.

Sarah: [00:23:49]It really is, and there's going to be days where you just don't have the stamina. And that's OK.

Cat: [00:23:56]Also as we were talking about comforters, I definitely think we should do an episode about comforters and sleep associations, but by creating those really consistent positive sleep associations that we've spoken about as part of your schedule it really helps to get baby into that settling zone before you're even in it, before even having to do any settling techniques.

Sarah: [00:24:20]Yep.

Cat: [00:24:23]Let's answer a settling question. This week, it's from Hannah,

Hannah: [00:24:27]Hi Cat and Sarah. I hear people saying that they can settle their baby and their cot without feeding, but nothing I do seems to work. So I end up lifting and feeding anyway. What am I doing wrong?

Listener question: how can I settle my baby without feeding?

Cat: [00:24:36]Oh, my goodness. That that was me, literally feeding every forty five minutes!

Sarah: [00:24:42]And none of you are doing anything wrong. Again, it's this belief that as new mums you're all meant to know exactly what you're doing and you hear people talking about how their baby just drifts off to sleep perfectly and you immediately think that you're doing it wrong. None of your wrong. You're doing what you need to do at the moment and that's fine. But then equally, it's OK that you're now ready to change that. So in the case of feeling like you're always just falling back on the lifting and feeding this is where the routine and the consistency really come into play. So once you've decided on your routine and your bedtime routine, but also your settling techniques, that's when you have to follow it through. And it's not going to happen first time. You usually are looking at using these techniques for every naptime and every settle and resettle throughout the night for a good three to five days. In your case, Hannah, where you're actually lifting and feeding, if you have got a partner who's at home that can do this, then that's the way to do it. You know, hand them over to somebody else to do it so that you haven't got that feeding bond with them.

Cat: [00:25:52]I remember a top tip you gave me, for me to wear a sweater or a t shirt that belonged to my partner. And that meant that I didn't smell so strongly to my baby.

Sarah: [00:26:06]Definitely. Yes. Sort of try to mask the smell of your milk. And that actually helps both. That helps mum and baby, because you feel less like you're attracting the baby and the baby can smell you either.

Cat: [00:26:20]There's such an emotional component to it as well.

Sarah: [00:26:23]Definitely. I mean when you're standing over a cot and your boobs are leaking because your baby's crying because they're used to getting fed, it is horrific. It really is and we're not downplaying that at all. But at the point when you decide that you want to put these techniques in place, it's because you're ready. And that's what you've got to focus on both for you and baby. You know if you're at the point where you're ready to not be feeding to resettle then baby's at the point where they really want to be going straight back to sleep. They don't want to be awake. They don't want to be up. And so, again, it comes back to having that really tight routine that you follow through each and every time. And they do settle in the cot.

Cat: [00:27:02]I think there's a lot of guilt by putting your baby's needs before absolutely everything, which can end up sort of breaking and you feel like I should be doing these things. They're crying for me, they need me, my boobs are leaking, it makes sense to do those things. But actually, you know, it's a hard thing to get through. But if you can when you do, you get both get more sleep and everyone feels better.

Sarah: [00:27:27]Definitely, you know, and it is very easy to fall into that sort of emotional trap of thinking, well, I am doing what my baby needs because all babies need fed. And of course, all babies need fed but all babies need sleep as well.

Cat: [00:27:43]And obviously that goes for bottle feeding, too it's not just a breastfeeding thing because you're a parent whatever and you want to fulfil your baby's needs even if there's not a physical component, there's always an emotional component.

Sarah: [00:27:56]Definitely.

Cat: [00:28:00]So that's five things about settling, not as simple as it sounds, perhaps, but so worth it in the end. At two and a half, are we handhold for my son when he's going to sleep still settles him. Having the skills to settle my baby in a way that felt right to me as a parent was a total game changer. Some of that is working out what works for you and your baby but as ever also a big part of it is about being consistent. We really hope this episode helped in many ways sleep settling is kind of one of the things that can help everything to do with sleep because it gives you some really proactive tools. Please tell your friends about our podcast, because that really makes a difference and it means the world to us. Subscribe, share in your socials and write us a lovely review. Thanks again for listening.

Cat: [00:28:46]Look after yourself and sleep soon.

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