Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Many a parent has been there - you've just spent ages getting the baby to sleep, and yet shortly after you've crept out like a ninja and think they've well and truly entered the Land of Nod, they cry out again - and your heart sinks as you wonder how long it will take THIS time to get them back off to sleep as the whole pattern starts again.
But sometimes, once a baby is past the initial few months, rushing in at the first cry or whimper - while you may not want them to wake up so much they end up actually crying, can interrupt their natural pattern of gently stirring, rousing and then settling themselves back off to sleep. Of course if they're just having a short nap and they're ready to wake up, then its time to go in and brightly greet them with praise for going off to sleep - "good sleeping little one, its lovely to see you again, I'm sure you feel much better after that nap!" or similar. But for a baby who has not long settled, or is only halfway through their long afternoon nap, or is waking in the night frequently, sometimes it pays to pause a few seconds and give them a chance to see if they will settle themselves back to sleep, or if necessary to support them from the crib/cotside with a gentle touch, shush, or your presence in the room to soothe them so they know they can safely drift back off again.
Of course it is also important to be sure that there's not an obvious cause for their stirring, such as hunger, pain or needing a clean nappy first. In my workshops and when working 1:1 with parents, I often explain that we must keep in mind that our babies' initial form of communication with us is to cry. It of course, drives every instinct within us, to protect them and ensure they are safe and well - that's nature, and that is what keeps our babies safe and thriving. It is natural for babies and young children to cry out for a caregivers attention in the night, and also to not want to be left alone - (thousands of years ago if babies were left alone in caves they would be easy prey of course!) - so at all times I would still advise a balance of remaining responsive as well as letting them stir and resettle naturally without disturbing them further. Babies can be noisy sleepers!
We all rouse between sleep cycles numerous times a night, and most of the time (unless you suffer with poor sleep yourself) we turn over, adjust the covers, or get into a comfier position - all without even being aware of it. As babies reach the 4 month stage at which their sleep patterns change from the newborn phase of drifting from one sleep cycle into another with up to half their time spent in REM sleep, to closer to our sleep patterns as adults, and waking between each cycle, this is when many sleep problems can begin, as babies often then need resettling back to sleep as the transition between sleep states can be new and unsettling to them.
Of course, if your baby wake with a cry that is escalating, or a sudden, piercing cry then they definitely need to be checked and may just need reassurance that you are there. However, if what you are hearing is actually a little snuffling and the odd sounds that come and go, in both frequency and volume, then its more likely that they are actually just resettling and with time, will go back off to sleep given the chance. Some babies seem to need to have a little grumble or low grade grizzle before settling off to or back to sleep, and sometimes they are really quite noisy and 'grunty' but not actually fully awake. Sometimes they just need a little verbal reassurance or shushing to continue into the next sleep cycle without needing to be picked up.
To clarify, I'm not for one minute suggesting any non response, timed crying or training, which I never encourage. Babies do need responding to if they cry and there are numerous studies (Schore, 2000; Gerhart, 2004; Landry et al, 2006; Davidov and Grusec, 2006) to show there is a huge difference between crying while being supported and being left alone to cry, and the effect the latter can have on secure attachments and relationships. It is also important for children to learn how to deal with positive levels of stress (Rutter, 2006) and how to work through it, but while babies and children are little, they will usually need adult intervention and co-regulation to manage this as they do not have the emotional maturity to do this themselves. Babies and children naturally need the reassurance, comfort, and safety of an adult close by and cannot be 'taught' to self soothe or how to put themselves to sleep, this comes with time, and one of the best things you can do is to ensure they feel secure, safe and responded to.
If you're struggling with your child's sleep, dealing with multiple night wakings, early morning wakings or resistance to bedtime, please visit www.sweetdreamssleepcoaching.co.uk to book a consultation and bespoke sleep coaching package tailored specifically to your family's needs and parenting style.