Should I rock my baby to sleep? Range of theories on assisting babies to sleep.

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

Many parents end up rocking their baby at 3 AM in the dark wondering ‘Why am I doing this?’ There are different views as to what parents should do with a crying baby at night. Some argue that babies should learn to self-settle and therefore should be left to cry it out. Others advocate always responding to your babies needs and comforting them no matter the time or lack of sleep for the parents. Essentially, rocking a baby can be beneficial if used within an appropriate routine which responds to a baby’s needs and teaches them to self-settle.


Crying it out or constant comfort can both benefit and disadvantage a child. Crying to sleep can develop resilience, independence and well rested children. Babies who are never left to cry and are rocked to sleep can feel very loved and secure as they know that their needs will always be met. But continued over time this constant support from the parents can cause children to feel that they are the centre of the world and that their needs should always come first above everything else. It has also been recorded that crying to sleep causes babies stress. Some go so far as to say that a baby left to cry will become depressed. Maybe the best option is to do a balance of both – this is also dangerous ground as babies can then become very confused and won’t understand why sometimes they are left to cry and other times they are picked up and comforted.


Which Baby Do You Have?

Some specialists believe that babies start their life with a particular personality which affects their sleep, behaviour and needs. Some babies might be very self-sufficient and happily drift off to sleep with no assistance, while others may have high levels of need and therefore need regular support to sleep. This is often seen as a scale with 4 or 5 various styles of personality ranging from low to high needs (Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect and Communicate with your Baby by Tracey Hogg and Melinda Blau).


Sometimes this opinion is simpler and states that babies are either high or low need. Either way it means that parents need to have an open mind about how their baby will behave and modify expectations to fit their baby. Even someone with a strong view that rocking a baby to sleep is a dangerous path, may find that their resolve crumbles with a high need baby and that sometimes it is the best option at that point in time.


Other specialists consider all babies to have different personalities but that these have no effect on their sleeping, feeding and crying behaviour. They state that it’s the parent’s behaviour from birth which most affects the baby’s likelihood to sleep. Do the parents provide naps at the appropriate time for the right length? Are they filling the baby up with milk or solids in the day so that have less of a need for feeding at night? Are they giving the baby the relevant amount of stimulation and activity during their awake time to ensure they are tired but not over-tired or over-stimulated? This balance of naps, feeds and activity is thought to be essential from birth (The New Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford).


Some specialists think that parents can affect sleep more than they realise

Developing Good Habits From Birth

The most important thing to consider, when thinking about rocking a baby to sleep, is their age. From birth, parents often choose to rock them to sleep but once their baby’s sleep changes as they grow older they can become stuck in a tiring bedtime routine.


The first three to four months of a baby’s life is the simplest time to develop positive sleep habits and sleep associations. A new born usually sleeps very easily anywhere; if placed in a basket or cot from birth they will often be content to mostly nap and sleep away from a parent. However, parents can feel wonderful when rocking their tiny baby to sleep. The warmth of holding them so close and their tiny wriggles and expressions as they sleep can be delightful.


Issues arise if parents repeatedly hold their baby while they are asleep during the day as they will then expect that closeness and warmth at night. That warm feeling of completeness for the parents can soon transform into tiredness, stress, frustration and panic. Especially around 3-4 months when all babies sleep patterns change from longer sleep cycles to waking up about every 45 minutes. When babies awaken lightly after every sleep cycle, if they depend on parents to rock them to sleep parents can enter a realm of never-ending sleepless nights.


Often parents who have previously rocked or comforted their child to sleep suddenly decide they can’t cope with the severe sleep loss anymore and that they might just leave them to cry it out. At an older age out of the blue this can be very upsetting for some children, so much so that they can vomit from crying for hours. At this point it is recommended talking to a sleep specialist to look in detail at the child, their situation, routine and sleep to gradually encourage them to self-settle so that the parents can sleep.


Crying it out can work for some, but it can also be extremely distressing for all involved.

Other Solutions

There are many other options for settling a baby to sleep without them being dependent on your hugs, rocking or sounds. This involves building sleep cues and can work for a baby of any age. Either words, music, routines, clothes, comforters, lights, patting, rubbing, shshing or a few minutes of rocking can all relax a baby. When used within an effective routine they can calm them and make them feel sleepy and positive about going to bed. All these cues need to be used but stopped before the baby goes to sleep while the parent is there. Then they can leave, and the baby will learn to self-settle, sometimes with a little cry or none at all. It is important that they go to sleep on their own so that when they wake in the night they don’t expect a parent to be there and panic as the parent was there when they went to sleep.


Some parents choose co-sleeping out of desperation or because it is the most logical and caring decision for their baby. It is essential with co-sleeping that parents fully research the safety guidelines and adhere to them thoroughly. Co-sleeping can work as some researchers believe that babies are naturally meant to be with their mothers most of the time. This is called attachment parenting, always putting the babies needs first. This can really work for some families. Research has found that mothers are more likely to wake in the night when co-sleeping however they are also more likely to return to sleep quicker. Having a baby in bed can also make parents sleep lighter and not feel as refreshed in the day, so they may need to have a support network in place – perhaps family, friends or neighbours who can help so they can get some quality sleep/rest time.


In addition, co-sleeping can affect relationships as alone time with partners for chatting, cuddling and everything else is often reduced. Some partners even choose to sleep elsewhere if they are not getting enough sleep. At some point as well, parents will need to wean their baby off co-sleeping. It can take a long time to help them gain the confidence to sleep in their own bed and in their own room.


Rocking a new-born to sleep can be wonderful, rocking a wriggling toddler can be soul destroying.

Summary

So we have discussed how rocking a baby to sleep can be effective when used as a sleep cue to make a baby calm so they can settle themselves to sleep on their own. This might involve a few minutes of crying, which some call a sleep mantra or crying down. Those parents who can’t bear the crying but don’t want to constantly rock their child to sleep might choose co-sleeping, but they are reminded to thoroughly follow safety guidelines. This can be a rewarding and special solution, but parents do need to be prepared for the possible consequences. Other babies might have reflux, colic, food intolerances or separation anxiety all of which might affect their sleep needs. Keep your eyes peeled for future blogs covering these issues.



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