Beating “Bad Habits” – Gently, With Love

Photography: Fran Jorgensen | www.franjorgensen.com

By Pinky McKay

It’s scary isn’t it, being a new mum and feeling pressured from all directions to resist cuddling, rocking (or heaven forbid!), feeding your baby to sleep – in case you create “bad habits”?

The good news is, you can relax: rocking your baby to sleep at four weeks old (or even four months), won’t set him on a path to delinquency, despite the dire warnings you may be hearing right now. Just to get a bit of perspective, imagine you are snuggled next to your partner, you are enjoying cuddles. The love hormones you are both releasing, especially if you are snuggling skin-to-skin, are making you feel drowsy. You start to drift off, feeling calm, loved and safe. Then, suddenly, your partner pokes you and says, “Get onto your own side of the bed! We mustn’t cuddle to sleep. We are creating bad habits!”

Ridiculous isn’t it? But still, you can’t help wondering, if we do rock/cuddle/feed our baby to sleep, will she ever learn to self-settle? Are we depriving her of learning a skill? Are we just postponing the “inevitable” (read, sleep training)?

The good news is, you can relax: rocking your baby to sleep at four weeks old (or even four months), won’t set him on a path to delinquency, despite the dire warnings you may be hearing right now.

Most newborns and young babies need some help to fall asleep. This is a complex neurological process that is a reflection of your baby’s developmental stages, not what you have “taught” your baby: for the first four months, babies enter sleep from an active sleep phase and younger babies also have a startle reflex that can wake them randomly, so they will usually need help to calm and settle into a deeper sleep at first. Also, at new developmental stages, your baby’s little brain will be so busy he may have trouble switching off and relaxing, so he may need some extra help. The good news is that the help you are giving your baby right now is helping him develop the brain wiring to be able to soothe himself when he is ready – without any sort of “training”.

It can be lovely to rock and cuddle your baby to sleep or to watch him doze off, full and contented after a breastfeed. However, even if you aren’t worried about it being a “bad habit”, you may still be wondering, will he ever be able to go to sleep all by himself? Or, how can I make changes so he can settle without so much help? You can relax, there  are gentle ways to do this without causing stress to either your baby or yourself.

It’s perfectly OK to cuddle your baby to sleep until he “weans” onto bedtime stories as a toddler, if this feels right to you – and even then little ones enjoy bedtime cuddles. If your baby has always been parented to sleep, whatever his age right now, it is respectful and kind to make changes, gradually with love, not suddenly by implementing sleep training that involves tears (for both of you – you will miss these delicious snuggles too!). If you feel ready to see whether your baby can fall asleep without help, give him the opportunity to do this by popping him in his cot when he is comfortable and drowsy, but awake. You may be pleasantly surprised – often at just a few months old babies will have a wee chat and doze off, regardless of how much you have rocked and cuddled previously. Your baby may not do this at every sleep, but if he can manage to doze off by himself sometimes, and has no sleep association with being let to cry, he will feel safe and relaxed at bedtime and will do it more often.

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