What is self-settling?
Let’s start with what it actually means to self-settle. If your child can self-settle, it means they can go through the process of being awake to fast asleep on their own with no assistance from you. Resettling means that when a child wakes overnight or after a short nap, they can link their sleep cycles and go back to sleep independently. Once your baby has learned these skills, they will have them for life. This is not to say that they will never experience sleep regressions or upsets with sleep from things like sickness or travel. It does mean however, that you can trust that once they have learned these skills, you can expect them to sleep well and be more rested in general (even if they might need reminding at times).
The prime time for teaching independent sleep is somewhere between four and seven months, before object permanence comes into play. Object permanence is a phenomenon which develops around six months of age for most babies. It’s when a child can remember that people and things exist, even when they can’t see them. You can see why this might be an issue when your child knows you were there when they fell asleep (as you rocked, bounced or fed them to sleep) but when they wake early from a nap or overnight, you’ve disappeared.
Put baby to bed awake
This is also why putting your baby down ready for sleep but awake becomes important after the newborn stage. You put them in their cot and go out to put your toddler to bed or have a shower, and they can go from awake to drowsy to asleep on their own. They will begin to associate falling asleep with being in bed and there are no surprises for your child when they wake overnight. They will happily resettle themselves back to sleep. It’s also important that once a child progresses past the newborn stage, putting them down ‘drowsy but awake’ rarely works like it did when they were very young. Going to bed drowsy but awake can be confusing for a child because being very drowsy means the child may not be conscious enough to know whether you are there or not.
The older baby
Teaching the skill of independent sleep becomes a lot harder after around eight or nine months, because separation anxiety hits a whole new level. At this age, babies have a much better sense of their daily routine and they are so much more vocal, social and aware of their surroundings. Coupled with this, from twelve months old and beyond, most kids have good receptive language (they know the meaning of what you’re saying) but they may have trouble expressing how they feel. This in itself can manifest as frustration, nap refusal and overnight wake ups. Having said that, self-settling is learned skill and a skill that a child can learn at any age; five months, twelve months or four years! In general, the younger the child, the quicker the process will be. If you want to teach your two year old to sleep independently then you definitely can, it just might take a little more time and patience from you, as you will be changing sleep habits that have been learned over many months.
It’s never too late
The benefits of teaching self-settling skills are far outreaching. The importance of healthy sleep is outlined in this study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/ which concluded that sleep is vital to most major physiological processes, and as such, sleep disruption has vast potential for adverse short- and long-term health consequences. The important thing to remember is that it is never too late to teach your child to sleep well, and teaching the skills of self-settling plays an integral part of this process.