Everything I read tells me to put my baby down while he's still awake so that he can learn how to soothe himself to sleep. Sounds good, but how do I actually do this?
You can't really teach your baby how to self-soothe, but you can provide him with the opportunity to teach himself. Given the right circumstances and the right stage of development, usually between 3 and 6 months of age, it will happen on its own. It's like learning to crawl: If you always carry your baby, he'll never have a chance to discover crawling, since he'll never be on the floor long enough to figure it out. It's the same thing with self-soothing: If you always nurse or rock your baby to sleep, he'll never have a chance to learn how to soothe himself to sleep.
How can you help your baby do this? First, you need to set the stage, which includes two things: a regular bedtime and a consistent routine. A bedtime that occurs at the same time every night will set your baby's internal clock so that he's naturally sleepy at a predictable time. The bedtime routine should happen in the place you want your baby to sleep and include three or four soothing activities, such as taking a bath, reading a story and having a cuddle, that let him know it's time for "night-night." When the bedtime routine is finished, put your baby to bed drowsy but awake.
Many babies will surprise you and drift off to sleep without much protest. Other babies, especially older ones who may have come to depend on being nursed or rocked to sleep, will need a bit of practice. Remember, self-soothing is just like crawling — it takes time and opportunity. You can teach your baby all at once and wait outside your baby's room, checking on him as frequently or infrequently as you wish. Or you can make it a more gradual process, sitting next to your baby's crib and easing yourself farther away each night — sitting in the middle of the room, sitting in the doorway and so on.
If your baby is used to breast- or bottle-feeding as he goes to sleep in your arms, you'll have to break his need to suck to sleep. You can move your child's feeding to earlier in the bedtime routine or slowly reduce the number of ounces or number of minutes of this feeding. Or when you see your baby starting to drift off during a feeding, promptly end his meal and finish the rest of the bedtime routine before laying him down.
Although some people believe that you should never wake a sleeping baby, keep the big picture in mind. On any particular night, waking your baby after he's drifted off may seem crazy, especially when you're beat and have a million things to do before turning in yourself. But when you remember your long-term goal of helping your baby develop the ability to soothe himself to sleep, both at bedtime and when he naturally wakes up during the night, it's well worth doing.
What happens if you've given your baby plenty of chances to self-soothe and he just can't seem to do it? Take a step back and try to figure out why. Perhaps he's simply too young and doesn't yet have the developmental ability to self-soothe, just as a 3-month-old can spend hours on the living room floor yet still won't be able to crawl .In this case, wait a few days, weeks or even months before trying again.
Or maybe your baby is too tired — and thus too overwrought — to settle down by himself. In this case, try moving his bedtime a bit earlier so he isn't a complete wreck by lights-out. Finally, think about whether you're really giving your baby an opportunity to find ways to soothe himself, or are rushing in to comfort him at his first peep and depriving him of the chance to figure it out on his own.
Most important, keep your goal in mind: Developing the ability to soothe himself to sleep will enable your baby to snooze for longer stretches and put himself back to sleep when he naturally wakes up during the night, allowing him to get the rest he needs to grow and thrive. What's more, self-soothing is an important life skill that will serve your baby well not just at bedtime but also in other situations, such as when he's separated from you at daycare or even when you momentarily walk out of the room, when he gets frustrated trying to master all those other important skills such as — you guessed it — crawling, or when he's just feeling fussy.