Responsive settling: what it is and how it helps
Responsive settling is responding to your baby’s need for comfort at the same time as you help them fall asleep. For example, responsive settling at this age might involve settling your baby in your arms, using hands-on settling and reassuring your baby verbally.
Responsive settling gives your baby the comfort they need to feel calm, settled and ready for sleep, especially if they’re tired and upset.
Responsive settling also gives your baby the sense of safety and security they need for healthy development and wellbeing. Feeling safe and secure can help with independent settling and sleep later on when your baby is developmentally ready.
Responsive settling can help you avoid settling your baby by walking them in the pram, driving them in the car or co-sleeping.
In the first 6 months of life, babies need to feed often during the day and night to get enough food for growth and development. For most babies, ‘sleeping through the night’ and settling by themselves comes later, when they’re developmentally ready.
Getting started with responsive settling for babies
There are several ways to be responsive to your young baby while you’re settling them to sleep, including:
- settling in arms
- hands-on settling
- verbal reassurance.
But before you start settling your baby, it’s important to make sure the conditions are right for baby sleep and settling. Here’s how:
- Look for tired signs. If baby isn’t tired, they might need a cuddle or a bit more play.
- Make sure your baby is well fed and has a clean, dry nappy.
- Keep baby’s room calm and comfortable. A quiet, dim environment often helps babies settle.
A gentle approach helps babies learn new ways to settle. Staying with your baby to calm them if they get frustrated will help them to learn faster.
Settling in arms
Settling in arms means holding and soothing your baby when they’re ready for sleep. When your baby is asleep, you can gently put them into their cot. Try these ideas for helping baby fall asleep in your arms:
- Gently rock your baby or sway from side to side.
- Walk around in slow circles.
- Pat your baby’s bottom rhythmically.
- Sing softly to your baby, or make gentle ‘sh, sh’ sounds.
The safest sleeping position for your baby is on their back. After settling, always gently roll your baby onto their back before you leave the room.
Hands-on settling can help your baby get used to falling asleep in their cot. This can make it easier for other people to settle your baby. It can also help your baby settle better when they wake up in the night.
Hands-on settling often involves rhythmic, gentle patting with your baby in their cot:
- Face your baby away from you, lying on their side.
- Place your hand gently on your baby’s shoulder.
- Cup your other hand, and pat your baby gently and slowly on the bottom or thigh.
- Make the patting as rhythmic as possible – for example, about the same rate as your heartbeat.
- Sing a quiet, soothing song to help you find a rhythm. If you think singing might disturb your baby, sing or count in your head to keep your patting steady. Or try saying ‘shhh’ on each pat.
If patting doesn’t seem to work with your baby, there are other hands-on settling options that you can try. These options all start with your baby in their cot:
- Put one hand firmly but gently on your baby’s hip and the other on their shoulder. As you feel your baby relax, roll baby onto their back and leave the room.
- Hold your baby firmly at shoulder and hip, and gently rock baby back and forth.
- Gently stroke your baby’s forehead.
- Pat the mattress beside your baby.
- Jiggle the cot slightly.
If your baby is crying, you can still use hands-on settling. Sometimes babies will seem to reach a crying ‘peak’ before eventually settling off to sleep.
If your baby doesn’t settle with hands-on settling
If your baby is very upset, it’s OK to stop and give them a cuddle. When your baby is calmer, you can put them back into the cot. Repeat this pattern up to 10 times until your baby is asleep in their cot. You can also try settling in arms if hands-on settling isn’t working for you or your baby.
Responsive settling should be gentle and reassuring. If you start to feel angry or upset, you might pat or rock your baby too hard or too fast. If nothing seems to be working, it’s best to put your baby somewhere safe, like their cot. Then walk away and take a moment to calm yourself. If you have a partner, you could ask them to take over.
Verbal reassurance while babies are settling
Many babies grizzle when you first put them to bed or when they wake in the night.
If your baby grizzles when you first put them to bed or after waking in the night, you could gently say ‘I’m here. Time to sleep’ or make ‘sh, sh’ sounds. You could even sing or hum a few words of a favourite song.
But if your baby starts crying, you need to help them settle – for example, in your arms or with hands-on settling.
Responsive settling: tips to make it work for you and your baby
These ideas can help with responsive settling:
- Use a soft night light in your baby’s room. A night light helps your baby to recognise their bedroom when they wake up overnight. This helps them feel safer, so they’re more likely to settle by themselves.
- Use a monitor to call to your baby before you go to them. This reassures your baby. They might wait a little longer until you come, or they might settle back to sleep.
- Try wrapping your baby in a lightweight cotton or muslin wrap for sleep. But note that wrapping isn’t safe for babies who can roll.
- Give your baby a dummy if this soothes them.
After settling, always make sure your baby is lying on their back for sleep.
Safe sleeping practices can help you minimise the risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI). These practices include sleeping your baby on their back, making sure your baby’s head is uncovered during sleep, and sharing a room with your baby for the first year of life, or at least for the first 6 months.