When you brought home your tiny bundle of joy (or in my case, a giant bundle of joy since Ada was 11 pounds at birth), you probably just wanted to snuggle that cutie all the time. There's just something about a new baby that induces a cuddle fever! Perhaps you watched Baby drift off to sleep as he ate, or maybe you just held him and admired his perfect little face as his eyes slowly closed.
There's no doubt that newborn snuggles are incredible, and I would never advise you to rid your life of them completely. However, it's also a good idea to think ahead a bit -- What measures do you want to take to put Baby to sleep 3 months from now? How about 3 years from now? If you want simplicity and ease a few months or years from now, it's a good idea to start implementing some of that now.
If you are a unicorn parent and you are reading this post in preparation for your upcoming baby, way to go! This will be great information for you to learn now and implement starting on day 1 of Baby's life. That doesn't mean it will go perfectly from day 1, but if you start right away, you'll be able to avoid a lot of the sleep traps that parents commonly fall into!
In order to teach Baby to fall asleep on his own, you must properly set the stage.
Keep Baby awake for an age-appropriate amount of time (for newborns, that's about 30 minutes -- just long enough to eat and get a diaper change!); keeping Baby up for too long causes overtiredness, which then makes it harder for Baby to fall asleep.
Make sure Baby is comfortable -- get him fed, burped, and changed between sleep sessions.
Start establishing a pre-sleep routine. For newborns, there's not time for long, drawn out routines, so something as simple as singing a lullaby while you swaddle Baby may serve as the routine initially. Whatever you select for your routine will serve as a cue for Baby; he'll begin to recognize that sleep should follow swaddling (and whatever else you include in your routine).
After setting the stage, you then give Baby the opportunity to practice the skill you're trying to teach him. You do this by laying him down awake, and allowing him to get from awake to asleep all on his own. If he cries, try not to rush to him; give him a few minutes to practice. Try waiting at least 5 minutes between any checks, and avoid picking Baby up during your checks, as this will further stimulate him. If Baby still isn't asleep after 15-20 minutes of trying, go ahead and rescue the nap -- hold him and rock him, or perhaps even feed him to get him to sleep. At this point in time, it's more important to keep Baby well rested than to teach this skill. But keep trying, because this practice will help Baby learn this skill quickly.
As for those newborn snuggles, like I said -- I would never advise you to rid your life of them completely. So maybe sometimes you just want to hold Baby to sleep, and that's completely fine -- those snuggles encourage important parent/child bonding! But if you want him to learn the skill of falling asleep on his own, too, make sure to mix it up and let him practice falling asleep on his own for at least one sleep session each day (vary the time of day).
If you're finding this post because you are already in the trenches of walking, rocking, or nursing Baby to sleep for all naps and nights, you're in the right place! He can still learn this skill even if it seems impossible.
The keys to teaching this skill later on in Baby's life are an age-appropriate schedule, concrete routines, and giving him the opportunity to practice the skill.
Timing of sleep is hugely important when it comes to teaching Baby to fall asleep on his own. After all, if you try to lay him down for a nap when he's not tired enough, he won't want to practice falling asleep, and if you lay him down when he's overtired, he'll fight sleep due to the spike of cortisol he's just received (he's caught a second wind!). Neither of these are conducive to learning the skill of falling asleep independently. Check out my posts on scheduling for some starting points.
Establishing or re-creating pre-sleep routines is also an important step to teaching Baby to fall asleep on his own. Routines are powerful cues for babies, and each part of the routine signals to Baby that sleep is coming closer and closer. If your routine currently includes walking, rocking, or nursing to sleep, those pieces need to be removed to foster independent sleep. Replace them with things like reading a book, singing a song, saying specific phrases ("I love you!" "Good night, sleep tight!"), or playing quiet games. The more consistent you are with your chosen routine, the more it will signal to Baby that it is time for sleep. Keep in mind that the routine doesn't have to take a long time -- even the tiniest details of the routine, like turning on the sound machine or turning off the light, can be steps on the way to sleep.
For most parents, the difficult part of teaching Baby to fall asleep on his own is the part about allowing him to practice doing so. Babies that are used to falling asleep at the breast or in a parent's arms will find falling asleep in any other way uncomfortable and difficult. In babies, uncomfortable and difficult feelings almost always translate into crying. However, it will be impossible for Baby to learn to fall asleep independently unless he's given the chance to try, much like it would be impossible for me to learn to play the harp well without having the opportunity to practice. He won't just spontaneously develop this wonderful habit; he'll have to practice, which means you'll have to let him if you want him to get there. I have various blog posts about methods you can use to let Baby practice, so find one that seems to fit with both you and your child.
So soak up those newborn snuggles! But also consider teaching Baby the important skill of independent sleep nice and early to save yourself some headaches and frustration later on.
And if you're already at the point of headaches and frustration, try this out and don't give up! The result will be worth the difficulty of the process!