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Responsive settling

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Responsive settling is a way to settle your baby when they are going to sleep.
  • Look out for the signs that your baby is getting tired.
  • Before putting your baby down to sleep, make sure that they are comfortable, calm and relaxed.
  • Respond to your baby's cues as you help them to settle.
  • As your baby grows older you can help them learn to settle themself to sleep.

What is responsive settling?

Responsive settling is a sensitive way for you to settle your baby when they need help going to sleep. Babies need to learn the skill of going to sleep.

If your baby is under 6 months old they may need more help to go to sleep than an older baby. It's normal for very young babies to fall asleep when they're being nursed or fed. If you always nurse, feed or rock your baby they will find it harder to learn to sleep on their own. It's a good idea to feed a young baby just after they wake up instead.

How do I know my baby is tired?

Like adults, babies give cues or signals when they're tired. If your baby gets overtired it can be harder for them to settle. Crying is a sign of being overtired.

Look out for these signs that your young baby is ready to sleep:

  • yawning
  • jerky arm or leg movements
  • closing their fists or sucking their fingers
  • facial grimacing or rubbing their eyes
  • having trouble focussing or going cross-eyed
  • eyebrows going red
  • arching their back

Some more signs that an older baby is ready to sleep are:

  • pulling at their ears
  • being clumsy
  • demanding more attention
  • being fussy when feeding or eating

What should I do before I settle my baby?

Check that your baby:

Be sure to give your baby a cuddle if they need one. You may want to use a swaddle or sleeping bag for your baby.

Always follow the safe sleeping guidelines and place your baby on their back to sleep.

How can I settle my young baby?

Your baby needs to feel safe and relaxed to fall asleep. Try to respond to their cues.

Here are some ways to settle your baby.

Settling in arms (up to 3 months)

This method is ideal for young babies. You can also use it when your older baby has difficulty settling.

  • Hold your baby in your arms, you can gently rock them until they're calm.
  • Place your baby in their cot, on their back.
  • You may need to keep holding your baby until they fall asleep.
  • If your baby gets upset when placed in the cot, comfort them until they're calm.
  • If your baby becomes distressed, pick them up and go back to the first step.

Hands on settling (3 to 6 months)

This a good method for babies aged 3 to 6 months. Try set a routine when settling your baby. For example, you can change their nappy, read them a story and cuddle them. Then you can practice hands on settling.

  • Gently place your baby in their cot, on their back, awake.
  • Watch and respond to cues from your baby.
  • If your baby remains calm, allow them to settle on their own.
  • If they start to cry, try placing your hands on your baby to reassure them.
  • Leave your hands on your baby until they have gone to sleep.

To help them settle, you can also:

  • make 'shh' sounds
  • talk to them quietly with comforting tones
  • gently tell them 'it's OK', 'time for sleep'
  • do gentle rhythmic patting of their thigh, shoulder, tummy or the mattress
  • gently stroke their head, arm or leg
  • rock the cot in a gentle rhythm

You may want to sit on a chair beside their cot and pat through the cot rails.

If you have had enough or your baby is not getting calmer, it's OK to stop and try something else.

How do I settle my baby aged over 6 months?

Comfort settling

Comfort settling, or controlled comforting, is sometimes recommended for babies aged 6 months and older. The idea is for your baby to learn how to fall asleep on their own.

  • Start with your usual sleep routine, such as nappy change, story, a cuddle.
  • Gently place your baby in their cot, on their back and tell them it's sleep time.
  • Pat or shh for a few minutes if needed to calm them, then leave the room.
  • Stay close by and listen to the noises that your baby makes.

Babbling, whinging, brief cries and movement are common when your baby tries to settle.

If your baby's cries go up and down, wait a short time to see if they settle.

If your baby's cries get louder, go back and comfort them in the cot.

If this doesn't work, try comfort settling again another time and instead use hands on settling, or the in arms method.

Transition settling

Transition settling, also known 'camping out' is a sleep technique for a baby or child aged 6 months or more.

You gradually teach your baby to fall asleep by themselves. The idea is that you are still by their side to provide reassurance, but you do not physically help them to fall asleep. Over about 1 to 4 weeks, you begin sitting or lying further away when they are falling asleep.

Camping out is different from comfort settling, where you calm your baby and then leave them alone in the room. Read about the camping out method.

Responsive settling tips for all ages

Remember that everyone has sleep cycles, where you move between light and deep sleep. If your baby can settle themselves, they will not wake up from a light sleep too soon.

  • Try to learn your baby's tired signs.
  • Younger babies need more sleep than older babies and can get overtired easily.
  • Your baby will probably sleep best when it is darker and quiet.
  • Try to be patient, flexible and realistic when helping your baby learn sleep skills.
  • Listen to your baby's cry and what they are trying to tell you.
  • Respond in a calm and confident way to help your baby relax.
  • You will need to do the same thing consistently to help your baby practice a new way of settling.
  • Create a sleep routine that works for your family.

Resources and support

Learn about safe sleep for babies.

Read some more tips for getting your baby to sleep.

Visit your local child health centre or talk to a child health nurse.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2023

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Need more information?

Settling baby: patting settling technique | Raising Children Network

Need help with settling baby? Try patting settling. It’s a hands-on settling technique that involves gentle, rhythmic patting to help baby settle for sleep.

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Baby Self Settling | Responsive Settling | Tresillian

Find out how to teach a baby to self settle back to sleep. Pracitcal techniques including responsive settling. Start with a predictable bedtime routine.

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At Karitane, we encourage sleeping strategies that respond to your baby’s cues. Doing so will help them feel contained, safe and secure.

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Every baby will have their own pattern of sleeping. Find out how to settle and calm your baby and how to safely put your baby to sleep.

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Sharing a bedroom: babies & older kids | Raising Children Network

Many babies share bedrooms with older siblings. It can help to have quiet time with your baby and keep siblings out of the bedroom while you settle baby.

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Being able to settle off to sleep is a learned skill for most babies

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WWWT Worksheets/Strategies: Settling your baby

Sleep and settling strategies for a baby need to be simple and easy to follow, whether you are at home or out. Remember that when overtired or overstimulated your baby may find it more difficult to go to sleep. Soothe your baby, Make the baby comfortable, Soothe your baby, Put your baby into bed, Reassure your baby, Re-settle your baby if necessary.

Read more on WWWT - What Were We Thinking! website

Settling your Baby 0 6 mths - YouTube

This video discusses age appropriate sleep and settling strategies for babies’ 0-6mths. It includes safe sleeping, recognising and understanding your baby’s ...

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Settling your Baby 6 to 12 Months - YouTube

This video discusses age appropriate sleep and settling strategies for children 6 - 12 months that may assist your child settle.

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Camping out: child & baby sleep strategy | Raising Children Network

Problems with baby sleep and settling, or toddler waking? The camping out baby sleep strategy gradually reduces the settling help your child needs. Read how.

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

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