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Responsive settling

5-minute read

What is responsive settling?

Responsive settling is the most sensitive way for parents to settle their baby when the baby is going to sleep. Many babies need help as they learn the skills they need to settle. Responsive settling uses evidence-based techniques which are based on a baby’s age and stage of development.

Younger babies generally need more help and support to go to sleep than older babies who can learn how to self-settle.

How do I know my baby is tired?

Like adults, babies give cues or signals when they’re tired. Yawning, jerky movements, facial grimacing, rubbing eyes, lack of focus and fussiness are common signs of tiredness. Some babies rub their ears, snuggle into their parent’s chest, or their eyebrows become red.

Babies who are always nursed, fed or rocked to sleep don’t have the opportunity to learn skills in settling on their own. It’s normal for very young babies to want their parents close and to fall asleep when they’re being nursed or fed.

As babies get older and their brain matures, they may need less 'parent-assisted' settling and can learn more independent settling skills.

What should I do before I settle my baby?

Check your baby has a dry nappy, is comfortably dressed and showing tired signs. Babies tend to settle more easily after they’ve been fed.

Always follow the safe sleeping guidelines and place your baby on their back to sleep. You may want to use a swaddle or sleeping bag for your baby.

How do I settle my baby?

Depending on your baby's age, there are different ways you can settle them down.

Settling in arms (up to 3 months)

This responsive settling strategy is ideal for newborns and babies aged up to 3 months. Wrap or swaddle your baby so they feel secure and comfortable.

Hold them gently in your arms, rocking and soothing them until they’re asleep. Once they’re calm or sleeping, transfer them gently into their cot.

You may need to pat or stroke your baby for a few minutes until they settle in their cot.

Hands on settling (3 to 6 months)

Ideal for babies aged 3-6 months. Calm and soothe your baby in your arms and when they are relaxed, place them into their cot. Place your hands gently on your baby and pat and 'shush' as they calm.

Leave your hands on your baby until they have gone to sleep. Some babies prefer being patted with one hand at the same time the parent is patting the cot mattress.

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

Comfort settling (6 months and older)

Comfort settling, or controlled comforting, is ideal for babies aged 6 months and older. Place your baby into their cot after a cuddle and tell them it's sleep time.

Gently pat for a few minutes until they are calm and then leave the room. Stay outside while listening to the pitch and intensity of your baby’s cry. Return to them at regular intervals to offer comfort.

The goal of comfort settling is to support your baby in learning self-settling skills while still being available to comfort them if needed.

Transition settling

Transition settling, also known as 'camping out', is an option for parents who are keen to stay close to their baby when they are settling, while supporting their skills in self-soothing.

Place your baby into their cot when they’re showing tired signs and pat them until they’re calm.

Take your hand away and stay in the room, 'shushing' and soothing until they go to sleep.

Responsive settling tips for all ages

  • Try not to miss your baby’s ‘sleep window’ — when they are showing tired signs. They’re more likely to settle easily if they’re not overtired.
  • Many babies sleep better in darker, quieter environments.
  • It’s important for parents to be flexible and realistic when expecting their baby’s sleeping behaviours to change.
  • It takes consistency and the opportunity for lots of practice before babies learn new ways of settling.
  • Babies are continually cycling between stages of deep and light sleep. They tend to sleep for longer, more continuous periods if they go to sleep and wake up in their cot.
  • Following a regular, pre-settling routine can help babies to learn that it’s sleep time. A quiet transition from active play to calmer interaction e.g. reading a story helps with settling.
  • Younger babies need more sleep than older babies. And sleep patterns vary with what else is happening in a baby’s life. Feeding, development, general health and environment all affect a baby’s sleeping habits.

Who can I talk to for advice on sleep and settling?

Check with your child health nurse for individual guidance and support on settling options.

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 2021

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