Sleep patterns can and do change over time. As most parents will well be aware, infants sleep patterns can change dramatically over time. You may have the soundest sleeper in your mothers group and may feel smug for a few weeks and then all of a sudden, your baby decides it’s time to wake in the middle of the night and it’s party time! So I’m sure you’re probably wondering why this happens, or perhaps some of the mechanisms behind it.

What is self-regulation?

It may be helpful to know a little more about a process children go through and develop called self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability of a person to regulate their state of arousal or alertness. Learning to self-soothe is a part of this process. Paediatric Occupational Therapists often provide interventions to assist older children who may not yet have developed self-regulation skills in order to assist them to develop more functional sleep-wake cycles, concentrate, regulate mood and emotions, and learn more effectively in class. “The process of self-regulation involves the capacity to modulate mood, self-calm, delay gratification, and tolerate transitions in activity” DeGangi (2000).

How long does this process take?

It is said that the first few years of life are the key times when an infant first learns this skill. It is one of the first jobs infants master which enables them to take an interest in the world around them. Initially, the young infant is completely dependent on their parent or caregiver to help them to learn when to feed, when to sleep and when to be alert. This largely develops through learning the routines and rhythms of the day. Over time, the infant starts to learn how to do this themselves so that they may start to regulate their attention and activity levels for playing and learning. Many babies will start to self-soothe by bringing a hand to their mouth to suck or gnaw on, rocking, touching hands together or touching feet, watching objects or people in their environment or listening to pleasurable sounds.

Sometimes, if the routine changes, this can really affect how well an infant is able to regulate the rhythms of sleeping, waking, feeding and being active during the day.

Simple tips and tricks to aid self-regulation:

  • Use a regular routine to help the infant attain balanced levels of stimulation and calming across the day with a routine to help to settle for sleep.
  • Try to develop a sleep environment that helps the child to feel calm and secure. Think about the choice of colours used (are they too stimulating?), the layout of furniture and noise levels.
  • Use light to help the child to know when to be awake and when to sleep. Dim lights before bedtime to give the child a cue that it is time to sleep. Upon waking, increase light levels slowly to assist in the alerting process.
  • Use deep touch pressure through firm cuddles, squeezes and stretchy swaddles to help with calming.
  • Use physical activity for short periods across the day when your baby is awake. Tummy time can provide the young infant with lots of opportunities to use large muscle groups in the body which can later assist in remaining calm and organised.
  • Rocking or bouncing the child to help fall asleep may assist some babies to self-soothe. Slow, rhythmical rocking in a rocking chair or in your arms can be soothing for some infants.
  • Reduce noise levels especially if your child is more sensitive to everyday noises. White noise, soothing classical music, or soft music played when going to sleep can work wonders for some children to help them feel calm and secure.

Remember every baby is an individual with their own nervous system and developing preferences. What works for one child may not necessarily work for another. Some of the activities mentioned above may be helpful, and it is worth trialling some activities to find what works best for your child.

By Emily Saunderson
Director/Occupational Therapist Kickstart Kids Therapy

Reference: DeGangi, G. (2000). Pediatric disorders of regulation in affect and behaviour: A therapist’s guide to assessment and treatment. San Diego: Academic Press