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Traditional behavioural sleep training is not for every parent.
- Maybe you’re not ready to make such big changes to your little one’s sleep habits.
- Perhaps your baby’s cries are too overwhelming to listen to, even if you’re in the baby’s room supporting him.
- Maybe you have a young baby who isn’t old enough for sleep training.
- Or maybe you were blessed with an amazing sleeper who doesn’t need sleep training.
This might be where you try patting your baby to sleep, also known as the shush pat method. This well-known approach was created by well-known author Tracy Hogg as an alternative to traditional sleep training.
In this blog post, I will elaborate on what the shush pat method is, how to execute it, and whether it’s an effective gentle sleep training method.
Firstly, why does patting a baby help them fall asleep?
Gentle, rhythmic patting is highly effective at putting babies to sleep because of its ability to activate the calming reflex and create a sense of security and comfort for your baby. This is especially relevant if you have a fussy baby. There are several reasons why this technique works so well:
Mimics the womb environment
In the womb, babies experience a constant, rhythmic sensation due to the mother’s heartbeat, blood flow, and other internal movements. Rhythmic patting replicates this familiar sensation, reminding the baby of the comforting environment they were accustomed to before birth.
Soothing and predictable
The rhythmic pattern of patting provides a predictable and soothing experience for your baby. Predictability is essential for infants, as it adds a sense of familiarity and helps them feel safe and secure. When babies feel secure, they are more likely to relax and fall asleep.
Provides physical contact and bonding
Physical contact is crucial for babies, especially in their early months. When parents engage in rhythmic patting, they provide their baby with the much-needed skin-to-skin contact. This enhances bonding and helps create a strong emotional connection between you and your baby.
Auditory stimulation is calming for babies
The consistent sound produced by the rhythmic patting mimics other soothing sounds they heard in the womb, such as the mother’s heartbeat. This helps the baby relax and fall asleep.
Calming repetitive motions
Repetitive motions have a calming effect on the human nervous system. This gentle, repetitive patting creates a rhythmic flow that helps regulate the baby’s heartbeat and breathing.
The baby’s startle reflex is minimized
Babies have a startle reflex, which can cause them to suddenly jerk awake or become fussy when they feel insecure. Rhythmic patting can help mitigate this startle reflex by providing a sense of containment and comfort. This allows your baby to feel more secure and less prone to sudden awakenings.
Gentle and rhythmic touch can stimulate the release of endorphins in both babies and adults. Endorphins are natural chemicals in the body that induce feelings of relaxation and happiness. When babies experience this soothing touch, it can help reduce stress levels and induce a sleepy state.
Alright, HOW do you pat your baby to sleep?
This method is actually very simple. You place your baby in their crib awake and turn him to his side away from you so that he’s not distracted by your presence. You begin patting him gently but firmly on the center of his back or bum while simultaneously shushing loudly in his ear. You’re patting your baby to sleep while shushing in a steady, rhythmic motion.
When your baby relaxes and falls asleep, turn him onto his back and continue to shush him while placing a heavy hand on his chest. *For safety reasons, ensure your baby is always sleeping on his back in his crib or bassinet*.
If your baby becomes upset while you’re patting him to sleep, pick him up and continue with the rhythmic patting and shushing while holding him over your shoulder. When he relaxes, try placing him back in the crib and continue with the patting to get him to relax and fall asleep.
You can try patting your baby to sleep at bedtime, naptime and in the middle of the night.
It’s important to note that the shush pat method is much easier to implement with babies who are:
How to eventually stop patting a baby to sleep
If patting your baby to sleep has been working, this likely means you’ll need to teach your baby how to fall asleep without patting as they graduate the newborn stage. The good news is that this step usually isn’t as hard as it sounds!
All you need to do is simply reduce the amount of patting you offer your baby over time. Start off by patting her until she’s almost asleep but leave your hand on her back for comfort. Afterwards, you sneak out the door like a ninja and let her do the rest of the work falling asleep.
As the nights go on, decrease the length of time you spend patting and touching her. This step allows her to do more and more of the work falling asleep on her own.
Does the shush pat method actually work?
So here’s the deal. Patting a baby to sleep is a GREAT way to begin teaching a newborn baby how to fall asleep IN their crib or bassinet, without feeding or rocking. Because newborns are too young for traditional forms of sleep training, the shush pat method is a gentle, age-appropriate alternative to begin gradually teaching a newborn to self soothe.
That being said, I must emphasize three VERY important points:
1) The shush pat method doesn’t work well for all babies.
In fact, many babies don’t respond well to being patted to sleep. When it’s not a good fit, you end up getting MORE crying, which obviously defeats the purpose of the approach.
**If that’s the case, you can explore alternative options to help your newborn self-settle. I teach ALL this in detail in my newborn sleep program.**
2) Patting a baby to sleep is still a sleep crutch
When you are patting your baby to sleep, you’re technically helping your little one fall asleep. Sure, it might be one of the “better” props to use for your newborn. Afterall, you’re still getting him to settle IN his crib. But it’s still a crutch nonetheless because it’s something your baby relies on to fall asleep that he can’t recreate on his own.
This is why I don’t recommend using the shush pat method for older babies and toddlers. Because your baby is still relying on the patting to fall asleep, there’s nothing stopping your baby from waking repeatedly throughout the night needing you to pat them BACK to sleep.
I would only ever advise patting your older baby or toddler all the way to sleep if it was used as a transition step before beginning a method that teaches independent sleep. But again, this is assuming that your baby responds well to being patted to sleep to begin with.
In fact, many older babies cry MORE with the shush pat approach than with a traditional sleep training method. In that case, you might as well skip to a regular sleep training technique that will get you results quicker, ultimately decreasing the amount your baby cries.
So if your baby is:
- past the newborn stage;
- heavily reliant on patting to fall asleep; and
- takes a very long time to fall asleep and/or wakes up way too many times throughout the night…
I recommend exploring traditional sleep training techniques, such as a check and console method or a fading method.
3) You always need a bigger sleep plan
Just like every other sleep training method, patting your baby to sleep will not produce favorable results if it’s not implemented as part of a bigger sleep plan. This plan needs to involve:
- ensuring your little one’s sleep environment is optimal;
- understanding your baby’s sleep cues and hunger cues;
- introducing a proper daytime routine with age-appropriate awake times to avoid overtiredness;
- prioritizing optimal daytime nutrition and full feeds; and
- implementing a relaxing and consistent bedtime routine that cues your little one to prepare for sleep.
Don’t ignore these steps! Otherwise, it can be MUCH harder for your baby to fall asleep without tons of support.
**And if you need help creating a customized sleep plan for your baby but you have no idea where to start, check out my free masterclass here!**
Why I recommend trying the shush pat method for your newborn baby
Yes- patting a baby to sleep is technically a sleep association. But during the newborn stage, that’s okay. You’re not creating bad sleep habits- promise. Newborn sleep can be VERY tricky to tackle! And it’s normal for these little babies to need hands-on settling from a parent to fall asleep at first.
The good thing with patting your baby to sleep instead of, say, rocking them to sleep in your arms, is that you’re teaching them to fall asleep IN their crib. This makes it MUCH easier for your baby to learn to put themselves back to sleep at the end of a sleep cycle since they’re in the same environment they initially fell asleep in.
Patting your baby to sleep also allows you to eliminate the common challenge involved with attempting to transfer your sleeping baby to the bassinet and KEEP them asleep. It can feel like you’re holding an atomic bomb that could explode at any minute with one wrong move.
And even if you DO manage to settle your sleeping baby in their bassinet, there’s nothing stopping them from immediately waking up a few minutes later, forcing you to restart the entire process.
When can babies learn to fall asleep on their own without patting?
This surprises a lot of parents, but some newborn babies CAN learn how to fall asleep without help. But don’t take my word for it, take a look at how JJ, my then-2 month-old baby, was able to fall asleep by himself.
To clarify, JJ wasn’t effortlessly doing this fresh out of the womb. He needed help falling asleep, just like any other newborn. Rather, I gently and gradually TAUGHT him how to fall asleep without any sleep props. The end result was that he was sleeping 8+ hour stretches consistently from 6 weeks of age onward!
(And yes, he was exclusively breastfed.)
That being said, if your baby is at least 4 months of age and doesn’t know how to self settle, this is the time you can teach him to fall asleep on his own if you want.
But please remember that you don’t HAVE to sleep train your baby if you don’t want to. The right time to explore sleep training methods is when YOU are ready.
A quick word about my newborn sleep program
Not surprisingly, when I started talking about JJ’s amazing sleep at such a young age, I had SO much demand from other moms of newborns who wanted a good night’s sleep. So I created an affordable and accessible newborn sleep program that teaches you EVERYTHING you need to know about maximizing sleep in the newborn stage THAT WORKS!
Among MANY other things, I cover the various options to teach your newborn baby how to self settle so that you can get yourself longer stretches of sleep early on and avoid sleep problems down the road.
My goal is for you to maximize your sleep so you can LOVE the newborn stage.
**If you’re expecting a new baby or you’ve got a newborn at home and you’re looking to good sleep habits for your baby from day 1, my newborn sleep program “Getting a Head Start: Get Great Sleep with a Newborn” is for you!**