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Rocking a baby to sleep: How to do it the right way

Rocking a baby to sleep is one of those parenting skills that every parent should master. It may seem like a simple nicety, but it can make your life as a new (and possibly exhausted) parent much easier and, well… less exhausting.

There are different techniques to achieve the same goal – getting your baby to fall asleep – so we set out to figure out the best rock-to-sleep technique.

We have summarized what we think are the most helpful and proven ideas in this post, based on a study done by the sleep associations American Academy of Pediatrics, with plenty of advice from sleep experts.

The 4 rocking techniques

Rocking is a natural way to soothe, comfort, and help a child fall asleep (and a reason they calm down so quickly in baby bouncers and baby swings ).

Here are some pointers if you haven’t figured out the rocking technique yet.

The first is to simply hold your baby in your arms or on your lap and rock back and forth, holding them close against you. This is one of the most common ways to lull a baby into sleep since it triggers that feeling of closeness.

The second approach is to place your baby on a firm surface, such as a bed or even the floor. Then, straddle them as if you were riding them as though they were an enormous horse and then gently rock back and forth until that little head nods off.

Another option is to lie down side by side with your baby and gently rock them that way. This is often the preferred option for moms who have had a Cesarean delivery since it helps with the lessening of post-delivery pains and allows you to get some much-needed rest while your baby sleeps.

The last option is to cradle your baby in one of your arms while pushing on a sofa or the arm of a chair with your opposite foot. This is our personal favorite, but it does have one caveat – you’ll need to be able to hold out for hours since this technique can take a long time!

No matter which technique you use, remember that rocking your baby to sleep should not be confused with soothing your baby.

Soothing a baby means you’re providing them with a calming touch and sound, usually through a lullaby or baby music. It’s done after your baby is already calm, relaxed and perhaps even yawning. The problem with sleep associations lies in the fact that your baby needs YOU to recreate the environment in which they fell asleep.

On the other hand, rocking to sleep means that your child is going from wide-eyed and alert to completely out of it in a matter of minutes.

Rocking a baby to sleep: When to do it?

If you’re going to wake up a sleeping baby just for a simple rocking session, then that’s not a good sleep association, and it may backfire on you later.

We would only recommend it if your child is already waking up from their naps or night-time slumber and the hour is late. If they are already sleeping, then go ahead so you can all get some rest!

The benefits of rocking babies to sleep

Babies who fall asleep with a lullaby or baby music playing in the background wake up more easily at night since that child becomes accustomed to falling asleep with that noise in their environment.

On the other end of the spectrum, babies who fall asleep with a parent’s voice – especially Mom – seem to be less reliant on that sound and find it easier to sleep through the night.

It also sets them up for success at naptime and bedtime since they learn that those are times when you’ll hold them close and rock them gently.

Another benefit is that you won’t have to go through the whole song and dance of singing lullabies, rocking them to sleep, and then laying them down again at naptime or bedtime.

Instead, your baby will learn that soothing music plays first (or perhaps your voice), and then your baby falls asleep in your arms, which will speed up the entire process.

How long should you rock your baby?

dad rocking his baby to sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that you can begin to gradually reduce rocking sessions over time.

Ideally, by the time your child is five months old, they should no longer need this form of soothing before bedtime or naptime.

However, many babies this age are still reliant upon it, so you may have to wait until they’re six months old or even older.

If your baby cries out for more rocking after their bedtime session is over, don’t fret. It’s common for babies to want some extra cuddles before bed, which is fine! Just make sure you’re not rocking them to sleep since that can delay the onset of night-time sleep.

How you should respond when your baby wakes up

Knowing how to rock a baby to sleep is an essential skill for parents of newborns. If your little one wakes up after 20 minutes, go ahead and tuck her back in. Be prepared for crying for the first few nights. It might take anything from three days to three weeks to change baby sleep habits, depending on the approach you use and your baby’s temperament.

After that, if your child wakes up earlier than this during their first few days at home, we’d recommend you try and soothe them back to sleep using the rock-and-pat method.

This way, they learn that crying out for their parent results in one comforting response – a little bit of rocking and some loving pats. If you pick up your baby every time they cry, they won’t learn how to self-soothe.

Babies might find it hard to resettle when they wake up in a different place from where they went to sleep. It can help to put your baby to bed drowsy but awake. This gives your baby the chance to associate falling asleep with being in bed.

After a few days, you can start to extend the amount of time you wait before responding to your child’s cries by five to ten minutes.

Once they’ve established consistent sleep patterns, then we’d recommend that you respond at the first sign of a babies’ cry and not wait before going into their room.

This way, your baby learns how to self-soothe from an early age and doesn’t have to rely on being rocked or held before falling asleep.

How quickly should your baby fall asleep?

If your little one is calm and relaxed, they may settle within a minute or two of rocking!

If it takes any longer than this for them to nod off, then chances are their head will be bobbing around like a balloon on a string by the time they’re ready to go down for the night.

In this case, try and limit their rocking sessions to a minute or two at a time so that you can get them settled before they fall asleep.

We’d recommend doing exactly this if your child is still waking up after 20 minutes at bedtime or naptime.

If your baby’s sleeping well throughout the night, then we don’t think it matters how long each rock session takes since these little ones won’t be able to tell the difference between 5, 10 or 15-minute holding sessions!

Just make sure you’re not letting them fall asleep in your arms since this can often result in broken sleep later in the evening when they end up in their crib or cot.

When should you stop rocking a baby to sleep in the evenings before bedtime?

Ideally, we’d recommend that you limit rocking sessions to 20 minutes before bedtime.

This way, your child knows exactly what’s coming next, and there won’t be any confusion about the soothing music or voice playing beforehand, leading to false expectations once they’re laid down in their cot.

Start putting your baby into a sleeping bag before you rock them, give them a comforter to cuddle while you rock her, and play white noise as your baby falls asleep. These associations are going to replace YOU as their main sleep association (i.e. what they need to fall asleep).

Beyond this point, try winding them down with winding motions instead of lullabies, so they understand that this is signaling it’s time for sleep!

The sleep association of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents keep night-time holding sessions to under 30 minutes since, after this length of time, babies are likely to find it more difficult settling back to a sleep routine, which can increase the risk of SIDS.

However, it’s worth noting that this is only a guideline, and there haven’t been many scientific studies to back this up.

You may have noticed, for example, while going through your baby’s night-time routine, that they fall asleep before 30 minutes has passed!

You should also aim to reduce any rocking sessions during the day so your baby learns how to self-soothe from an early age. This means keeping their little heads from bobbing around during daytime naps and getting them used to being put down when they’re drowsy rather than sleeping in arms or on a parent’s chest.

When do you stop rocking the baby motions?

Once your child is old enough to roll over, you can stop winding them down in this way. It’s safe to hold them close when they wake during the night until they’re 6-months-old however, since these little ones are too young to roll or crawl away by themselves.  

You can gradually help her learn to fall asleep or stop crying using other techniques. While it may seem like a quick and easy settling solution now, the majority of longer-term night waking we deal with is caused by either feeding or rocking to sleep.

After six months, try encouraging your child to lie flat in their cot before nodding off each time so that they’re not at risk of rolling onto their tummies if they startle while sleeping.

Where should it be placed if you rock your baby before bedtime using the 'rocking chair' method?

It’s best if the rocking chair is kept beside your child’s cot instead of right next to it since this will make it easier for you to leave the room after you’ve laid them down.

If there are no more than a few feet between your baby and the chair, they may end up wanting to sit upright in it or play with their teddies before nodding off, which can result in broken sleep habits later on.

 Once your baby can fall asleep in bed, change to rocking until calm, and use your patting to get the baby drowsy in bed. Then you can work on increasing the awake time between the end of the feed and when you put your baby into bed awake.

Finally, you will need to gradually reduce the amount of patting you do to help your baby get drowsy or fall asleep.

If you don’t mind rocking your baby for 10 minutes and they fall asleep, you transfer the baby to their bed, and if they sleep all night, then there is no problem. It’s only when you can’t keep up with the routine that it becomes a problem.

How soon should you stop using the rocking chair?

mom raking her baby to sleep

Around 20 minutes before bedtime is ideal since this is usually enough time for your little one to relax before going down for the night.

Try winding them down sooner if necessary since most babies find it easier settling at an earlier time each evening rather than taking their sweet time about nodding off!

If your child wakes up again after just 20 minutes, try calming them down by patting or stroking them instead of picking them up.

You also need to make sure that you’re not using the rocking chair as part of your child’s own bedtime ritual since this can lead to confusion when it comes down to going into their cot.

Instead, keep between 5-10 minutes for little ones under six months and 15 minutes for children over this age before moving on to a winding motion or patting instead of a lullaby if they’re still showing signs of being awake.

Last Thoughts

A lack of sleep can make any family feel a bit cranky during the day while it’s going on, so do whatever you can to keep night-time winding sessions short and sweet.

After a while, your child will get used to how much time is spent getting them off to sleep and won’t expect more than this from you before bedtime.

You’ll also find that your baby learns how to fall asleep independently after four months (or even earlier) which means they’ll be well prepared for school or nursery when the time comes!

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