You may have read the title of this blog and thought, okay yes, that makes sense. Good for you if you did! But then why are you still focused (ahem... obsessed or perhaps you are confused - totally valid by the way) on teaching your baby to be independent or to self-soothe so that they can learn to sleep through the night independently.
Why? Well that answer is easy!
Our society and the sleep training culture, that is why! The sleep training market, just like the rest of the baby market, is one hot money making machine (yes, there I said it!) For some reason our society has latched onto this concept that we must somehow teach our children all of the things, from the moment they are babies, so that they can be independent as soon as possible. The reality? Unfortunately this is just not how it works.
See, the thing is, babies do not have the same brains as us adults. I mean yes, their brains are made up of the same structures, cells, and components as ours, but there are some huge differences in their brains’ ability to cognitively think and process certain things. Their brain power is just not at the same level as ours. Which makes sense, since human babies are born about 9 months before most other mammals, mainly because of the limited space we have available through the birth canal. If human babies were allowed to gestate inside the womb for 18 months and essentially come out with the ability to stand and walk, like most other mammals, let’s just say giving birth and recovery after birth would be a whole other ballgame.
Because of this ‘“prematurity” (yes even my two children who were both born at 42+2 weeks gestation were born ‘premature’ when compared to other mammals) human babies are born with only a fraction of their brain, 25-29%, developed, compared to other mammals who are born with 60-90% of their adult brain size. As a result, they (human babies) are born vulnerable and dependent on us, their parents/caregivers, for survival and safety through touch, carrying, and feeding. The additional brain growth required to keep human babies alive and thriving has to happen outside the womb, most occurring in the first 3 years of life, but with a huge amount happening during the fourth trimester. Phew, what a big job our babies have!
"The fourth trimester is an outside-the-uterus period of intense development that is an extension of the work begun in the first nine months in utero. A newborn human is not so much a baby as a final-phase fetus living through a time of transition as he gives up the comforts of the uterus and gradually adjusts to the wonders and challenges of the world." Brink 2013
Okay so back to our baby’s brain and how it differs from our brain as an adult. I just told you that all human babies are born “premature” with only about 25-29% of their brain formed at birth. The differences between a baby’s brain and an adult brain are quite significant and understanding this might just help you trust yourself and your instincts a bit more, while allowing you to really sift through and even tune out all the confusing and often conflicting information that comes your way (because it will, no matter how hard you try, it will still get through your filters, but now you can wave it off and move on).
The brain is built in a bottom up way and really develops in 3 stages, sometimes referred to as the Triune Brain:
Survival Brain (Lizard/Reptilian brain) (at birth)
Emotional or Feeling Brain (Mammalian brain/Limbic System) (0-3+ yrs)
Thinking Brain (Prefrontal Cortex/Neocortex) (3-25+ yrs)
Our survival brain is the brainstem and is the most highly developed and functioning part of a newborn's brain at birth, allowing them to be good at surviving and relationships (needed for said survival). This brainstem controls things like breathing, heartbeat, digestion, sleeping, crying, startling, blinking, sucking, and smelling, but is also what allows us to orient ourselves to smell, sound, facial recognition and expressions, and eye contact.
Next to develop is the emotional brain, which is where our limbic system is housed. This part of the brain is quite immature in the newborn brain and develops through the first 3 years of life and beyond, through relationships and it really becomes the most influential part of the brain for life. This emotional brain, or our limbic system, regulates our mood, how we respond to stress, and our lifelong mental health is shaped in this part of the brain, particularly in those first 3 years of life. “A nurtured, strong emotional brain will support a powerful thinking brain & create a balanced brain. A non-nurtured fearful emotional brain will not support the thinking brain”.
Finally we have the more cognitive or Thinking Brain, also known as the Pre-Frontal/Neo- Cortex, which is housed in the frontal lobe. This is where true self-regulation happens, and this part of the brain is immature at birth. It develops more slowly than the other parts of the brain and remains immature for longer, with a big part of its development occurring in adolescence but not fully maturing until our 20s.
Okay, so that was a quick little biology lesson about how and when our brain actually forms. Let’s get back to this concept of self-regulation (aka ‘self-soothing) for a hot minute because this is a common word or concept that gets thrown around in the “baby market” and particularly in our Western sleep training culture.
Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and modulate your own behavior, emotions, or thoughts and it requires adequate awareness to be able to evaluate the external environment , the current state of our body, compare this information with what is already known, and plan a response. Phew, that is a lot. Do you think your baby has the ability to do that?
Self-regulation is really about how we manage our arousal levels and deal with our environment (and what life throws our way). And since the area of the brain (frontal lobe) responsible for self-regulation does not start to develop until around 3 years of age, it is up to us as parents to act as our infant’s brains, essentially like an external stress regulator for them. To be sensitive to the cues from their survival brain, nurture the emotional brain, and take over the jobs of the thinking brain, by providing responsive, reliable, and positive care, both day and night.
Having just learned about the three different stages of brain development, I hope you can see that self-regulation (and self-soothing) is actually a developmental skill, just like crawling, standing, and walking. It is something that develops gradually and that we learn over time, as our thinking brain starts to develop and “turn on”. This is not something we can somehow “train” our babies or children to do or even to understand in the first many years of life. Remember, the thinking brain does not actually start to develop until around 3 years of age.
Did any of this surprise you? Let’s continue this conversation. I love chatting about these kinds of things inside my Sleep Deprived Zombie Mamas community, which if you haven’t joined you totally should - https://www.facebook.com/groups/sleepdeprivedmamas.
I also teach a lot more about this in my Sleep Make-Over Event and my signature Holistic Baby D.R.E.A.M.S. course.