Do you really need to teach your baby to self-soothe in order to get more sleep?
The sleep training world, including books you read, various sleep trainers you follow on social media, outdated research and sometimes even your pediatrician, claim that sleep training teaches the skill of self soothing to fall asleep independently, and that you must teach your baby to self-soothe if you want them to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night.
How stressful this one little statement can be, and how many tears have ensued from it. Tears from babies, from toddlers, from mothers and fathers. And no, I am not talking about tears of joy, but rather of stress and overwhelm.
The reality is, that there is no evidence to suggest this. Rather if you look at development, and more specifically neurodevelopment (aka brain development), it shows the opposite is true.
Self-soothing is not something you can teach your baby. No matter how hard you try, it is not actually possible. How do I know this? Well, the parts of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus, that are involved with emotional regulation, self-regulation, aka self soothing, don’t start to develop until 6-18 months and they are not fully mature until you reach your 20s! Click here to read more about the infant brain and why we need to parent the infant brain.
Our babies and toddlers are physically not able to self soothe or regulate their emotions without caregiver support because their brains have not yet developed that skill! If babies were actually capable of learning to self soothe, it would mean that when they are upset, either day or night, they would know how to lower their own stress, and calm themselves down.
I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet a baby or toddler who is able to do this (at least not in my house). No, in my house more often than not, when my kids were older babies and toddlers (and even now that they are 4 and 6 years old), we saw the unexpected and seemingly random meltdowns because I gave them the pink cup (their favourite one to this point) and not the blue cup. Or I didn’t put enough milk into their bowl of cereal.
You might be nodding your head right now, because it has happened in your house too. If that is the case, then you know that your child did not actually have control over their emotions or arousal level in that moment, let alone the ability to work through that distress on their own (aka self-regulation or ‘self soothing’).
So essentially it comes down to brain structure and cognitive development. The pre-frontal cortex, where self-regulation and also self-soothing happen, doesn’t fully mature until we are in our 20s. So expecting a baby to self-soothe or self-regulate is a bit of wishful thinking.
In order to self soothe a child must have the brain development necessary for rational thought, to understand that they can soothe themselves, have the mental capacity to pull from different ways to soothe themselves, to use those different strategies in times of stress, and even to understand that you, their caregiver will actually be coming back, a concept known as object/person permanence.
Babies and toddlers do not have this ability.
So really, what this misconception of teaching the important skill of self-soothing is really teaching our babies is to stop signalling and to stop communicating because no one is coming/ no one is going to respond to their need with a snuggle or a hug. And by waiting for them to cry it out and ‘learn to self-soothe’ with timed checks after increasing amounts of time, what we are really doing is waiting for their brain to kick in and shut the baby down.
So no, you cannot teach a baby to self soothe - soothing is part of the self-regulatory behaviour that will develop over time, as infants mature and as their physiological responses mature. And until then, babies need a caregiver to be their prefrontal cortex until they have one that is mature enough to handle this regulation. They need us to co-regulate and teach them how to self soothe through that co-regulation, until they have the cognitive ability and positive soothing experiences to draw on independently. It is through this co-regulation, that a child learns how to transform a state of distress into calm.
When a child is capable of controlling their own emotions only then are they truly able to self soothe or settle themselves when they're anything but calm - Sarah Ockwell Smith - Why Baby Sleep Matters
Now that you know a bit more about why our babies and toddlers cannot self-soothe from a developmental perspective, let’s chat a bit about what we can do and how we can start to support our babies and toddlers.
We can start to support our children to self-settle. Self-settling is a term used to describe a baby or child’s ability to keep their bodies calm and regulated. To stay calm and relaxed from a calm state. They can adjust their body temperature, change their breathing, suck on their own hands, bring themselves midline and physiologically settle themselves.
At bedtime this might look like going from an awake state and then falling asleep without support from anyone and without stress or tears. Many babies will self-settle or you can begin to start supporting them to do so by creating a peaceful environment that is conducive to sleep. Through your calming bedtime routine, perhaps a special lovey or comfort toy, and the fact that they know you will always come if they need you, babies will start to be able to self settle. This might look like gnawing on their hands, babbling or singing to themselves, blowing bubbles, maybe even rubbing their cheek against the crib mattress.
Now, this self-settling might sound a bit like self-soothing, but self-soothing is essentially self-regulation and calming oneself from a distressed state, which as we discussed babies do not have the brain capacity for yet. Self-settling is finding ways to help themselves stay calm, regulated, and organized. To maintain a calm, just-right, arousal state.
You want to make sure that you are not expecting them to self settle while they are distressed (so when it comes to sleep, that would be putting them down while they are distressed or crying or not responding to them when they cry out, thinking this will teach them something).
Remember, all babies are unique, and some babies do great with self-settling, and even going down sleepy but awake, while other babies need to be supported to sleep before laying them down. So, don’t feel guilty about either option and do what works best for you and your little one.
Most babies will, at some point or another, wake in the middle of the night, some chat for 30-45 minutes, and then go back to sleep on their own, while others need your support to settle back to sleep. Your little one's brain is developing rapidly and it is completely normal for them to wake and practice new skills in the middle of the night. Nighttime is when they work on their new skills and do most of their developing because your brain never goes to sleep, but rather spends time consolidating memories and making sense of your day. And don't forget, babies also to wake for hunger/thirst, temperature regulation, discomfort, and just needing some love and comfort to feel safe. I always recommend a gentle 'pause' (not to be confused with a timed check).... just wait and see how your baby reacts when you hear them wake at night. If they aren’t upset and are just chatting or doing an occasional little grumping, leave them alone to do their developing and see if they do a bit of self settling and peacefully drift off to sleep on their own. Of course, if they are crying then please go and support them immediately and do whatever you need to do to get them (and yourself) back to sleep.