The myth of “self soothing”

So many ‘sleep experts’ claim that you need to teach your baby to ‘self soothe’ or ‘self settle’, because that is the only way they will sleep through the night. Teaching your child to self soothe has become a top priority for so many sleep deprived parents, because it suppose to be the answer to all of your child’s sleep problems, the holy grail of sleep.

It is true though? In short, NO!

Babies and young children are incapable of self-soothing in the true sense of the word. They are no more capable of self-soothing than they are capable of riding a bike. Let me explain.

Self-soothing is one of the most misrepresented terms when it comes to the subject of baby sleep. The skill to self soothe, which actually means to regulate your own emotions, can not be thought, no matter what sort of sleep training techniques you use.
Emotional regulation is when an adult or an older child analyse and rationalise their emotions and use their sophisticated, mature brains to lower their stress and anxiety levels. It is a developmental stage, a behaviour that babies gain as they grow older. It occurs once the emotional regulatory areas of the brain are well connected, and it carries on developing until we are well in our 20’s.
Most slightly older pre-schoolers are able to self soothe (to a certain extend), but babies and young children are just psychologically and emotionally not developed enough to sooth themselves.

Let me give you an example. You wake up because you had a bad dream and you’re very scared. What can you do? You can breathe deeply and remind yourself it was only a dream and there are no monsters. Or it’s dark and you’re scared. Again you can tell yourself all is ok, there are no ghosts or intruders. You can even turn on the light to calm yourself down.

Which of the above can a baby do? None!

A baby that is scared, lonely, anxious, or stressed, cannot rationalise why he’s feeling like this, he cannot calm himself down. He can only cry in hope that the parent will come and help him regulate these emotions.

So, what is happening to babies that do ‘self soothe’?

‘Self-soothing’ is often thought by using extinction sleep training techniques like ‘cry it out’ or ‘controlled crying’. These techniques involve a degree of parental abandonment, where the child is left alone to figure things out.
Extinction works because the parent won’t respond and the baby will eventually fall asleep. This however has nothing to do with the baby’s ability to regulate his emotions. The baby hasn’t learned to self soothe, it has learned not to cry or signal for attention and go to sleep without parental input.

Many babies that have not been ‘thought’ how to self soothe still go to sleep on their own though without the intervention of their parents. So what is happening there?

Baby that is calm and peaceful, and whose needs have been met, may well drift of to sleep when he’s put down awake. But again – this is also not self-soothing. The baby was calm to begin with so it needn’t to sooth himself, he just allowed for sleep to take over.

That’s why the term ‘self-soothing’ is so misleading and should never be linked to sleep training techniques like ‘cry it out’ or ‘controlled crying’. Many parents and ‘sleep experts’ will say that I’m wrong because it does work. I am not arguing it doesn’t.
The problem however is the misinterpretation of what is working and what is actually happening. Parents have to be aware that by using these methods they are not leaving their baby to sooth, they are living their baby to cry.

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