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’s 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 supposed 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, cannot be thought, no matter what sort of techniques you use.

Emotional regulation is when you analyse and rationalise your emotions and use your sophisticated, mature brain to lower your stress and anxiety levels. It is a developmental stage, a behaviour that humans 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 into our 20’s.

Most slightly older pre-schoolers are able to self soothe (to a certain extend), but babies and toddlers are just psychologically and emotionally not developed enough to do so.

Here is an example.

You wake up because you had a bad dream, and you are 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 are 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 hungry, cold, scared, lonely, anxious, or stressed, cannot rationalise why he is 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 happens when we try and teach a baby to ‘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 has not learned to self-soothe, it has learned not to cry or signal regardless of how he was feeling. Baby basically gave up because help wasn’t coming and he either fell asleep from exhaustion or stopped crying to preserve energy.

There are also some very primitive forms of self-soothing present in babies, like for example thumb sucking. However, they only work to a certain extend and will definitely not help when a baby is in a state of complete hysteria, alone in a room, desperately crying because his needs are not being met.

That is 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 actually happening. Parents have to be aware that by using these methods they are not teaching their babies how to sleep; they are leaving their baby to cry. They are not teaching their babies to self-soothe, they are teaching them to not cry or signal, regardless of how upset they might be.