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Is there really such a thing as a baby self-soothing?

I felt like the subject of self-soothing was too long to do justice in just one Instagram post, so I have cobbled this blog together to try and tackle the subject, while also trying to keep it short and concise!

Getting from a state of stress to a state of calm

Let’s start by looking at the concept of self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to get from a state of stress and negative arousal to calm. We all know the typical things our little ones might get stressed about - they’re hungry, wet, dirty, in pain, frustrated etc - when they’re in this state they’re what's known as ‘dysregulated’ and need a parent to help co-regulate those emotions.

It’s good to recognise the different things that can make your little one dysregulated, as all too often we blame any of this stressed behaviour on being ‘overtired’ - when in fact it could be any one of these things mentioned above that need addressing. If you think it’s overtiredness for example and it’s not, all that may happen is you really struggle, or it takes you a really long time to get them to nap - as they weren’t actually tired.

Now, it makes sense, given that all babies are different that some are able to get from this state of stress to a state of calm easier than others. As such, those that have this ability, may even have the ability to sleep for longer stretches at night without the need for their parent to help them as often.

Self-soothers vs signallers

A study in the 1970s by Thomas Anders proved just this fact and is interestingly where the notorious term ‘self-soothing’ first reared its now controversial head.

Anders observed that all infants wake in the night, just as we as adults do, but when they woke, he noticed one of two things:

  1. Babies who looked around when they woke, murmured a bit, sucked a fist of hand and then were able to fall back to sleep - the ‘self-soothers’.

  2. Babies who woke, but couldn’t fall back to sleep without help from their parent to fall back to sleep - the ‘signallers’.

So, clearly it seems some babies just need more help than others in the night to get back to sleep. But you cannot change your signalling baby into a self-soothing one, as you cannot fundamentally change whether a child has a tendency to be more self-regulated, versus one needing an adult to help them co-regulate.

But you see, true self-regulation that we as adults can achieve, is not possible for little ones. In fact, the part of the brain that makes this fully achievable is not fully mature until the age of 25.

So why has the term self-soothing become so controversial?

For me, babies getting to 6 months and sleep training being recommended is closely tied up in an industry that is wrongly trying to get parents to believe that sleep is something you can teach babies - closely linked to this, is the concept that you can teach a baby to self-soothe.

But clearly this is nonsense. Sleep is not a learnt skill, your babies all slept in the womb, they haven’t forgotten how to do it. Sleep is simply a homeostatic bodily function. Sleep pressure builds in the day and the brain tells the body to slow down and eventually we succumb to sleep. With babies, the sleep pressure builds quickly and therefore their tolerance to stay awake is very short - this extends as we get older, until eventually as adults we’re awake for much of the day with no need for a nap (well most of the time!).

Sleep trainers have adopted the phase and turned it into something you can teach your child to do at the beginning of the night in order to go to sleep with no parental intervention.

But Anders experiment was not about how babies fell asleep at the beginning of the night. Even if it were, if a baby is placed in their cot awake and calm and they drift off to sleep, have they really self-soothed, or were they already just calm and so went to sleep?

In stark contrast, if a baby who is trying to be ‘taught’ to self-soothe is placed awake in a cot and left alone, if they get upset and begin to cry they will create a stress response we know they don’t have the cognitive ability yet to deal with (as that part of the brain isn’t mature as I mentioned above).

Of course they may eventually fall asleep from this state of stress, but they have not ‘self-soothed’ they have given up, they haven’t ‘learnt’ to calm themselves in this way. Humans cannot fall asleep from a stress state and a baby cannot get from a state of crying to a state of calm independently.

What babies do who’ve been left to cry-it-out as a method to self-soothe, is what is referred to as ‘learned helplessness’ - they learn that no one will come and respond to their needs and give up - but they have not actually ‘settled’ themselves.

Children develop the ability to self-regulate better when they are parented responsively and their needs are met promptly. The best thing we can do as parents therefore, is set up a nice calm environment and respond to our baby’s needs, so that when they are developmentally ready and feel secure enough they will eventually fall asleep independently.

If you’d like some support with your little ones sleep, please do check out my sleep support packages, or hop on your free 15 minute introductory call. Or in the meantime, head over to my Instagram page for all my latest free help and tips.

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