As a parent, you have undoubtedly heard the term “self-soothe.” You may have been told about it by your paediatrician, well-meaning family members or friends. Maybe you read about in a post on Instagram, a blog, or in a sleep training book. As a result, maybe you’ve become obsessed with getting your baby “self-soothe” or are concerned that your baby hasn’t mastered this supposed skill. I’m here to tell you: don’t worry about it!
The BIGGEST myth in the infant sleep world is the idea that babies can “self-soothe.” Yes, sleep training and all that it is today was built on the misinterpretation of a word.
What Does It Mean To “Self-Soothe?” and Where Did This Term Come From?
The term “self-soothe” was coined by Dr. Thomas Anders in the 1970s. Dr. Anders was researching infant sleep patterns using time lapsed video. His research found that infants rarely “slept thru the night,” that babies woke many times, and that the longest uninterrupted stretch of sleep for a 6 month old at night was 5-6 hours. The researchers noted that some babies woke and never signalled (e.g., cried) and some woke and did signal (e.g., cry). Those babies who cried were called signallers and those who did not signal were called self-soothers . In other words, it was a term used to describe what was being observed in a research study. Dr. Anders later said that a better term would have been crying awakenings and non-crying awakenings and that the term “…may have led to some unintended consequences” . That “unintended consequence” was that the term “self-soothe” would be used interchangeably with “self-regulation” and the expectation would be that babies were capable of regulating their emotions (something most adults even struggle with).
What is “Self-Regulation?”
Self-regulation can be defined in various ways. Simply put, it’s the ability to understand and control one’s thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. It may look like:
- Regulating emotions like anger
- Calming down after a state of distress
- Controlling impluses
- Concentrating on a task
Self-regulation is a developmental process that begins in babies and continues into adulthood (approximately 25 years of age when the neocortex, which is responsible for rational thinking, is fully developed).
Dr. Stuart Shanker describes it best:
“Self-regulation is like maintaining a consistent rate of acceleration. If we want to go 25 mph, then we will need to adjust the pressure in the accelerator to allow for changes to the road, incline, and wind. Driving requires constant changes depending on traffic conditions and speed zones, etc. Learning to accelerate, brake, and change gears smoothly takes time and practice. This is quite similar to children learning to self-regulate. Some children are always pushing too hard on the accelerator, while others jump between gears quickly, and some are slow to accelerate. Children need time and support to master the ability to find and sustain their optimum speed and level of arousal while dealing with a range of stimuli.
Why Can’t a Baby “Self-Soothe” or “Self-Regulate?”
If we’re using the term in the manner that Dr. Anders intended, then your baby may be able to self-soothe. Some babies will wake, not cry, and fall back asleep. I often find that this is more likely to be the case in babies with easy going temperaments. More highly sensitive or spirited babies are often signallers.
However, if we’re using the term to mean self-regulation, then, as mentioned above, your baby just doesn’t have the skills or physical brain structures to do so. What your baby does have is six arousal states: asleep, drowsy, hypo-aroused, alert, hyper-aroused, and flooded.
When your baby becomes hyper-aroused and/or flooded, they begin to burn excessive amounts of energy. Since your baby is designed to survive, they may fall asleep. This isn’t because they’ve learned to self-regulate, rather their body has shut down in an effort to protect itself. Dr. Stuart Shanker (2016) writes “It is the brain’s last mechanism for protecting itself from severe energy depletion” . Your baby may appear calm, but their stress response is actually quite high . The only way to help a baby out of this state and into a state of calm is to help them down-regulate. This involves, and requires, a calm and consistently responsive caregiver who has the ability to self-regulate. It is through these consistent responses from a calm caregiver that our babies begin to observe and implement tools that help them to self-regulate when they are developmentally and neurologically capable.
If My Baby Can’t “Self-Soothe” or “Self-Regulate,” What Can I Do? Will I Ever Sleep Again?
There are a variety of things you can explore that can help you to get more sleep without sleep training:
•Rule out any underlying causes or red flags that may be disrupting sleep (e.g., oral restrictions, reflux, iron deficiency)
•Optimize the sleep environment (e.g., darken the room, dress them for the temperature, adjust the temperature, utilize white/pink noise….)
•Optimize your sleep and self-care.
•Get outside or expose baby to lots of natural light during the day
•Implement strong routines
•Build in numerous sleep associations
•Continue to respond to your baby, meet their needs, and support their emotions. They’re learning a lot from you.
•Most importantly, learn more about normal child development and sleep, as well as, your child’s unique needs, and set realistic expectations.
If you’re still struggling or don’t know where to start, reach out for support
1. Anders TF, Sostek AM. (1976). The use of time-lapse video recording of sleep-wake behavior in human infants. Psychophysiology. 13:155–158.
2.Dr. Thomas Anders (2014) as cited in Uncommon Sense, The Researcher Who Coined The Term Self-Soothing Weighs In. Retrieved from https://uncommonjohn.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/the-researcher-who-help-coined-the-term-self-soothing-weighs-in/
3.Shanker. S. (2018). As cited in Kalish. L., What is self-regulation? Move with me. Retrieved from https://move-with- me.com/what-is-self-regulation/
4.Heffernan. L. (2018). The truth behind the “skill” of self-soothing. Retrieved from: https://islagrace.ca/sleep-myths/truth-behind-self-soothing/
5.Middlemiss, W., Granger, D. A., Goldberg, W. A., & Nathans, L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early human development, 88(4), 227-232.
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