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The Myth of Self Soothing

This topic of conversation is getting a lot of attention these days from what I can see. Everywhere I look people are discussing whether or not infants can self-soothe. Some sleep consultants are speaking out saying infants very much can do this for themselves. They have seen these behaviours with their own eyes, and believe that this is a natural development infants need to make in order to put themselves to sleep.. While some bloggers, or natural parenting experts, question how a baby could be possible of such a feat.

Can a baby self-soothe?

I think this largely depends on what your definition of “self-soothing” is.

When I first heard the term “self-soothing” my initial reaction was.. Okay.. so my baby has to learn how to soothe, or comfort, herself. If I am always doing this for my baby, then she will never have a chance to do this for herself. What about when I am not there to soothe her? For example; when she is on the playground, or when she is at daycare. What will she do in the moments where she is scared or frightened, and has to figure this out on her own?

I’ve noticed that some people don’t share this exact definition with me. Some people are talking about the very specific behaviours babies develop in order to put themselves to sleep. I’m talking about an infant sucking their thumb or fingers, sucking on the inside of their lip, or rubbing the corner of their blankie on their face to go to sleep. These are all behaviours I have seen infants do before they go to bed at night. This is often what I refer to as self-settling behaviour. And I put an emphasis on seeing this develop through infancy, toddlerhood, and the preschool years, through parents cued care in response to their children’s needs, or emotional expressions.

Certainly some infants come out of the womb sucking their thumbs and fingers. But others do not.. And they will pick up some of the above behaviours while their parents are teaching them to “self-soothe” through some particular form of sleep training. Sometimes I believe an infant is strengthening a skill we have already seen them do from birth, but it is something they have not been relying on consistently to put themselves to sleep. And at other times I think they develop a way to fall asleep quickly from a place of stress, because they are not being comforted by their caregiver, and their body is eliciting a fight or flight response.

When it comes to sleep, and sleep science.. It is very difficult to find any conclusive sleep training studies that are valid and meaningful. Most are flawed in some way, shape or form, and it is not every day that a parent hands over their baby and gives a professor permission to let them cry-it-out without some form of parental response. Often data numbers are low, or external variables have not been fully accounted for when conclusions are made.

Therefore, I have used brain anatomy to determine where I stand on this debate. I look at our brain, and the field of psychology, in determining whether or not a baby is actually able to comfort itself; as my original definition of self-soothing demonstrates.

We know that babies are born with a developed hippocampus and amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The hippocampus allows us to store long-term memories, and together these parts of the brain function within the limbic system. This system is responsible for us developing fight or flight reactions in stressful situations. Infants are born with the capacity to feel fear, and distress, and they are able to elicit fight or flight reactions as necessary for their survival.

In order for us to truly regulate our emotions and thus, “soothe the self”, there is a very important part of the brain that needs to fully develop. This would be the prefrontal cortex. This brain region allows us to develop complex thought, make decisions based on those thoughts, and moderate our social behaviour. Babies are not born with a developed prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is actually not fully developed until we are in our mid to late twenties.

Based on these facts alone, I do find the definition of an infant self-soothing to be quite confusing, and somewhat misleading. If we, as their parents, are barely capable of thinking rational thoughts at times… how can we expect that this is what our babies are doing when they are left alone to cry?

I realize that this blog is likely to ruffle some feathers, and that is okay. I suppose I am opening myself up for some healthy debate on the subject. Or, if you have another scientific finding I have not included in coming to my conclusion here, I am all ears.

When I work with families, I am often helping them move from co-sleeping, to independent sleep. It is not to say that a change in behaviour does not evoke some feelings in our babies. It very much does. But I believe our children can learn through watching us every day. They learn self-settling behaviour through cued care, and this means, watching how a parent does make an effort to comfort their crying infant. Sometimes this means crying in a parent’s arms, sometimes this looks like a parent holding their child’s hand, and sometimes this is mom or dad sitting beside baby saying, I am here for you.  

I ask the families that I am working with to be there for their babies as they express the emotions they are feeling, and this is very hard for some families to do. Of course it would be easier for us to walk out the door and lean on the idea that we are teaching our babies a positive thing by having them “self-soothe”. But ultimately, is that what we are teaching them here? That is a question only you can answer for your family.

I am not writing this to guilt, or shame anyone. Both of my children have endured some form of sleep training whereby I thought I was doing them a service in teaching them independence from me, and how to put themselves to sleep without any sleep props or sleep associations.

But ultimately, I do believe our babies need us. And usually if we dig deep, we can find a way to be there for them in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes we just need the right support ourselves, to get us to that place. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have that when I needed it most.



Photos seen here shared with permission from the beautiful and talented, Stacie-Lynn Photography.