The Self Soothing Babies who are not Actually Soothing Themselves at all

One of the top criticisms I get of my disdain for ‘experts’ who insist that babies should learn to ‘self soothe’ in order to sleep through the night is those who comment “but my baby DOES self settle and I’ve never done any sort of sleep training” (those who ‘self settle’ after sleep training are a completely different kettle of fish – learn more HERE).

If self soothing is a developmental skill – that occurs once the emotional regulatory areas of the brain are well-connected (from about the age of 7 onwards) – then what on earth is happening to those babies who DO self soothe? Are they a freak of biology? Super fast developers? or something else.

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The answer is “something else”.

You see these babies are no more capable of self soothing than any others. The difference is that they are often the ‘naturally calm’ babies. When a baby is ‘naturally calm’ they do not secrete large amounts of cortisol which inhibits melatonin (the sleep hormone). When babies are naturally calm if their parents ‘catch’ them at the right time (in the early stages of tiredness) then there is a good likelihood that they will be able to get to sleep without parental interaction. This does of course mean that these babies are happy in their sleep environment, comfortable and happy to sleep without being held (and lots of babies aren’t – which is totally normal!). When all of these coincidences happen at once the baby will be able to get him or herself off to sleep without parental input. They are said to have “self soothed” to sleep.

Only they HAVEN’T soothed themselves to sleep, because they were calm in the first place! No ‘soothing’ has taken place!

‘Self soothing’ is basically modern-day marketing slang for what psychologists know as “emotional self-regulation”. Emotional self-regulation is what happens when an adult – or much older child – can analyse and rationalise their emotions (e.g: “it’s dark, I’m scared – but it’s OK, I know there’s no such things as monsters and I’m perfectly safe” or “My partner has just left the room, I wonder if he will ever come back? Of course he will, he’s only gone to the bathroom, he’ll be back in less than 5 minutes!”). When the adult, or much older child, conducts this ‘self talk’ they can use their sophisticated, mature brains to lower their stress and anxiety levels – and with it their cortisol levels. This means that they are then free to carry on with what they were doing – in the case of sleep it means their sleep hormones can rise and they can peacefully drift off to sleep.
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Anybody who has a toddler will know that they have zero emotional self-regulation skills. If they did they would never tantrum, never run around in public naked, never bite or hit anybody else – or all of the other wonderful things toddlers do! Toddlers behave this way because they have underdeveloped brains. Simply they don’t think or feel like adults do! Now – if a toddler cannot regular his own emotions (or “self soothe”), how on earth do we expect babies to be able to do so?!?!!!!! Can you see how ludicrous that massively popular assumption is?

So, those babies who ‘self soothe’ – they’re not doing anything of the sort, they are in a calm state, in body and in mind, they’ve been put down in the early stages of tiredness (too late causes cortisol to rise and sleep to be inhibited), they’re comfortable in their sleep environment and they are not what others may call “high needs” (I hate that term!). If you have one consider yourself VERY lucky.

They’re still not ‘self soothing’ though!

Sarah

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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