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.


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.
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!


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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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8 Responses to The Self Soothing Babies who are not Actually Soothing Themselves at all

  1. D says:

    what qualifications do you have to be advising people on parenting?

  2. Rose says:

    My baby sleeps through the night since he was 3 months old. Now he is 9 months and sleeps from 10 pm to 7 am. He sleeps alone in his crib, but in our bedroom. I have never used any sleep trainings at all, never held him to sleep, never breastfed him to sleep. Even if he is not in the mood to sleep, he plays alone for 5 minutes or so, and then eventually he falls asleep. You can’t say it was a coincidence (that I have just caught him in a good and tired mood) for so many months.

  3. jimbo says:

    ^. Haters gonna hate

  4. Tanya says:

    My baby always wanted to be put down to sleep, from 2 weeks old she would get grumpy in my arms so I’d pit her in her cot and she’d fall to sleep very happily without even a murmur.

    This changed at 8 months old when she was poorly, since then she has wanted cuddling to sleep. I wonder what has changed!

  5. Amy says:

    Wow, whata with the negative comments! Anyway, I want to say I love your article. My daughter is very energetic, and intelligent, and needs a a lot more help falling asleep than her male cousin of the same age. He falls asleep in his crib with pacifier and blanket in about 30 seconds. My daughter just never quits and I have to start her bedtime routine 2 hours in advance, plus 30 minutes of being held in the dark before she relaxes and she still fights it. The only way she calms down and gives a me a break is if we breastfeed, so that’s what works for me, except its very time consuming. But guess what, babies are meant to take our attention! They need it to feel secure! I could go crazy but I stay sane by believing that self soothing is a myth. And I will continue to assist my child with love and nurturing until she is old enough to handle it herself.

  6. Burt says:

    Credit where credit is due. I agree some parents have naturally calm babies but not everyone. Some parents have carefully thought about routines etc and have managed to get their babies to sleep well – that’s not luck! I say well done to those parents.

  7. Vivian says:

    Thank you, Sarah, I really appreciate your article.
    Could you just explain why you don’t like the term “high need baby”?

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