Self Soothing: Why Babies Are Not Like Adults

Adults, children and babies all wake many times each night. ‘Sleeping through the night’ is a misnomer, it indicates something that is not biologically possible. We all sleep in cycles moving through light and deep sleep. At the end of each cycle a new cycle may immediately begin (giving the impression that the individual is ‘sleeping through’), or the individual may wake.

Babies move through many more sleep cycles than adults, in part because they sleep for longer at night and also because their sleep cycles are significantly shorter. While adults will experience around 5-6 sleep cycles per night, babies experience anything between 12 to 16 (depending on age and total length of sleep).


When it comes to transitioning between sleep cycles adults only have to link cycles five or six times. Babies however have to transition anything up to three times as many cycles. Each end and start of a sleep cycle is an opportunity for them to wake if something in their body or their environment is not right.

Conventional ‘sleep experts’ focus heavily on teaching babies to ‘self soothe’ or ‘self settle’. They believe that teaching this skill will help the baby to transition between cycles without parental input. This they believe is the key to getting babies to ‘sleep through the night’. This is often taught by a degree of parental abandonment where the child is left to ‘figure things out’ alone (which supposedly teache them to self soothe). Techniques vary from ‘Cry it Out’ (where the child is left to cry until they eventually fall asleep) to ‘controlled crying’ (a version of the above where the parent checks the child every few minutes and then leaves the room to allow the baby to cry more), to ‘disappearing chair’ or ‘gradual withdrawal’ (where the parent moves further and further away from the child and responds initially with sshing and patting the baby’s tummy or bottom, to ultimately only ssshing or talking to the child from the other side of the room or even outside of the door). The presumption with these techniques is always the same, to teach ‘Self soothing’ or ‘self settling’.

I feel it is vital however that parents understand exactly what the baby is capable of doing, from a brain and physical development point of view. When an adult ‘self soothes’ it looks very different to an infant ‘self soothing’. Some examples are shown in the table below.



The ability to ‘self soothe’ requires both sophisticated brain development and physical skills such as getting out of bed alone, walking and manipulating the environment. If the infant therefore ceases crying, does it mean that they are soothed? Or does it mean that they have been trained not to cry because they quickly learn that the parent does not meet their needs, ergo, there is no point in crying? The answer is blatantly obvious to me, is it to you?



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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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9 Responses to Self Soothing: Why Babies Are Not Like Adults

  1. violetwisp says:

    I do agree. But it has to be balanced with the understanding that babies often make little noises while they are sleeping that are best left ignored. I’ve been terrible at jumping out of bed at the slightest disturbance and actually waking up the half asleep baby in my attempt to soothe her. I see people getting in terrible night time messes by never realising the difference.

  2. Charlott says:

    Where do you have your reference from regarding to the sleep cycles and linking them?

  3. Jo says:

    All I got from this article is what’s wrong not what you can do to better help little ones!

    • Hi Jo, there are many articles re. ways to help in this blog. Search through the relevant age group and you’ll find them. On a simple level of course in terms of “how to help little ones” would be to give them the parental input that they need in order to be soothed to start a new sleep cycle!

  4. Heather says:

    Great post Sarah and that table really puts it into perspective.

  5. Aloka says:

    Love this post! and the table!

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