So many, parents and experts alike, advocate the idea of “teaching a baby to self settle” or “self soothe”. Self soothing is often referred to as the holy grail of baby sleep, once babies can self soothe, parents are told to expect uninterrupted nights and easier bedtimes. Many experts tell sleep deprived parents how vitally important it is to teach the ‘skill’ of self soothing to their offspring as soon as possible.

Only, it’s not true…..

What if I told you that babies can’t self soothe?

Babies are no more capable of self settling than they are of riding a bike. Self soothing is not something you can teach, through any amount of sleep training or techniques.

“But it works” I hear you cry……hmmmm, does it? Really?

Through sleep training you can condition a baby not to cry out for attention and go to sleep without parental input fairly easily, however this behaviour is not indicative of a baby who is calm, soothed or settled.

Self soothing is a developmental stage, a skill that infants gain as they grow older. Just as they become more physically mobile, develop the ability to eat solids and develop the ability to talk. In essence you can’t teach something that their brains are not yet equipped for (no matter what the sleep expert promises!).

‘Self soothing’ is such a misleading term. Whoever invented it has cleverly made it sound like something positive and gentle, similar to the new wave of controlled crying names such as “controlled comforting”, “spaced soothing” and “controlled soothing”. Clever marketing, same technique. In reality however you are categorically not leaving your baby to ‘soothe’, you are leaving them to cry, even if it is only for periods of two minutes at a time.

The Development of Self Soothing.

To understand the development of self settling we need to examine the psychological concept of ’emotional self regulation’. Emotional self regulation is the process where humans work through – or regulate – their emotions.

As adults we do this on a daily basis, maybe we’re watching television and a gory scene comes on that makes us wince, so we quickly change channels or cover our eyes. Perhaps we may be reading a book or a letter that makes us incredibly sad, so we put it down for ten minutes to make a drink and take a break. Perhaps we wake from a scary dream and switch on the light to check there are no intruders in our house. These are all examples of emotional self regulation, an important process to help us keep our emotions in check, otherwise we would be a bubbling, overflowing melting pot of pure emotion, unable to function on a day to day basis. Emotional self regulation is vital for not only our psychological, but our physical wellbeing, given the toxic effects of constant heightened levels of stress upon our bodies.

There are three main ways that we cope with our strong emotions, these are to: Approach, Attack and Avoid. You may know ‘attack or avoid’ better as ‘fight or flight’.

We all know these feelings well – something happens that causes us alarm and our bodies react to help us to either stay and fight or run for our lives.

What of the ‘approach’ though? Simply this explains our desire to approach those things, or people, that help us to feel emotionally safe and secure and in terms of your baby – that’s you. You are your infant’s safe place and naturally they will want to ‘approach’ you (usually by crying for physical contact with you), particularly when they are not emotionally or physically developed enough to attack or avoid.

Sadly many refer to babies as “clingy” or “manipulative” and see the fact that they need their parents to soothe them as a bad habit that should be broken. So many experts seem to think that once a baby is fed, changed, winded and warm that they have no further needs, they do. Their emotional needs are every bit as valid as their physical ones, why do we not pay these as much attention?

Although babies experience the fight or flight response from a very young age, they are not neurologically developed enough to regulate the resulting emotions themselves – they need us for that.

The Triune Brain

At birth the baby’s brain is about a quarter of its adult size. The brain stem and cerebellum, or the hindbrain, are fairly well developed and are the first part of the brain to develop throughout the first year and a half of life. This area of the brain is responsible for survival – temperature regulation, breathing, digestion and raw basic emotions.

The limbic system, is our ‘feeling brain’. This part of the brain is the next to develop over the first three years. It is responsible for emotions and relationships with others. This part of the brain includes the hippocampus and the amygdala amongst others.

Lastly, the Neocortex, our ‘thinking brain’ develops. The neocortex is by far the most sophisticated area of our brains and develops throughout childhood and adolescence and even into early adulthood throughout the early twenties. This part of our brain is responsible for critical, analytical and rational thought.

If we think about ‘self soothing’, in brain development terms, which parts of the brain would you think are necessary for true self settling, or emotional self regulation to occur?

Obviously the hindbrain is necessary – this is where the ‘fight or flight’ response sits and is the survival part of our brain. What about the limbic system? This too must be necessary considering it is our ‘feeling’ brain and in order to turn down our emotions – or become calm – we need to manipulate what is happening here. How do we manipulate these emotions? Well we need our ‘thinking brain’ for that.

Our neocortex can help us to rationalise and analyse a situation in order to come up with a solution to regulate our emotions. If you’re watching a horror movie you need your neocortex to say “chill, it’s only a movie, turn the light on, it’s OK!”. We need all of the parts of our brain, fully developed, in order to ‘self soothe’.

Only babies have incredibly underdeveloped neocortexes………..

See where I’m going?

Emotional Self Regulation (or what you and I know as ‘self soothing’) is just not physically possible for babies, or toddlers, or preschoolers………

Their brains have just not developed enough!

What Happens When you Sleep Train Then?

I know that many who read this will think “but it works, you’re wrong!”. The real issue here however is our misinterpretation of what is working and what is actually happening.

If you practice sleep training (that could be controlled comforting, spaced comforting, controlled soothing, controlled crying, cry it out, rapid return, spaced soothing, gradual withdrawal or pick up put down – call it what you will, really they’re all the same in their intent and actions) are you teaching your baby to self soothe? No. You absolutely are not, unless you have a wonder kid about five years advanced in their brain development!

What is really happening? In most cases something is happening on a very basic primal level. Let’s go back to the hindbrain and the fight or flight response. What happens when those stress hormones reach such a level that they are toxic yet you can’t take flight……..or fight…..another ‘F’ comes in, this time it’s F for ‘Freeze’. You freeze all activity in order to try to conserve homeostasis, or more simply put – conserve life. Dr Sears calls this ‘Shutdown Syndrome’.

Do you remember that NSPCC advert with Baby Miles?

Baby Miles doesn’t cry anymore because nobody comes”.

Or footage of Romanian orphanages with rows upon rows of cots with eerily quiet babies? They don’t cry, not because they don’t have needs, or feelings, but because there are too many of them for the staff to respond to unless it is for a basic physical need.

They’re in Shutdown Syndrome, they have ‘frozen’ in order to conserve life. They know nobody comes, why cry?

They are obviously extreme examples (and I am not saying that a baby left in an orphanage is in the same position as a baby undergoing sleep training), but to a lesser extent trying to teach a baby to self soothe relies on the same principles. It ‘works’ for the same reason.

The Worrying Side Effects of The Self Soothing Myth

If parents believe their babies are ‘soothed’ and calmed, they naturally relax and think all is OK. But what if it’s not OK? What if a ‘frozen’ baby is in distress yet doesn’t call out for their parents?

What if they have vomitted, or slipped down under their blankets? What if they don’t cry because nobody comes, what if they become a SIDS statistic as a result?

This is the ‘self soothing’ myth at it’s most damaging and most alarming. Sadly nobody will ever research this, it would just be too unethical, but it’s not a wild theory to present despite how uncomfortable it is to think about.

If a baby has been trained to be quiet and to not call for their parents to meet their emotional needs it isn’t too far-fetched to be worried that at some point something might happen and the baby may not call out when they have an urgent need.. A baby’s brain is not sophisticated enough to know that sometimes the parents come and sometimes they don’t – depending on what’s wrong.

Nobody knows what causes SIDs, in fact SIDs, is a label given to unexplained infant death and obviously there is no one cause, but likely hundreds if not thousands. I honestly believe however that there is a potential correlation with sleep training though. Don’t parents have the right to know of the potential risks when they are advised to teach their baby to self soothe by a baby sleep expert or health professional?

What if the babies are physically OK though? Are there any psychological risks?

What happens in the first few years of life is vital for the development of a baby’s brain. As a parent you are effectively an architect building and sculpting the person they will be in years to come.

Remember the limbic system that develops over the first three years? The bit that contains the Amygdala and Hippocampus?

Well there is research that shows that the more nurturing you are towards your child in their early years the greater their hippocampal volume…..and that’s important because the hippocampus is related to behavioural regulation. Many argue that science only proves a link with severely neglected or abused children, but that’s not true, there is research that looks at children in perfectly normal family situations.

The same is true of the amygdala which plays a key role in the processing of emotions. The chart on the left is from the research I’ve linked to above– it’s pretty shocking isn’t it?

The Real Path to Self Soothing

Parental nurturing increases hippocampal volume (and also that of the amygdala). The hippocampus and amygdala are parts of the brain responsible for behavioural regulation and emotional processing. It is obvious to theorise therefore that the best way to ensure a child grows to have good emotional self regulation (or self soothing/self settling skills) is by responding to them as much as they need when they are young.

A close, nurturing relationship with a child when they are young doesn’t just predict their ability to self soothe in later life, it also predicts their ability to form empathy with others and pro-social behaviour, which really is just another facet of emotional self regulation. Just as this research indicates, as does this and this and this and thiswhich has just been published.

Is it possible to teach a baby or a toddler to ‘self soothe’ or ‘self settle’ themselves to sleep?

No, it is not.

Is it possible to train a baby or a toddler to not call out for their parents when they are in need? Yes, it is, but this is categorically not indicative of an infant who is happy, calm and soothed.

Is it possible to alter the architecture of your child’s brain so that they grow to have good emotional self regulation skills (or the real ability to self soothe) when they are older? Absolutely!

What’s the best way to do that? Pick them up, cuddle them, respond to them – and your nurturing parenting will pay dividends in the future – that is how you REALLY help a child to develop the ability to self soothe and doesn’t every parent want the best for their child? Yes it is exhausting parenting a baby or toddler, I’ve been there – I know the depths of sleep deprivation, but as parents we have such an amazing ability to shape the next generation! We owe it to our children to seek alternative ways to cope with our own issues (search this blog for many articles of how to cope with non sleeping children!).

Self soothing is not a skill that can be taught, it is a behaviour that develops once the child’s brain is sufficiently developed, it can’t be hurried – but you can give your child the best chance of it happening by being as nurturing as possible now. The techniques commonly used for teaching self soothing and self settling ironically make the child less likely to develop these skills in later life, now that’s food for thought!    

~ Sarah Ockwell