Do We Expect Too Much to Have Babies Self-Soothe to Sleep?

baby self sootheRecently, I received several e-mails all pertaining to the same thing: a new book called Go the F**k to Sleep. Some of the book I thought was funny and I can definitely understand the frustration and emotion that sparked the title (I remember screaming in my head “GO TO SLEEP!!!!” without the F part, when my baby was not sleeping, too).

Of course, with a title like this, it’s bound to ruffle feathers. With a title like this, are you implying our babies are purposely not sleeping to somehow get back at us or want to ruin our evenings? We all know that even in our most frustrated moments, we love our babies, so I am confident the author feels the same. While I was mildly humored by the book, the number of exhausted parents I work with on a daily basis tends to take some of the humor out of baby sleep problems, but, I was not offended by the book just the same.

The fact the book is a best seller (whether or not you agree with the title) only reminds us again that we are not alone with our baby’s sleep problems, our frustrations from our babies not sleeping, and how it affects our daily lives.

But, do we expect too much to have our babies self-soothe to sleep?

I recently came across an article about this topic when a mom writes about her 6 year old who is afraid of many things and needs her mom to lay with her to fall asleep (and you thought they outgrew it didn’t you?). I relate well to this age because my almost six year old’s fears and nightmares have definitely led to several night wakings in the last year or so. Unfortunately, even after we tackle our baby’s sleep problems, toddler sleep problems aren’t too far behind (and he’s technically school-age, now).

My son’s sleep challenges have been a HUGE part of our lives in our short six years with him (as evidenced by a whole website that came from them) and his nightmares have been no different in learning the best way to handle them. Just as the mom in the article feels, it is extremely important to me that my son always feels he can call me, come to me, count on me, and not be afraid. But, practically speaking, if I were to do everything he asks of me (when it comes to sleep, I mean), well we’d still be co-sleeping, and that just wasn’t going to happen (not that there is anything wrong with it, just didn’t work for us).

When I first read the article (which was very well-written), I found myself nodding my head “yes.” But, then I read some of the comments and thought, “But, at what point do we teach our kids to face their fears? Are we reinforcing the fear if we “give in” to it? If we don’t have them face fears, does it mean they will linger around even longer, unnecessarily, because we are reinforcing there is, in fact, something to be afraid of? Is there a middle ground?”

So, then I ask you this: “If your child ‘needs’ you to lay down with him to fall asleep every night, do you teach him that he will always ‘need’ someone to sleep with?” Will this be the same person who jumps from one relationship to another for fear or dislike of being alone? Or, will it be someone like my son who wasn’t allowed to sleep with his parents when he wanted to (and he will vow to do differently with his kids) or the author of the article because her mom didn’t lay down with her? It is SO complicated and confusing and there is only one answer I can come up with and that is no matter what we do, our kids will vow to do something different than we did just like we vowed to do something different than our parents.

But, what about our babies?

Are we expecting too much to have babies learn how to self-soothe at an early age? Do we under-estimate our children or over-estimate them? When, then, is it the right time to teach our babies to self-soothe? 4 months? 6 years? Or, let them do it when they feel ready?

The point at which I decided my son wanted me to rock or nurse him to sleep (as opposed to needing me to), was when I decided he had abilities even he didn’t know he had. Once I realized he was doing what he LEARNED to do rather than what he NEEDED to do (his sleep problems were my fault, after all), that’s when I decided to help him learn how to self-soothe. He has gone through similar points in potty training (didn’t show too much interest, but was potty trained for pee in one week and poop in one month, including all night and never had a nighttime accident and we did it very gently!), reading on his own (learned when he was four), and riding his bike without training wheels (still working on that one and taking it slow).

The day YOU teach YOUR baby how to self-soothe may be different from everyone else. And, the day you decide not to lay with your toddler while she falls asleep may be another. There is no set age and they go through so many different phases. What I have found, with my son anyway, is that he needs a very balanced approach in parenting. If I give him too much help than what he THINKS he needs, it really keeps him from achieving what I know that he can. When my son is scared at bedtime, you bet I do hug and talk to him about it. If he has a nightmare, he can always come to me, we leave a light on, and I cuddle him in bed. But, do I lay down with him while he falls asleep or sleep in his bed? Absolutely not.

We need to know and empower our children, and teach them it is okay to express themselves and their feelings. We need to teach them when we feel confident they are ready, not necessarily when they think they are ready. We have the wisdom of (cough) years to help guide them. And, we should neither ignore their fears or coddle them. We should talk to them. Talk about their fears. And, let them face and conquer them.

What do you think? Is self-soothing something that should be taught or should we let our babies learn when they’re ready?

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  1. Laura says

    That book is fantastic. Even better is the Samuel L. Jackson narration. Overall, it’s not blaming the child for not being able to sleep. It’s not really making any kind of statement. It’s just a funny way to express the frustration parents feel when their kid Just. Won’t. Sleep.

    I understand some people take offense to the language, and in that case, this is not the book for them. That doesn’t make it a bad book, it just makes it inappropriate for some people. I like that language, and those words are about precisely what goes through my head sometimes. So for me, it’s a perfect book!

  2. Melanie says

    I do not know when and how my baby learned to self-soothe and sleep on her own. But I believe it was when she was two months old. She is never a cry-baby since birth. Only cries when hungry, and when she’s full, she is ready to play or sleep, and right now at five months, she screams and giggles a lot, even on her own while playing with her toys. She rarely wants us to lull her to sleep. I guess she developed the habit of self-soothing on her own. And I guess it helped that we did not co-sleep with her until she was like four months, although on occasions when I was alone with hubby at work at night, I did co-slept with her a few times when she was less than a month old, and this is to make it easier for me to calm her down during night terror attacks. At present, we just put her on the bed or in the crib, she plays for a while, and when she feels drowsy, she would roll from side to side and suck her fingers to sleep. If this technique of hers doesn’t work, that’s the time she cries for help.

  3. says

    I like the idea that every parent/child will have a different time they are ready to learn. I think my baby was ready to learn to go to sleep herself before I was ready to let go of our nursing and cuddling to sleep. But there certainly did come a point when I thought, you know, she doesn’t really NEED me, she just doesn’t know how to do it herself. I think it was around 8 months old for us, she just wasn’t sleeping well at all anymore and I was getting very tired and very frustrated! I didn’t just drop her in a crib and tell her to figure it out, either, I was patient and we took it slow and it was a little rough at times, but once she figured it out it was smooth sailing from then on! Now I have a baby I can literally put in her crib when she’s tired and she goes to sleep after I leave. It’s so amazing! But I still always go to her when she cries at night – sometimes she sleeps through, sometimes she doesn’t. I do think it’s important that she knows if she NEEDS me I will come. I don’t always do what she wants me to (like if she wants to get up and run around at 4am), but I’ll go in, soothe her, cuddle her, and put her back to bed.

  4. Laurie says

    We were definitely challenged by the concept of self soothing in this house. My now 13 month old started sleeping in our arms at 4 days old and did not spend more than a few hours here and there in her own bed or bassinet until she was nearly 7 months old. Our challenge was that she wasn’t just co-sleeping, she was held in my arms (or those of a helpful friend, family member or my husband) for nearly every nap and every night, short the first 3 hours which she thankfully spent in her crib. When I reflect on the journey, I wonder if perhaps she and I were not simply co-sleeping, but co-soothing. My husband is active duty and was required to leave us to return to his ship at sea the day after we were discharged from the hospital (his being allowed to stay behind for her birth was a GIFT). He returned 2 months later, but was gone several days/week for work and finally departed on deployment when she was 4 months old. It was a very challenging time for all of us, especially baby and me. During the crux of our sleep challenges, I was exhausted and wondered daily what I was doing wrong. She cried every time I so much as set her down. Thank goodness for the Ergo Baby which allowed me to use the restroom and prepare simple meals for myself. I thank a few close friends who would come over to hold her while I showered. In my mind, baby needed me. She clearly did not feel safe anywhere but in my arms or strapped against my chest. I had read about the benefits of baby wearing and figured holding her as she slept was a clear extension of this. She needed me. When she hit 7 months, her pediatrician encouraged me to sleep train her. I believe her primary concern was my level of exhaustion and the deterioration of my ability to function as a result. It took 1 night to sleep train baby. She cried for an hour while I sat in the garage crying myself. After that, she was weaned from my arms. We both finally slept and 4 months later, daddy came home โ€“ safe and sound.

    With hindsight, I wonder if our journey was less about teaching her to self-soothe and more about the bond we had and our need for each other. I am not confident I would have survived her first 7 months without her in my arms. Perhaps she was feeding off my emotions, gaining strength as I gained strength. Maybe her remaining in my arms 24/7 for the first 2 months was her way of warding off post partum depression. Reminding me how precious she was every moment of every day. I imagine our next child will sleep dutifully solo from day 1, as surely daddy will be safely by our sides.

    To the question of expectations of our children, I agree wholly that each child and each situation is different. I hope as time passes and our daughter matures I will be able to ingrain two ideas in her: 1) It is OKAY to be afraid, to not feel safe or happy or comfortable, to need the comfort of mommy or daddy and 2) that I will always be here for her to turn to, even if by phone when she is a young adult. I hope to teach her not to suppress her emotions, but to be mindful of who she turns to for comfort. When I was a 7, leaving for overnight camp for the first time, my mother told me โ€œthere is an invisible string connecting us at our belly buttons. When you feel sad or scared or just need anything, you tug it and I will be right there in your heart to comfort you.โ€ It works. Even at 30 years old, it works. I imagine myself pulling the string and I feel all the warmth of a motherly hug. I hope I can teach my daughter the same, allowing herself to soothe, but knowing it is okay to need someone to lean on. I also hope she knows that sometimes, mommy pulls the string too. I need her as much as she needs me.

  5. Cat says

    This book makes me laugh, I think we parents have all felt like this at times, and that there is nothing wrong with us adults being able to read or hear an expression of this frustration… it’s nothing that the vast majority are going to say to their kids…

    As for the self-soothing thing… our older daughter co-slept until our younger one was born (she was a month off turning 2)… We kept her in our bed because we thought she couldn’t sleep alone… Well, she slept so much better alone than she did with us, it truly was our fear that was holding her back from a good night’s sleep! Our younger daughter is now 13 months, and has been a bad sleeper all along… She is defintely improving though, and will go back to sleep when I say to her “lie down, go to sleep”.. She also co-sleeps, because she really won’t sleep in her cot, she is very active and needs more space… We’re getting there slowly but surely, but not forcing the issue, just taking it step by step :)

  6. Ems says

    My baby’s sleep is another story but my husband was told as a young child that it was bad luck to talk about your nightmares before breakfast. If you did IT WOULD COME TRUE. Now, I’ve asked a lot of people if they ever heard of this and no-one has, so I reckon it was my mother-in-law’s way of getting him to go the f*ck to sleep.

    All I can say is my husband as an adult is a pretty good sleeper but his relationship with his mother is beyond therapy…

  7. Heather says

    I co-sleep with my babies because I am too plain lazy to get out of bed at night!!! Whether or not to co-sleep, sleep train, etc is largely a personal and cultural question, IMO. In some cultures, kids co-sleep with their parents till they are teenagers or beyond. Does this mean that some cultures are more “fearful” than others? I doubt the 2 are strongly related. To my mind what is important, is the parents deciding on what they feel is right and following their minds with their actions. If I co-sleep with my child but resent it, my child may pick up on those negative feelings. (or if I sleep train but don’t feel that it is right.) For me, the best time to sleep train my baby or toddler is when I am starting to resent it, and when I am prepared to make a commitment to be consistent with another method. I night weaned my daughter at 19 months with very little crying in just a few days and I believe that was because I was confident that what I was doing was right, that, as Nicole says, I knew she could learn a new way. In short, babies are adaptable. (probaby much more so than their parents!) We need to have the courage to do what we feel our family needs, whether that is co-sleeping (in a culture where that isn’t the norm) or sleep training.

  8. Carrie Dodd says

    My son learned how to self soothe really early (before 2 months old) when rocking/nursing to sleep didn’t really work and co-sleeping is not an option in our house. Hubby does strange things in his sleep. My daughter is 7 weeks old and I’m slowly teaching her and a lot of it is because I don’t have the time with my 21 month old to spend oodles of time rocking her to sleep (she’s bottlefed breastmilk and that doesn’t put her to sleep!) I’ll put her down drowsy and half the time she’ll sleep on her own. Sometimes I need to pop the soother in her mouth to help her along. Tonight out of necessity (21 month old being naughty) she was crying after I put her down drowsy and 5 min later she was sleeping :)

  9. Philippa says


    my DD, now 16.5m has always been great at self soothing. from birth I nursed her, let her fall asleep in my arms then popped her down in her cot sometimes asleep and sometimes drowsy. We never coslept as she seemed to like her own space. Whenever I tried to bring her into the bed she never seemed to want to lay and cuddle. So she always slept next to me in the bedroom in her own cot/crib and knew I was always there to comfort her if she needed anything.

    I do believe I was very fortunate that she was an easygoing baby and as a result she has rarely needed assistance going off to sleep. There were of course times that I had to stay in the room sitting in the chair next to her whilst she drifted off as she had been grizzly and crying and I personally was jot able to let her cry it out for long (even though I realised that crying is just tiredness). I never picked her up or rocked her just cuddled and laid her back down and patted her back.

    she rarely wakes in the night and calls out for me, only when she’s ill. if she does wake I go to her straight away to comfort her so she feels her needs are met. She does use a dummy / pacifier though as a baby she had a strong suck and reflux so this was supposed to help and she loves it (only at bedtime). I did have a period of her waking and me replugging the dummy throughout the night!!

    I read a lot about baby sleep before she was born and how the sleep cycles work. I realised that not letting her get overtired was key and that a bedtime routine with a sleep trigger and wind down was needed, so I started implementing a routine when she was around 3 months old. I think this quiet wind down time is crucial.

    So I believe self soothing is learnt through the feeling of security and ensuring baby is put down to sleep before becoming overtired, after which point their little brains are wired and they simply can drop off and when they do, sleep is fragmented, bringing on night wakings.

  10. Jen says

    No, Ems- that’s definitely an old saying around where I grew up, too…

    Either that or EVERYONE’S moms wanted them to go the f* to bed there. :)

  11. says

    @Laura I haven’t heard Jackson’s narration. Do you have a link? I’d like to hear that. ๐Ÿ˜€

    @Melanie Sounds like you have a very adaptable and calm baby. :) Thanks for sharing!

    @Natalie You are not alone that sometimes it’s us who hesitate. I think both parent and child need to be ready. It’s not always a quick process, so you need to be prepared to take that first step and follow through. Thanks for sharing your experience and that’s great she’s sleeping so well, now!

    @Laurie Your story brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for sharing with us. It definitely sounds like you both needed each other and I know it must have been so difficult when your husband was gone. You are a great mom!

    @Cat I have heard that sometimes that a baby will sleep better being in their own space. Of course, not all are that way, but sometimes we all need some room to move! ๐Ÿ˜€ Thank you for sharing!

    @Ems Oh my!! Your poor husband not being able to talk about his nightmares! :( That sounds scary to think your nightmares would come true. Yikes! Thank you for sharing!

    @Heather Very good point that I think how we, as parents, feel about our child’s sleep, good or bad, will largely dictate the entire experience. You’re right and of course I agree it’s a personal choice for each family. :)

    @Carrie Juggling two definitely has more challenges in terms of how long you can “work” on putting the baby to sleep when you have a toddler to run around after and make sure they are not getting into trouble!! ;D That’s great that your baby was asleep in 5 minutes! Something similar happened with my younger son…almost exactly except I was making lunch and had a hungry boy to feed! :)

    @Phillipa That’s so great your daughter was so easy-going and good at self-soothing! :)

    @Jen Oh wow, so it is something that others tell their kids. “Funny” but not. LOL At least it wasn’t just @Ems husband, though. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks everyone for great conversation, as usual! Love this!

  12. Luciana says

    With my first son I searched all over web for solutions with his sleep problems at the end I read this article about an “anthropological” approach and decided that I wanted him to take his own time and relaxed about it. Before I knew he was sleeping on his own and all night. Off course we had some set backs like when my second child was born and he wanted the same attention the baby was getting for himself but,again, with time he overcame it. Our society does press for imediate solutions and circumstances are different now then they were before, with so many moms working full-time. But each child has itยดs own time that must be respected as well. The reason I like this site so much and keep reading it is because I believe the author understands the uniqueness of each baby and family.

  13. Debbye says

    @ Laura- Thank you for sharing the link! Samuel Jackson does do a perfect narration of this story! You are right, in that this book (and audio version) is NOT for everyone, as many are offended by the language. For those who are not offended by language, you must hear the audio version!

    @ Luciana- Thank you for writing! And I think everyone in today’s world could probably benefit by taking just a little time to relax! Thanks for sharing what works for you!