The Top 2 Self Soothing Myths BUSTED (We Hate #2!)

Self Soothing Myths

Google the phrase ‘self soothing’, and you know what you’ll find? You’ll find an assortment of the most contradictory articles you can imagine. You’ll find articles offering you tips on how to help your baby learn to self soothe, as well as articles telling you that self soothing is impossible for babies, and that teaching a baby to self soothe will lead to permanent emotional and psychological damage.

Gotta love the internet, right? 😉

But seriously, what’s a well-meaning parent to make of all this? As loving moms and dads, we want the best for our children. So what does that mean for self soothing? Is self soothing a great thing to promote in your home (since a baby who can self soothe is a baby who is on the road to sleeping through the night), or is self soothing dangerous, and something that selfish parents inflict upon their little ones?

Miriam115As usual, we’ve got answers! Miriam Chickering, registered nurse, lactation consultant, and Baby Sleep Site® sleep consultant extraordinaire, is joining us today, sharing her expert wisdom, and helping us to de-bunk 2 of the most common (and most obnoxious!) self soothing myths. Read on for information on why babies CAN, in fact, learn to self soothe, and why helping a baby learn to self soothe isn’t the dangerous, cruel act some would have you believe it is.

MYTH #1: Babies aren’t capable of self soothing.

Not so – babies absolutely can learn gradually, over time, how to soothe themselves! Keep reading for Miriam’s explanation:

“Babies can absolutely self soothe – in fact, babies as young as a week old are capable of sucking on their fists when distressed or hungry. While this can be taken as a hunger cue, this is also the baby’s way of regulating and decreasing stress. It’s an instinctual behavior. But pretty soon, the 3-4 month old baby will, in a very coordinated and deliberate way, suck his fingers to help himself get to sleep. So, on all counts, infants absolutely can decrease their stress without outside help.

So, the question becomes not, ‘Can my baby self soothe?’ but, ‘Does my baby need additional soothing beyond his existing self soothing abilities in order to sleep?’

Now, to answer this more accurate question, we need to first understand the complex factors that lead to good sleep regulation in infants. ‘Behavioral sleep intervention’, or sleep training, is generally not all that effective when used alone, especially in babies 6 months and under. Why? Because in many cases, with young infants, their sleep (or lack thereof) is driven by non-behavioral factors.

See, babies are able to fall asleep more easily if certain conditions are met. For example, your baby will fall asleep more easily if she has a full tummy, is warm (but not too warm), feels safe, and is beginning to feel tired (but not over-tired). None of these factors are part of conventional sleep training methodology (unless, that is, you’re working with my colleagues and me – we’re all about holistic sleep coaching!), but they’re all key components in helping your baby sleep well!

The truth is, your baby’s feeding and sleep schedule, any medical concerns, your bond with your baby, your child’s temperament, and your parenting philosophy ALL play a part in how your baby regulates sleep. Once the conditions are right, and ‘the stage has been set’ for sleep, then and only then should parents address how baby is falling asleep.

What do I mean by how baby is falling asleep? Simply this – think about what your baby needs in order to fall asleep and then stay asleep (I don’t mean stay asleep for 12 hours, necessarily – just stay asleep for a 2 or 3 hour chunk). If your baby wakes often throughout the night, and has a hard time sleeping independently, even after you’ve addressed all the ‘setting the stage’ factors (like schedule, sleeping environment, etc.), then your baby almost certainly has what we call a limiting sleep association. A limiting sleep association is any activity you do that helps your baby fall asleep (and stay asleep) that isn’t sustainable for the entire period of sleep. Think rocking/nursing/patting/holding in arms (after all, we parents aren’t machines who can do these activities indefinitely!). Note that these are different than healthy sleep associations (like having a darkened room, white noise, etc.) – good sleep associations are those things that your child associates with sleep, but that don’t require ongoing work from you throughout the night.

In cases where there is a limiting sleep association present, our job is to gradually wean baby away from the limiting sleep association, and to help baby learn to fall sleep independently. And how does a baby learn to do that? You guessed it…by self soothing to sleep!

Now, I should point out that we do not expect an infant to self soothe the way an older child or adult would. If you consider the ways that you regulate your stress and emotions, it’s obvious that you wouldn’t expect your baby to do the same! And in this way, the ability to self soothe is something that grows and matures as your child grows and matures. However, when the surrounding conditions are favorable, a baby can learn the skill of going to sleep without a limiting sleep association – in other words, a baby can learn to self soothe to sleep.”

MYTH #2: Babies who “self soothe” aren’t really self soothing – they’re just giving up.

Oh, this one really gets our goat…fortunately, it’s not true! Read Miriam’s thoughts on this especially-frustrating myth:

“When people say this, they usually mean that when a baby stops crying after sleep coaching, he hasn’t actually learned how to self soothe and fall asleep independently; rather, he has learned that no one comes when he cries, so he might as well give up and not cry at all. In other words, it is assumed that he has been exposed to a TOXIC amount of stress.

What’s toxic stress, exactly? Toxic stress results from frequent and prolonged abuse and/or neglect. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, this kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

Scary, right? This myth is especially cruel because it’s downright frightening. Fortunately, you can put your mind at ease, because in loving, healthy families, this simply will not happen.

Now, let me clarify – does toxic stress happen? Yes, when children are exposed to prolonged abuse, neglect, and adult violence. There have actually been a number of studies done over the years that support this concept:

BUT – does toxic stress occur when thoughtful, loving parents adequately ‘set the stage’ for sleep and then take a holistic approach to sleep coaching, and to helping their babies learn to self soothe? According to Harvard and the American Academy of Pediatrics – no! Even if that sleep coaching process involves some crying (for instance, if the parents use a check-and-console approach to helping their baby learn to self soothe and fall asleep independently) – in no way is that child’s controlled crying in a loving, nurturing, supportive environment even remotely similar to a neglected child crying in an abusive, violent environment. To call these two scenarios similar, and to allege that in both cases, the child is experiencing toxic stress, is ludicrous.

So here is the deep, deep flaw that busts this myth: anti-sleep coaching proponents take all of that toxic stress research, and use it to ‘prove’ that sleep coaching is cruel, and that babies don’t actually self soothe, but merely give up and continue to experience emotional and psychological distress. But this is simply not true; if you are teaching your baby to self soothe and fall asleep independently in a loving and nurturing environment, then there is no way that your baby is going to experience toxic stress!

So what’s really happening when sleep coaching works, and a baby learns self soothing? The baby has not been exposed to toxic stress, and has not learned to simply ‘give up’; rather, that child has learned the skill of going to sleep without relying on a limiting sleep association. You, the parents, are now able to sleep because you are not required help your child fall back to sleep every time she wakes.

One last point – lots of the self soothing myth perpetrators claim that even after babies learn to fall asleep independently without crying, they stay stressed. There was a 2012 study that seemed to indicate that babies who were left to cry during sleep training had elevated levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – in their brains. However, this is another myth we need to bust; as I tell all my clients who ask me about it, that study was profoundly flawed. If you’re interested in learning more, this article offers a great analysis of the many flaws in that study.”

Parents, I hope that Miriam’s thoughtful responses to these 2 trouble self soothing myths has set your mind at ease, and has given you confidence in your efforts to help your children sleep well. Here’s the main thing to remember: your baby is a complex and unique little being; for that reason, it’s key that you take a holistic approach to sleep coaching. What’s a holistic approach? It’s one that takes into account ALL the factors that influence your child’s sleep – including feeding, scheduling, sleep environment, health and development, temperament and personality, and more – and address those along with any limiting sleep associations. We at The Baby Sleep Site® are committed to using this kind of holistic approach to sleep with every client we serve – and we can help you begin your journey to holistic sleep coaching, too! Our expert sleep consultants are standing by, ready to get to know your family and your unique situation, and to craft a Personalized Sleep Plan™ that’ll help your whole family get the sleep you deserve.

Browse our list of consultation package options here.

Once you make your choice and purchase, you will immediately receive an e-mail with your Helpdesk login information. You’ll be able to login and start your Family Sleep History form right away – it’s that simple!

Want more information about how personalized help works? Check out our FAQ page here, and get answers. You can also take a tour of the Helpdesk.

Your turn, parents! We know that this is a touchy subject for some, and we’re eager to hear your thoughts and opinions. Share below, and let’s get the conversation started!

bss_email_featprod_memberspic-CROPPEDOur Members Area is packed with exclusive content and resources: e-Books, assessments, detailed case studies, expert advice, peer support, and more. It actually costs less to join than buying products separately! As a member, you’ll also enjoy a weekly chat with an expert sleep consultant. And the best part – members receive 20% off all sleep consultation services!
Essential Keys to Newborn Sleep Essential Keys to Your Newborn’s Sleep is THE newborn sleep book that will help you to not only improve your newborn’s sleep using gentle, sleep-inducing routines – it will also answer your feeding and newborn care questions. You can even buy a bundle package that includes the e-book AND a Personalized Sleep Plan™ PLUS a follow-up email to use for further support!
bss_ebook_3stepsystem_leftFor those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3 Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep. Using the same unique approach and practical tools for success, this e-book helps you and your baby sleep through the night.
bss_ebook_masteringnaps_leftIf you’re looking for ways to get your baby or toddler into a healthy sleeping routine during the day, I encourage you to explore Mastering Naps and Schedules, a comprehensive guide to napping routines, nap transitions, and all the other important “how-tos” of good baby sleep. With over 45 sample sleep schedules and planning worksheets, Mastering Naps and Schedules is a hands-on tool ideal for any parenting style.
bss_ebook_5steptoddler_smalFor those persistent toddler sleep struggles, check out The 5 Step System to Help Your Toddler Sleep. Using the same unique approach and practical tools for success, this e-book helps you and your toddler sleep through the night and enjoy a better daytime schedule.

Need help knowing where to start? Visit our Help Me Choose page for helping choosing the Baby Sleep Site® resources that are right for you.

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?

If you’re looking for ways to get your baby or toddler into a healthy sleeping routine, please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.