Is Expecting Self-Soothing Expecting Too Much?

Expectations can be tricky things, can’t they? On the one hand, setting expectations helps to shape behaviors (both ours and others’) and to set healthy boundaries (again, in our lives and in the lives of others).

But expectations can also backfire on us, can’t they? Unhealthy expectations can turn what is a perfectly normal, reasonable situation or event into something that feels disappointing or sad. For instance, if you are expecting a big surprise party for your birthday, and instead get “just” flowers and a quiet dinner with your partner, you may feel disappointed, even though flowers + dinner add up to a pretty nice birthday! The expectation, however, was unreasonable and ended up ruining what could have been a great evening.

In the same way, the expectations we bring to parenting can help us or hurt us. And here’s one example of a hotly-debated expectation that, according to some, end up hurting families: self-soothing. There are some who argue that it is unreasonable to expect babies to self-soothe from infanthood, and that by doing so, we are setting ourselves and our babies up for failure and distress.

But is this true? Is expecting self-soothing expecting too much, or is it a healthy and productive expectation that gets us to sleeping through the night and consistent naps much faster?

Keep reading to hear Nicole’s take on this topic. She’ll be completing the rest of this article, sharing her insights and expertise on this topic. Scroll down to read Nicole’s expert opinions on self-soothing expectations!

Do We Expect Too Much When We Expect Babies To Self-Soothe? Expert Insights from Nicole Johnson

NicoleBlueSweater150I 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 older son’s fears and nightmares have definitely led to several night wakings in the past. 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 since he was born (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 Babies? Can Babies Self-Soothe, Or Is That Expecting Too Much?

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 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? Are you expecting too much if you expect self-soothing? Scroll down to ask questions, to share tips, and to hear from other parents just like you!

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4 thoughts on “Is Expecting Self-Soothing Expecting Too Much?”

  1. My 16 month old is finally sleeping consistently through the night and starting to lengthen her nap, as we are in the midst of the 2 – 1 transition.

    However, I’m still breastfeeding her and she has become attached to the 5:30am feed. I was okay with that – would feed her at 5:30 and she’d go right back down for a sleep until between 7 and 8. For the last several weeks, though, she has not been going back to sleep: a few things are happening.
    She doesn’t want to stop nursing; She fusses, then cries, then wails after I put her back in bed; won’t stay lying down… 5:30 is too early for her to be waking up. Especially as she is dropping her morning nap.

    We’ve tried eliminating the 5:30am feed – no success for sleep there. We’ve tried turning her dim light on and giving her a book when she won’t go back to sleep. I’ve tried bringing her in bed with me to see if she’d nurse back to sleep – nope.

    She is getting so tired, it seems moreso each day
    🙁 I want to help her get 11 hours minimum at night. She needs it and she wants it, we’re just at a stuck point. She is asleep between 7 and 7:30 most nights. Sometimes later – since we took the paci away (grrrr, it was moving her teeth), bedtime has become somewhat challenging. And actually that was probably when mornings starting to become a challenge, too.

    Ideally, we aim for 7 bedtime, 7 awake time, and one nap at about 12:30. The nap has been at 11/11:30 lately because of the early mornings.

    Any suggestions would be so super appreciated!

    Thank you!!

  2. My 9 month old baby used to self settle (before we went on a big trip- 6 weeks) and now I can’t get him to sleep without a breastfeed. Any tips to teach him to self settle again on his own?

    • @Sophie I am so sorry to hear that your son is having a tough time falling back to sleep on his own! Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a little one to re-develop a sleep association during travel. 🙁 In order for him to be able to sleep better, you will want to start at bedtime and teach him to fall asleep without nursing. You can begin to try and give a little less and less support to get him to sleep or back to sleep, and gradually just your presence in the room, vocalizing a few key “sleep words” of your choice to cue him to go back to sleep. Keep in mind that in order to teach him that he can go to sleep and back to sleep on his own, you will need to be consistent and stick to the plan that you make. The goal is to have him fall asleep at bedtime on his own, and be able to fall back to sleep on his own when he wakes, but this is a process that may take some time. Here is a link to an article about sleep associations that may help you understand his dependence on you:

      If you have used any sleep coaching in the past, it can help to use the method again to help your son become comfortable will falling asleep and back to sleep on his own.

      If you are new to sleep coaching, there are methods that range from no-cry to cry-it-out. You can read about the basics of sleep training and different methods here:

      You may also want to check out this article on gentle sleep training tips:

      If any of these issues persist, or you find you would like personalized support, we can definitely help! We have Personalized Sleep Consultation packages, where one of our trained sleep consultants will craft a highly customized plan for you and your child, based on both your unique family history and on our own experience working with thousands of parents from around the world. Then, your consultant will help you implement the plan at home, and will answer any follow-up questions you may have. The consultant will also make changes to the plan as necessary. You can read about all of our sleep consultation packages and purchase directly online here:

      I hope this helps your family get the sleep it needs, and good luck!

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