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 experienced sleep consultant, is joining us today, sharing her wisdom, and helping us to debunk 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 The Baby Sleep Site® – 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 The Baby Sleep Site® calls 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, your job is to gradually wean your baby away from the limiting sleep association, and to help your baby learn to fall asleep independently. And how does a baby learn to do that? You guessed it…by self-soothing to sleep!

Now, I should point out that one does 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 theat 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 to 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; 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 troubling self-soothing myths have set your mind at ease, and have 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. The Baby Sleep Site® is 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.

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18 thoughts on “The Top 2 Self-Soothing Myths BUSTED (We Hate #2!)”

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve been worried recently about the stress hormone and have chosen to do a gentle, non-CIO (or as much as possible) sleep-training method. This makes me feel so much better (although I would still choose the non-CIO for my own peace of mind).

    • @Sabrina Thank you for pointing that out! We have updated the link. It looks like the website changed. Thank you for commenting and visiting our sleepy little village!

  2. @ Kathleen – Very good and cogent questions! I have no expert answers, as I’m not a trained sleep consultant nor am I a sleep science researcher, but here are a few points to consider:

    1. the reliance on cortisol levels as a quantitative measure of “toxic stress” is flawed, as the FitMom article points out. Cortisol ebbs and flows naturally throughout the day and is a product of both negative stress (distress) and positive stress (eustress). So it may actually be more helpful to consider elevated cortisol levels as less-than-ideal indicators of distress.

    2. Implicit in your question is the assumption that (a) all stress is the same and (b) babies always cry as a result of stress. However, I’d suggest that all stress isn’t equal; I imagine that for a child, the stress of being handled by an unfamiliar caregiver vs. the stress of having a fever and being ill feels quite different.
    So it may be helpful to parse out different kinds of stress and treat those types differently.

    Second, you mention in your comment, ” why, if they had so many actual good reasons to be stressed and upset, were they not crying to try to tell their mothers about it?” In response, I would assert that the “natural” response to stress does not have to be crying. Indeed, that is the a premise upon which the whole theory of sleep coaching rests.. Simply put, when you sleep coach, you are gently teaching your baby that he or she can soothe himself/herself through minor stresses (like waking briefly at night or feeling sleepy). Gradually, your child learns how to cope with those small stresses himself/herself, through self-soothing activities like sucking a thumb or stroking a lovey. By contrast, we would not expect (nor does sleep coaching teach) a child to self-soothe through larger stressors (like being ill, experiencing physical pain or discomfort, being frightened, etc.) This is anecdotal, but 4.5 years of working here has taught me that even the most perfectly sleep coached babies still wake during illness, or due to abrupt life changes (like birth of a new sibling or moving to a new home); indeed, many wake often during developmental leaps like sleep regressions.

    So, to summarize, I’d say that sleep coaching teaches a narrow set of self-soothing skills designed to help a child cope with minor, sleep-related stressors like wanting to fall asleep, feeling sleepy, and waking in the middle of the night. These things may feel minorly upsetting to a child, but they are mild stressors that we can reasonably expect a child to soothe himself/herself through over time. But, for better or for worse, sleep coaching will not create a situation in which your child no longer EVER cries for you, even in situations when he/she probably should. In my experience, that just doesn’t happen. That’s no doubt because the self-soothing skills that can work to alleviate minor stress won’t work for larger stress situations: in other words, no amount of thumb-sucking will make a fever go away, and no amount of lovey-stroking will make the scary barking dog noise stop. In my experience, babies and toddlers know this difference and don’t hesitate to call for mom or dad during times when mom or dad are needed.

    Sorry this comment is so long, Kathleen – hope it helps! 🙂

  3. Every criticism of the Middlemiss study that I’ve ever read, including the one linked above, points out how many other things, besides sleep training, could be responsible for the babies’ elevated cortisol levels: “Elevated cortisol levels may have been caused by a variety of factors, including mom and baby being in an unfamiliar environment (the sleep lab), handling of the baby by strangers (nurses), the mother’s anxiety, or even chronic sleep deprivation. . .” What I want to know, and what was really the thing that kept me from sleep training my son, was why, if they had so many actual good reasons to be stressed and upset, were they not crying to try to tell their mothers about it? What I was worried about with using CIO or controlled cry methods was not that some stress during the sleep training process was going to permanently hurt my baby, but that he was going to learn 1) how to fall asleep himself and 2) that there’s no use in communicating his problems to us at night because we won’t respond (or if we do, we won’t do anything but pat his back and leave without addressing said problems). The Middlemiss study, flawed as it was, seems to support #2 as a possible outcome.

  4. My 7 month old has always been a non-napper but when she was 5 months we started developing a pattern ( thank goodness!!) Up until 2 weeks ago that is… its back to 10-15 minute naps and a very grumpy whiny baby all day long 🙁 I really really hope after I read the downloaded material I have from you we can get back on track. I’m completely going insane now I think! I should be used to this since its happened since she was born but I’m so not. Thank you for helping me understand my little love so we can both be happy and well rested!!!!

  5. This was a great read, especially regarding #2 as that was part of the reason we waited so long to start any kind of sleep coaching and even worried me up to the present day. Thank you!

    • @ Marybeth – so glad you found it helpful! We fully support the notion that there are MANY ways to help a baby learn to sleep, and that it’s kept to sleep coach in a way that fits with your parenting style (or to skip sleep coaching altogether, if it’s not for you) – but we take major umbrage with the notion that sleep coaching is harmful in any way. It’s just not true, and it only serves to scare already exhausted, overwhelmed parents.

      Best of luck to you and to your family, Marybeth!

    • @ Hyeon – Thanks for weighing in with your opinion! We definitely agree that there are flaws to be found in many studies, and we don’t believe that cry-it-out approaches to sleep training are appropriate in every instance. In fact, we rarely recommend methods that utilize extended crying. The point of this article is not to prove that cry it out is 100% safe for all babies, but rather to show our readers that the fear-mongering of those who are totally against sleep coaching is irresponsible and irrational.

      Hope this helps! Thanks again for commenting.

  6. I have 3 kids and every time at the 6 month appointment they asked if my baby was able to “self-soothe.” I hate this question! Of course not, it’s a 6 month old baby that could not survive without me! Yes, I nurse my baby to sleep, or rock her, or whatever she needs, because she is just SIX MONTHS old!! I did the same with all of my children. Now at 7 years old my first baby is a GREAT sleeper! He goes to sleep on his own, he sleeps through the night, and he has healthy sleep! My 4 year old also has great sleep (though getting rid of that pacifier was a bit harder!), even if I wish he slept a bit longer! So I know my baby will learn. I hate that the doctors feel that how one puts their baby to sleep is any of their business. It is a parenting choice. We all make our own choices and reap the consequences.

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