Rather than “sink or swim,” self-soothing should be like learning to ride a bike
“Hi…um, I’m worried because my 6-week-old just does not know how to self-soothe. He needs me to hold him and if I let him cry, he just can’t calm down on his own. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t he self-soothe?”
To read most sleep advice, it would appear as if teaching a baby to self-soothe is the most important task you will have as a parent—and the failure to facilitate these skills early, may mean your child could struggle for years to come. Parents are also told that, if they help their baby calm down or fall asleep by rocking or holding or feeding in the early months, they are putting a full-stop on the child’s ability to ever do it themselves.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on new parents—and it’s not even remotely true.
The worry and anxiety that parents are feeling around sleep and self-soothing even in the very first weeks and months of life is considerable. They feel pressured by experts to get their young infant sleeping independently, and if they don’t, there are dire warnings about what will happen in the long-term. There also can be vague accusations leveled at parents who do not start the self-soothing training practically from birth: weak, over-responsive, uninformed, selfish.
None of this is true. This self-soothing standard is also not achievable for most babies. Parents whose tiny little one does not seem capable of “drowsy but awake” or calming down independently wonder what they are doing wrong. This level of pressure is truly unnecessary and does a number on new parents’ self-confidence.
When I tell groups of parents that self-soothing skills take time to develop; that there is time to figure it all out; that they can experiment and learn; that they’re not going to ruin their baby if they help them stay calm and regulated with holding, feeding, rocking, etc., I can almost see the anxiety and pressure lifting off of their shoulders.
What actually is “self-soothing”?
As an adult, what do you do when you are really upset? You may listen to music, go for a walk, eat something, call a friend, primal scream in your car. You can think about the problem and come up with several options for making yourself feel calmer. All of these require advanced cognitive, motor, and attention skills. Infants under 6-months or so don’t have a lot going for them in terms of available options. They can’t turn away. They can’t accurately get their hand to their mouth. What can they actually do to self-soothe? Virtually nothing. They may take a pacifier, but once they are really crying, it’s no help anymore.
Self-soothing abilities are tied directly to brain and body development. The smaller the baby, the less distress they can handle. So, rather than “they’d better learn it early or else they won’t ever learn it,” it really is, “the older they get, the more they can manage.” The more skills they have, the more strategies they can use to calm themselves down.
So, rather than “they’d better learn it early or else they won’t ever learn it,” it really is, “the older they get, the more they can manage.”
In the early months, babies need parents to be their external regulator. The actions you take to help your baby feel calm and regulated, instead of being a problem, are exactly what you are supposed to do. Parents work to help their baby shows the child what it feels like to be regulated—to go smoothly from awake to asleep or from distressed to calm. One researcher said that when parents do the work of soothing, they are giving their baby a “guided tour” of regulation.
Self-soothing is learned over time and in relationship, not in isolation.
Once babies get a felt sense of being regulated and they develop the capacity to take some action to make themselves feel better, they have the ability to manage developmentally-appropriate amounts of distress. This last piece is critical. Expert advice tends to equate self-soothing and sleep, so that a baby who falls asleep after a ton of crying has “self-soothed.” This isn’t necessarily accurate. “Self-soothing” means that distress was at a tolerable level and the baby was able to do something to help themselves feel calm so they could go to sleep. When a baby is beyond what their brain and nervous system can handle, self-soothing can’t really happen. Developmental scientist, Claire Kopp, says that a baby can capably get their hand to their mouth only when distress levels are low. Once they get more intense, those skills are not available to the child anymore and they need a caregiver’s help to calm down.
Self-soothing and riding a bike
Rather than a “sink or swim” approach to self-soothing, it should be more like how we teach a child to ride a bike (or literally every other thing we help them learn how to do). We don’t just show a child a bike, go sit on a bench, and say, “If I help you with that, you’ll never learn.” No.
We hold on for dear life and as the child begins to get the hang of it, we start briefly letting go (but keeping our hand right there just in case.) Over time, we let go more and more until they are riding away like the wind. We might not even think about it, but while we’re teaching them about balance and steering, we’re adjusting how much we hold on based on what we think they can handle. Teaching self-soothing should be exactly like this.
Windows of tolerance
Babies (and children) can only handle so much distress before they need help. I call this their window of tolerance. There’s a certain level of frustration or distress that may not be comfy for a baby/child but is totally do-able. But there’s an upper edge to this window and once they hit that upper edge, they need help (from you) to calm back down.
The size of the window is dictated by age/development. The younger the child, the smaller the window. It’s also impacted by temperament. Children who are more intense and sensitive may have an even smaller window for their age and may reach their “I need help” zone much faster.
I will go out on a limb to say: There is no learning that’s happening when a child is hysterical and does not get help to calm back down. Learning happens when frustration is tolerable.
It’s also important to note that, while we don’t want to over-challenge a child, we also don’t want to under-challenge them. If we never ask them to stretch at all, we’re not giving them any opportunities to practice.
It’s not going to be harder if you wait…
The notion that “you’d better start early” or there will be “bad habits” that take root that will be impossible to change is largely invented. There is no research that exists that says that there’s any need to start this kind of work early or that it’s any harder if you wait until the infant is a little older. In fact, given the developmental path of self-soothing ability, it’s easy to guess that it might be much easier if you wait.
Parents actually know all of this…
When I talk to groups of parents, they seem to know that all of the help with soothing works; but right underneath that is guilt or worry that they’re not doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing. How many times have I heard a brand-new parent say, “I know I shouldn’t…” or “I know I’m starting a bad habit, but…” Rather than helping parents, the self-soothing advice is doing a number on their self-confidence and upping their anxiety at a time when they’re barely getting started on their parenting journey.
Self-soothing takes time to develop. Until then…
There is time to learn (about yourself as a parent, about your baby).
There is time to experiment.
Helping your baby calm down when they need help is not a “bad habit.” You are helping them learn what it feels like to de-stress, and that it’s okay to ask for help when it gets to be too much.
Kopp, C. B. (1989). Regulation of distress and negative emotions: A developmental view. Developmental Psychology, 25(3), 343–354. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.113
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Macall Gordon, M.A. has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer. She researches and writes about temperament, sleep, and the gap between research and advice. She is also a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.