The Myth of Self Soothing
I'm sure you have heard these words, "you need to teach your baby how to self soothe, you can't go to them every time they cry, they need to learn this skill early..."
Lets start with what we mean by self soothing. I define it as ‘the ability to calm one's self when faced with a stressful situation, or when in a state of high arousal”.
The capacity to calm ourselves down when we get upset is a pretty sophisticated autonomic nervous system response that requires us to be developmentally ready for. We are designed to regulate through others (co-regulation), this is something we learn from the adults around us. Babies are literally incapable of calming themselves, and to expect them to is unfair and developmentally inappropriate. Can they suck on their hand or thumb and hold off on crying while we do our best to get to them? YES! This is rudimentary self soothing, but once they have started crying and have reached a place of distress, can we expect them to calm themselves down? NO.
Well okay, but can we teach them to self soothe? NO. Why not? because their brains are not ready, they are incapable of this in the early years. They need their neocortex (which develops very slowly over a period of many years), to be able to rationalize, think about something logically and calm ourselves down. Babies and toddlers are operating largely from the subcortical centers of their brain, the brainstem and the limbic system. When in a stressful situation, these lower centers of the baby's/toddlers brain go into a primal survival response commonly known as fight/flight/freeze. For a baby, this looks like crying, screaming, getting mad, then getting hysterical. In nervous system terms, they are in a sympathetic response of high arousal, and once they have gone there, they cannot calm themselves down. It is critical that we step in and support them in this place. Why? because if we don't, they will eventually go into parasympathetic freeze state, otherwise known as withdrawal sleep. For many parents who hire sleep trainers, that involve CIO methods, this is what happens to the babies and by all intents and purposes, the parent may feel the sleep training is a success! "My baby stopped crying on her own! I've taught her how to self soothe". This could not be further from the truth. Your baby's nervous system has gone into a shut down mode, which is a dissociative state for their very survival.
Can this be harmful to them? YES. Why? because the stress hormones that are released from distressed crying, destroy nerve connections in critical portions of an infant’s developing brain and if repeated, can alter their brain structure and responses to stress into adulthood.
What have you taught your baby if you leave them to cry?
That when they really need you, you will not be there for them. Given that building trust (reliability) and establishing communication, which are intertwined, are the hallmarks of healthy infant mental development, it seems unwise to use a method that compromises both.
Self soothing is a behavior that develops once the child’s brain is ready for this. It can’t be rushed.
What can you do to help? Nurture your baby, respond to their needs, let them know you are there. The irony is that when you do this, you are supporting them to be able to eventually develop this skill later in life.
If this article interested you, and you'd like to learn more, come to my sleep seminar and learn how to cultivate healthy sleep habits without damaging your child.