elevating child care

The Truth About Infant Self-Soothing

Infant self-soothing is often misrepresented by descriptive terms like tough love, crying it out, leaving babies to “deal with it” on their own, and even neglect. Apparently there are people who misunderstand the concept, or use it as an excuse to ignore a child. Perhaps it’s in reaction to those people, real or imagined, that others have wholly rejected the idea, shutting the door on the possibility that babies could ever benefit from being allowed to calm themselves.

As is often the case, the truth isn’t black or white. When a sensitive, responsive parent or caregiver is open to allowing a baby to initiate self-soothing, and supports that, but does not force, demand, expect, or abandon a baby to do it, the result is healthy and productive. Affording babies the bit of room they need to help them develop their individual coping strategies in our presence is a loving, mindful practice.

Supporting a baby to self-soothe can mean listening to her complaints for a minute or two while she finds her thumb, rather than immediately giving her a pacifier. It can be about remembering to offer two teethers and allowing the baby to choose one and grasp it herself rather than automatically placing something in her mouth. It might mean allowing our baby to cry in our arms to release her feelings at bedtime instead of rocking, patting, or jiggling her, etc., as explained in “Helping Young Children Sleep” from Hand-in-Hand parenting:

Children’s systems are built to offload feelings of upset immediately and vigorously. But our training as parents is to stop them from offloading their feelings! We are taught to give them pacifiers, food, rocking, patting, scolding, and later, time outs and spanking, if the crying or screaming goes on for more than a minute. We are taught to work against the child’s own healthy instinct to get rid of bad feelings immediately. So our children store these upsets, and try many times a day to work them out, usually by testing limits or having meltdowns over small issues. If they can’t offload them during the day, the feelings bother them in the night” – Patty Wipfler

Staying open to the possibility of self-soothing allows babies to actively take part in their care to the best of their ability. As Magda Gerber writes in Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect, “Infancy is a time of great dependence. However, babies should be allowed to do some things for themselves from the very beginning.” This empowers our children and ultimately makes our job easier.

In “Helping Children Learn To Take On Challenges” a story from her book Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky shares findings from studies of pre-term infants (born 10 to 12 weeks before their due date) in neonatal intensive care. When the nurses and doctors took charge of the babies’ care without taking the time to read their cues or allow them to actively participate, the researcher, Heidelise Als of Harvard University, noted, “It seemed we were wasting a lot of the baby’s energies that were very precious.”

As Galinsky explains, When a baby who was initially feisty gave in, the medical charts would record that the baby had become well adjusted. But Als saw a different reality: “The baby had given up. The baby just let the world happen.”

After documenting and recording behavior, they launched into a study where the nurses “read” and then responded to the baby’s behavior in ways that built on that baby’s coping strategies, and thus gave the baby more control. The results of this experiment were impressive. There was reduced severity of chronic lung disease in these premature babies, improved brain functioning, improved growth and earlier release from the hospital. In addition, their care was significantly less costly,” notes Galinsky.

She then concludes: “Children, even those as young as premature infants, are less prone to the harmful effects of stress when they are supported in managing their own stress by being helped to use the strategies they have for coping and for calming down.”

So, how do we understand and enable a child’s natural ability to self-soothe?

1. Believe babies are competent and capable whole people. Experts who have dedicated their lives to studying infants, Magda Gerber, Dr. Kevin Nugent, and Alison Gopnik, to name a few, have concluded without reservation that even newborn babies are aware, competent, unique individuals.

A recent article in The Irish Times shares passages from Dr Nugent’s new guidebook for helping parents decode newborn communication: “A baby’s “remarkable ability” to get his hand or fist into his mouth -even when he is not hungry – is no random movement. He may do it when he is upset and then settle himself by sucking on it, enabling him to remain alert and examine his surroundings. By this simple act, “your baby is showing you how competent he is and how, even in these early days, the urge to explore his new world is paramount”.

Trust your baby’s competence. She wants to do things for herself, and she can do things for herself. –Gerber

2. Be an observer. Tune in. Learn about your baby. Familiarize yourself with your baby’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities. Try to read her cues and respond accordingly as best you can.

The role of a parent is to continuously assess whether the infant is capable of handling a situation.  For instance, when an infant looks at an object (or maybe reaches for it), many adults rush to hand the object to the infant – not realizing that, by doing so, they deprive the infant of acting spontaneously and learning from his own actions.  …You also know that sometimes your infant does need help, but try to provide just that little amount of help that allows the child to take over again. Let her be the initiator and problem solver. -Gerber

3. Wait. Therein lies the challenge. As singer songwriter Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part”, and that couldn’t be truer than it is while waiting a moment or two for a baby attempting to soothe herself.

Here’s a video of 4 month old Joey self-soothing, shared with me by her parents, whom I know to be sensitive, responsive and loving. Joey is a happy, securely attached toddler now. (There is a video of her at 15 months in A Creative Alternative To Baby TV Time.) I had planned to edit this video for time, but then realized that leaving it at 2 minutes made it feel more like real time – and just as uncomfortable to watch as it would be in real life. When our babies experience even the slightest frustration or discomfort, seconds can feel like hours (and no matter how old they are it doesn’t get easier!).

As I say so often, “Observe and wait.” Sometimes you may even find out that what you believed the infant wanted was only your assumption.  It is natural to make mistakes and easy to misunderstand pre-verbal children. Nevertheless, it is important to keep trying –Magda Gerber.

Being sensitive to the possibility of self-soothing is the beginning of believing in your baby.

Recognize that challenges and stress are a natural and important part of a baby’s growth. The ability to manage stress and muscle through challenges builds self-esteem and self-confidence. – Matthew Melmed, Executive Director, ZERO TO THREE.

Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

 

References:

Babies’ Mental Health Matters“, by Matthew Melmed

Helping Children Learn To Take On Challenges”, by Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making

Helping Young Children Sleep”, by Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting

Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect, by Magda Gerber

Know Your Baby“, by Sheila Wayman, The Irish Times

Your Baby Is Speaking To You“, by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

My new book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

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128 Responses to “The Truth About Infant Self-Soothing”

  1. avatar Joanne says:

    I am very thankful I came across your article. I was looking up for hand-biting, thinking all the worse things of what causes it, and just 15 minutes ago I was reading this, while my daughter Talisa was crying nonstop, in frustration that she couldn’t get her hands to her mouth and hold it there steadily so she could suck on it.

    Wow I learned something today. So the act of chewing her hands is a way of self-soothing… I didn’t know that, to think I am a nurse. She fell asleep before I finished reading your post. and I found out that while reading, I was cradling her, and her right arms couldn’t spring free so I Imagined she had a good 5 minutes of steady chewing and that I supposed calmed her and made her fall asleep. Amazing. A little bit of help, calmed her in just 5 minutes, and to think I didn’t even know I was helping her.

    I knew that she would chew her hands whenever sleepy, but then she also chews her hands whenever i hold her in front of the tv, or when she’s on her crib… actually she always chews her hands, so I thought that she may be teething, but I am doubtful about that because she’s only 3 months old. But all of a sudden I realized self-soothing can happen anytime of the day and she could be self-soothing because of sleepiness, thirst, hunger, sweatiness, soiled diapers, stomach ache, itchiness, or anything.

    Thank you! I will observe closely whenever she’s self soothing and I will be there for her to support and help her effectively self-soothe.

  2. avatar Barbara4321 says:

    There are so many methods to soothe a colicky baby. Like Katherine I too have tried using the Zipadee-Zip. It did help as well. I think it added about 2 more hours of sleep. The silence of a sleeping baby was a huge relief.

  3. avatar Sarah says:

    What about when a baby does not self soothe? My LO is now 21 months, and since she was born she never took to sucking her fingers or any toy/pacifier. She does have little fusses that she will calm down from, but when she is really crying something out, she does not calm herself down but instead amps herself up into more and more hysterical crying.

    I was a responsive parent in her infancy and now, and but I have also always tried to give her space to try to work things out on her own. When I read articles like this, in principle I agree, but with my LO it just doesn’t seem to apply.

    I remember reading another parenting consultant talk about how some babies are tension releasers and others are tension increasers, meaning some babies release tension through crying and others just increase their tension. I remember feeling relieved to find this distinction in someone’s writing because it seemed to apply to my baby. Is there room in RIE to adjust to the differences in child temperaments?

    • avatar janet says:

      Each baby (and parent!) is unique and RIE does not place them in categories. The information I share in this post is about us — the way we perceive our babies and their struggles, crying, communication, etc. Most of us will tend to over-intervene when we sense the slightest discomfort in our baby… and that approach is actually encouraged and promoted by many experts. Many of us feel very anxious when our baby is upset and when we aren’t mindful of that, we can foster “high needs” or emotional fragility. What these studies suggest are the benefits of being more patient and self-aware than most of us would naturally be. So, yes, every child is unique, but what’s even more important to recognize is that our influence is enormous.

      • avatar Kristin says:

        In other words, Sarah, it’s all your fault whether you realize it or not. /end sarcasm. I know exactly what you mean- both my girls are “spirited” children. Once they begin crying It only escalates. There’s plenty of research that shows various personality traits that are present at birth- and in a very general sense of course parents can influence the way the child handles these innate traits for better or worse. But you’re right in that this approach seems to imply that all babies are capable of being “easy”, if only the parents paid closer attention to how they “read” their baby and gave them “space”. It’s baloney. We started bed sharing precisely because setting my baby down drowsy, in her own space, only resulted in her waking up within 30 seconds, crying, and then getting more and more worked up. I gave that way a good two month trial. I didn’t “create” a ” habit” by bed sharing, I used my brain and instinct – and a good bit actual infant sleep research- and saw “this tiny human who has only known the warmth and comfort of being cuddled and swayed to sleep in my womb is, rightly, terrified of abandonment and insecure without my embrace. Her brain also lacks the ability to reason ‘I’m safe in my parents house, no lion will get me- I should stop being so silly and just go to sleep!’; in fact there was just even more new research out that suggests solitary sleep is, in itself, associated with less independence later on, and less secure attachment. By all means- “read” your child but don’t ignore all the research we have that shows what they’re actually, cognitively capable of by telling yourself “if I just BELIEVE my baby can self soothe, I know he will!”. Self soothing is a bunch of bunk. The fact that some babies are more chill doesn’t mean all babies are capable of being chill. Nor does it mean chill babies wouldn’t benefit in other ways from bed sharing (less risk of SIDS, less risk of insecurity). Humans have evolved by sharing sleep space the same as just about every other mammal- a few decades of new fangled parenting thinking doesn’t undo millennia of evolutionary/biological hardwiring. Breast milk contains and nursing releases sleep-inducing hormones for both mother and baby. This isn’t an accident. You’re not creating a “bad habit” by doing what’s normal. And trying to fight nature results in much more stress than it’s worth. No, breastfeeding and bed sharing aren’t for every family- but they are for most every baby. I’m not saying RIE has nothing valuable to offer, but in this post especially I see some very unfounded claims.

        http://evolutionaryparenting.com/new-research-solitary-sleep-insecure-attachment/

        Note that EP explores the weaknesses of this research; combined with the wealth of info from other areas of research, though, it seems the results are valid and perhaps even understated.

  4. avatar Christina says:

    Will the author please read the following article and respond with an explanation for the contradictory research within?

    http://sarahockwell-smith.com/2014/06/30/self-settling-what-really-happens-when-you-teach-a-baby-to-self-soothe-to-sleep/

    • avatar janet says:

      It seems you didn’t read my article, Christina. The writer of yours asks: “What if I told you that babies can’t self soothe?” My only reply to that would be that is she has obviously never spent a moment observing babies (as I and the experts I’ve linked to have). She’s made an assumption off-the-bat that babies are totally incapable (as so many do… one “expert” even refers to infants as “half-baked” in her ridiculously fanatical Psychology Today piece). Ockwell-Smith’s article is full of the same old fear-based, extreme assumptions and misunderstandings we’ve been hearing for years. No, allowing for self-soothing does not mean ignoring or abandoning babies, or forcing “sleep training” or anything else upon them. It is about attunement. Real attunement that requires sensitive observation and stems from a belief in infants as whole people. Fetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb are demonstrating their ability to self-soothe. It would be great if more experts could open their minds to the possibilities, instead of shutting babies down out of fear and their adult need to control.

      It’s true that if you perceive babies as “things” or lesser humans, you will then perceive “self-soothing” as yet another thing to do to them. My hope is to help parents see the uniquely capable, nuanced people that their newborns already are…

  5. avatar B says:

    Interesting article. I was lead here through google after trying to find something on how a baby tells you they want to self soothe. This was the closest. We held our child from day 1 for all naps and i stayed soothing our child rubbing their belly in the bassinet sometimes 5hours at night in the early weeks. We were judged hard by traditional family members that we were wearing our infant and should just chuck a dummy in their mouth close door and they will learn. I dont think we could ever do that. What we did do though was listen to our child. She never took the dummy lol, is exclusively BF amd at about 11 weeks old she was crying in my arms when i was trying to rock her to sleep. I thought ok ill put u down 4 a sec next to me on the bed….what happened next was amazing. She took to staring at a wall painting and almost meditated her way to sleep…thats when i realised u want me to be here but let you try first. We are now at 16 weeks and she is learning to join her sleeps cycles during the day. At nights she still wakes early hours when shes overtired and times she calls out she needs help so we just chuck her in bed for those rest few hours. In all shes deff independent and we r here to help her WHEN she calls to the need. But each baby is different as so are each parents. There is sooo many reviews, studies and papers on the net which will bias around the title. We decided to be open with advice but at the end of the day we trust our insticts. Yes it may be a gentle more hands on approach but i have the time as im at home with her ☺

  6. avatar Ashley says:

    Hi Janet, thanks for all your wonderful information on parenting, I’ve gotten a wealth of knowledge just by reading your article posts! My question is that I’m confused as to what to do with my baby who will not stop crying when I try to get her to sleep? How long do you think is too long to cry? Do you recommend talking to them or just saying a word or two and then silence? I realize all children are different but I feel like we’re just doing a “cry it out” with me next her instead of leaving the room. How is it different when the cry lasts 15+ minutes? I see the concept you’re getting at but am having trouble seeing the steps to take to get there. Thanks!

    • avatar Tova says:

      Hi Ashley! I did a bunch of research on similar things so I’ll share what I gave found with my babies- you don’t want to just leave them to cry as much as give them a chance to soothe. Some cries need parents and some need space, and the key is to give your little one a few minutes to try on their own. My kids have 2 modes: fading cry and rage. Rage means bum change or burp or food or snuggles are needed and until the need us met the cry just gets worse. The other cry in my kids stops and starts as they learn to soothe.

      At first I would just pee whenever they cried at night. (Especially since breastfeeding means thirsty means always have to pee. I’d go to the bathroom, and when I was done if it wasn’t tapering off, I’d go in. If it was a time when nursing wasn’t needed my husband went in. We would assess needs (diaper, food, burp, teething etc and communicate with the baby “you are having a hard time with sleep, we will cuddle so you can feel better”. Then we would sit in the recliner and just be, and when the baby was calm or sleeping they went back into the crib.

      My kids in general have slept through the night early.

      The more space to calm that you allow the better you can read the cues. I can tell in about 30 seconds if my 8 month old will be able to soothe back down.

      It’s hard to do from wake to sleep, so perhaps start with night wakings and for now give your child’s the help to fall asleep they need.

  7. avatar Joan says:

    This is all very interesting. BUT, how do we know that infants don’t “self-soothe” (suck on a thumb/hand, whatever) as a consolation prize? What if their mouth is now occupied, so they’re not crying anymore, but they are still frustrated? How do we know they wouldn’t rather be held, caressed, sung to, have their hair stroked, etc. but can’t get that so they resort to this out of desperation and that it really ISN’T soothing to them, it just makes them quieter. ?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hmm… I’m not sure I understand your point, Joan. Observing a baby, it’s plain to see whether or not he or she frustrated. But if we are doing things to the baby, it can be harder to really take in what’s going on with that baby. No one is saying not to hold, caress, sing and stroke hair. The point of this post is to understand that babies are far more capable than we tend to give them credit for, and true attunement with our child comes through calming ourselves, so that we can see more clearly what our baby wants to do for herself vs. what she needs us to do to help her. It’s like a dance, rather than one constantly doing and making choices for the other. This begins with understanding that there’s an actual person there, and a capable one at that.

  8. avatar Jill says:

    As a parent and therapist I think your article is sadly mistaken and just plain wrong sometimes. The side/stomach is only suggested when you are holding the baby. Research is showing the 5 S’s do work. Here is a much better article for parents of infants to read: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201407/parents-misled-cry-it-out-sleep-training-reports

    • avatar janet says:

      Can you be specific as to what you perceive as “wrong” with this perspective? Even staunch AP advocates have noted that Dr. Narvaez is a fanatic and fear monger: http://www.phdinparenting.com/blog/2011/8/14/thanks-for-throwing-fuel-on-the-breastfeedingformula-feeding.html.

      Narvaez does not perceive infants as people, and even refers to them as “half-baked”. She has never worked with or spent time observing infants. The 5 S’s do work to shut infants down, because they overstimulate. Have you actually seen Dr. Karp demonstrating his 5 S’s? And the disgusting way he treats infants? Here’s a post that contains one of this videos. You might also be interested in the reactions to his videos in the comments on this article: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/08/the-curse-of-respectful-parenting/

      • avatar Krista says:

        I agree. I’ve been having trouble with my 5 month old and getting him to sleep. I stumbled upon the video of that Dr shooshing the baby to calm down. Something about the way he shooshed in her ear so loudly struck me hard. I had to turn off the video. It seemed so harsh and I just didn’t agree with it at all.

  9. avatar Jessica Powers says:

    Well, this got me writing…

    We have just moved our 16mth into her own room for night sleeps and have been tossed back to multiple wakings and lots of feedings. TOTALLY NATURAL as those are things she loves and is familiar with and most likely to miss not being smack next to me. Not too different really from when my partner or I can’t fall asleep easily if the other one is staying up late.

    My solution was a himalayan salt lamp that I turn on at the beginning of the evening and turn off either after her ‘dreamfeed’ just before I go to bed, or after the first night waking. She’s never sucked her thumb but she likes to twirl her hair or mine while nursing, so those classic self soothing things aren’t really happening. People have been giving me some stick about nursing to sleep but I keep pointing out that she is capable and desirous of going to sleep on her own. She nurses, rolls away, flops about some (more now since it’s a new bed set up to adjust to), may or may not repeat this a good number of times but at some point just goes and falls asleep. She may ask for milk if upset during the day, but generally just wants a snuggle and is content with that physical connection.

    Last night and tonight she watched me sit next to her and off she went. I equate this with my allowing her to cry and be distressed during her day without rushing in. And to watching/listening and responding according to what she is telling me through our day. Yes: sometimes she wants cuddles from bumping her head and that quiets her down. Othertimes: a good yell, a little stomp, and a breath is all she wants to process it herself. If she says she is done with a playgroup, we go. (That one almost always ends with epic nap in the car or at home if she makes it that far: she knows what she needs!)

    Ever since she’s been moving about on her own I’ve given her the choice for me to physically help soothe or not if she is upset. And I’ve talked her through her breath and little or big, a deep breath centers all humans (yoga teacher background serving me well now!). Falling asleep is no different with my girl. I’m present, available, and doing my best to beam out trust in her abilities, but I’m willing to be what she needs too.

    No two babies are exactly alike, but I think if people stepped back from the idea that self-soothe = falls asleep by self then some of this bickering about it would fade out. I don’t even see you equating it like that here but people jump to that and it’s…problematic? Divisive? Unpleasant?

    Anyway, it’s not about believing these little people can do it and that making it magically so. It’s about watching them and seeing how much more they are capable of and then assisting that.

  10. avatar Joelle says:

    Hi Janet,
    I really enjoy many of your posts, particularly for toddlers and older kids. I agree that the first step should always be to observe and identify what is happening for the baby and why they are distressed. I am wondering how your approach fits with current knowledge about infant brain physiology, specifically the immaturity of the regions of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, and the important role of human touch in assisting this cognitive process in infants.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Joelle – Magda Gerber’s approach fits quite well with that research. Can you specify where you see conflict? Thanks for your kind words.

  11. avatar Barb says:

    I do believe in self soothing as it teaches babies and children they can control their emotions and be responsible in calming themselves down and as they get older you can teach them more about their feelings and how to cope with different emotions. It is important however to recognise why a baby is crying and make sure those needs are also met. My daughter is two months old and has just recently found her thumb which she uses to calm herself.

  12. avatar Ellen says:

    Hi Janet, Wondering what you would suggest saying to this baby while this struggle is occurring to support them? I notice in the video that no one is talking. If I was to want to encourage/ support my baby verbally what might you suggest? “You seem frustrated” “You turned yourself over”…? Any others?

    • avatar janet says:

      I would reflect on what the baby is doing, but careful not to interrupt if the baby is focused on an activity or task. In other words, I wouldn’t call the baby’s attention toward me just because I felt uncomfortable and wanted to say something. But if the baby expressed displeasure or struggle, I would probably say something like, “Wow, looks like you’re trying to move that thumb to your mouth. You’re working very hard on that. Seems you’re almost there…” That kind of thing.

  13. avatar Ashley says:

    I came across your article when searching self soothing verses pacifiers. We self soothed with my first daughter and it was great she could calm herself, but she is now 3 yrs old and still using the finger. I wouldn’t mind if it was just at night but the finger is in her mouth continually throughout the day. Our 3 month old just found her thumb and I’m not sure what to do. My 3 yr old teeth have moved and she uses it constantly through out the day. I worry (like my nephew who was 7) it is going to be hard to get over, and it isn’t like he tried he did, but had to get major teeth work and speech therapy afterwards. I’m not sure what to do…

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