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 self-soothing, supporting it, but does not force, demand, expect or abandon their 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. International leader and advocate for infants and toddlers.

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



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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118 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.


        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?


    • 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!

  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

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