“How do I get my baby to self-soothe like I have been told I need to do?”
I get asked this question all the time by stressed out parents, who are looking to do right for their baby’s sleep. They have been told over & over again that this skill must be taught by them or your will effect your baby's ability to sleep well.
This is absolutely unfounded & not how sleep works! Parents have been told by health professionals, family & friends, sleep trainers, social media, baby expert books…it’s everywhere but it’s just not true!!
If any of these well-meaning people bothered to look into the origins of this “concept”, infant sleep science and/or what does it actually mean, they would realise that it’s all been taken out of context & is simply a label given to the “non-crying “ infant & has absolutely nothing to do with sleep.
Here’s what the truth is….
To self-regulate or self soothe develops as we mature and its easiest explained as the ability to move from either a positive (excitement) or negative (distressed/dysregulated) state of arousal, to place of calm. Little ones in general are not great at self-regulating or even have the brain maturity to able to do so although there are some that can tap into this primitive ability earlier than others.
So in relation to sleep, when babies are dysregulated or have a negative/stressful state of arousal, they will find it difficult to take sleep this way. When we enter sleep stressed out, our sleep as adults is unlikely to be restorative and mostly likely be fragmented. It’s the same for our little ones. So we as parents need to co-regulate and model calm to our babies & their develop their nervous system, to support a state of calm before your baby enters sleep. Overtime they learn from us how to calm themselves and take independent sleep when they are developmentally ready to do so and not by forcing them into it.
The truth is you can’t turn a Signaller into a Self-Soother. The way your baby behaves is based on their Autonomic Nervous System, Personality &/or Temperament and we just cannot change that.
So where did this all originate…..
In the late 1970’s Gentle Parent Advocate & Infant Sleep Researcher Dr Thomas Anders observed the crying & non-crying behaviour’s of sleeping infants. He labelled the behaviours of infants into 2 categories 1. Signallers & 2. Self-Soothers (and this is where the message has been misinterpreted by many).
The Self-Soothers were observed to come out of a sleep cycle, not need to call out to their carer’s, suck their fingers, look around, get more comfortable and/or resettle to sleep more often. Although if there was a need to be met i.e. hunger, wet nappy, lonely these infants still called out to their carer life the Signallers did. These so called Self-Soothing behaviours, have to date, no research to suggest that these behaviours observed in these infants, are actually soothing behaviours.
The Signallers on the other hand, were observed to require the support of their carer more frequently after coming out of sleep cycles and needed co-regulating by there carer to establish more calm in their world. These babies in our modern society are called the "needy or high maintenance" babies.
Practical Suggestions: Based on the neuroscience of infants and emotional infant well being
Respond to your baby's needs - When needs are unmet, depending on the baby's autonomic nervous system response, personality and/or temperament, this unmet need can heighten the stress response, baby's overall dysregulation & results in difficulty taking stress free sleep.
Model calm & co-regulate - Instead of thinking "I need to get my baby to go to sleep" reframe your approach to "I need to get my baby to calm down to enter sleep". Know what gets your baby's stress response elevated & work towards supporting them to find calm before sleep.Build your baby's confidence developmentally
Build you baby's confidence developmentally - Building your baby's confidence in meeting their needs & being emotionally available to them, helps regulate their nervous system & its here that they learn about how to calm developmentally. Parents are an intrinsic part of their baby's ability to become emotionally stable and as a result are better able to self regulate when they are developmentally ready.
We cannot force independent regulation and we are doing our babies a disservice if we insist on this approach.