Is Self Soothing the Biggest Con of New Parenthood?

Night

They say if you tell a big enough lie and repeat it frequently enough, it will be believed. It will become a cultural truth, even if it has no factual origins.

They also say that fear can convince a person, or a society, to do just about anything; no matter how unpleasant the act may seem at first. If enough people are doing it, others will follow.  If enough people believe it, it won’t be questioned.

Terms like “it’s for his own good” are often borne out of our primal need to rationalize and justify choices that abrade our instincts. To help us justify decisions that deep down, we know just don’t feel right.

Of course, with anything in life there are extremes; encouraging our children to brush their teeth or eat their greens is unquestionably looking out for “their own good”. But, other practices like discounting their basic emotional needs; not so much.

I have no doubt that this post will find me in hot water; people have a habit of shooting messengers especially when an inconvenient truth is being delivered.

And that’s ok, because I’m not writing to be popular. Rather, I’m using the written word to advocate for the needs of those who can’t speak for themselves. To shine a light on the truth. And, as uncomfortable as it may be, to throw unquestioned mistruths into the arena and start a conversation.

Because the further I venture into my parenting journey, the more I feel many detached mainstream parenting practices can be traced back to the mistruths we’re told when our children are young.

And if we can be convinced to disengage with our babies, where does it end? Unknowingly, we allow cultural beliefs to set the stage for a lifetime of disconnection.

From cry it out to time out, it begs the question; how are we convinced to crush our compassion in the first place? What rewards could possibly justify being non-responsive to our children’s needs?

When it comes to infant sleep the prize we’re promised is self soothing. The theory is that by ignoring a baby’s needs we’re actually teaching them a valuable lesson; how to soothe themselves so that, as parents, we won’t need to continue doing it for them.

Strengthening this theory is the ultimate motivator: fear. Parents are scared into believing that if they refuse to teach their baby how to self soothe, they’re failing to teach a very necessary life skill.

Thankfully, self soothing is an illusion. And when we shatter an illusion, it has no power over us; our love can’t be leveraged and our sleep-deprived desperation can’t be taken advantage of. We’re immune to being duped into believing that we need to carry out harsh parenting practices in an attempt to achieve something that doesn’t even exist.

It’s critical to expose and debunk these myths before they embed themselves in our subconscious; creating unrealistic expectations, fueling unnecessary frustration and driving a wedge between us and those we love most.

Because, no matter what some may say, parenting matters.

Our choices can have powerful consequences, serving to either strengthen or weaken our mutual connection. To build or erode trust and to grow or diminish our confidence as new parents.

In a modern world that places such a high value on the species-inappropriate expectation of solitary sleep we need to feel emboldened to ask tough questions, to scratch beneath the surface and seek the truth. So, why is self soothing the biggest con of new parenthood?

Claim your FREE Guide: The Lies Surrounding Infant Sleep That You Can Safely Ignore as a New (or not so new) Parent

Because self soothing is a physical impossibility for babies and young children. The skill of self soothing is referring to the ability to regulate one’s own emotions; a developmental milestone that can’t be rushed. The last part of the brain to mature is the neocortex; it is the rational or analytical part of our brain that enables us to assess a situation and mediate our response.

In infants and young children, the neocortex is extremely undeveloped, quite literally making it a physical impossibility to rationalize and deal with strong emotions and unmet needs. This is why young children rely on us, their parents, to externally regulate their emotions for them until they are capable of doing it for themselves.

Because it fuels the practice of non-responsive sleep training. For me, self-soothing and non-responsive sleep training are like the chicken and egg theory. Which came first? I don’t know. But, what I do know is that two lies are stronger than one. What these myths rely on are massive assumptions, the desperation of sleep-deprived parents and the failure to fully examine what is really happening.

What parents observe is that their baby eventually stops crying after practicing one of a variety of techniques that involves leaving their baby to cry without comfort. But just because parents don’t hear their baby crying doesn’t mean they’re sleeping through the night and it doesn’t mean they’ve miraculously learned to self soothe. It means they’re silent through the night. Babies continue to lightly or fully wake as often as biology dictates, but they’ve learnt if they cry nothing happens so they stay silent.

Because it teaches babies to freeze. When babies are silent, it doesn’t necessarily means they’re calm and peaceful. Because, when babies are left alone, with physical or emotional needs they can’t meet, it is a stressful experience for them. Their blood cortisol levels rise and their fight, flight or freeze response kicks in. The only choice babies have is to freeze or develop a behaviour called ‘learned helplessness” or as Dr. Sears describes it ‘shutdown syndrome’.

Because it has a material effect on brain development. During the first three years of life, a baby’s brain grows from a mere 25% to 80% of their ultimate adult size. This period of rapid brain development is critical to long term mental and emotional health. Early childhood experiences literally fire and wire the brain our children will have for the rest of their lives.

Two regions of the brain, the amygdala and hippocampus, are especially susceptible. The hippocampus is key to memory and stress modulation as well as behavioural regulation, while the amygdala helps process emotions.

A longitudinal study in 2012, involving neuroimaging of healthy and depressed preschool children, showed that the more nurturing mothers were towards their children, the greater their hippocampal volume became. The positive effect of maternal support was greater in healthy children and a similar response has been shown for the amygdala. These findings provide prospective evidence of the beneficial effect of early supportive parenting experiences on healthy brain development.

Because it trains children to believe that their needs don’t matter. When we ignore a baby’s communication, they learn that their needs don’t matter. Babies who learn this lesson early in life are predisposed to experiencing insecure attachment, which can lead to a myriad of negative mental and emotional outcomes.

If we teach our children that, as parents, we’re unreliable in responding to their communication when they’re young, how likely are they to feel comfortable confiding in us when they’re being bullied at school? Or will they freely choose to come to us when they’re teenagers and feeling peer pressure to make choices that don’t feel right for them?

Because babies believe they, themselves, are the source of their experience. Young children believe they, themselves, are the source of their own experience. How we treat our babies lays the foundation for the beliefs our kids will come to hold true about themselves for the rest of their lives. Babies can’t understand that we’re intentionally choosing not to respond to cries because an author recommended to leave them to cry for X number of minutes, so that they can learn to self soothe. From a baby’s perspective all they know is that they’re communicating a need and nobody is coming.

If we repeatedly ignore our babies they’ll believe they’re not worthy of attention, comfort and affection. But if we shower them with unconditional love, they’ll believe they’re loveable, valued and worthy of healthy relationships.

Because it sabotages the REAL path to teaching children how to self-soothe. Our children learn how to effectively regulate their own emotions through observation; by observing us modelling healthy emotional regulation. Nurturing close, connected and respectful relationships with our children when they’re young offers the greatest assurance that they will not only be able to self soothe when they’re neurologically able, but that they will develop empathy and healthy pro-social behaviour.

‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.’ Marie Curie

While it may be possible to train babies and young children not to cry out when they need help, it is important to acknowledge it is not the same as self soothing. A child who is left to navigate emotions or situations they’re incapable of coping with is not happy, calm and stress-free.

The path to a happy, calm and stress-free baby is to be responsive to their needs. To pick them up. To hug them silly. To hold them, even if we can’t stop their cries. To reassure them through our actions that our love is unconditional and we will have their backs no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be at times.

Now is the time to trust our babies. To have faith that when they are developmentally ready, they will spread their wings and fly. And one day, in the not too distant future, they won’t need us any more. And we will look back and feel gratitude for the moments, that despite our sleep deprivation, we held our babies, drank in their sweet innocence and sang to them in the black silent stillness while nobody was watching.

Claim your FREE Guide: The Lies Surrounding Infant Sleep That You Can Safely Ignore as a New (or not so new) Parent

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COMMENTS
  • June 05, 2017

    This is so so great!! I’ve dealt with my fair share of push-back for choosing to comfort my children instead of letting them cry, sleeping or not, and it’s high time someone spoke out about it. Love this!!

  • June 05, 2017

    Thank you so much for writing this! I am in the business of Mothers and babies and I deal with this issue constantly yet I do not waiver from my belief that it’s about self-regulation through attentive parenting Self-soothing is destructive as the babies simply shut down. Everything you said is right on- we need to keep speaking for the babies who are just innocent victims of a controlling/perfectionous culture. Which has resulted in a society of detached human beings – attached to things and not people.

    • June 06, 2017
      Rebecca

      “Which has resulted in a society of detached human beings – attached to things and not people.”

      Well said. We’re too busy keeping up with the Joneses and have lost sight of our core values.

  • June 05, 2017
    Leah Marie

    Great article! My baby has significantly regressed in night sleeping and with the lack of sleep I caught a nasty cold. Which, as any breastfeeding mom can attest to is not fun! I’ve been wrestling with what to do, maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I have created this by nursing my baby to sleep. But then I realized that nursing your baby to sleep is nature’s way; in fact there is something in breastmilk that makes baby sleepy!! Why would I fight against nature and let her cry it out?! Reading your article solidified my position on this. Does it suck being up 5 times in the night, yes, but it won’t be like this forever and clearly whatever is going on she needs comfort rather to cry it out and be left to emotionally shut down.

    • June 06, 2017
      Rebecca

      I feel your pain! We dealt with a rough 4 and 8 month sleep regression. I tried so many methods to encourage “self-soothing” (but fortunately never used full CIO) and nothing worked. Glad I gave it up and realized that my boy needs me, and that’s okay. I hate that in my sleep deprived state I ever thought otherwise. It was against nature.

  • June 05, 2017
    Charlie

    If self soothing causes children to withdraw into their own world. A child that doesn’t cry to meet its needs is a child that no longer trusts the world. I have met mothers who take in foster care kids. The neglected babies never cry. It’s a break through when they do.

  • June 05, 2017
    Jo

    Thank you for this article!! Being a new mom is one that is rewarding and, at the same time, stressful and confusing. I’ve been told by so many people that I need to “let my baby cry it out, it’s good for her, self soothing is important otherwise you won’t be able to do anything else because she will want to be held all the time”. I’m not going to lie, I’ve tried it and it broke my heart to hear my baby crying and my baby CRIES! To the point that it doesn’t​ take very long for her to get really upset. After trying the self soothing method, I thought it to be mean and ridiculous! What you’ve stated in your article is true, how can they learn if we don’t show them? I would rather have my baby grow to trust and know that I’ll always be here for her. After trying I’ve decided to stay away from the self soothing method because it also made me feel so guilty. I’ve waited for long time for my daughter, even told I wouldn’t be able to have children and here she is…my miracle. Why should I follow what others are saying and allow my baby to be upset for something that I can help her with? Its true when people say they grow so fast and I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities that allow me to hold, nurture and love my baby. So thank you for your article, it makes me feel confident in my abilities as a new mom.

  • June 05, 2017

    Thank you for this very important message. Thanks for being brave and standing up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. I started to buy into the sleep training “idea” early on and then later abandoned it. Four kids later, I’m so glad I did. Now? I just regretted the days and weeks that we got conned into this entire false belief of sleep training in the beginning. Thanks for taking time to write this.

  • June 06, 2017
    Angela

    Love that this is being spoken. I dealt with infertility and finally got one baby boy after three miscarriages. I, too, started to believe the self-soothing baloney, but my husband said that was ridiculous and he didn’t want our son to make himself sick crying. I then realized how bad it made me feel to let him cry, the few times I did try to let him cry it out. We both did our best to respond to him with lots of attention and love, and I held him as often as possible when I didn’t have to be doing something else, and carried him in a carrier when I needed my hands free. He was NOT a good sleeper either, due to some health problems, so we were up a LOT! But he’s almost 4 now and is a happy, compassionate, secure and generous child, and does sleep all night finally! He notices when others are hurt or need help and offers hugs, pats or toys to help others feel better. It’s so precious to see how caring he is and I’m sure that comes from his own feeling of safety and security. He knows that his needs are important and will be attended, so he can offer solace to others. What a relief as a parent to know that my gut instincts were right on, so I keep following them!

  • June 06, 2017
    Rebecca

    Thank you so much for this. As a new mom, I kept receiving so much (unwanted) advice about my baby who wasn’t sleeping well. I read so much from the so-called sleep training experts and even tried letting him fuss a few times. All of these “methods” and schedules and formulas to follow. I regret ever doing it and wish I could take those nights back. I feel like a whole society of moms are getting duped by this sleep-training culture and doing our babies a disservice. Breaks my heart to think of the effects it has on them long-term. I’ve been there, and I know how tired and desperate you feel after the 6th time getting up at night with a baby who won’t settle. Those times are so rough. But they won’t last forever, and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with your baby. It means your baby is doing exactly what he’s supposed to, which is expressing his needs.

    This article reinforced everything that already feels so instinctual, and I love that it’s backed by science and research and so full of common sense. Thanks again.

  • June 06, 2017

    YES!

  • June 06, 2017
    Frankie

    I LOVE the idea of this principle but in the practice of it I struggle. My boy has never been one to appreciate physical affection, in fact he pushes away from it. In distress he has always pushed away from us rather than seek our comfort. This has always been a struggle for me, I want so badly to comfort him, but he seems to want to manage things on his own. At 4mths old we realized he feel asleep faster and calmer in his bassinet alone than sleeping next to us in bed and then later calmer if we left the room than if we settled down with him. I was so not what I was expecting from all the attachment parenting style resources I had read. So when I read “The path to a happy, calm and stress-free baby is to be responsive to their needs. To pick them up. To hug them silly. To hold them, even if we can’t stop their cries” I wonder how that could apply to my boy, now almost a toddler, who screams louder and pushes away if I try to hug and comfort him when he’s mad or distressed. He’s affections are more attention based. He likes words more than hugs and eye contact more than sitting on my lap so I guess that’s what I focus on for now? Oh and he loves it when I sing to him, maybe that would help.

    • June 08, 2017
      Charlie

      This is so good to hear! My son was exactly the same from the moment he was born and has always been big and strong enough to struggle and kick away from my comforting cuddles, no matter how hard I’ve tried to hold him and soothe him even if he doesn’t stop crying. I read articles like this and worry that I’ve scarred him for life by doing things the way we have done, but then we think back to how he is and always has been and realise that we couldn’t have done it any other way. He still has a very sensitive side and sometimes gives hugs and kisses, but he just doesn’t like to cuddle. And now he has a little sister, who is the cuddliest thing in the world 🙂

    • June 15, 2017
      Jennifer

      My oldest son also always seemed to push me away when I was trying to give him comfort. Then one time, when he was about 6 and definitely old enough to get it, he had been hurt and was crying uncontrollably and fighting me as I tried to comfort him. I stopped and asked him if he wanted me to soothe him and hug him and help him feel better. He said yes. I explained that if he wanted that, he couldn’t push against me and had to sit still and let me hold him. And he did. I do not understand why he was unable to come to that conclusion on his own, but once I taught him how to let me comfort him, it was no longer a problem. I even wondered if he might be autistic or something – but he’s not. He’s 13, healthy, happy, well-adjusted, mature, doing great! He just sometimes has to be told things that you would think come naturally, and for some reason don’t.

  • June 06, 2017
    Regina

    Totally agree. I struggled with this as I parented #1 more mainstream and #2 like this. Good comment.

  • June 06, 2017
    Abby

    Yeah no I can’t say I agree with this. I feel bad for all the first time mom’s who are sleep deprived dealing with PPD who read this.

    • June 07, 2017

      Well… the reason so many mothers suffer from PPD, is the total lack of help and support in our society.
      The fact that you’re tricked into letting the bond between you and your baby snap by CIO and time outs, etc.

      Moms who are sleep deprived dealing with PPD (like I was the first 10 months of #2) should get a lot of love, power, support and hugs. Someone who takes over during the day for a nap. A husband who jumps in at night with a bottle (pumped) milk. A grandmother who brings some food or a neighbor who does some laundry.

      It’s strange how many solutions are concentrated on fixing a (non-existing) problem with the baby instead of helping out a young mother.

      Letting your child CIO doesn’t fix PPD. Not. at. all.

  • June 07, 2017
    Rachel

    I did gentle sleep training with my now 2 year old and she is extremely well- regulated emotionally. She still has typical two year old behaviors of course but overall behaves well. She knows she is loved, has a safe home and can trust my husband and I. You can’t say across the board that “Sleep training ruins the brain”. Just not true. Now if I did that and then our home was extremely volatile and she doesn’t get the emotional care she needs then, yes, she will probably have issues down the road.

    • June 07, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Rachel,

      Great to hear! I’d love to know more about the gentle practices that worked for you – what did it look like for you?

      What I’m discussing in this article is non-responsive sleep training methods. So many parents feel pressured into ignoring their own instincts, ignoring the needs of their babies and leaving them to cry. I appreciate that there are gentle methods available but like most things in our society sleep training has been taken to an extreme – when paediatricians ask parents if they have the guts to sleep train their 8 week old babies and shut them in a room and ignore their cries, when mothers post threads suggesting to each other to wear ear plugs or vacuum the house so they can’t hear their baby, when “sleep trainers” sleep at people’s houses and physically STOP parents going to their babies as part of sleep training and when “sleep trainers” with very popular books suggest to ignore babies who are so stressed that they vomit and claim this is babies manipulating their parents we have a serious problem on our hands.

      It is sad that our society has come to view being responsive to babies as also being extreme but that is what I advocate for. This is not to say that we can always respond to a baby’s needs. Life is busy. parenthood is tough and sleep deprivation is a killer and sometimes we just can’t respond but that is very different to a systematic and intentional choice to ignore a baby. It is a fact that a baby’s brain is extremely undeveloped and if we continue, time and again, to teach them that their needs don’t matter it has an impact. It’s not what we do occasionally but continually repeating a behaviour has an effect either positive or negative.

  • June 08, 2017
    Their mom, Katylin

    Thank you!
    My boys make me a mom-sandwich nightly. They are 7 and 4, and to be frank, they MOM-Sooth. I am a better person for the quite time I lay near then, praying for them, planning for them, touching their face or feet.
    They will leave soon enough, this is what I will remember.

    • June 08, 2017
      Lyndsey

      lol I love that expression! Mom soothe!

  • June 08, 2017
    Lyndsey

    Thank you so much!!! I was literally just wondering what I should do. My family believe I’m spoiling my son by not letting him cry it out. He’s 7 months now and I just can’t bare to do it! It feels so wrong!

  • June 09, 2017
    Amanda

    I’m so happy I’m not alone on this. So much of what we’re taught feels like “because that’s the way it’s always been done”. I don’t know what works for anyone else, I know we are struggling to find the right sleep solution- but what I do know is leaving my son to “cry it out” just doesn’t work for me or him.

  • June 11, 2017
    Rhiannon

    Love this article… It’s emotional and rational and perfectly reasoned.

    I have shared it to a citizen science group on Facebook full of parents who are trying to answer parenting questions with science. It’s something we all feel strongly about I think you’d be someone we’d be interested in speaking to.

    Would that be something you’re interested in?

  • June 17, 2017
    Deepti

    I love this post, all the more because I come from a culture (India) where it’s natural for us to attend to a baby’s needs instinctively. It’s also a given that our babies will be sleeping in our rooms, until they’re old enough to sleep independently. Most families, due to space shortage, may practice (although not consciously) co-sleep until kids are well into early teens. I guess we don’t have the luxury or culture of over thinking our parenting philosophies and just go with the flow. I’m afraid western society places too much importance and pressure on being “perfect” and “right”. No wonders parents are a confused lot!

  • June 26, 2017
    Jessica

    So, I’m positive that you won’t listen to me. But I have to say something.

    I was an attachment child and as an adult I struggle with severe attachment issues and a pre-occupied attachment style that I absolutely attribute to my parents’ subscription to attachment parenting.

    I understand the appeal behind it, and I certainly understand the overwhelming feelings that you have as a mother for your child that discourage you from allowing the child to learn to self-soothe. However, I wish my parents had been able to find the strength to seek out another path and the presence of mind to consider the real lessons they were teaching me about how relationships work, and to not worry about being self-reliant because the people close to me were there to bear the burden.

    Because I was always attached to my parents, as an adult I tend to seek out relationships that are codependent and all-consuming. I become severely attached to people and when things don’t work out, I lack the coping skills to handle the devastation. The person I’m with literally becomes my world, similar to how it was with my parents through attachment parenting, and it’s unhealthy. Damaging. It has cost me years of therapy and honestly it is still a daily struggle to form healthy attachments.

    Like I said, I don’t expect you or anyone sipping the attachment parent juice to listen. But I implore you to consider a compromise and think about what you are actually teaching your child about attachment.

  • July 05, 2017
    Deanna

    In my house, it’s not really about the benefits of the child “self soothing” – more about the benefits to the parents being able to function properly with survivable amounts of sleep (after 6 months of sleep deprivation with my second born because I had to sleep with him every night, I started experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations and 3 years later my mind is still very weak when it comes to exhaustion). My 3.5 year old is now going through a new stage where he will not be alone in a room because he is too afraid. We have to stay with him while he falls asleep. When he wakes up a night now we have to sleep with him again. And I’m trying so hard for it not to send me back to the postpartum depression I went through 3 years ago. But after going through this once, the thought of going through it again is flooding me with despair. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, and not to be taken lightly when giving parenting advice. You need to think about what is best for the whole family.

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