How my Baby Learned to Self Soothe (While Sleeping on my Chest)
If you have a small child, then you have been told that you need to be careful not to spoil your baby. You have been told that you shouldn’t create “bad habits” by feeding to sleep, or rocking, carrying, bouncing or walking your crying baby. You have been told that if you let your baby sleep on you or in your bed with you or in your baby carrier that he will never “learn how to sleep” on his own or that she will not learn to “self soothe.” I know you have been told this, because every day parents report to me that this is what they are hearing. I was also told this when my babies were small, but fortunately I didn’t believe it. My babies are big now, and I can assure you that all of that advice is utter nonsense and not worth a second of your worry.
Not long ago I was driving my 14-year-old daughter to an interview at her school. My daughter is a quiet, thoughtful and very sensitive girl who can find socializing with strangers draining, and this kind of an interaction would be stressful for any young adolescent to go into. As we were pulling into the parking lot she piped up from the back seat, “Mama, do you know that feeling when your adrenaline shoots up and your heart kind of races and you feel really stressed?” I was thinking, well this could be a teachable moment to help her figure out how to manage her stress response. “Yes”, I said, “I do. How does that feel to you? Some people like adrenaline surges, while others find them really terrible feeling.” She said, “Well, I can actually calm myself down pretty easily. I can talk myself through the thing that is worrying me and plan how I will deal with it and then I don’t feel so stressed.”
And that is when it occurred to me—She’s done it! She’s learned to self soothe!!!!
This is self-regulation. This is what people who struggle with anxiety and panic attacks sometimes are not able to do—recognize your body’s stress response for what it is and use your cognitive abilities to calm yourself down (ideally without drugs, alcohol, nicotine or other chemical or addictive forms of stress relief). This is what we all want for our kids—to be able to identify and regulate their own emotions and their own responses to them and to feel okay and able to cope with whatever they have to face. This is the ultimate goal of all that worry about “self-soothing!”
Did I enable this kid to accomplish this extremely complicated psychological task by leaving her to cry-it-out in her bed, letting her soothe herself when she was upset, or carefully scheduling her breastfeeds, play and sleep times? Did I always put her to bed "drowsy, but awake" and never let her "manipulate or control" me by demanding my attention when I was otherwise occupied?
This child was the original velcro baby. She would not be put down for at least the first 6 months of life, and she wouldn’t sleep without me (or sometimes daddy) for another year after that. She slept on my chest for most of her first year. She basically slept with my boob in her mouth most of the night and at least one nap a day for longer than a year. She lived in a baby carrier and almost never sat in the baby carriage (we used the pram for lugging gear, the kid rode in the sling). She breastfed on demand for over 18 months day and night, and then was night weaned (but still co-slept as needed) and continued to breastfeed during the day until age 2.5 years. She was nursed and danced and rocked when she needed comfort. She was cuddled and rocked when she needed comfort after weaning. She was parented to sleep for YEARS (and still had bedtime cuddles well past age 10). I broke every single “rule” in the book, if you believe in that kind of thing, and yet here she was self-soothing like a pro at an age when many kids struggle with self-regulation. Let’s face it, many adults struggle with self-regulation! So, forgive me if I congratulate myself for a minute here and offer this unsolicited advice:
Top 10 Tips for Teaching your Baby to Self Soothe:
1. Respond to your baby's needs. All behavior is a communication, and in young humans, most communication expresses a need. Responding to your baby's needs builds attachment, trust and confidence. A human baby is helpless and needs to attach and bond with a primary caregiver (or 2) to survive to adulthood. The primary psychological goal of the first year of life is attachment: learning to trust that their caregiver will be there for them, learning that the world is a good, safe place, and learning what it feels like to be cared for and loved unconditionally. When a baby has this basic security and trust they can use their energy to feed, to grow and to develop their brain. This brain development benefits their cognitive abilities (you can’t reach your highest-level capabilities unless the basic needs of life are well met first—physical survival needs, but also emotional needs). Brain development also is boosted in the areas of the brain which store memories and respond to stressful situations (the amygdala and hypothalamus). Scientists believe that subjecting an infant or toddler brain to on-going chronic stress affects life-long ability to respond to and regulate stress. Responsive parenting reduces stress that babies experience, setting them up to be able to control their own stress in the future. When my babies were small and very needy I always told myself, I must either try to meet this need now, or it will need to be met later, and it certainly seems to have worked for us.
2. Hold your Baby. Babies are the most physiologically stable when they are on their parent's chest or in skin-to-skin contact. When a newborn emerges into the world there are two options—separate mother and baby for the first time ever or place baby skin-to-skin on mother’s chest and leave him or her there for as long as possible. A baby separated from mother will go into distress, panic and even despair. Their cries become frantic in search of the mother who they need for survival, or they may respond by shutting down completely and “going to sleep” in order to conserve energy. A baby on mother’s chest (or another loving adult) will become perfectly well regulated—body temperature will be regulated by the adults’ body, heart rate and respiratory rates will stabilize, oxygen levels, blood sugar levels, blood pH levels will all be optimized on mother’s chest. Both parent and child are also flooded with a surge of happy and relaxation-promoting hormones and neurotransmitters. Oxytocin, prolactin, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin feel good, promote love and bonding and counteract cortisol and other stress hormones. This affect lasts long past the initial post-birth skin-to-skin opportunity. A small child continues to be physically regulated and stabilized by regular, close physical contact with parents. Even an older child (and teen, and adult) can be easily calmed and restored when given a nurturing hug from a loving parent.
3. Breastfeed as much and as long as possible. Breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone; I know this as a lactation consultant. But often the reason it doesn’t work is because we are trying to schedule it, limit it, control it, or because we feel it isn't working if baby is feeding frequently ("you can't be hungry again already!") or is waking every couple hours to feed ("give a bottle and he will sleep through"). Breastfeeding works and lasts longest best when it is on demand (or on cue) and happens both day and night. YOU CANNOT SPOIL A BABY BY BREASTFEEDING, including to sleep. When breastfeeding doesn’t work out or isn’t the right choice for a particular family or child, then bottle feeding on demand is the next best thing—still without schedules or trying to limit or control feeds. But breastmilk in particular is hormonally designed to relax and soothe both parent and baby. Breastmilk is designed to make both parent and baby fall asleep easily, but just being held at the breast meets so many more needs than just nutrition and hydration (see above), and the benefits extend well past 6 months or 1 year. Breastfeeding a toddler provides the best soothing and emotional regulation possible, so carry on as long as you both are happy to continue. Breastfeeding on demand for as long as possible will promote self-regulation and self-soothing in the long run, as well as so many other physical, mental and emotional benefits.
4. Sleep with your baby. Humans evolved to sleep together (entire families slept together in our evolutionary past and even our recent past) and babies especially never would have slept apart from their parents or they would have frozen to death or been eaten by predators. Sleeping in close proximity to parents is still known to be protective against sudden infant death syndrome, even though (because) sleeping in the same room means babies and parents wake each other throughout the night. Close contact with a mother’s heartbeat and even her respirations are believed to help regulate a baby’s nighttime heartbeat and breathing. Both babies and breasfeeding mothers are also known to get more sleep when they sleep close together and “breastsleep,” because neither needs to wake fully at night to feed, baby doesn’t need to wake as often to look for the safety of the parents’ touch, and mothers can relax and know their little ones are safe without having to worry and get up to check. Babies learn that sleep is safe and pleasurable and feels good, which will serve them for life, even after they no longer want or need to share their parents’ bed.
5. Wear your baby. Baby wearing in a sling or carrier offers benefits beyond just the obvious hands-free parenting perks. Babies who are worn a lot cry less, are calmer, grow faster and nurse longer and develop faster cognitively. Wearing your baby provides all those carrying and skin-to-skin benefits discussed above, and allows you to move through the world together. When you experience the world and interact with the people around you with your baby strapped to your body you will teach your child how you cope with interactions and stressful situations. Your baby experiences your own self-regulations up close and personal and learns from you. If something in the world feels unfamiliar or dangerous to her, you are right there to respond and to calm her, and she can feel your calm through your very heartbeat and demeanor. You as the parent also get a surge of prolactin and oxytocin when you wear your baby (even if you are a man) which will help you to feel more attached to your baby and more content to do the repetitive, routine baby care that parenting calls for. The more contact we have with our babies, the more contact we want to have, and the happier and more attentive and vigilant we are in our parenting. Wearing your baby makes you a more responsive parent, with all the benefits that incurs for your baby (discussed above).
5. Soothe your baby. Somehow, we as a society have decided that rocking, dancing, walking or bouncing a baby to sleep is some kind of cheating, spoiling or bad habit that must be avoided at all costs. But humans have rocked and patted babies as long as we have had the hands to hold them, and it is absolutely true that dependence breeds independence. All this parental soothing is what teaches your baby to soothe him or herself one day. You provide physical and emotional comfort now, forming neural pathways in your baby’s brain that tell her that this is what calming feels like. Neural pathways that form and are reinforced by using them again and again (every time you comfort and sooth your baby) become stronger and permanent. Neural pathways that do not get connected or get rarely used will not be strong and will eventually be pruned away during toddlerhood, and those neurons will be discarded. So, by using your time and your skills as a parent to sooth your baby, you will train them to soothe themselves one day. They will learn what it feels like to feel soothed, and they will learn that this feeling comes from love and connection and relationships with kind people, which is what we hope they will seek and find as older children, teens and adults. They will also learn how to soothe other people, and will be kind, caring and empathetic—the person that others seek out and love to be around. And they will learn how to soothe your grandchildren one day.
6. Comfort your child when she cries We have also been led to believe that letting a baby “cry-it-out” is good for them (and for us). Sometimes babies will cry even when we are doing our best to soothe them, and sometimes we are not able to get to them immediately, and crying will happen. But in general, responding to tears with love, compassion and support is what all human beings require and deserve, even (especially?) brand new ones. Crying alone and afraid is damaging to anyone who experiences it, but especially to little people who do not have the cognitive ability to understand why they are being left alone. A baby who is crying alone will believe with every fiber of his being that he has been deserted forever and that his life is in danger, and he is not capable of understanding that you will come in time, or that you need your sleep, or that it will all be better in the morning. All he knows is that the person he needs for survival is gone and is quite possibly gone forever, and a baby alone in the world is a baby who will die. Research shows that during sleep training, when a baby is crying, both parents and infants have extremely high levels of stress hormones in their saliva. After a baby has been "broken" and is no longer crying, the parents' stress hormone levels go back to normal, but the baby's stress hormone levels are just as high as when he was crying, although he has stopped expressing that stress. What does this do to a person's lifelong ability to express and cope with stress?--nobody really knows, but common sense tells us it can't be good (we do know that chronic stress is extremely bad for our health). Now, this does not mean that you must always be perfect in responding to your baby's cries immediately—after all, you are only human. In fact, the times we are not able to respond immediately, despite our best efforts and intentions, are the times that will allow him to learn, gradually and organically, that you will come in time, that you have not abandoned him forever and that he can survive the time that you needed to take a shower, or use the loo, or drive down the highway. This comes from the “Good Enough Mother” theory of Donald Winnicott, one of the early developmental psychologists, and means that we don’t need to be perfect, only good enough, and by being imperfect our babies will gradually practice self-soothing and learn that they are separate beings from us.
8. Respond to your growing child with empathy and compassion. As babies grow into toddlers and their needs become more complicated than just needing to be held and nursed day and night, you can continue to respond to all of your child’s behavior as if it is communication. A toddler who seems to be giving you a hard time is always just having a hard time and is too cognitively immature to effectively self regulate. Use empathy to try to understand what need is being communicated, and respond with acceptance and compassion, even when the behavior drives you nuts. Model putting your child’s emotions and expressed needs into words—“I see that you feel frustrated that you can’t have the purple cup.” “I know that you are angry that your brother took your toy.” “I hear that you are sad to say goodbye to the park and you wish we could stay and play all day.” By putting those emotions into words, you are giving them your empathy and understanding, and you are also modeling how emotions and needs can be expressed verbally in the future (once cognitive and verbal development grows a bit more). Greeting a tantrum or a meltdown or other tricky behavior with unconditional love and support (as well as firm boundaries and limits) will help your child experience frustration, anger and other big scary emotions with your capable assistance and support, and will teach her how to navigate them on her own when she is big (and tell you about them and ask for help when they are still too big and scary for her to manage without help). Putting a struggling toddler on time out means that we are leaving them to manage on their own when they are telling us they need our help. Sitting quietly by or offering a cuddle or emotional support tells them that we are there to help, they don’t have to manage on their own. Which seems like the opposite of self-soothing until the day you find they have learned to do it themselves. Research shows that parenting young children in this way can actually increase the size of the hypothalamus--the part of your child's brain which will help them to cope with and regulate stress for the rest of their lives.
9. Accept who they are and help them understand themselves. Understand right here and now that the universe sent you a particular child, with particular temperament, character, likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses, emotional and cognitive needs and limits. Nothing you say or do is likely to change any of that, so trying to train them or mould them or direct them to be anyone other than they are will only lead to frustration and sadness for both of you. My second daughter is completely different from my first, and has always had very different needs when it comes to soothing, compared to her sister. Love your child unconditionally and see it as your challenge to study your child, learn what makes her tick, experiment with different approaches and responses to see what makes her feel her happiest and most at ease in the world (all within the limits and boundaries of your safe and protective care). Get a sense of how your child senses the world and responds to it, how they interact with others and what makes them feel calm and assured, and what makes them feel stressed and anxious. Give them plenty of down-time and time to play independently and creatively, time to play with peers, and time to play with you in a child-led way. Children learn self-regulation and interpersonal skills through unstructured play. Learn how they can recharge their batteries and help them understand this as they grow. Encourage them to explore the world as they feel motivated to, and be the safe place that they can return to for reassurance, comfort, soothing. As they grow they will return to you less and less often and for shorter and shorter times as they take over the task of self soothing .
10. Regulate your own stress. Your child will be both a barometer and a mirror of your own stress and anxiety, so doing our best to relieve our own stress will have a huge affect on our children. By making sure we get out own needs met so that we can effectively “self soothe” ourselves will both enable us to have the energy and stamina needed to be the soother of our infant and child, and will also model for them how they will do it for themselves as they grow. Being an adult who self-soothes (preferably without substances or other addictive, non-healthful strategies) will allow them to see that it can be done and will provide healthy strategies for them to use as they grow. When you struggle with your own self-regulation, which everyone inevitably does at times, talk to them about it, apologize when you blow up at them, share what methods you will use to regulate your stress (exercise, more sleep, eating on time), and model reaching out to other adults for emotional support and relationships. Be the self-soother you would like to see, and you will greatly increase your child’s abilities in the long term.
This approach to raising children is not a new one--in fact it is as old as time. Modern parenting has been complicated by "experts" and "rules," but going back to old ways of following our instincts, listening to and responding to our little ones, meeting the need now rather than worrying about what kind of training for the future we should be doing is actually simpler and builds confidence in parents. Know that each child is unique and what works for one child will be totally different from another child. And what they need will change over time as they change. You don't have to get it perfect every time, all you have to do is the best that you can do, just as you hope your children will as they grow.
Amy Vogelaar is a former midwife, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, a licensed BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm consultant, a Certified Infant Massage Instructor, co-founder of Love Parenting UAE, and a mother of 2 girls who continue to impress and amaze her with their strong sense of self, their confidence and independence, their comfort in their own skin, and their intense empathy and caring for others, all of which they developed while in the comforting arms of their parents!