Does My Baby Need To Learn To Self Soothe?

Does My Baby Need To Learn To Self Soothe?

You’re going to spoil her…She’s never going to learn how to sleep on her own…She needs to self soothe or you’ll never get any rest.

Chances are, if you’re a new mother, you’ve heard all of the above. Perhaps you’ve even thought the above a few times.

Does My Baby Need To Learn To Self Soothe?

No. At least not in the way you’re likely thinking.

You do not need to leave your three month old baby alone to sort out how to settle herself to sleep, and here’s why:

Your Baby Is Doing What She’s Designed To Do

Infants are born completely dependent on you. They cannot feed themselves, they cannot change their own diapers (nappies) and they’re not designed to self soothe from the start.

Human infants are meant to wake often and they’re wired to be close to a safe caregiver. Why? While we know the bassinet is a safe place, baby doesn’t know the difference between a bassinet and a danger filled jungle. All baby knows is she’s wired to be close to a caregiver to keep her safe.

Learning to self soothe isn’t something that happens in a few nights while practicing cry it out (CIO). It’s something that happens overtime as a baby learns to control and process emotions (e.g. fear, loneliness, etc.), and as she develops a secure bond with caregivers helping her to realise her environment is safe.

Each child, even in the exact same environment and with the same caregiver, will learn to settle themselves, their emotions and their fears at different ages.

Your Baby Isn’t Crying To Manipulate You

You cannot spoil a baby. I repeat, you cannot spoil a baby.

Repeat that to yourself any and every time you hear, “you’ll spoil her,” until you truly believe it.

A young infant’s wants are all needs. Babies cry when they’re hungry, when they need a fresh diaper/nappy, when they don’t feel well, and when they’re scared or lonely. Babies need human interaction, touch and a close attachment with a caregiver. They need touch as much as they need to be fed.

Picking up a crying infant to meet their desire for touch isn’t the same as handing your tantruming child a lollipop. A lollipop is never a need. Reassurance, however, is a need for infants.

Your baby also lacks the brain maturity to even process how to manipulate you. That smile or the immediate ceasing of tears when you pick up baby isn’t a sign of satisfaction from manipulation. It’s a sign you met their need and they now feel safe.

It’s also possible that you’ll pick up your crying infant and she’ll continue to cry. The immaturity which means she can’t manipulate is also responsible for her inability to regulate her emotional response.

Crying It Out Doesn’t Teach Self Soothing

I let my eight-week-old cry it out. It was hard, but by day 4, he slept through the night!

We’ve all heard it. Cousin Sally’s baby slept through the night since week eight, perhaps it really does work.

Well, it depends on what you’re using to measure success. Will CIO work in getting a very young infant to sleep through the night? Perhaps.

Will CIO actually teach a young infant to self soothe? No.

Babies are biologically wired to be close to a caregiver, it’s part of their survival instincts. In the first six or so months of life, nearly every “want” your baby has is an actual need. And while a 6-month-old baby might begin to have some wants that aren’t needs (like eating a penny), the majority of their wants are still needs.

What CIO does teach a young infant is that when you cry, you don’t always get a response. Cousin Sally’s little one learned after a few days that continuing to cry all the time doesn’t get you want you need. Research shows that even if a baby stops crying, their cortisol levels (stress hormone) remains elevated. This means that baby didn’t learn to actually soothe herself, she simply learned there was no point in crying.

Crying in and of itself doesn’t create elevated cortisol levels or kick in the fight or flight reflex. It’s crying for extended periods of time while learning no one is coming.

A baby that naturally sleeps longer stretches, or an older infant that gradually learned to fall or stay asleep solo isn’t the same thing as CIO.

Your Baby Needs A Secure Attachment

The reason you cannot spoil a young infant by answering her wants is she’s following her natural instincts to seek and form a secure attachment to her mother, or other primary caregiver.

An infant’s need for touch is as important as their need for nutrition. A child that lacks a secure attachment and adequate positive and normal sensory stimulation (e.g. touch) may not experience proper neurological development and growth (even with adequate nutrition).

This isn’t to say if someone has used CIO their child has missed the secure attachment, but it does mean that seeking this attachment (day or night) is completely biologically appropriate and important.

However, you may want to read Study: 40 Percent Of Children Lacking Secure Attachments to learn how our modern approaches to parenting and self soothing may actually increase the risk of an unsecure attachment.

Hold Your Baby – This Won’t Last Forever

When you’ve rocked your baby for the tenth time in two hours, remember that this won’t last forever. When someone says you need to let her cry because she’s manipulating you, remember that this isn’t true and science is on your side.

Hold your baby. Rock your baby. Sleep with baby close by.

The idea that you need to deprive a young infant of parental comfort is just about as silly as saying, “Don’t use diapers! Your two month old is going to get used to them and never potty train!”

That’s ridiculous, right? We don’t expect a two month old to learn to control their bladder because it’s not physiologically possible.

For young infants, learning to self soothe also isn’t physiologically possible. In time, they will mature and learn to settle without as much parental help. However, think about how poorly you might sleep while your partner is away…

You Can Still Get Sleep Without Teaching Self Soothing

Great…so I must help this little person sleep for a few months or the next few years? How on earth am I going to get any rest?

Trying to teach an immature infant to self soothe or forcing them to CIO isn’t the only way to get adequate rest.

There are many ways to encourage baby to rest. Quickly answering your newborns cries, and creating a calm and soothing environment, can encourage young infants to rest knowing they’re safe with a caregiver ready to answer their needs. In time, they’ll require less support to settle and they’ll stay settled longer.

Think back to when you were feeding a three day old baby. It was all consuming and it could take an hour to get a full feeding in. You didn’t have to train, time or limit your feeding support, they eventually got more efficient and feeds took much less time.

Self soothing is the same. In time they’ll mature and be less dependent on you to settle (bearing in mind that every child develops at their own pace, there’s no set time when this occurs).

Read 6 Things To Do When You Need More Sleep and 8 Facts Parents Need To Know About Babies And Sleep to learn more about babies, sleep and rest for parents.

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One comment

  1. Great article. I think you got the message across clearly without (hopefully) causing controversy in differing parenting styles.

    But you touched on what is absolutely the key to success, which is developing a secure attachment for the first 4 to 6 months of life. I think parents need more understanding of this crucial part of baby-parent bonding that will lead to less problems that are so controversial!

    Do you have a recommended article about secure attachment that is easy for every parent to understand?

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