So you might have heard the term self soothing, and thought what exactly does this mean?
Lets go back a few years... just a few.
In the 1960's a psychiatrist Dr Thomas Anders was studying infant sleep patterns in a nursery in New York.
He was using time lapse video technology to observe babies as they slept, and moved through quiet sleep and active sleep phases. (1)
It was with these video's that he discovered all the babies woke several times a night.
The length of sleep progressively became longer over the first year, but these regular wake ups over night were normal. (2)
What does this have to do with self soothing?
Thomas Anders observed that some babies woke and cried, while others woke, sucked their thumb, or simply went back to sleep. (3)
Dr Thomas Anders, labelled these babies "self soothers."
Several studies have shown that the one thing self soothers seem to have in common is that they are put to bed awake at night. (4)
They have developed the ability to take themselves from ready to sleep, to sleepy/drowsy, and then off to sleep land, independent of being rocked, fed, bounced, or held to sleep.
This means that when they wake at night, which is 100% normal and to be expected, they can self soothe or self settle back to sleep if they are not hungry, cold, hot, in pain, wet, or under tired.
Dr Thomas Anders believes that falling asleep is a learned phenomenon, and that its takes practice, but most babies can fall asleep on their own by 4-5 months.
Giving your baby the chance to practice this skill doesn't mean your only option is CIO.
Once you have run through your complete bed time routine, or pre nap routine, and baby is nice and calm and ready for sleep, pop them down.
If they don't self soothe or self settle, you can quietly sooth them, sit near them, allow your proximity to be calming, you could talk or sing quietly, or pat or rub their back.
Help them stay calm enough they can learn to fall asleep in their cot.
You are being supportive, both emotionally and physically, without leaping in and taking over the roll of falling asleep.
Do you have to be 100% consistent with this 100% of the time in order for your baby to manage to learn to self soothe or self settle?
One study from Ander's lab showed that parents who waited just 3 minutes in the night before responding to their 3 month old babies wake ups meant that these babies were more likely to have developed self soothing habits by 12 months old. (5)
It might be the time it takes you to wake fully, pull your dressing gown on and walk to the nursery!
In this time even those babies who wake crying will make attempts to self soothe, finger sucking, holding cuddlies, etc. These babies will often make an attempt, then cry, make a further attempt, then cry out again. Over time, these babies are practicing this skill, and they will get better and better at it, even with just these teeny 3 minute delays.
This delay also allows parents to listen and learn their babies noises, get to know their hunger noises, vs, their going back to sleep noises.
Babies in active sleep, cry out, grunt, sound like hedgehogs, move their limbs and more. While the cry out in active sleep is very brief (a mantra cry), if you leap up and pick your baby up within 10 second of hearing this noise, you may just be disturbing their active sleep.
Once we understand what self soothing is, we can ask ourselves why the western culture seems to be obsessed with this milestone.
We buy milestone cards for cute Instagram pictures celebrating self soothing and sleeping through the night, and we create TV commercials selling nappies but celebrating self soothing and sleeping through the night. (No baby sleeps through the night without some self soothing skills, remember ALL babies wake several times a night).
I think we live in a very western culture which means lots of families are dual working parents, with limited maternity leave and high mortgages, many mum's are back at work soon after baby is born, often within that first year.
Obviously once a baby can self soothe and nap well, and sleep well at night, mum is more well rested and likely going to do a better job at work!
If we're not at work, parents in 2019 are often busy. Running from baby sensory class, to coffee group, dropping older children at school, running errands, and running the house. No extended relatives at home to hold down the fort while you take a nap and catch up on lost sleep.
The meal deliveries stop after the first few weeks, yet our babies don't sleep well at night for months!
There just isn't the support for mums available in most western cultures that enables them to cope for months and months on end with poor fragmented night sleep.
This leads parent to look to encourage their babies to self soothe, self settle, and sleep for longer periods at night.
Is this wrong?
Let's consider the fact that these self soothing skills are present in some babies as young as 3 week old (3), and that most babies can learn to fall asleep on their own by 4-5 months.
Knowing this, and wanting to encourage these sleep patterns by understanding your babies sleep needs, encouraging self soothing, gently working towards this goal and celebrating this isn't wrong.
If this suits your parenting style (and heck it might not! That's cool), then be proud, you've done nothing wrong.
Self soothing and self settling is a naturally occurring behavior in all children at some point.
Even children who are breastfed to sleep or who bed share to sleep will at some age and stage develop these self soothing skills.
Whether it is your goal at 6 months, 12 months, 24 months, 3 years or never! It will eventually happen.
Be confident in your choices as a parent, know that just because someone parents differently to you, doesn't mean they parent in a superior fashion.
Be confident that there are no badges of honor for prolonged sleep deprivation, and that self soothing is often the skill that leads to better night sleep, and better naps for a lot of babies and toddlers.
Be confident that no one else has your baby, and that you know when your child is ready to try something for themselves, (such as sleep!), and when they need your help.
Be confident in your own night time parenting strategies, and that your continuum from birth to toddler-hood of responsiveness is yours alone.
Be confident you are a loving supportive parent, and that learning to self soothe doesn't negate this.
June 1979, VOLUME 63 / ISSUE 6
Night-Waking in Infants During the First Year of Life
2. Sleep. 1985;8(3):173-92.
Developmental course of nighttime sleep-wake patterns in full-term and premature infants during the first year of life. I. Anders TF, Keener M.
3. Pediatrics. 1992 Oct;90(4):554-60.
Sleeping through the night: a developmental perspective.
Anders TF1, Halpern LF, Hua J.
4. Sleep Med. 2008 Jul;9(5):564-71. Epub 2007 Sep 27.
Night waking in Thai infants at 3 months of age: association between parental practices and infant sleep.
Anuntaseree W1, Mo-suwan L, Vasiknanonte P, Kuasirikul S, Ma-a-lee A, Choprapawan C.
5. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2002 Sep;43(6):713-25.
Nighttime sleep-wake patterns and self-soothing from birth to one year of age: a longitudinal intervention study.
Burnham MM1, Goodlin-Jones BL, Gaylor EE, Anders TF.