The baby self-settling myth

As a loving parent, you naturally want to do what’s best for your baby (and some extra sleep would be greatly appreciated!). You’ve probably heard that all babies need to learn to sleep at some point, so you might be feeling pressured to teach your baby to self-settle or self-soothe—a skill that is upheld as the holy grail of modern parenting. Without it, babies won’t sleep through the night, right?

It is actually one of the biggest myths (and misnomers) about infant sleep that we’re told.

This myth arose from the sleep training model that started to infiltrate mainstream Western culture in the 1950s, becoming hugely popular around the 1980s. Books on sleep training and sleep trainers themselves abound, falsely citing brain development research, and enforcing outdated beliefs and unfounded ‘evidence’.

Sleep training culture claims that caregivers should teach their baby the important skill of falling asleep independently. But, luckily now we know a lot more about infant sleep and brain development. Isn’t it a huge relief that there is one less thing we need to do as parents?! You can cross off ‘teach my baby to sleep’ from your never-ending to do list. Read on to discover why your baby is simply not capable or equipped to carry out the complex task of self-soothing.

What self-settling or self-soothing anyway?

It is the idea that your baby can calm down, relax, and go to sleep without the support of a caregiver to rock, feed, pat, shush, carry, or cuddle them. Dr Thomas Anders, the researcher who coined the term ‘self-soothing’ in the 1970s, argues that this label was to contrast the babies who go back to sleep without crying and those that do cry (or ‘signal’). In his research, he found no evidence that any active self-soothing was occuring, and that the term has since been used incorrectly.

Why can’t a baby self-settle?

For a baby to self-soothe, they would need a functioning prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as the Upstairs Brain (Siegel & Bryson, for example). This area of the brain is immature at birth, develops across infancy, and peaks in development after the emotional brain develops, from 3 years of age onwards. It continues to develop across adolescence and up to the age of 25 (that’s why you’ll see plenty of teenagers and young adults who struggle to self-regulate).

Because the area responsible for self-regulation does not work in babies, they can’t self-soothe at night anymore than they can during the day. Let’s look at an example to illustrate this.

Imagine you’re feeling anxious about something. What would you do to calm yourself down? You might make yourself a cup of tea, call a friend, practice deep breathing, or use self-talk, reassuring yourself that it’s going to be okay. You might rationalise it, think up some strategies, imagine hypothetical worse-case scenarios, and so on.

Now, do you think your baby is capable of such sophisticated thought? A baby cannot regulate their emotions such as fear, loneliness, or hunger, so their response is to cry. Even an adult with a functioning prefrontal cortex cannot always self-regulate. Have you ever snapped at someone or had an emotional outburst?

Letting a baby cry will not teach them to self-settle, as sleep trainers will have us believe. The underdeveloped part of the brain in infants means there is no brain power to shut off stress.

So, how do babies fall asleep or shut off stress without being taught?

A baby needs a responsive caregiver to take on the role of their prefrontal cortex until they have one. Your baby needs a loving adult to dial down their stress levels and to help them fall asleep. If they are left in a state of stress, or are left isolated, their stress levels will increase or they will shut down, perhaps falling asleep out of exhaustion.

As neuroscientific studies have shown us, self-settling is not only developmental, but sleep is regulated by a baby’s circadian rhythm (the cues from day and night), and hormones. We cannot control it, but we can support it.

How can I support my baby’s sleep?

Supporting your baby’s sleep is done through responding to their cues day and night. There are no bad habits or negative sleep associations as long as they are working for the family. Your baby cannot manipulate you; they have needs and they communicate those needs by crying. One of their needs is to be close to their caregivers.

Comfort them, love them, and nurture them. Rock them, feed them, and cuddle them to sleep.

Doing this will strengthen the bond between you and your baby, and help to build a secure attachment. A securely attached baby will feel safe, their needs validated, and their overall stress will be reduced, leading to (paradoxically) greater independence later in childhood. Meaning that they won’t always need you to help them fall asleep, but they’ll gain the confidence to get there when they’re cognitively ready.

Now that you know that there is an alternative to sleep training, you can make an informed decision about your baby’s sleep. Listen to your instincts, do what feels right for you and is enriching and nurturing to your baby’s developing brain. If you’re still unsure, read Sleep training: Weighing up the potential risks and benefits.

My baby goes back to sleep without my help or any sleep training

That’s wonderful, lucky you! None of this is to say that some babies don’t fall asleep without signalling to their caregiver. Some babies use calming techniques such as sucking on a dummy, their fingers, or a blanket, or by rubbing their head back and forth. However, this is not evidence that they’ve learnt a ‘skill’ of self-soothing, and nor does it prove that it’s a ‘skill’ that all babies can or should learn. It’s just an infant that needs less parental input, which isn’t the same thing.

What if I have used sleep training methods before?

If you have sleep-trained in the past, or have been told your baby needs to learn to self-settle, you’re definitely not alone. This message is massively ingrained in our culture, and parents use the methods believing they are doing the best by their baby. It comes from a place of love and good intentions. Remember that parenting is a journey, and there is no such thing as a perfect parent.

To know more is to do better, and it’s never too late to make changes. Every day is an opportunity for more cuddles, more connection, more nurturing, and more joy in parenting.

If you would like any further information, or would like to book a sleep consultation with our resident baby sleep expert Kara, please email her at [email protected]

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