Ditching the Idea of "Self-" in Self-Soothing Babies!!
Fun fact! Your baby simply doesn’t have the brain architecture available to “self-soothe” for many years.
I know, this sounds absolutely off the wall as we navigate a culture expecting our babies to be independent, to eat quickly and efficiently, to sleep alone and to generally not need us very much. But they aren’t so independent, not for quite some time, despite our best intentions! Your baby’s brain is growing every day, especially in the early months. They come equipped with the reflexes and instincts that allow for feeding, breathing, and physical movements, as well as some basic abilities to avoid dangers… especially the ability to freeze or shut down. However, even beyond those first few years of massive change (eating, crawling, walking, talking), babies still don’t have excellent access to many independent regulatory systems. Until these systems are available to them, they look for outside sources of regulation, typically referred to as co-regulation.
What does Co-Regulation mean?
When a baby has a stress response, they have a hard time slowing it down. We see this in infants who can cry for hours, and in toddlers who cant seem to get out of their meltdowns and tantrums. They become so dis-regulated, that they just cant do much about it! Their stress hormones begin to calm down when they hear the soothing voice of their parent, or feel the safe and string arms of their grandma, hold them tight. Tis safety comes from the loving and kind response that was shown to them even in the middle of their worst emotional storm. Co-regulation means that your baby needs you to help them balance their... well, everything! Behavior, stress, temperature, and more are in need of this other-regulation for years and years. I always consider that until your child can walk to the fridge ad make themselves a sandwich, we make them food and even feed them! It isn’t very different for their emotional needs - we help them control and balance their emotions until they are able to on their own. They need someone to soothe them while they are upset, to dress them when they are cold, to change them when they are dirty and to love on them when they are lonely. Despite this neat neuroscience, many mainstream resources discuss babies need to learn to self-regulate or self-soothe.
These terms are a bit misleading, and may lead to all sorts of worry and concern. I remember being worried that almost everything I was doing was somehow messing my babies up for life! Luckily I know now how ridiculous that was… but it took until they we’re practically teenagers to gain that confidence. It would have been so very helpful to Kevin and I as new parents if our trusty sources had discussed ways to help babies co-regulate and destress, which does not happen when they are left alone. This special skill set of emotional support sets our children up for a lifetime of healthy coping skills! We parented with patience and connection anyway, against the grain it felt, and lucked out with the three amazing teenagers we have now! But it felt like an uphill battle, defending our choice to maintain connection as we parented those kids the best we knew how to.
“Co-regulation simply means when the baby or child is distressed, the adult
caregiver offers their loving and patient support to help them find calm.”
To get back on track… Co-regulation simply means when the baby or child is distressed, the adult caregiver offers their loving and patient support to help them find calm. It seems pretty simple. It even comes fairly naturally - you hear a baby cry, you pick it up. Or play peek a boo. Or sing to it.. at the very least, you look for the parent. Its a human instinct, actually a life-long reflex, to protect the littles in distress or danger. To many parents, it feels very natural to respond promptly to the calls of their babies… until more and more outside media chips away at that confidence that lets us trust our own judgement. The messaging leads to doubt and fear, worry that if we parent TOO MUCH we will spoil them beyond repair. These thoughts creep in so deeply and from so many angles that you begin to believe it!
But at least at fist, it seems so simple right? When a child cries, you pick them up. Child is scared, you comfort them. Child is restless falling asleep, lullaby’s are created. Soothing our babies and children comes fairly instinctually (regardless of how well it works sometimes!). Biology has really taken care of us, pressuring our instinct to guide us and protect our babies from unnecessary stress. So why is it that our guttural reactions to care for and soothe seem to be questioned with more exposure to promises of independence and detachment? A full nights sleep! A date night with my partner! Its pretty easy to understand why even some doctors advocate detachment parenting practices that leave babies to be in a stress state alone. Parents are tired and need resources to have a healthy entry into parenthood! But I hav to believe that there is always a way to do this, while still meeting the needs of our babies.
So.. what do I think we know?
Current culture is adamant that our babies and children shouldn’t need adult support to calm, soothe, sleep, and avoid distress. But neuroscience and how we understand the developing brain is mostly at odds with this. The prefrontal cortex is an amazing part of our brain that is responsible for “executive functioning”. Thats a fancy term for higher order functions that humans develop in their lifetime, but that most children do not yet have access to. Abilities such as Impulse control, Emotional Control, Flexible Thinking, Working Memory, Self-Monitoring, Planning and Prioritizing, Task Initiation, and Organization begin to develop when the prefrontal cortex does, and this is somewhere around 2-3 years of age. And even then, they are just able to begin to develop and program these new functions based on their environment, their caregiving and their exposure to stress levels and their caregivers ability to self-regulate.
Early Memory and Self-regulation
Can you think back to your earliest childhood memories? Of being a child and playing in a field, going to school, of a special holiday or vacation? Can you remember how your parents put you to sleep, or a visit favourite cousins? Chances are you remember entering JK or a vacation when you were 6. Most of us simply can’t recall memories before we were 2-3 years old. We just don’t have access to this part of the brain before then. It is not available to store memory this way, not yet. This is the same part of the brain that develops around the 2nd or 3rd year to allow for more self-regulation. As old as you were when you were able to retain your first memories, is around how old you were when you were able to start to make choices that helped you learn to calm or soothe without as much co-regulation.
I encourage you to spend some time with that... think about how self-regulation and impulse control are also not available until 2-3 years of age! And even then, they aren’t actually honed for many many more years. Until this time, and until these skills are practiced and repeated for many years, co-regulation is required for a healthy stress response.
Different Children Need Different Parenting Tactics
If self-anything isn’t worth worrying about in the early years, then why is there so much importance put on “self-soothing” at very young ages when this isn’t even available? I believe it’s because overall, our society misunderstands temperaments and the differences between our babies. There are certainly babies who are calmer, who don’t need help to fall asleep, and who don’t seem bothered by change. And then there are other children who seem to need so much more! More help to fall asleep, more holding, more soothing, or they sleep better only when close to a parent. Often the first calm baby is thought to have “good parents” who set up a situation where they weren’t needs and the second baby may have parents who “coddle” them or have spoiled them. I believe that the ‘shoulds’ we are all exposed to are actually just the description of a single temperament, and that all parents are taught to try and change their baby to meet the needs and description of a completely different tiny human. Rather than blaming parents for these differences, lets try to realize that some kids simply need a different intensity of co-regulation.. and that the more we indulge this need for help to soothe and calm, they better they become at it on their own, with time!
I always think back to my first born, and how well he slept. I remember thinking that we did everything right (haha!), and so he slept well as a result! It was hard for me to understand what everyone was complaining about... just do A, B and C and voila! Calm sleeping baby! I remember feeling like I had CAUSED that outcome, with some sleepy dust and the right books. What I wish I knew then! Once little miss middle child came along - and slept for maybe 45-min at a time and only if touching 90% of my body - I was confused and ended up with a huge reality check. We’d done “all the right things” with her too and yet she needed so much more. She lived in her baby carrier. She slept only with us. She woke up what felt like every hour for many years. She was shy and cautious, and needed us with her through most things.
What I needed to know was that she had a very different temperament!! She was NOT my son and needed her own style and intensity of co-regulation. And more importantly, she was not broken. I hadn’t caused a “bad sleeper”. I was not wholly responsible for having a spirited child with higher needs. They were simply her needs, and I was her parent, and so I parented her accordingly. The day that I figured that out was the day that life became much easier. Simpler. Living with the anxiety that you’re ruining your baby is exhausting! Once I let that go, I felt refreshed, less tired, and more capable.
So I’m just going to call BS on that right now... on the idea that we are that responsible for the needs and actions of the baby who came to us or through us. In this moment, if you carry either sentiments (that you have caused your good sleeper or that you have caused your bad sleeper) let them go!! Let the guilt go! And the pressure. And the worry. And the judgement. Most of the time we are simply not responsible for which baby we have... we have not caused the good sleeper and we have not caused the bad sleeper. We have not spoiled our baby by holding them too much! We are simply parenting the baby we have.
Maybe you’re just so intuitive that you know when your baby needs you.
Maybe you know that by meeting those needs you are doing right by your child.
Maybe your next child will be very different, and you will adjust your parenting style to meet their needs.
Maybe you have a good baby who needs help to calm - and THAT’S OK.
Maybe you’ve just been instinctually parenting the baby you have, the way your baby has guided you to.
We give our selves too much credit sometimes. Just like I thought I’d caused my good sleeper, I wrongly assumed that I’d then also caused my wakeful baby. I lived with guilt about our “failure” for so long. I read and read and couldn’t find something that felt right to solve our “problem”... until one day I came to the knowing that I don’t have a problem. I have a baby, with different needs than some other babies. They don’t need the exact same strategies, they need the exact same parent to use their instincts to parent them the way they ask for.
Parents have a lot of power, but aren’t as powerful as we’d like to believe…
Let’s flip this idea that we actually have such power, that we can (should?) change the basic temperament and needs of another human being... even the tiny humans. Let’s start talking about parenting the babies and children we have, rather than parenting the babies and children we have been mislead to believe that we wish we had! I promise you, your own baby is pretty rad. Constantly working to change them, to fit some ideal, isn’t exactly the message most of us want to send them when we think on it for a bit. Imagine a basic and normal need that your best friend or partner exhibits.. one of those things that might be difficult but is also normal and authentically them. How would it make them feel if you spent years trying to train them to be someone else? To loose that trait of theirs because it simply didn’t suit you? Most of us would take a huge hit to our confidence and self-esteem if those we love the most were constantly complaining and attempting to train us to be a new person.
The Real Deal on Drowsy But Awake and Other Maddening Ideas
As you journey parenting, just rock your own instincts and meet your baby’s needs. You’ll come across so many different parenting goals, and you get to decide IF they’re important to you, IF they feel right, and IF you want to spend time with them. An example is the suggestion to put your baby down “Drowsy but awake”. I do love talking about this one. If your baby doesn’t elicit a stress response when you lay them down, amazing! They can likely be put down drowsy and will drift off to sleep. Let them drift off to sleep. Sure, let your baby tell you IF they need you first. If they simply don’t give you a distress signal at that moment, there isn’t really anything to respond to or parent!
However, if your baby cries when you separate from them, or needs to be held more, or wants to sleep close, consider techniques that foster co-regulation to help them. If they do need you, then help them out. Hold them, sing to them, pat their back… rock and nurse and cuddle and massage. Do whatever you need to, to help them feel safe and connected as they drift off to sleep. Its really ok.. its actually normal and wired into us to put babies to sleep, or at least be there while they drift off.
Consider that different kids will have different reactions to the same situations, and that it is just fine to help them when they need it! Sometimes, your own baby will have different reactions to the same situation in their own life - sometimes drift off to sleep, and other times need some soothing from you. Follow their lead, and you’ll always get it right!
This might mean that your baby needs you in a way that another baby doesn’t need their parents, and so my challenge to you is to let that comparison go! Work on realizing that you only need to parent the delicious baby that you have been given, and that absolutely ZERO energy needs to go into changing your baby so they act like someone else’s. Instead, consider spending your energy modelling to your baby what calm can look like. Model to your child how to be emotional and still kind. Show self-regulation in action as often as possible! And when they’re upset and in need of help, help them find calm by finding your calm. Over, and over, and over...
I Get It, It’s Normal.. But I’m Still Not OK…
If you feel like you’re at YOUR energetic end.. If you are suffering or you are resentful, please find help. Find ways to take breaks, to nap, to exercise, to purchase healthy foods, to talk to a therapist, to supplement and avoid nutritional deficiencies.. avoid all of the common things that can add to exhaustion and confuse us as to the origins of our own distress. New parenthood amplifies anything that was already in need of attention, at a time when we can barely pay attention to ourselves. Find yourself an Infant Sleep Educator who will help you to remodel and uplevel your OWN life so that you are capable and excited to parent the very special, and very unique, baby that you have. Find strategies to decompress, to destress, and to reset your own anxieties so that you aren’t wasting energy on things that don’t serve your beautiful family.
There is help for new families, be it parents circles, postpartum doulas, friends and meal trains, nap-focused play dates, and mothers helpers, grocery delivery, house cleaners or cleaning playdates, meal-prep parties, and so much more! I encourage you to find or create your own temporary (this actually doesn’t last forever) and unique ways to solve your most challenging situations, or to at least alleviate them. As the adult in the equation, you’re equipped with those amazing executive functions that your baby doesn’t yet have access to.. you have logic, and understanding, and rationalization. You have the ability to change, far more than your baby does! Why not try to change your own expectations and lifestyle first, before asking a baby to? What can you shift in your own life to be able to meet both your needs and the true needs of your baby? I promise, there are always ways to do this without relying on training a child to be anything other than who they are.
And if you need help - you know who to ask!!