Why “Self-Soothing” is a Bad Idea

Long ago…in the time of the sabertooth tiger, we developed some survival tools: The fight, flight and freeze responses.

And we still use them today.

Humans produce a surge of adrenaline when faced with danger, both real or imagined. Adrenaline switches off less important body functions like digestion and lactation and prepares us to fight an attacker or flee a dangerous situation using superhuman amounts of strength and energy.

We also developed a third response.

We freeze. A ‘freeze’ response shuts down our whole body and we appear dead. We are less visible and may actually fool a predator into thinking that we are dead, and therefore inedible. If we are under attack, freezing numbs us from feeling pain. Freeze is a response that increases our chances of surviving.

But, survival is a low bar for any human and especially for your much-loved baby.

Baby has a need–>baby asks—>mom responds–>need is met–>baby survives and thrives.

A baby squirms when they are uncomfortable. If there is no response, they cry so mother responds faster. We hate to hear a baby cry. That’s how it is. A baby only cries because they need something. It might be food, a clean diaper, a burp, or even “just comforting.”

When a baby cries, most of the time, we pick baby up, make eye contact, and instinctively start asking what baby needs. Everyone tries to figure out what baby needs and the answers are often hilarious. And, there are times when we can’t. The good news is that babies give you credit for trying. If you are paying attention to your baby and trying, it counts as meeting a baby’s needs.

Babies thrive when their needs are met consistently and predictably. Thriving is not too high a bar to reach for. This is how to teach your baby to self soothe.

Primitive mothers carried babies to keep them quiet and safe.

Primitive mothers held their babies close and responded to their signals quickly. This helped avoid the attentions of predators looking for an easy meal. Not that long ago, if you set your baby down and walked away, there was a good chance your baby would not be there when you got back.

We still carry our babies, but for different reasons.

Nowadays, we carry babies for convenience. We quickly learn that a baby in arms is a happy baby. A carrier frees up our arms.

Human babies and children depend on adults for food, safety, protection and learning. We can work and care for our child at the same time when they are in a sling or soft baby carrier.

Mom ignores baby. Baby becomes scared.

Babies have no sense of time. When a baby and their mother are apart, they can’t know she is coming back “in just a minute”. Feeling scared activates adrenaline and baby escalates. They cry louder and harder. Baby fears Mom is gone. If she was near, she would have responded to their cries.

When a baby reaches a high level of stress activation, they go into a freeze response. This is what most people call “self-soothing.” It is not.

A freeze response is not “self soothing.” 

By dramatically lowering their heart rate, breathing and digestion, baby conserves energy and increases likelihood of surviving. A baby in a freeze response has high levels of cortisol. They are in a stressed state, not a relaxed state.

When parents continue to ignore their baby’s requests, a baby learns, “My needs do not matter.” and “Help is not available.” Many babies learn to ask for what they need less frequently. Some of these babies have poor growth or poor gross motor development. They are ‘Good Babies’ in American culture.

When babies overuse a fight response.

Some babies never stop crying. They cry until they fall asleep from exhaustion. When they wake, they start crying again. They learn to always use an escalated fight response so mom will help because they are just that: Needs. Baby’s need food and comfort. It is hardwired and requires you to stay close. Whatever the underlying need, baby relies on you until they can think and act for himself and meet their own needs. When baby understands that they are safe, only then, can they ‘self soothe’.

Patterns learned in infancy persist.

Maybe you can remember a time recently when you were in pain, scared or lonely. Maybe you were frustrated, tired or hungry? Maybe just bored?

How did you meet your needs? Were you able to self-soothe by slowly breathing and relaxing? Did you talk to someone or have them hold you while you cried, or fell asleep? Or did you handle it in some other way; maybe with some chocolate, TV, a cigarette, joint, or a glass of wine?

Humans need to connect with each other. Babies need to connect a lot more because they are so helpless–much more than adults.

Humans are hardwired to connect with other humans

Other people can understand or validate your feelings and pain with empathy. While they may not know exactly how you feel, they can listen and relate. This is how support groups and therapy work. If you have a healthy relationship with your parents, it’s because they offer empathy and understanding when things aren’t going well.

You can’t undo the brain’s hardwiring.

Many new parents listen to their baby’s communication and respond quickly at first. But Americans believe that ignoring babies teaches them independence so parent’s stop responding quickly so as not to ‘spoil the baby’ and ‘develop bad habits.” But a baby asks for what they need. Humans need hugs and comfort. Infants are too immature to consciously self-soothe. When ignored, baby either escalates, or they freeze in order to save their energy. In America, ‘Good Babies’ are those that sleep.

When can a baby self soothe?

You probably know some babies who fall asleep on their own, are content lying on the floor, or playing alone. You may wonder why your baby does, or does not have this quality. When a young baby sleeps well, is content and self sufficient, it’s because their nature is easy-going and trusting. The majority of infants are not like this.

Parents can learn how to teach a baby to self soothe.

Hold a baby when they need to be held. Respond promptly to their needs. Move towards anticipating their needs so they don’t have to wait. This builds trust and security. The more secure a baby feels, the more independent they are. These attentions turn into self soothing techniques, as baby becomes capable.

When can babies self soothe?

Over time, you will naturally lengthen your response time and your baby will still be happy. Over time, you can teach your baby to be more comfortable sleeping alone. It may take a few years before they sleep through the night, but you can trust that time will come!

Don’t treat your new baby like a child. Nurture a baby like a baby and they will grow into a self soothing baby.

Mother of three, including twins; Lactation Consultant; Partner of Michael;

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