Words matter: Why “self-soothing” is one of the most misapplied terms in child development.
One of the most important concepts in Self-Reg is calm: knowing what calm really feels like, and how to “ get back to calm,” as some Self-Reg practitioners say.
One might think that Dr. Shanker’s concept of calm might match up with another commonly used term in child development: self-soothing.
But, that’s not the case, at least, not with respect to the way “self-soothing” has come to be used in academic and clinical discussion of infant sleep. In that context, self-soothing refers to babies who can fall asleep or go back to sleep alone, without adult involvement. As one parenting website puts it: “Self–soothing means the baby’s ability to fall asleep on her own, without the need for an adult to rock, cuddle, pat, carry or shush her to sleep.”1
Let’s think about this conception of self-soothing. First, there is the implication that independent sleep is developmentally normal. Some sleep pundits suggest that babies are capable of developing independent sleep habits between the ages of six to 12 months. Research has proven that some babies are sleeping independently at that age. More than half don’t.
Secondly it’s a misuse of the English language. The term self-soothing implies that all babies who go to sleep independently suck their thumbs or do something else to calm themselves so they can fall asleep naturally. In fact, self-soothing started out as nothing more than a research term coined to describe babies who go back to sleep without crying.
I know this, because several years ago I had an email correspondence with Dr. Thomas Anders, the researcher who invented the term self-soothing. In a series of studies, Dr. Anders and his colleagues videotaped sleeping babies and observed that pretty well all babies wake in the night. Some cried (and got attention from their parents) and some didn’t cry and went back to sleep on their own. He called the criers “signalers” and the non-criers “self-soothers.” But, these studies did not document any actual self-calming behaviour on the part of the babies. The babies just went back to sleep independently. In fact, Dr. Anders told me he was not aware of any research that documents that “self-soothers” consistently engage in soothing behaviour (although some do). Further, he said that he would bet that most instances of babies going back to sleep on their own happen without any observable self-calming behaviour.
So why some babies are “signalers,” and some are “self-soothers” remains a mystery. However, advice-givers sometimes portray “self-soothing” (read, independent sleep) as a developmental milestone should be achieved in the last half of a baby’s first year. In so doing, they have created the impression that, for example, highly distressed six month-old babies are capable of soothing themselves. This is purportedly achieved via various methods that involve leaving babies to fall asleep alone, even if they are crying. Some babies do fall asleep this way. But whether or not they were all calm when they fell asleep remains an open question. Some of them may well have been in freeze rather than a state of calm.
I once interviewed Dr. Stephen Porges, about self-soothing. I was surprised when Dr. Porges, whose work is a key part of the scientific underpinning of the Self-Reg Framework told me that he actually does think there is such thing as self-soothing in babies. He also says babies do become more developmentally able to engage in self-soothing behaviour around the ages of six months.
But Stephen Porges defines self-soothing quite differently!
For him self-soothing is the enhanced developmental ability to intentionally seek out the social interaction that is an infant’s main source of comfort and relief from stress. In other words, self-soothing in babies is not a solitary pursuit of sleep independence, it’s part of the beginning of active involvement in social engagement! And social engagement, as we know, is the primary human mechanism for dealing with stress. Now, there’s an idea of self-soothing that resonates with Self-Reg.
So, if we adopt Dr. Porges’ concept of self-soothing, it follows that when we don’t respond to babies’ attempts to seek comfort from us we risk disrupting a mechanism that supports the development of a positive social behaviour that is key to self-regulation throughout life. And if we do respond by comforting babies in the night, we’re not interfering with the development of independence. We’re priming babies’ stress response systems in the right way and, what’s more, teaching them that social engagement works.
My point here is not to criticize desperate sleep-deprived parents who try to teach babies to got to sleep on their own, because experts with PhDs and clinical experience have advised them to do so. My wife and I tried (unsuccessfully). My concern is that poorly-defined, misleading terms should not be used in clinical and popular advice for parents. Self-soothing, as it applies to independent sleep in babies, is very misleading.
Further, when sleep experts advise parents to ignore their babies’ “signals,” for social engagement, as a remedy for night-waking, they ought to tell parents the risks of that treatment, just as doctors inform patients of the risks of drugs or medical procedures. They should also tell parents how to mitigate those risks, perhaps by advising them to be extra careful to pay attention and respond to babies’ bids for social engagement at other times. Because the ability to seek out the social engagement that calms us is one of the most important aspects of self-regulation development.
Maybe we should start calling babies who sleep through the night “easy sleepers,” rather than “self-soothers.”
I once wrote a three-part blog that deconstructed the notion “self-soothing.” It starts here.
1 Burnham, M. M., Goodlin‐Jones, B. L., Gaylor, E. E., & Anders, T. F. (2002). Nighttime sleep‐wake patterns and self‐soothing from birth to one year of age: A longitudinal intervention study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43(6), 713-725. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201415/#R17.