Wednesday, 30 January 2013

How do YOU 'Self-Soothe'?

The question of whether or not babies can learn to 'self-soothe' continues to divide parenting writers and experts. Does a baby left to cry alone in their cot eventually find ways to comfort themselves, to make themselves feel better? Or do they simply stop crying after a while because they realise that nobody will come and that there is nothing they can do about it - they learn that they are helpless?

Let's look at this from a fresh angle. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, let me ask you a question: How do YOU 'self-soothe'?

Think for a moment.

The shit is hitting the fan. You are distressed. You have lost your job. Your relationship flounders. Someone close to you is sick. The usual suspects. You feel 'emotional'; you are upset, jangled, stirred.

What do you do?

How do you try to regulate yourself, to bring yourself back into balance?

You might sit with your difficult feelings for a while, aware that they are part of life's pattern and will pass. You might cry, alone or in the arms of someone who cares. You might go for a run, or distract yourself with a project. Perhaps you stare into space. Maybe you pretend it's not happening. Maybe you eat. You might pour a drink. But do you stop at just one? And do you stop at just a drink?

Do you find 'comfort'? Are you ever fully 'soothed'? For some, this place is never reached, and attempts to find it become increasingly desperate - perhaps using drugs, self harm or other destructive behaviours. If this is you, you might not describe them as destructive, because you truly believe that they are helpful to you and that you will eventually find the inner peace that you seek in them.

The choices we make when our world is in turmoil are not simply genetic or the luck of the draw. They are a direct result of how we were treated as children.

If the adults around us could tolerate our distress, respond to it consistently, and bring us comfort, then we will now, as adults, be able to do this for ourselves. We will still feel distress, but we will not be afraid that it will overwhelm us or kill us or swallow us up. If the adults in our childhood were inconsistent, unresponsive, or worse still, abusive, we may well have difficulty in responding healthily to difficult feelings or situations. We will be more likely to be overwhelmed by life, seek comfort in unhealthy places, and take longer to recover from hard times, if we are able to recover at all.

In fact, the debate over whether babies learn to 'self-soothe' should become obsolete. Because the fact of the matter is - they do. We all learned to 'self-soothe' when we were babies, all of us. Every time we felt distress, we learnt a little bit more about comfort. Every time we were held, shooshed, rocked, nursed, sung to, kissed or hugged, we learned something. Every time we were ignored, left alone, told to stop crying, shouted at, shamed or threatened, we learned something. We learned to stay with our feelings and let them slowly shift, or to find ways to bury them, deny them or disown them.

Yes, babies learn to self-soothe. A baby who cries in the night and is quickly enveloped in loving arms learns to soothe themselves quickly and with love. A distressed baby who is left alone learns to soothe themselves by switching off their feelings, minimising them, disassociating. The more such lessons are repeated the better they will be learnt.

Perhaps those 'experts' who advocate leaving babies to cry it out have a difficult relationship with their own distress - a childhood lacking in comfort which they now wish to play out through their books in the homes of strangers. It might be interesting to ask them the same question, "How do YOU self-soothe?"


  1. Interesting take on self soothing. I have a difficult time balancing this with my little one who won't go to sleep with me there!

    I want him to be comforted and go to sleep but he won't, and after an hr of trying I have to give up - and feel such a failure as I can't help him, and articles about the harm of crying make me so guilty!

    We've tried feeding to sleep and co sleeping but neither work anymore!

    If they arm comforted for a time, will that lessen any harm?!

    1. I couldn't possibly pass judgement on your situation Cherry, nor would I want to!

      I don't know how old your son is but personally if my toddler was crying and refusing to go to sleep I would just get her back up for a bit and let her be with me, then go to bed with her after she had calmed down.

      But that is just what we do in our house, and I don't know anything about you or your family.

      I hope things improve for you soon, and that you find a way that works for everyone. x

  2. This makes a lot of sense... Its really not rocket science is it?. Something not mentioned here is also personality.... Even a well soothed child can wind up as an adult relying on unhealthy forms coping... Just as an unsoothed child can grow up into a fully functioning adult with fabulous coping skills.Thing is, despite our circumstances we often manage to survive and in some cases thrive (the nature / nurture debate is usually 50/50)... but why not err on the side of caution and sooth your distressed little one?

  3. Children are all different really. EAch one of us self sooth differently. I am learning a lot by reading Heather Foster's book called Beyond Consequences. What an eye opener!

    I have a couple of children that liked to nurse and co-sleep. Then I have 2 that only need a few minutes of soothing, and then music and their bed is enough to put them to sleep. A mom got to be flexible. Each one of us human beings is a completely different make up.

    thanks for this post. :)

  4. You know... I've always wondered about these "experts" and what kind of childhood they had. Why do they want parents to leave babies alone? It makes me sad.

  5. Some controversial points made but I 100% agree with every point you've made. We're not just creating balanced children but also future adults. And our love keeps them off the therapy couch xx