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?"