My heart hurts when I hear professionals talking to parents about teaching their babies or toddlers to self-soothe or self-settle, or become more independent. The word self-soothing is a myth being used as a veil for sleep training. It saddens me to think that parents are questioning their instincts to pick up their crying baby due to misinformation.
I hold all parents with deep compassion for doing the best they can with the resources they have AND I so deeply value sharing information so parents can truly make an informed choice.
Attachment theory and neuoroscience irrefutably shows that babies and toddlers NEED their caregiver to co-regulate with. They absorb that safety from our nervous systems and are soothed when we are responsive to their needs for connection and comfort.
Babies and toddlers have underdeveloped nervous systems and neocortex parts of their brain which mean they aren’t capable of self-soothing or self-settling. I read recently someone comparing this to asking a baby to ride a bike. It is physiologically impossible. If left to self soothe, they will go into a flight response. Then, once they have exhausted all attempts to engage with their caregivers, this will collapse into dissociation or FREEZE survival states. The impacts of these experiences will be felt across a lifetime as adults. It causes stress and trauma to be stuck in the body which is the root cause of mental health conditions and chronic health challenges.
Picking our babies up when they cry, or lying down with them whilst they go to sleep, is offering them the gift of co-regulation. This gives our babies the message that their needs matter deeply and that they can trust people to support them.
This is the best inoculation for our children as they grow and move through the teenage years to adulthood to have that deep secure attachment and trust.
By being responsive to our babies needs, we help them internalise that hard-wiring of what will eventually blossom organically over time into healthy and true self-soothing when their brains are mature and ready.
We don’t need to teach our babies to self-settle or self-soothe. Children absorb co-regulation from us and it naturally evolves into their own regulation when their nervous systems are ready and their brain connectivity matures.
John Bowlby, who developed Attachment Theory, described how primary caregivers act as a secure base for a child to keep returning to. This means being available to attend to our babies and children’s needs to be soothed and comforted when they are upset. Over time, this will be internalised as a safe haven within our children. Being responsive to our the needs of our children is the greatest gift that we can give them as this nurtures secure attachment.