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Does Sleep Training Teach Self-Soothing?

The ultimate goal of sleep training, regardless of the method, is often perceived as teaching self-soothing and establishing healthy sleep habits. But does sleep training actually teach self-soothing? This journey, including a caregiver’s role and the timeline involved, is frequently misunderstood. Traditional methods like ‘Cry-It-Out’ (CIO) suggest that a child left to cry learns to self-soothe, but this perspective may not fully consider a child’s physical, neurological, and emotional development.

At Batelle, we embrace a responsive approach. Our method is grounded in established developmental science, emphasizing a responsive technique that aligns with your child’s neurological and nervous system development. In this blog, we delve into the concepts of self-soothing and self-regulation, crucial elements in understanding a child’s sleep patterns and emotional development. By exploring these topics, we aim to provide a more comprehensive view of sleep training, moving beyond traditional methods to a more informed and nurturing approach.

The Reality of Infant Sleep Cycles

At Batelle, we approach infant sleep with a deep understanding of its complexities. Sleep is not a solid block of unconsciousness but a series of cycles, including REM and deep sleep phases. Everyone, babies and adults alike, cycles through these phases and occasionally stirs or wakes.

Parents often hear about ‘linking sleep cycles’ in the context of sleep training. The common implication is that babies must be taught this skill to sleep through the night. However, the ability to transition between cycles without fully waking up—or to self-soothe back to sleep if they do wake—is part of a baby’s natural development. Factors like age, developmental readiness, genetics, temperament, and learned sleep associations all play a role in how a baby masters this skill. Our programs are designed to respect and support this natural progression, rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Origins of the Term ‘Self-Soothing’

Self-soothing refers to a baby’s ability to settle to sleep without external help provided there are no competing needs such as hunger or discomfort. Self-soothing can include behaviors such as bringing the hands to the mouth or finding a comfortable sleeping position.

Imagine it’s the middle of the night, and the soft (or not-so-soft) whimpers of your baby stir you from sleep. As you groggily check on them, you find them trying to suck their thumb. With a little struggle, they reposition find their thumb, and drift back to sleep. This is self-soothing in action.

The term ‘self-soothing’ was first coined by sleep researcher Thomas Anders in the 1970s. His study highlighted that while all babies wake up with about the same frequency, some were able to return to sleep at the end of a sleep cycle without parental intervention. These were termed “self-soothers,” in contrast to “signallers” who needed caregiver help.

These observations from Anders’ study were initially meant to differentiate behaviors during nighttime waking, not to label self-soothing as inherently ‘desirable’ or signaling as ‘undesirable.’ However, the term ‘self-soothing’ has been misconstrued over time. Some interpretations of Anders’ research have led to the belief that self-soothing is a skill that can be actively taught to hasten a baby’s ability to sleep through the night. This misconception often leads to unrealistic expectations and practices among parents.

At Batelle, we challenge the common misconception that waking up at night is inherently problematic or indicative of a sleep issue. Understanding that these awakenings are a natural part of infant sleep patterns can help parents set realistic expectations and pave the way for a less stressful experience for the whole family. Our approach is grounded in the belief that by embracing and understanding the natural rhythms of infant sleep, we can provide more effective and compassionate support to both babies and their parents.

Can Self-Soothing Be Taught?

Batelle emphasizes that self-soothing cannot be taught in the traditional sense. It is a natural part of an infant’s development that emerges over time. Comforting behaviors such as rolling, vocalizing, head-turning, and bringing hands to the mouth are gross motor skills that emerge as part of this process. While these abilities typically become noticeable between 4-6 months of age, every baby will have a unique timeline and there’s a wide range of normal when it comes to growth and development.

As a caregiver, your role is to nurture this process through consistent and calming routines. These routines go beyond the steps leading up to bedtime and extend into the night, providing a stable and reassuring presence that helps your baby navigate their sleep.

Our programs guide you in being responsive to their needs, offering comfort, and allowing them the space to use their emerging abilities to settle and sleep. In doing so, you’re not teaching self-soothing in the traditional sense but facilitating a setting in which your baby can naturally develop these skills at their own pace, with your responsive support as a constant backdrop.

It’s important to note that even when a child has developed the ability to self-soothe, this doesn’t equate to a guarantee of uninterrupted sleep every night.

Children, like adults, have varied needs and experiences that may disrupt their sleep. Illness, teething, growth spurts, and changes in routine can all necessitate nighttime comfort from a caregiver. Our method equips parents with the tools and confidence to handle night waking in a way that promotes efficient resettling for both the child and the parent.

This approach not only respects the natural variations in a child’s sleep patterns but also aims to minimize the disruption to the family’s rest, making the journey towards better sleep a more manageable and less stressful experience for everyone involved.

Self-Regulation: Beyond the Basics of Self-Soothing

The journey from self-soothing to self-regulation is a nuanced one, deeply intertwined with a child’s neurological development. It’s essential to distinguish between these two concepts, as they represent different stages of development and capacities in a child’s life.

Self-soothing is often the first step in a child’s journey towards emotional self-management. It refers to a baby’s ability to calm themselves and return to sleep, often through behaviors like thumb-sucking or finding a comfortable position. However, this is distinct from self-regulation, a broader and more complex ability that involves managing emotions and behaviors.

It’s important to clarify that while self-soothing and self-regulating may seem related, they are not interchangeable. The term “self-regulating” is sometimes mistakenly used to describe an infant’s ability to calm down and return to sleep, leading to the misconception that infants can exercise emotional control similar to adults. This is not developmentally accurate, as true self-regulation involves a complex interplay of neural processes that are still developing in infancy.

Brain Development: Understanding the Timeline

The human brain undergoes significant growth in early childhood, with ‘infancy’ encompassing the first three years of life. Brain development occurs from the bottom up, starting with the lower regions that manage vital functions and progressing to higher regions responsible for emotion, logic, and reasoning.

At birth, the foundational areas are primed for basic life functions, but many other regions are still in the early stages of development. Regions required for higher-level thinking and emotional self-regulation are not mature until early adulthood. This developmental timeline is crucial to understanding why young children rely on their caregivers for emotional and physiological regulation.

Nurturing the Path to Self-Regulation

Understanding the caregiver’s role in an infant’s self-regulation becomes clearer when we consider the brain’s developmental timeline. As the higher brain regions develop, the capacity for self-regulation gradually comes online. It is only with time and maturation that children can internalize the regulation strategies modeled by their caregivers and begin to apply them independently.

This is where the concept of co-regulation, a cornerstone of Batelle’s approach, becomes vital. Our programs emphasize the importance of a consistent and regulated caregiver response, recognizing that infants require external support to calm down and return to a state of rest and relaxation so that sleep can follow.

At Batelle, our approach to infant sleep is grounded in a nuanced understanding of the nervous system’s role in sleep regulation. We recognize that a baby’s ability to transition into sleep is closely linked to their state of relaxation and emotional well-being, which in turn is closely linked to their caregiver’s state of relaxation and emotional well-being. Our programs are designed to support this ‘reciprocal dance’ in a way that not only nurtures the child, but also aids in the gradual development of their self-soothing capabilities, and paves the way for emotional resilience and self-regulation in the future.

Embracing Individual Development: Practical Advice for Parents

Much of your baby’s sleep, including the timeline for when they begin to self-soothe is out of your hands due to the individual nature of development. However, there’s much you can do to foster better sleep while respecting your child’s current developmental stage. The following strategies, integral to Batelle’s approach, offer a starting point to support your child’s developmental journey:

  • Lay the Foundation for Self-Soothing: Establish a bedtime routine and, when appropriate, place your baby down while they’re still awake. This practice encourages them to find their way to comfort and sleep, with your nearby presence offering reassurance and support.
  • Encourage Exploration and Movement: Encourage your baby’s natural movement and exploration both during the day and at night as they develop motor skills. Movement skills are a pathway toward your little one finding ways to get comfortable before they go to sleep.
  • Demonstrate Calmness: When your baby is upset, model a calm demeanor. Your composed response to their cries and fussing shows them effective ways to calm down. Over time, this co-regulation—where you guide and they follow—becomes a blueprint for their own emotional management.
  • Be Consistently Responsive: Responding to your baby’s needs in a way that is predictable and nurturing fosters a bond of trust and security. This secure base is essential for them to venture into self-soothing and, as they mature, to develop the more complex skill of self-regulation. This is a key aspect of the supportive environment we help you create at Batelle.

By adopting these strategies, you’re not only aiding your child in the present but also setting them up for success in managing their emotions and behaviors as they grow. These are not just tips; they are part of the transformative journey you embark on with Batelle.

A Balanced Approach in the Sleep Training Conversation

In the diverse landscape of sleep training, there’s often a polarized debate between advocates of ‘Cry-It-Out’ (CIO) methods and proponents of bed-sharing and following your baby’s cues exclusively. This debate can overshadow those in the middle who don’t resonate with CIO approaches or full-time bed-sharing, but need more sleep. We see you.

At Batelle, we recognize the challenges you face in navigating these polarized views, especially when trying to balance the multiple responsibilities and demands of modern parenting. Our approach offers a middle ground without the pressure of extreme viewpoints. We offer support, guidance, and the tools necessary to improve sleep for everyone. Our programs help you create a consistent, responsive, and nurturing sleep environment that respects your baby’s stage of growth and promotes the best possible sleep for your family.

Our approach is rooted in understanding and flexibility, acknowledging that every family’s situation is unique. We believe that sleep training can be a nurturing process that builds trust and connection.

This philosophy is at the heart of the Batelle method and is reflected in every aspect of our program, ensuring that the path to better sleep is a supportive and enriching experience for your entire family. Let us help you make bedtime your family’s favorite time of the day.

This article was written by Batelle – team of sleep experts, lactation consultants, therapists, doulas, and early education specialists.  

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