I am being told that if I never teach my baby to self soothe, he’ll need me to help them to sleep forever and he won’t get the restorative sleep he needs. Is this true?
No, nope, definitely not. Ignoring the fact that self-soothing is a made up thing, for now, human development just doesn’t work that way. Every person grows up. There will always come a time where your child becomes happy to put themselves to sleep independently. It might not be until puberty, but it definitely will happen. We can’t stop it from happening by meeting our children’s needs now.
Back to that bit about self-soothing being made up.
Self-soothe as a term is… complicated. Originally it was simply a research term used to describe babies who woke and went back to sleep without signalling naturally.
No training involved. The author of that study now wishes he’d named the phenomenon something else, because what happened is that a bunch of journalists jumped on the research, misread it, and then claimed that “self-soothing” was some holy grail to strive for and something to be taught.
Hence we get to parents being told they have to teach their child to self-soothe.
But it was never something that could be taught.
We also can’t rush development. No amount of behavioural intervention is going to make a baby who isn’t developmentally capable of returning to sleep after an awakening without support suddenly capable of doing so. No amount of training is going to teach a baby to be able to calm themselves down from a place of distress, and then happily drift off to sleep. Most adults don’t have the emotional regulation skills to be able to do that. But what we know from neuroscience is that the way we do develop emotional regulation abilities is through co-regulation. Being soothed by others when we are in distress.
So even if “self-soothing” actually meant what the general public interpret it to mean - someone who can put themselves to sleep without help and calm themselves from a point of distress (crying), the only way to actually teach that is through co-regulation and emotional intelligence education. Leaving a baby to “whinge/protest/grizzle” (read cry) by themselves for set/increasing increments of time, is actually counterproductive to teaching emotional regulation.
As for the claim that your baby won’t get the restorative sleep they need without “teaching” them to sleep for longer periods, that’s not true either. Babies have short sleep cycles. As long as your baby is completing a sleep cycle (20 mins for younger babies, increasing to 45mins for older babies) and waking up happy and rested, then there’s no need to stress.
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Overnight, waking every sleep cycle is certainly a recipe for ensuring you are sleep deprived. But it isn’t causing your baby to be sleep deprived. What causes them to be sleep deprived isn’t waking - it’s not returning to sleep. The faster you can get both little one and yourself back to sleep, the less sleep deprived you’ll both be. So feed and cuddle away, because that’s what is going to get you both the most sleep.