It’s a phrase you probably never heard before you were a parent, and now you’re obsessed with it. “If only he would self-soothe we would all get more sleep” – right? Lets look at what it means, how it works and how to achieve it (obviously in an age-appropriate and developmentally sensitive way!).

You may be surprised to know that the term ‘self-soothing’ is a made up phrase that was invented by sleep researcher Dr Thomas Anders in the 1970’s. It’s not a robust, clinically proven term at all. It has come to be synonymous with laying a child down in his own bed, awake, and for them to be able to get themselves to sleep without parental intervention, but there is no scientific basis of fact in it at all.  To know more about it, we need to have a quick look at 2 things – sleep cycles, and the stress response.

So – if given half a chance, when you lie down to sleep, you sleep all through the night for 8 hours straight – right? Wrong, my friend. We all sleep in short bursts of between 90-120 minutes. But adults have learnt how to get themselves back to sleep and transition between alternating sleep cycles of active REM and deep sleep, so when we wake, we most likely punch the pillow, cough, roll over or whatever, and go back to sleep, remembering nothing about it in the morning.

But imagine for a moment that when you woke on one of these normal occasions, you found yourself in the meat aisle in Tesco. Chances are you’d be freaked out. You’d need to get in the car, drive home, get back to bed, calm down and go back to sleep again. Now consider your young child: if he or she falls asleep in your arms, being rocked, breastfed, cuddled or whatever whilst he or she falls asleep, then when she wakes a the end of a sleep cycle, she will expect the same sleep ‘cue’ to go back to sleep. If she wakes up and finds herself in her cot, rather than in Mummy’s arms, it’s like the baby equivalent of finding yourself in the meat aisle.

Now, the difficult truth is that it’s normal for your baby to expect to be parented back to sleep. Its normal for your baby (and even your 2-year-old) to wake up several times a night, needing you to get them gently back to sleep. If that is what you’re doing – take heart. You’re not alone, it’s normal, healthy and you’re not doing any harm to your child. Responsive parenting, sometimes called gentle parenting, sometimes attachment parenting, holistic parenting, whatever phrase you choose, you’re not the first, and you certainly wont be the last!

I promise you that if you do nothing about this, it will eventually sort itself out. All children learn to transition between sleep states and sleep through the night when they are developmentally ready to do so. For some babies this happens early. Studies have shown that babies who tend to spend more time in quiet sleep rather than active sleep when they are newborns will develop this ability earlier than the active sleepers. So for some babies, it seems that this is part of their genetic makeup. Other babies do not seem ready to do this until well into their second or third year.

So this is the tricky part then – Say your baby has always been a light, fidgety, active sleeper, and even now at 11 months or so startles at the slightest noise, stirs when you put him down in the cot, and wakes up every hour or two all night long…….. Now what do you do? Do you ride it out? Do you try and coax him?

I’ve been here friends. My eldest daughter who is wonderful in so many ways has always hated sleep. We joked that she thought sleep was for dead people and she certainly tried to do as little of it as she could. In fact, I often thought that I couldn’t physically survive on any less sleep than that which she allowed me. She fought daytime sleep from just 6 weeks. She has never needed more than 9 hours a night, even from toddlerhood. She regularly gets up at 5am ready to start the day, and not be ready to down tools until 8pm. And I was exhausted. I mean really exhausted, by about 9 months. I feel your pain!

Attachment parenting suggests waiting it out, that it will get better, that intervening is not necessary. I love the philosophy of attachment parenting. I really really believe in it. But I also genuinely believe that the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a baby’ is true. As I see it, the problem nowadays isn’t our children. They’re just doing what children have been doing down the centuries! It’s our support crew that’s the problem. Or the lack of it should I say. We don’t live in villages anymore. We don’t live opposite Mum and Dad, next door to our best friend and her 2 kids, and a short stroll from our sister who happens to live next door to our in-laws. We don’t live in a village, so who is going to raise the baby? You of course. That. Is the problem.  Because none of this would matter if we could stay at home all day, call on a neighbour or a friend or family member for help anytime, and didn’t have to work.

So, that is one truth. Here is the second truth: the stress response. When you get upset or stressed, the stress hormone cortisol floods your brain. This is helpful, because it enables us to run for a bus in an adrenalin-fuelled frenzy, or think sharply in an emergency. But imagine if you had that heart-pumping, rapid-breathing, sweaty-palmed response for an extended period of time? Adults have the ability to do something called ‘self-regulation’ to calm down, whether by rationalising the situation, deep breathing, talking it through etc. Young children have no such ability. They need a calm and caring adult to help them in their distress, to facilitate the process of de-stressing. Children learn to self-soothe by being soothed. So don’t be afraid to comfort your baby or child when they’re upset: in doing so you’re helping them learn that distress isn’t permanent, that problems can be solved, and that someone loves them enough to help them through it. Children who are dis-regulated appear calm but their stress response is set permanently high. You know those people who seem to ‘fly off the handle’ at the slightest thing? Those people who can be ‘tipped over the edge’ relatively easily? I wonder whether they were forced to ‘self-soothe’ too early by being left to cry it out? It’s hard to prove causation of course, but science tells us that stress hormones are toxic to the developing brain. And crying it out doesn’t teach children to self soothe – it teaches them that nobody is going to give them what they want. In fact in a recent study children undergoing ‘controlled crying’ had their stress levels measured non-invasively (using saliva samples) and their stress levels were unsurprisingly high. Then eventually all the children/babies went to sleep and seemed to be apparently in a ‘deep and peaceful sleep’. They checked their stress levels again and found that they were just as high as when they were crying it out. In other words, they hadn’t learnt to self soothe at all: they had just given up. It’s why its not a strategy I recommend at all, at any age. Because not only does it not really achieve the desired aim by definition, but it also doesn’t teach children anything positive. So don’t worry that they will never learn to calm themselves down if you help them – entirely the opposite is true.

So, on the one hand, we have the constructed fake term ‘self-soothing’, which we now know is a developmental milestone achieved at different times by different babies. We also know that crying alone as a form of teaching children to sleep independently may teach them not to ‘signal’ to their parents, but it doesn’t actually teach them to calm themselves down. So, two truths separated by the harsh reality of modern life: that early childhood is very hard work, it’s exhausting, and often there is no support crew to help out.

That’s where a middle ground comes in. My philosophy is that whilst attachment parenting is the ideal, I often meet parents who are at the end of their rope. I want to be able to offer them a realistic alternative to waiting a possible year or two more of poor quality sleep.

Gentle sleep coaching requires a few things:

  • Time! These techniques take a few weeks
  • Consistency, day and night (read my earlier blog on this)
  • Supportive partner. These techniques work, but you may well feel even more tired  in the early days before it starts to get better
  • A sound understanding of your child’s usual wake up patterns
  • A knowledge of what your child’s sleep cue is

When you have all this, my approach is to take whatever your child currently needs to fall asleep with, and remove it just a little bit earlier than they would ideally like. You keep advancing this every few days until your child is falling asleep without help. Of course there are other things that we can do, other tactics to employ – but they really depend on the age of your child, their developmental stage, health history, diet and so on. One size does not fit all. Some children resist these changes for longer; others are fairly easy going. Some children are so strong-willed that it would be silly to ignore how they are coping. You sometimes need to press the pause button and re-try at a better time.

To finish with, I like Dr. Sears’ advice on how to gauge sleep coaching. He suggests using your child as a barometer. In other words, if your child’s behaviour doesn’t seem to change much in the day, and seems their usual, confident, happy self, then keep going. If they suddenly become more whiny, clingy, inexplicably unhappy or separation anxiety worsens – press pause, or go more slowly.

So, not an easy one. You DO have options – and although it absolutely fine to ‘live with it’ and know that ‘this too shall pass’, you can get your child to learn to fall asleep independently without it involving lots of tears. Just make sure your expectations are realistic, and allow plenty of time.

Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.