What does Self Settling or Self Soothing actually mean?
Is it something we can and should teach our babies to do?
Will it improve sleep like all the Google searches say it will?
As a parent, you've likely encountered the terms 'self-soothing' and ‘self-settling’, and you’ve very likely asked yourself the questions above.
Let's delve into these concepts from a holistic and evidence-based perspective.
First of all let’s look at where the term Self Soothing first came from…
Have you ever wondered why some babies seem to wake more than others in the night? A study conducted by Thomas Anders in 1979 sheds light on the matter. In reality, according to Anders, babies, in general, wake up around the same amount, but how they respond to these wakes varies.
Anders classified babies into two groups: the 'self-soothers' and the 'signallers.'
The self-soothers, upon waking, exhibited behaviours like looking around, wriggling or sucking their fingers, but effortlessly fell back to sleep without needing parental intervention.
Similarly, the signallers also woke up with a similar frequency however, they found it challenging to get back to sleep without support and would call out or begin crying, prompting their parents to respond to them.
Crucially, Anders' study did not position self-soothing as a skill to be taught but rather as an innate characteristic some babies just have from birth. It underscores the idea that the need for parental involvement during night waking is not a problem created by parents but simply a response to a genuine need from our babies.
For those babies who have ‘soother’ characteristic, it’s also vital to recognise that their ability to 'self-soothe' is contingent on their current circumstances. Even if they can often manage to fall asleep with little to no assistance, there may be instances where external factors make it challenging. Factors like teething, growth spurts, or general discomfort can affect their ability to independently settle to or back to sleep.
What about the Modern use of Self Soothing vs Self Settling?
Thinking back to the questions at the beginning of this article - today's sleep training marketing uses the terms ‘self soothing’ or ‘self settling’ as a tool to sell their services and make parents ask themselves these questions daily. They promise that by teaching our babies to self soothe / self settle, usually by waiting a certain time before responding, we will be in fact teaching them the sophisticated art of regulating their own emotions.
This is simply not true AT ALL. Even some adults aren’t able to self regulate all the time.
As per Ander’s study, we can see that some babies are able to naturally settle themselves to sleep with minimal input, but this is not the same as self regulating from a state of distress.
Let’s dive in deeper:
Self-soothing, or self-regulation, is the remarkable ability to transition from a state of dysregulation to a state of calm. It's a developmental skill that begins to take shape in early childhood but isn't fully refined until late adolescence or early adulthood (Eisenberg et al, 2010). As parents, our role in this process is crucial—we become co-regulators; external regulators; helping our little ones find that emotional calm.
Imagine your little one in a state of dysregulation—hungry, wet, uncomfortable, or simply in need of more connection or support to get back to sleep. In these moments, their tiny systems become flooded with stress hormones, making it challenging for them to find that calm that is needed to achieve sleep.
In her book Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters, Sarah Ockwell-Smith talks about asking adults in her workshops whether they can self regulate all the time? The most common answer is No, and what most adults need to help regulate their emotions when in a state of distress is pretty endless - a cup of tea,
talking with a friend or family on the phone,
cuddles from a loved one,
turning a light on
...and the list continues.
She then goes on to ask how many of those things can babies do? And the answer is just one: Crying.
They do not hold the capabilities for any kind of sophisticated thought - they call out to us to help them regulate.
Understanding that a little one might need our assistance in calming down is not a sign that you doing anything wrong, or creating a bad habit, or your little one being difficult (although don’t get me wrong, it can absolutely feel tough).
On the contrary, it's a testament to your nurturing instincts. By consistently meeting their needs and providing a secure environment, we lay the foundation for a securely attached child, emotional regulation and foster independence as they grow.
The term 'self-settling' refers to a baby's ability to fall asleep with minimal parental intervention. This being something that can be taught is an enchanting prospect, and one which is used A LOT in marketing for sleep trainers to sell their services, but here's the catch—it cannot be taught. You may have also heard about the ‘golden rule’ of Drowsy But Awake, which granted, does work for some babies but for most, is an impossible feat. NOT because the parents are doing anything wrong, but simply because their baby has a temperament that requires a little more support to help them go to sleep.
Let’s also remember here that sleep is a huge separation from us; one that many little one will find difficult to achieve by themselves for that reason alone.
A little one with a mellow temperament, whose basic needs are met, is comfortable, and feels safe, is more likely to be able to settle themselves to sleep at bedtime, or nap time. However, it's crucial to debunk a common myth—falling asleep independently does not automatically translate to being able to do that every sing time. There is zero evidence supporting the notion that self-settling leads to improved sleep outcomes.
For many families, supporting little ones to sleep for naps and at bedtime works brilliantly. In fact MANY little ones who are supported to sleep go on to sleep through the night without needing parental input and equally; those who are able to fall asleep independently may then wake and require parental input to get back to sleep.
There is no mutual exclusivity here with how a child falls asleep and how they then continue to sleep the rest of the night.
We cannot remove our babies having a genuine need in the middle of the night - even if they didn’t have that need when they were falling asleep.
As a holistic sleep coach, my mission is to foster an environment where parents feel empowered to embrace their unique parenting styles, and the individuality of their little ones. Whether your babe thrives on co-regulation or exhibits the natural rhythm of self-settling - YOU, are doing amazingly.