Parental Dilemmas about Babies’ Abilities to Self-Soothe

A baby crying with his parents behind him in bedIndividuals with self-confidence and high self-esteem experience themselves as having a sense of agency. This means they see themselves as people who know what they want and behave in the world as the person or agent who can satisfy their own needs and desires. To think of oneself as having agency means believing “I have what it takes to get what I want and take care of myself.” I recently had the opportunity to observe two new parents, Dina and Peter, and their 3-month-old baby, Cooper. As I watched them with their new child, I began to think about how parental behaviors affect separation/individuation and the development of agency so early in life. This occurred to me when I became aware that the fundamental question for these parents about their behavior was, “How can I soothe my baby?”

Learning to Recognize Happiness in Your Baby
The early weeks and months of caring for a new baby, especially a first child, is fraught with uncertainty. It is an enterprise of research, of trial and error. What is my baby communicating? How should I respond? What will make baby satisfied? Is baby happy? Why is he crying? No parent knows for sure what their baby is trying to tell them. The good parent wants to figure it out, not only because she is exhausted, but because she wants to know what to do so that baby feels okay to her – satisfied, happy, unfussy, not crying, etc.

When the newborn comes home the questions typically are: “Do I feed her, change her, rock her, hold her, walk with her? What should I do?” If you are lucky enough that you don’t have an extremely fussy baby, after three months you probably feel somewhat successful in finding a number of ways to soothe him. It’s always a relief to find what makes baby happy and to give yourself a break from the fatigue of early parenting. Once parents see that they can soothe their baby, they begin to consider whether it might be possible for baby to learn to soothe himself. A slight shift occurs where a new question is added: “Can I, and/or should I, do something so baby can put himself to sleep or amuse himself for a brief time?”

Every baby and baby/parent dynamic is different, and needs its own solution to the question, “How and when do we help baby learn to self-soothe?” As I recognized that this was the critical question that Dina and Peter were beginning to struggle with, it occurred to me that developing the ability to self-soothe may be the first step in the separation/individuation process. In the process of developing the ability to self-soothe, the baby learns to tolerate small doses of anxiety.

A Sense of “I”
As this ability increases over the early years of childhood, the child begins to have a sense of himself as someone who, even while feeling some anxiety, can do it. “It” may be wait for mommy to come home, stay with a baby sitter, go off to school, have a play date, etc. Gradually, the goal is for children to develop the capacity to make decisions about their behaviors based on knowing what they feel and recognizing that they don’t have to stop themselves from acting, even though they feel some anxiety.  The wider the range of feelings that can be tolerated, the more information there is for self-guidance on how to act in the world.

When baby is learning to self-soothe, he is beginning the process of developing a sense of agency, i.e., a sense that “I can do something to get what I want.” At three months, Cooper can’t know what he wants or needs. But he can feel a disequilibrium or physical tension when he doesn’t get what he needs. He feels something is off and wants to resume feeling at ease and return to homeostasis. A 3-month-old doesn’t necessarily have a sense of “I” yet, but he is no longer the totally symbiotic infant that you brought home from the hospital. He is beginning to register the experience that he gets a response when he cries. Maybe his smile tells us that he is pleased to see another out there in the world. He probably doesn’t understand the idea of an “other,” but something has changed for him internally.

If parents are inclined to support the hypothesis that it is a good idea to help baby learn to self-soothe, the often troubling question is, “when is the right time to act on this?” Remembering that there is no absolute answer to this question, let’s look at my observations of 3-month-old Cooper. He had just been breast fed by his mother and his father was bouncing him as they walked. Cooper seemed happy. Then Peter asked Dina, “Should we try putting him down under the mobile?” Mom went to wind up the mobile and as the animals started spinning slowly, Peter placed Cooper underneath.

I watched as Cooper seemed fascinated with the movement. He made soft sounds, moved his arms and legs and was happy with himself. Five minutes later, Cooper’s sounds changed. Dina and Peter looked at each other nervously. Dina asked Peter, “What do you think?” and Peter responded, “I don’t know. I don’t think he’s upset; let’s wait another minute or two and see what happens.” Staying out of sight of Cooper, Dina looked a little worried but waited. Cooper began fussing more strongly. Two minutes later Dina went and scooped him up.

How Much Fuss is Too Much Fuss?
Did Peter and Dina wait too long, or could they have let Cooper fuss a bit longer, or waited until he was more clearly crying? There is no right answer here. When Dina picked him up, he stopped fussing and Dina and Peter seemed more relaxed. Everyone had managed to tolerate their feelings. I asked Peter and Dina what it was like for them when Cooper began to fuss. Dina said, “My first reaction is to want to run and get him. But I stop and listen and then I breathe when I feel like he is pretty much okay.” Peter added, “It’s hard to know exactly when it turns from sounds that mean he’s fine to when he is not happy or upset. I think we are beginning to see that he may be fussing and a little unhappy, but that’s not the same as when he’s really crying.” Dina chimed in, “We sure know what that’s like almost every time we give him a bath!”

What Dina and Peter’s experience with Cooper illustrates is how this one couple determined for themselves what feelings were tolerable for them and what they felt was tolerable for Cooper to experience. I talked more with Dina and Peter and asked them about Cooper and self-soothing. They told me that the hardest thing for them was figuring out how much to let him fuss around sleep.

Dina explained, “It makes us anxious and it’s not ever okay that he cries and sounds distressed. For the first two months, he was up a lot feeding and then would sleep for a few hours and start crying.” Peter added, “We never let him cry when he woke or when we put him down to sleep. Now, it’s not like we let him cry, but we don’t jump as soon as we hear a noise from him. I don’t know if we can discriminate better between fussy sounds and distress, or if he is communicating in more ways than either contentment or distress. Now we might let him fuss a little and sometimes he just puts himself back to sleep. I don’t know if down the road we will be able to let him cry much around sleep. I know that lots of our friends are really struggling with that with their older babies.”

The issue of sleep that Peter mentions is, in my experience, the most difficult for parents to figure out. For babies, sleep can be understood as an experience of separation which can create anxiety. One would naturally expect that parents would respond to that anxiety and have greater difficulty figuring out how to respond to their 1-year-old who loudly cries when put to bed. In addition, parents are often in need of rest themselves, and they greatly wish for a respite from total baby care.

From Self-Soothing to a Sense of Agency
I believe if we help our children learn slowly and gradually to self-soothe and tolerate their anxiety early enough, it will help with their ability to self-soothe around bedtime and form the starting point for self-soothing throughout adulthood. This may mean considering the use of a pacifier or encouraging or allowing thumb sucking. It may mean finding times to experiment with baby spending alone time in the swing or under the mobile. It doesn’t mean letting baby become overly distressed. The dilemma for each parent is deciding what “overly distressed” means. When is it the right time for them and for their baby, and how much anxiety feels tolerable? Most pediatricians agree that before children are one year old, their nervous systems are not developed enough to manage too many minutes of distress and tension. As with most things related to what is the right thing to do for a baby, there is no clear, specific agreement on what is best.

When we help our children learn to self-soothe early on, we are providing them with an important gift. The ability to self-soothe lays the foundation for the development of the capacity to recognize, moderate, and tolerate our feelings as we go through life and engage in relationships. If our children have the capacity to soothe themselves, we will have given them what they need to become separate, unique people with self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of agency.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cadence

    May 9th, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    Such a timely article for me as my daughter and her husband are currently struggling with letting their infant learn to self soothe at night. I have tried to tell them that this is a valuable lesson to teach him from an early age and that if you know that the baby is not hurt, hungry, wet or dirty, then it’s okay for them to try to let him cry it out. If you don’t do that when they are young then you end up with a child of 10 who still has a hard time getting himself to sleep. I think that there are a lot of parents who think that it’s easier to go to the baby every time he cries, and maybe it’s a little quieter but in the long run that is establishing some habits that are very hard to break.

  • michelle

    May 10th, 2013 at 11:58 PM

    I’d certainly say the sense of self is developed at a very early stage…and parents play a big role in this…wanting to sooth a child would be every parent’s aim but letting the child find his own identity should be in the focus too.

    too much protectionism is not good…because to live and to thrive one needs to be able to adapt and to be able to sooth him/herself…a protected young life stage cannot easily translate into a confident later stage!

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