When is my baby ready to self-soothe?

baby holding mom's hand for self-soothing

Living life on your baby’s schedule means you are up every 1-3 hours around the clock. It is a totally different pattern of sleeping and being awake than before having the baby and can feel exhausting. 

I bet you have been asked more than once if your baby is a “good” sleeper. What the person asking means is if they are sleeping through the night. Babies are not designed to sleep for an entire night. Their bellies are small and they need to eat more often than we do as adults. 

One question asked by many parents as their baby gets older is, “When are they going to self-soothe?” Allowing your baby to depend on you to help soothe themselves is protective of milk supply and proper weight gain, growth, and development. 

  • Prolactin is a hormone that is released about 30 minutes after your baby begins nursing and signals for more milk to be made. 
  • Prolactin has its circadian rhythm and levels of prolactin are highest during the night with a peak between 2 am - 5 am.(1) 
  • When your baby nurses during the middle of the night when prolactin is already high, it has a major influence on your next day's milk supply. 
  • Prolactin levels are lowest in the afternoon. It is one of the reasons babies cluster feed during that time of day when milk is naturally lower.

In our society, we focus a lot on independence at nap times and bedtime. They are often the focus of when we expect or hope for the baby to self-soothe. The thing is, this doesn’t match with your baby’s biological blueprint. 

  • Mammals are carrier animals and are meant to stay with their nursing parent to meet all their needs. 
  • If a young baby were put down in nature, their survival rate would be dramatically lower. 
  • Babies rely on the adult to protect them and help them co-regulate as do other mammals.(2) 
  • Some mammals rely on their adult for a short period while others, like the Orangutan, are carried or attached to their mother’s body and nurse for 7 years.

Although we have the largest brain among mammals, our babies are more dependent on us than some other mammals. When a baby is born, their body systems are immature. 

By being skin to skin with their nursing parent, babies are better able to regulate their temperature, breathing, heart rate, and nervous system. You might even notice, that when you are stressed out, your baby gets stressed out more easily but if you relax, it can help your baby do the same.

Self-soothing is:

  • the ability to relax, calm down and go to sleep or fall back asleep and regulate their own emotions without the help of someone else.
  •  It is a developmental milestone and doesn’t happen until the brain is mature enough to do so. 

Early brain development has long-lasting impacts. A study that looked at the brain images of preschool children showed that children who had mothers who were responsive and more nurturing towards them had greater hippocampal volume. The hippocampus helps regulate stress, behavior, and is important for memory. The amygdala part of the brain, responsible for emotion, was positively affected in children who had more responsive mothers.(3)

Babies and children who are responded to when they cry learn that when they have a need, it is met. When left to soothe themselves before they are capable or ready to do so, may teach them that nobody is there to meet their needs and they shut down and will stop crying while their stress hormones remain high. 

During the first 6 months of life, babies' sleep-wake cycle during the night is closely connected to their need to eat. As they get older, during the second half of their first year, they begin to develop longer periods of sleep and follow a sleep pattern of more sleep when it is night and more wakefulness during the daylight hours. Still, sleeping through the night is considered to be 5-6 hours. 

Did You Know?

It is normal for babies 12 months and younger to wake an average of 3 times during the night.(4) 

Babies who are held more or who always have someone to help them calm and soothe nearby, tend to cry less.(5) They develop a strong sense of attachment and security which contributes to greater independence and the ability to control our emotions later in life. Pushing self-soothing before the baby and their brain are ready makes it harder for them to regulate their emotions and reactions later in life which can affect all aspects of life.(2)

The first few years of your baby’s life go by quickly, but when you are in the middle of it, it can feel exhausting at times. To meet your baby’s needs, it is important to meet your own needs, too.

  • Rest or sleep when your baby sleeps to get in a little more rest
  • Go for a walk and get fresh air and sunshine
  • Have others help with chores around the house so you can take care of the baby
  • Nourish your body with nutrient-dense foods
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Learn infant massage - it relaxes your baby and you!
  • Wear your baby in a sling to keep them close and meet their needs while still being able to be on the go

Myths & Facts about self-soothing:

  • Myth - You have to teach a baby to fall asleep on their own
  • Fact - when babies are developmentally ready, they will sleep for longer stretches at night all on their own
  • Myth - If you let your baby cry it out, they will learn to self soothe
  • Fact - Responding to your baby supports later self-soothing and self-regulation. Left to cry, a baby may stop because they realize nobody is coming but their cortisol level remains high

Responding to your baby, soothing them, develops strong attachment and bonding that leads to healthy emotional development. Allowing your child to be dependent leads to greater independence. When you meet your baby’s needs they understand their voice matters and that the world is a safe place to be.

Footnotes:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11856965/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK225568/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22308421/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201414/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3517799/#:~:text=At%20the%20time%20of%20peak,and%2012%20weeks%20of%20age.

Other Resources:

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/parenting-family/building-a-secure-attachment-bond-with-your-baby.htm

http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/independence.pdf


1 comment

  • I loved reading this! I continue to hear about self soothing but it just doesn’t feel right to me. Just an affirmation to follow my gut instinct. Thank you for sharing this info.
    ———
    Legendairy Milk replied:
    ❤️ We are always happy to help provide information to support you on your journey!

    Michelle

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