Letting your baby self-soothe can seem like the polar opposite of what you want to do for your crying little one. As Janet Lansbury, a parenting advisor and host of the popular podcast Respectful Parenting, puts it, “When our babies experience even the slightest frustration or discomfort, seconds can feel like hours.”
It’s uncomfortable and can seem almost harsh to withhold your loving touch to your fussy baby, but don't dismiss infant self-soothing just yet.
To show you what it’s like, Lansbury shared the video clip below. “Here’s a video of 4-month-old Joey self-soothing, shared with me by her parents, whom I know to be sensitive, responsive and loving. Joey is a happy, securely attached toddler now,” she wrote in an article on her website Janetlansbury.com.
In the video, baby Joey starts out irritable and fussy. Around the 2-minute mark, he starts to cry, but he can self-soothe a few seconds after.
However, infant self-soothing can be easily misunderstood. It’s often associated with words like, “toughening up” or “letting a baby cry it out.” But self-soothing doesn't mean abandoning your baby. It's quite the opposite — it's being in tune with his cues and asking questions like, “Is this something he can overcome himself or is there an immediate need to address (like a dirty diaper)?”
“Supporting a baby to self-soothe can mean listening to her complaints about a minute or two while she finds her thumb, rather than immediately giving her a pacifier. It can be about remembering to offer two teethers and allowing the baby to choose one and grasp it herself, rather than automatically placing something in her mouth,” says Lansbury.
Dr. Agnes Tirona-Remulla, head of the Sleep Lab at Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Muntinlupa, recommends self-soothing to help older babies (and parents) sleep through the night. “[Babies] will wake up at night, but they need to learn that most of the time it’s all right to wake up, calm down, and just go back to sleep,” says the doctor.
It takes experience to differentiate between a real cry (one that says your baby is hungry, for example) and a “palambing” one. If you respond to your child's every single demand, she’ll learn to expect you to come for every small cry, Dr. Tirona-Remulla explains.
Dr. William Sears, a renowned pediatrician, encourages moms and dads to practice infant self-soothing as well. “Between the ages of 6 and 9 months, a baby can start to learn how to soothe himself,” he writes in an advice column for Parenting.
A gradual approach is best. “For example, let's say your son is sitting on the floor near you, and you're occupied with something that doesn't involve him. Instead of scooping him up when he begins to fuss and send out ‘pick me up’ signals, reassure him verbally and with body language,” wrote Dr. Sears. “This way, he learns to be content with your presence and the sound of your voice rather than by needing to be in your arms.”
Try it out at home. Talk to your little one and try to figure out if he can sort through his qualms on his own. Trust him.
“Staying open to the possibility of self-soothing allows babies to actively take part in their care to the best of their ability. This empowers our children and ultimately makes our job easier,” says Lansbury.