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Do you have to teach your child to self soothe?

When we as parents struggle with our child´s sleep, one of the first things that is reccomended, is to teach them to self soothe. But what on earth is self soothing actually?

And is it necessary to get sleep?

What is self soothing?

Self soothing describes the process of calming down from a state of stress without help. The ability to self soothe develops throughout childhood and increases with age, leading to full capacity to self soothe in young adulthood. Children learn to self soothe by being soothed when in distress over and over again by their parent or caregiver throughout their childhoods.

So what do sleep trainers and the internet refer to when talking about self soothing?

When sleep trainers mention self soothing, they simply refer to the ability of falling asleep and going back to sleep without help. Some babies with more easy going temperaments, might be able to fall asleep more easily without their caregiver, but most won´t, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Babies and toddlers are wired for closeness and connection, since this is what helped them survive thousands of years ago. Not being able to fall asleep really isn´t a problem or even normal for the majority of children, so if your child needs you to fall asleep, rest assured that this is absolutely appropriate.

To extend on that point, if self soothing were a skill that we could teach, why do babies and toddler still need help regulating their emotions during the day? They don´t forget to walk, talk or crawl, do they? Proper self soothing (not just falling asleep without help) takes years to develop and we, as adults don´t even do it every time we are upset or stressed. Most of us need our partner or friend to talk to, a hug or some sort of distraction to calm down, so why would our little ones have to be able to nail this before their first birthday?

Is self soothing essential to get sleep?

Babies and toddlers wake up for many reasons and both physical and emotional needs are valid for needing comfort from a caregiver. "Teaching" self soothing in the form of sleep training is not going to reduce wakings, it simply leads to the child stopping to call for their parent at night. Not to mention, that for some parents this approach is too stressful or simply does not work for their individual child. Giving your child comfort at night, will not stop them from sleeping long stretches. By being repsonsive to your child´s needs day and night you´re doing a phenomenal job of showing them that they are safe and that you´ll be there when they are in distress. This is the ultimate lesson they need in order to learn how to self soothe.

But when sleep is difficult, what do you do?

Instead of trying to teach your child to not need you, focus on what´s no longer sustainable : What are you dreading about nights or naps? What has to change so you´ll feel better about supporting your child to sleep? How can you get the most rest?

Remember, you are not the reason for your child´s nightwakings or short naps! Find what works, and ignore the pressure around self soothing. You´ll know by now that self soothing doesn´t come overnight and you´re certainly not hindering the process by supporting your child to sleep.

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