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Teaching Your Baby To Self Soothe

Guest article, written by Sarah Mabbutt from The Happinest

From the moment a woman announces she is pregnant, she is bombarded with different advice, ideas and suggestions on what she should do, and what she should expect, from her new baby. This well meaning advice can lead to lots of confusion, and a feeling of overwhelm for new parents who simply want to do the best for their child. 

This is never more true than when it comes to sleep. How much do they need? How should you respond to them? When should they sleep through the night? The list of questions is endless. 

Sleeping Baby - Should she have to cry it out?

The problem with all this advice is that quite often parents are given unrealistic information on how much, and how well, a baby will sleep, and their expectations might not be developmentally or physically appropriate. The baby may be labelled as having a sleep problem or being a difficult child, when, in fact, they are exhibiting normal infant behaviour. This only serves to make the parent feel like they are doing something wrong or are failing their baby somehow. 

Cry It Out

One of the most emotive sleep topics is whether you should leave your baby to cry alone at night, in order to teach them to self settle. 

It has been suggested that it is really important for babies to learn to fall asleep on their own. Professor Weinraub says: “When mothers tune in to these night time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep”.

There are now plenty of popular sleep training methods that have jumped onto this bandwagon, and suggest that leaving a baby to cry alone is simply a quick and effective way to help everyone get more sleep. 

If that were true, with no downside, wouldn’t that be awesome! But the bottom line is that the current research does not allow us to make a fully informed decision about whether strategies such as controlled crying or cry it out cause harm or not. There is enough evidence however for us to be concerned that at some point it potentially could cause harm.

The Impact of Controlled Crying

Let’s think about this logically. It would be very distressing for you, as an adult, to cry yourself to sleep each night. And even more distressing if the person you loved most in the world saw that you were upset and sent you away to work it out for yourself. The same is true for a vulnerable baby calling out for his parents in the only way they can - communication through crying. 

Eventually a baby that is left to cry will give up hope that comfort will come, and go into a “withdrawn” state, where they stop crying and fall asleep alone, upset and stressed. They have not learnt to “self-soothe” at all, but they have learnt that their parent will not respond to their needs,  so there is no point bothering to ask them to in the future. A baby will learn this in around 3 nights, a fact that many advocates of leaving a baby to cry alone use as a sales tool - claiming to “teach a baby to fall asleep independently in a matter of days”. 

There are plenty of studies that suggest that this is not only distressing for the baby in the short term, but can also have a negative affect on them in the long term. 

The 1999 Ontario Early Years Study explains how the brain is being hard-wired in early development and how the patterns which emerge will last for a lifetime. How the adult brain reacts to stress is influenced by this early development, and adults who were stressed as babies can have abnormal stress reactions in later life, as well as a greater vulnerability to social attachment disorders. 

In 1998, Harvard research showed that babies who cried excessively were susceptible to stress as adults, and sensitive to future trauma. Chronic stress in infancy can also lead to an over-active adrenaline system, causing anti-social and aggressive behavior, and even affect physical illness in the future.

So the truth is that there are studies and arguments on both sides of the discussion. We must accept that we don’t have all the answers right now, and more needs to be investigated by the experts. 

What Should I Do?!

But what do parents who are sleep deprived and in need of help today do with all the conflicting advice? The only thing they can - make informed decisions based on their own parental instincts, which are often to respond to their babies in a loving and nurturing way. The same way parents have been for thousands of years. 

It is also helpful and reassuring for parents to understand what is normal and realistic to expect of little ones. For example, it is completely normal for young babies to want and need a parent close by. It is also completely normal for babies to wake up multiple times in the night. You are not doing anything ‘wrong’ if this is your child, and you are not ‘making a rod for your own back’ or creating a ‘clingy child’, by going to them and giving them a big cuddle. 

Finally, don’t just blindly listen to the advice of others, or accept the information as gospel in the latest fad baby book. Know that there are plenty of choices available to help babies, and their families, get more sleep, some of which are gentle and nurturing methods that don’t involve leaving a baby to cry alone. Parents must ultimately choose the method that is right for them and their family. 

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Sarah Mabbutt is a Gentle & Holistic Sleep Coach, offering affordable 1:1 telephone sleep consultations, to help your whole family sleep better. If you would like more personalised advice, you can book a consultant with here here: bookthatin.online/HappinestSleepSOS

Find out more about The Happinest at www.thehappinestbabycompany.co.uk