Self-soothing. Possibly the biggest lie ever foisted on parents

It figures it would be the latest propaganda about baby sleep that would wake me from my blogging slumber. This time it was news reports of a study by Dr. Marsha Weinraub, a psychologist at Temple University. In an article recently published in Developmental Psychology, she reports on data (collected 20 years ago, oddly enough) from a study which tracked patterns of nighttime sleeping and wakening in babies aged 6 to 36 months. Sleep patterns were recorded at four points in time – 6 months, 15 months, 2 years and 3 years. They found that 30% of the babies were sleeping through every night at age 6 months, while another 29% were waking one or two nights a week. The researchers decided for some reason that 30% and 29% add up to 66%, and that this means that that most babies sleep through the night at six months.

I don’t agree with the math or the interpretation, but what really got me is the egregiously inaccurate way these findings were spun in the news piece put out by Temple University’s communications department and subsequently parroted in web and news stories around the world. The University news story  is framed with the entirely unjustified and arguably dangerous headline  “Let crying babies lie: Study supports notion of leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep.”

The study does nothing of the sort.

I have to wonder if that headline made Dr. Weinraub, who is an attachment researcher among other things, cringe. But, upon reading the journal article it’s very clear that she does support the mainstream idea that it’s important for babies to learn how to “self-soothe” and that mothers who attend too often or too quickly somehow interfere with this “ability.”

This is an opinion, not fact. Nothing in her data supports this idea.

Further, Weintraub’s opinion is based one the biggest lies that parents have ever been told: the doctrine of self-soothing.

I gotta tell ya. My blood pressure rises every time I hear or see the words self-soothe. Because it’s such a crock. There is no research proof whatsoever that babies who sleep through the night do so because they have learned to “self-soothe.”

Oh, search the literature and you’ll find all sorts of references to self-soothing, some of which Dr. Weinraub quotes. I know those studies because I read them. I traced my way back through the all the references on self-soothing, trying to locate the study that actually proved that babies soothe themselves back to sleep. I couldn’t find it  – just a bunch of people saying (claiming) that babies learn to self-soothe around six months. But actually, all that’s really been proven, as Dr. Weinraub’s data confirms, is that some babies are sleeping through the night by age six months. But whether or not they do this because they’ve learned to self-soothe, is an interpretation, not science-based fact.

How do I know? I e-mailed Dr. Thomas Anders, the guy who invented the term self-soothing way back in the in 1970s. Here’s what he said when I asked him if any studies had documented that infants who go back sleep without crying engage in some sort of soothing behaviour to help themselves get back to sleep.

“I know of no studies that address either of your questions. Self soothing is a label we coined to contrast it with signaling (crying) upon awakening. I would bet that most non-signaling awakenings occur without active self soothing.”

That’s a direct quote. I still have the e-mail.

So this self-soothing that experts talk about is nothing more than a made-up research term. But here’s what sometimes happens to research terms. Somebody coins a research term in a study and then all the researchers doing similar research start to adopt it because it’s “in the literature.”  But after awhile people start to forget that it’s just a research term. And since self-soothing appears to mean a certain thing – a baby actively soothing herself back to sleep – people started believing that it meant much more than it was ever intended to mean. This is the same sort of thing that happens in propaganda and advertising. Repeat something over and over and people start to assume it’s true.

But,  no Virginia, there is no such thing as self-soothing, at least not the self-soothing that conventional sleep pundits talk about.

I’m not saying that babies don’t wake up and go back to sleep on their own without crying. Some do. And I’m not saying babies never do things that could be thought of as self-soothing. Obviously some suck their fingers and thumbs and seem to be calmed  by that. I’ve seen it happen. But what isn’t proven – even though lots and lots of experts will tell you it has – is that babies learn the “skill” of self-soothing and that this “skill” is a developmentally normal and appropriate milestone for all six-month old babies.

So, anybody who says things like,  “Learning how to self-soothe is a vital skill in learning how to develop good sleeping patterns during infancy,”  (as one news story posited) is either a liar or very careless with facts.

And anyone who claims that it’s normal for all babies to sleep through the night at six months is ignoring mountains of research evidence. In fact, the pro-sleep training pundits’ own studies all show that night-waking is so common that it can only be thought of as one kind of normal. To be fair, Weinraub doesn’t exactly state that anything is wrong with babies who wake at night beyond six months. Mind you she does suggest that some babies may have had their “self-soothing” skills interfered with by parents who are too quick to comfort them. Imagine! Parents wanting to calm an upset baby. Shocking!


Night waking is a tough issue for a lot of families. I know I’ve been there. (None of our three boys slept through the night until they were three – consistent, by the way, with one of the patterns noted in the Weinraub paper). Tons of professionals, of varying opinions and philosophies, possibly including Marsha Weinraub, are sincere in their intent to help parents.

I don’t believe there is any one solution that will work for all families.

But a couple of things are certain. It doesn’t help to keep repeating something (the doctrine of self-soothing) that isn’t true. Nor do I think it helps to tell parents that something that is within the range of normal is a disorder, or a sign of weak parental limit-setting, a sign of a disordered baby, or that night waking in baby and toddlerhood causes sleep and behaviour problems (I defy anyone to show me a single study that proves this).

Some other time I’ll get into the elephant in the room which is the colossal disconnect between mainstream infant sleep ideology and the social and biological realities of breastfeeding (something that all mothers are encouraged – pressured, some say – to do these days). The biggest single predictor of night waking in this study was breastfeeding at six months, something health authorities want all mothers to be doing.

There’s actually a lot of pretty interesting data in this study that was not reported in media stories. In fact, I think the study could have been spun in a totally different way. I’ll tell you about that in my next blog – very soon, I promise.

(This post has generated an amount of interest that really surprised me. If you want to read my take on what self-soothing really is, click here.)

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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180 Responses to Self-soothing. Possibly the biggest lie ever foisted on parents

  1. Maybe we need to be more specific here. It’s the ability to close the eyes and fall into sleep without assistance. It’s a learned skill! Some learn it earlier than others.

  2. I have a few comments. First, and foremost, I am going to be the advocate for the baby or child. It’s a fact, that infant, babies and children need more sleep then we do and that their health is in risk if we don’t lay that foundation. Sleep is not a natural thing that infants, babies and young children know how to regulate themselves. They learn from their parents how to form sleep. Sleep is a 100% learned behavior. We first start to see this around 6-8 weeks. We can’t control a lot as parents but we can give our children the opportunity for sleep. Without sleep, both the parents, child and family suffer. I support both breastfeed and formula fed babies because it is a choice that a mother/father has to make. They aren’t in the wrong for choosing either one. I also support attached parents, and parents who have their children sleep on a routine biological sleep schedule. That being said, we know there is research that says a child’s cognitive development and emotional intelligence is jeopardized when he/she doesn’t get the proper amount of sleep. Are we willing to compromise a child’s emotional and physical health based on our own views and feelings? I think that Crying It Outs has as much as a bad rap as Self Soothing. I don’t think there has ever been a child on psychologist couch at age 16 because their parents had a schedule for them to sleep as babies. I do see children and teenagers that have have sleep and emotional/physical issues because they didn’t have the proper sleep with they were young and struggle with it throughout there lives. LIke everything in life, there needs to be a balance. How can one be the best parent, if they aren’t getting the sleep they need? Also, there are many methods I would recommend that don’t mean endless amount of crying but also don’t mean that that parents need to feed, rock or hold babies every time they struggle with sleep. Often times, as an infant & child sleep consultant, I hear parents says that will not let their babies cry if they are struggling with sleep, but their children are either on their breast the whole time or they are crying anyways in the background from complete exhaustion. In todays world of two income homes, parents can’t afford to lack sleep up to three years or can’t afford to offer the breast (if their are even breast to offer (gay population/mothers who can’t breastfeed) when their child is tired or overtired. I see that people are on both sides of the fences and I think its important to do the research on both sides of the argument and either find the middle ground or respect each others parenting styles. Unfortunately, there isn’t research on healthy sleep habits for healthy children today because research money is geared towards sleep disorders (sleep apnea for example) so I am thankful that you pointed out that the research in the article was dated and misleading. I respect your opinion but I simply wish you would have factored other information into your blog as well. To all parents to be or parents who are struggling with their infant, babies or child’s sleep, I highly suggest finding a unbiased, supportive sleep consultant (many wiling to do phone and email consults) to find the best solution that fits your lifestyle.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Erin: I agree with a lot of what you say. My blog post was not designed to the last word on all aspects of infant sleep, as I’m sure you could tell. If you look at my previous blogs you’ll see that I have made a number of references to parents needing different options and I have also been critical of those who claim that sleep training is damaging for kids. I’ll have more to say. I can’t put it all in one blog. It looks I’ll be doing a series of blogs on sleep, and one of them will touch on some of the issues you raised.

      But bottom line, I don’t see myself as any sort of expert on what is right or best infant sleep. But what I do know is how to debunk bad reporting or misunderstanding of research findings. And one point you made that I do want to respond to is the one about the connection between sleep problems and other sorts of mental and physical problems in older children. No argument there. The question is, is there any relationship between that and night waking at age 7 months/ Even though sleep experts and researchers say that there is, I’ve never a single study that shows a connection between night waking in babyhood and sleep, health or behavior problems later in children. Even though you can find dark references suggesting that night waking leads to later problems, complete with citations, in the introductions to lots of journal articles, when I read the studies cited, the research amounts to little more than a hill of maybes.

      I think helping parents deal with the immediate problem at hand – how everybody can get enough sleep and feel OK about – is a better way to think about this. Much better than throwing around scary assertions about the potential (and very speculative) future impacts of CIO, or unfixed night waking or whatever. And I agree with your view that supportive sleep consultants may well be very helpful for many families.

      • Linda says:

        I find that all the mothers with poor sleepers say this and endlessly complain. You are the parent ACT like the parent and TEACH your child to sleep. Looking for excuses that’s all.

    • Christina says:

      I can’t wrap my head around the “sleep” being a 100% learned skill. I don’t know about every one else but my babies have both been able to sleep since day one. Now both of them woke and when they did normally hunger was the reason behind the opening the there little eyes. A few times were nightmares as they’ve grown but in general its hunger, wetness or it was time to wake.

      • uncommonjohn says:

        I agree. If sleep is a learned skill, some kids must learn it in the womb.

      • Tiffany says:

        Agreed. I’ve additionally heard it suggested that sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone to be reached, same as sitting up or talking. If this is the case, it would only stand to reason that our little ones are not going to sleep through the night until their little brains are developmentally ready, in spite of sleep training (though some babies may need some to discern day from night). Comforting for some, frustrating for others :-)

      • Christina says:

        I am *nodding* in agreement with your statement.

      • Ksmith says:

        Agreed. Newborns don’t need to be taught to be newborns. they sleep, poop, and eat when they need to, not based on an arbitrary schedule. Scheduling them, especially when they are young, is not only unnecessary but also detrimental to learning their natural patterns, which can be gently directed, bit by bit, to fit your own scheduling needs once they are a bit older.

    • Herb Wiseman says:

      Sleep is NOT a 100% learned behaviour. Temperament and other physiological factors are at play. I could site my experience as a professional counsellor (45 years almost) or my parenting (3 kids) but those are anecdotal. Unfortunately they clearly do not support many of your statements. We do not understand sleep its role or how to get a good night’s sleep.

    • Karen says:

      “one” can be a good parent by controlling one’s self and acting like an adult.
      by sacrifice, by pushing through. adults have that ability. making the right choice, doing the hard thing.

      sleep is not natural? I don’t buy that. it seemed pretty natural to my daughter, from the minute she was born and fell asleep after her first nursing. she slept a lot those first days and certainly not because I had it scheduled. she nursed to sleep, slept in daddy’s arms, in her carseat, next to our bed (for THREE hours after her last nighttime nursing…. that’s pretty good for a 3 day old).

      it’s natural to me. in fact, sometimes I have to fight the natural urge, when I want to get something done.

      I nursed my baby to sleep for her naps and at night time. I rocked her and walked the floor with her many many times. I lied down with her when she stopped nursing to sleep. she slept great for her naps and through the night or if she woke in the night I nursed, then when she grew older I comforted her at any night waking… and she slept again!

      at age 7 she still sleeps 10 -12 hours a night, naturally. even now I don’t send her to her room comfortless. we read to her, say prayers, give kisses and she sleeps! I’ve never shown her a sleep schedule nor forced her to sleep or stay in bed longer.

      I sorta wonder at your claim that no one ends up on the therapist sofa over being left to cry it out. surely the young adult doesn’t remember sobbing in the dark alone, but he or she feels the unmet needs that started in infancy. perhaps the parent who can’t be bothered to hold and infant can’t meet other needs of the child. maybe the stress that flooded the sweet baby’s mind caused damage that can’t be traced, but is forever felt.

      your comment leaves shaking my head. it makes no logical sense.

      • Dee says:

        Reading this made me cry…. Because im all for comforting baby to sleep and this is the parent I don’t mind being – but I am do confused by all the sleep suggestions – it’s driving me nuts! Especially when I put bubba down fast asleep (no movement at all) after holding her in my arms for 20 minutes after a feed- and a few minutes later she pings her eyes wide open. That makes me wonder if we are supposed to be teaching them something?! Or am I doing something wrong? Follow my instinct you say… I’m trying :) Reading this blog and comments have been v helpful too!

      • Herb Wiseman says:

        It makes no logical sense because humans are NOT logical and we are not all made from cookie cutters. We are all different. So your comments about your daughter and yourself are irrelevant. You are wired up genetically and to some extent through experience differently from everybody else. If you would like to explore some good science on the subject read the writings of a social psychologist by the name of Jonathan Haidt.

      • Rebecca Rose says:

        I can’t remember where I read it, but some researchers suggested that babies who experience a lot of stress or anxiety while neural pathways are developing create more neural pathways for stress and anxiety and fewer for things like joy and comfort, making them more prone to stress and anxiety as adults. I can’t remember the specifics of the studies, but I remember deciding that it was enough to support following my intuition and comforting my son any time he seemed to need it.

    • Donna says:

      I would just like to point out that there are other options for feeding a child beyond the breast for “the gay community and those who can’t breastfeed.” there are many milk banks, as well as groups to find what used to be called “nurse maids” or “wet nurses” and they make pretty good money, so the industry must be thriving (although I have no firsthand experience with this).
      Also, sleep itself is not a learned behavior, however, regulating your sleep habits would be considered a learned behavior. Biologically speaking, your body WILL shut down without sleep, right? I mean who (as a parent) hasn’t experienced the inability to hold your eyes open any longer? Yes babies need more sleep, yes we should allow them this time to sleep, but they didn’t learn they were tired and needed sleep, their body just did it. You can “teach” your child that a certain time is bedtime, or to sleep in his/her own bed, and what is an appropriate time to wake but not the act of sleeping. Or are the majority of fetuses just that smart and have taught themselves how to sleep in utero? Seems highly unlikely to me, but I’ve only taken seven classes on learned behavior and positive ways to reinforce desired outcomes in pursuit of my psychology degree, so what do I know?

    • J B says:

      There actually is a lot of emerging research s showing the ill effects on the brain and emotional development when CIO is employed

    • Rhiannon says:

      My child still wakes up several times a night at 8 months old, and she is not continually on the breast or exhausted during the day! She is very happy, bouncy and full of energy, and she takes a couple of daytime naps as is natural for her age group. When she wakes and cries for me, i go to her and soothe her. She pretty much almost immediately falls back to sleep, and if she doesnt then she comes into my bed and will then fall asleep next to me. How this could mean she is not getting enough sleep i dont know. There is evidence that deep sleep (what you get from very long periods of sleep) can be dangerous for infants younger than three months, and is a cause of SIDs. What is worrying is the emphasis that is put on infants sleeping through the night as soon as possible, we are made to feel that it is paramount, that we have a difficult child if they dont, that we are bad parents if they dont! I feel i can offer a useful opinion here because i never intended to co sleep at the start and i had all the misconceptions about when a child should be sleeping through and read all the books that tell you how to instigate a routine (entirely based around getting them to sleep through as early as possible) and none of it worked. And i kept thinking i must have done something wrong or she must be difficult and i was worrying and worrying and getting horrible stress from lack of sleep. I tried the crying thing when i was at my wits end, i didnt like it but found myself getting used to the sound of her crying, but my mind kept telling me “this cant be right, this isnt how it works in nature, it cant be right to let a baby cry, thats WHY they cry, because they need something” and then i came across some literature on the internet that made complete sense to me, telling of how they do it in the rainforrest, our original natural environment. They dont worry about co sleeping, they always tend to a crying baby, the baby is carried through the day and sleeps when it sleeps and eats when its hungry, and all the children seem very happy and all the adults are content. Now i know our lives are very different and we cant do everything the natural way, but it seems to me that a lot of what we feel we need to do is based on experts saying “your children will grow up to be weak and miserable if you dont teach them to be independent NOW” and its clearly not true. Everything in its right time. I am now getting much better sleep because im not worrying about how it happens and im not forcing her to sleep by herself if she really doesnt want to. We have been teaching this bizarre way of dealing with infants for at least the last 30 years and despite being a wealthy, advanced society we have LOTTS of adults who are depressed, unhealthy, suicidal and unable to deal with strong emotions. Is the crying thing working? No i dont think so. I will try to do my best for my child by giving her as much confidence in herself and the people around her as possible, by helping her when she needs it and letting her do it herself when she can.

  3. I am almost 27 and I still can’t just lay down, close my eyes, and fall asleep… So I can’t expect it from my daughter.

  4. I was a sick-enough-to-be-hospitalized baby. My first memories are being in a hospital crib. This was 40 years ago when parents were not allowed to spend the night with their infants/toddlers. I have struggled with abandonment/attachment issues my entire life! As the mother of a breast-fed co-sleeping 10 month old, I have been tempted by the “sleep training” exactly ONCE and it was such an utter disaster I promised my son if he wanted to sleep with me til he was 3, i was fine with that. I’m pretty sure babies weren’t “sleep trained” until the past century when having kids became a luxury instead if necessity for most families. We have them now because we supposedly WANT them, so why then, do we force them to conform to OUR lifestyle instead of US conforming to THEIRS? Isn’t that why babies are so utterly dependent?

  5. Su-Laine Brodsky says:

    The term “self-soothing” seems to be used for two different things. One meaning is the ability to fall asleep independently, which is useful after the light re-awakenings that occur throughout the night. A baby who can fall asleep after a light re-awakening often does not cry first. I think it’s fair to say that this is a skill that can develop in infancy, that it can be improved with practice, and that researchers have observed it.

    The other way that people use the term “self-soothe” is to mean having a baby make themselves stop crying. I think what you might be saying is that we don’t know if this can really be characterized as a skill. We also don’t know whether babies would characterize the process as “soothing”, but I can guess they don’t.

    • Rebecca Rose says:

      I agree. Maybe rather than being soothed, they’ve just given up on their hope that a loving parent will come to the rescue. I’m not saying that this is definitely the case, but how can we know what’s going on in their heads short of attaching electrodes and torturing them on purpose to see the results? Isn’t failure-to-thrive sometimes associated with the “crying-it-out” theory used too early? I’m unwilling to take that risk. Tough Love, in my humble opinion, is for children and teens who are capable of rational thought, not infants who are only reacting to a need. (I’m not judging people who disagree with my understandings, just stating my personal opinions which are not based on any scientific research but rather on my gut feelings.)

  6. dds07 says:

    I have to disagree with the 100% learned skill comment, as well. I have one horrible sleeper and one great sleeper. For us, it is 100% personality of the kid, not anything we did differently…

    • Christina says:

      I agree with you 100%! I think it is personality and who am I to dictate. As someone else pointed out on here, why should we have them adapt to our lifestyle when we willingly (most planned in some way) to bring them into our world. Therefore as we teach them the ropes of life we should give a little. :) My two are dramatically different and yet so similar.

  7. Herb Wiseman says:

    What is self-soothing? It is also a concept applied to adults. Is biting nails a way to self-soothe? Is OCD a method of self-soothing?

    I have three kids. The first two were great sleepers. Saying it is 100% learned then implies that my wife and I suddenly became incompetent with our third. It also implies that we are the products of a uniformly intelligent design and we are NOT.

    We do not understand sleep for our species and other species have different ways of sleeping. For example the whale lets half its brain sleep at a time.

    • Christina says:

      Your words gave me goosebumps. LOVE IT! Especially your statement regarding outher species have different ways of sleeping. :)

  8. Dee says:

    What a great blog post!!! Very comforting to know that I’m on the right teach with my little one! At the sane time, I’m on the right track for “us” and my family – that might mean I’m completely off track to others who choose to do it differently – and that’s ok. Do what works for you and your family – that’s the only way to keep sane!!

  9. Sarah Beale says:

    What a ridiculous notion – that sleep is a learned skill!! Sleep is physiological and instinctive. It is our crazy, over scheduled, commercialised, mercenary, insular western lives that make it hard for us to allow babies to sleep instinctively. I was caught up in this sleep obsession when I had my first baby almost exactly 5 years ago and to my deep regret we practiced what I now know is sleep training because I was so worried about my precious full nights sleep. My baby girl did indeed sleep all night, as the book promised, from a very early age (comparatively) and has done for the most part ever since. She is intelligent, quick witted, creative and highly aware (and always has been). She is also anxious about new situations, quick to anger, highly emotional and intense. These elements of her personality are part of what make her unique and while I wouldn’t want to change anything about her because they are all elements of what make her ‘her’, I often wonder whether those early weeks and months of letting her cry alone in her cot have forever damaged her psyche. Of course, it was partly my high energy levels, presumably helped along by many a full nights sleep, that encouraged me to produce 2 more children in quick succession so it’s not all regret and like all parenting journeys, this one was mine and happened this way for a reason but I now know that having a baby that does not sleep all night and relies heavily on his mothers biological ability to settle him throughout the night is normal, will not actually kill me and does not diminish my love for him in any way. And actually, it is in those dark night hours while the house sleeps that I sometimes love my boy the best!!

    • Christina says:

      Your comment if very raw and real, which I find very comforting. We all do things in our parenting journey that we may not have necessarily done a second time around. Although we love how our little people have become we all question and its great to hear it from another person. Thank you for that.

      I still completely believe the “sleep training” is a load of crud. My babies wake when they need something or something wakes them. My daughter slept through the night from an early age only waking due to severe gas or teething. She was breast fed so when she woke to hunger she was quickly ushered into my bed to suckle herself back to dream land.

      Our son isn’t breast fed, sadly in which I feel horrible about but the cards fell as they did. He still only wakes unless he is hungry, or uncomfortable or if he is just done sleeping.

      How could anyone try to force this is beyond me.

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  11. I have noticed that all of these comments come from parents that have chosen to co-sleep, or have chosen to comfort their children on demand or with breastfeeding. Yes, good for you and I never would suggest otherwise if it is working for you and your family. Again, I am not saying that parents who can and choose to do this are in the wrong. I am sticking up for other parents. I am simply stating what works for one family doesn’t work for another family. All I know as an infant and child sleep consultant, are their biological sleep needs and how to help parents struggling with their children’s sleep. I too, hate the term “sleep training,” I work with parents who aren’t happy with their children’s sleep and would like some help. No, that doesn’t make them selfish or bad parents. It makes them great parents for seeking out a knowledgeable and unbiased infant and child sleep expert. I find that some parents are quick to point the finger outward to other parents choosing a different lifestyle. What happened to being supportive of other parents? I also have news for some of the parents who commented on this blog, “No, parents are not in the wrong for letting their overtired child cry for a controlled amount of time to give them the sleep they deserve!” I have not found one United States accredited research study that states a child will suffer emotionally and physically they cry because they are overtired. Please email me if you find any. Please don’t bother sending me anything opinion based, from the UK or from 20 years ago. Also, I might had that, I myself, couldn’t let my child cry for more then 15 minutes at a time because it is too emotional for me. I also wouldn’t let my child co-sleep because I enjoy time in bed with my husband. That doesn’t make me a bad parent.
    My comment to the statement below:
    “What a ridiculous notion – that sleep is a learned skill!! Sleep is physiological and instinctive. It is our crazy, over scheduled, commercialised, mercenary, insular western lives that make it hard for us to allow babies to sleep instinctively. ”
    I help parents living in todays world 2013 (high cost of living, the poor economy and very competitive parenting). If you don’t like it, remember you always have the choice to live elsewhere. I support two income households because of necessity or by choice. They haven’t lost themselves in parenthood or in their work lives. They have found balance and are just looking to find the balance in sleep. I was told by a doctor and lactation consultant, “a nursing child at 9 months, if nursed properly (I can’t stress properly enough!) and fed solids 3 times a day, should only need to nurse 4 times a day for hunger. The other times should be left to the parents decision. As far as sleep, at child at 9 months needs 14-15 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. How can we say that any 9 month child would sleep 14-15 without the help of an adult. That is what I meant by sleep being learned. I stand corrected my own statement. I should have stated, an infant and child sleep is dependent on the foundation for sleep i.e. parents giving them the opportunity for proper sleep.if you have any further questions, comments or if you are a parent struggling for more healthy sleep habits contact me directly.

  12. Herb Wiseman says:

    I had three children. the first two were like Christina’s — even better — but the last one not and was more like I was as a baby — I was the oldest — but my brothers never had sleep problems growing up but I still have them to this day as does my youngest (he is 30 this year). Many of the writers on this topic are guilty of believing in the Nurture Assumption (read the book by Judith Rich Harris) and possibly the notion of intelligent design, ignoring the biological innate differences amongst babies (including temperament the style the child was born with) and the likelihood that as a species we are still evolving. I would never think of blaming my mother for my sleep problems nor will I blame myself or my children’s mother for my youngest son’s sleep patterns. All of the children were (including me and my younger bros) were breast-fed but over the 45 years that I have been a professional social worker I have taken thousands of histories on problem behaviours with children and my experience confirms the research that that it is not a factor in how kids turn out. My experience confirms many of the points made by Harris in her book.

    You are correct that sleep training is a “load of crud” but not for some children. Sarah described a child who is temperamentally spirited and she may want to get the book by Kurcinka on that topic. There are also books on The sensitive Child which are worth looking at. Genetics, Culture and community will have a greater impact than parents! BTW I am a grandfather now and used to believe differently — more like some of the comments from the believers in the Nurture Assumption. Life teaches us if we let it.

    • Christina says:

      I agree that genetics’ isn’t the only factor. I’ve found with my children … My daughter was VERY independent in all ways when she was tiny. She’d didn’t crave cuddles and such or being rocked to sleep. Which was hard for me being she was our first born and our rainbow baby. However as she became older she came to desire more hugs and cuddles when she was sleepy. She wants to curl up in bed with us. Where my son, ugh when he was tiny he wanted nothing more then to be held and rocked. Now lay him down when he is drowsy and full bellied and he is OUT.

      Personality dictates how I attend to my children. Not all contributing factors to personality traits are genetic I believe a great deal is the surroundings. My husband and I are calm and not very loud which I am assuming allow our children to be calm and probably more comfortable sleepers.

      QUESTION to anyone who wants to approach the subject mater…. our daughter is very shy and cautious around people. Won’t talk and isn’t very outgoing but at home with us its not the case in anyway. People keep telling us something is wrong with her and we should be helping her out of her shell but I don’t think that is the case. What does your experience and know-how dictate?

      • Herb Wiseman says:

        Read the literature on Temperament. If you are near my office in Bowmanville (live or work in Durham) I would suggest that you attend a few sessions with me so that I could assist you in understanding her style. I use a questionnaire that parents complete and then provide them with a comprehensive profile with references. The notion about “helping her out of her shell” is the amateur psychology that many lay people seem to like to indulge in. Take a course or two on psychology and suddenly one is an expert. It is also pop psychology. Best to respond to those folks with more questions about what they think you should do to “help her our of her shell.” Usually their advice is dead wrong but if you keep pushing them to clarify their view they may get to see that for themselves. It also reflects the unexamined beliefs of our culture. So-called shy kids may be “slow-to-warm-up” and require more time to get used to new situations and change. Rather than use the metaphor of being in a “shell” it is better to assist your daughter to note how it takes her a little longer than other children to get used to new things are altered situations or to manage transitions. This will help her see herself as “normal but different” from many others whereas the metaphor of the “shell” is objectionable because it implies that she is a mental problem. There are also several other traits that contribute to behaviour that is often termed “shy.”

        The first writers on temperament were Drs. Stella Chess & Alexander Thomas (her husband – both are psychiatrists in NYC) and Herbert Birch (a psychologist I believe). There has been much research since their seminal studies which have now entered the intro texts in psychology. But it is a field of study by itself.

        Temperament styles stem from a confluence of 9 (possibly 10) traits that are innate — i.e. from genetic heritage. They interact with each other and organize the people in one’s environment to respond in certain ways. They areUsually unconsciously so NEVER ASK WHY.

      • Christina says:

        Thank you. Sadly I am no where near your location. Otherwise I’d be very interesting in seeing you and gaining a better understanding. I’ve noticed that like myself she is very observant and this has rendered her very quick to pick up on things, too quick for my liking *chuckle*. As you mentioned she is “slow-to-warm” but as a child I was also, and that was frowned upon. My husband, there father is also a bit on the socially distant side. He resorts to jokes, giggles and superficial conversation with new people.

        My concern is that this less then outgoing habit is going to hinder her later in life. As I’ve mentioned in my own blog my entire goal is to set a solid foundation for my children and I know I probably overly concern myself with non-issues but I feel that the more I understand about my children the better I can be an asset in their development. Its frustrating that I don’t have anyone to bounce this sort of thing off of because in general my generation of parents aren’t as aware by choice.

      • Herb Wiseman says:

        Allow me to quibble with you about your language. You refer to her “less than outgoing habit” which implies it is a learned behaviour. Recognize it as a style and then be conscientious about intervening when you see it operating. Anticipate it emerging in situations and then make appropriate comments ahead of time so that she is forewarned or prepared for the transition. Then as she gets older and has a repertoire of successful adaptation make up a scrapbook of the times that she went into a new situation and how she overcame the initial response of withdrawal or avoidance. When you anticipate that she will not want to do something for the first time, do not give her a choice but rather set a goal for a certain number of occurrences before she gets to decide.She needs to know about her style and that she can make conscious decisions about strategies to overcome the anxiety that is aroused from the stress of the expectations from other people and herself.

        An example. I asked my 7 year old son (now 32) if he would like to go to hockey school and learn to play hockey. He has/d very poor gross motor and fine motor skills (which was part of my motivation) and always said “no” to anything new presented to him. So, of course, he said “no.” I then realized the pattern and apologized for giving him a choice. I told him he was “…a Cdn boy growing up in Canada and hockey was Canada’s nat’l sport and his dad’s favorite so he had to play it. But that I would make a deal with him. After 10 sessions, he would then be able to make a choice.” He was taken aback but we started lessons. At the end of the 10 sessions we had another conversation and I reminded him of my original promise and asked him what he wanted to do for the next round of lessons. He hemmed and hawed. I then realized that the first ten and his style actually required a longer period of adaptation but that by breaking it up into groups of ten he could manage his anxiety stemming from temperament about it. When I saw the uncertainty I said “It sounds like you are not sure. Let’s do another 10 and decide then.” He readily agreed and has not been out of hockey since. At age 16 he won a $500 scholarship. First day in residence at university he was like a deer caught in the headlights until a fellow resident came down the hall asking if anyone wanted to play hockey. He then had a peer group and felt that he could fit in. He had enrolled in a co-op programme and changed placements and classes every 4 months. After university he went to Poland where he taught English as a second language and traveled to other adjacent countries.He learned some Polish too.

        Recently he has traveled to Arizona for the Burning Man and to Brazil for his sister’s wedding. He has changed jobs. He knows that he can overcome the challenges of new.

      • Christina says:

        I did choose the incorrect words to describe her ‘style’ as you put it. I made it sound like an unhealthy affliction when there isn’t anything wrong with her. Word usage such as that will surely yield the very result I am trying to prevent, a complex that could hinder her development. My own family did that and its work in progress to this day to change it.

        I like your suggested approach. It seems like a very safe way for her to feel her way into new situations without it seeming forceful. Thank you. I see it worked well for your son I hope if I implement it correctly it will work just as well for my daughter.

        My daughter is very bright, quick and noticeably sensitive. She is also very maternal to her brother. She is speaking three different languages as successful as a two year old does. I don’t want her tendency to be slow-to-warm up to new situations to prevent her from experiencing great things and stifle her potential. :)

      • Anita says:

        Regarding temperament. An excellent book to read that I think highlights respecting the different styles of being in the world – not that one style is ‘more right’ then another way, is ‘The Highly Sensitive Person” by psychologist Elaine N Aron. She describes introverts and their experience in largely dominated extrovert world (from her research and personal experience of being one), highlighting that each type need the other. Beautiful and informative.

  13. Jen says:

    My son is 22 months – and has slept “through the night” maybe a handful of times – And to me that is from about 8ish until 4am when he wants to be nursed. More often than not, he fusses in the middle of th nigth and I go in and comfort him. Why? Because I cannot listen to my child cry, alone, in the next room, when all he wants is some comfort. At times I end up lying next to him and sleeping with him for an hour or two. But with all of his disrupted sleep, lack of sleep, not enough hours (according to books), he is not only extremely intelligent, has a large vocabulary, he is also independent, easy going, and happy. So one day I will sleep again – until then, I will be happy tending to my babies needs and knowing in 10 years that when I look back on this time, I will be proud of the decisions I made and I will miss the snuggling time that he gave me.

  14. Kimberly says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I never questioned what others say are milestones. I struggled with my first born who just didn’t sleep through the night. I was exhausted. I tried letting her cry because I honestly did not feel like having to sleep through her constant suckle all through the night but she wouldn’t go to sleep on her own. That sounds awful of me, doesn’t it? I decided to give in and nurse her all night long. She was so comforted by nursing, then miraculously she slept through the night when she was a little over one year. On the complete opposite spectrum, my three month old sleeps 8 or 9 hours a night. If I try to wake her up to nurse, she doesn’t budge. This really leads me to believe that it depends on the child… And that’s fine! I don’t think there is anything wrong with a baby that wakes up throughout the night, be flattered! He or she just wants some love, and soon they’ll be sleeping on their own, in their own time.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Kimberly: I don’t think what you did is awful at all. Any many, many other parents have done the same thing. you were just trying to find the right button to push in a tough situation, and you were trying out something that many, many health and sleep professionals advise. I only hope that you didn’t feel like a failure when it didn’t work. And I’m glad you found something that did work for you and that you were comfortable with. That’s the key.

  15. Rebecca Rose says:

    Alright, so I haven’t read the comments above, but I wanted to mention that I’ve read a few studies that say that even adults don’t sleep through the night without waking, and that this too is one kind of normal. Some people don’t even remember waking, while others get out of bed and engage in other activities before returning to sleep. I’m one of those, and it causes me zero problems now that I’ve stopped thinking that there is something wrong with me.

    It’s not a scholarly article, but this snippet sums up the idea:

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Agreed Rebecca. One of the the ongoing mistakes certain kinds of researchers make is that they take the bad outcomes of clinical-level or pathological problems (such as going short of sleep) and sort of project those problems (or the possibility of them) onto people with problems that are likely within the range of normal. Sleep researchers often act as if people who go short of sleep are going to have all sorts of horrible things happen to them – based on what they see in pathological cases. But I don’t think those projections are valid. Same thing happens in kids’ sleep. some people act as if nightwaking babies are doomed to behaviour problems and sleep problems for life. T’ain’t so.

  16. “The biggest single predictor of night waking in this study was breastfeeding at six months, something health authorities want all mothers to be doing.” Precisely. This is just another case of researchers and media skewing data to support their preconceived ideas, then pressuring parents to ignore their instincts and their babies. Unaccpetable and dangerous.

  17. Dee says:

    My daughter is less than three months old. Up until now she has fallen asleep either whilst nursing or when rocked – and I have wondered if she would really sleep without either of these if she were tired I.e. would she fall asleep on her own? Naturally? Instinctively I thought “of course she will”. But,confused by all the information bandied around, I started to be less sure. But then today, something beautiful … I was standing at a function holding her in my arms and talking to those around me. I looked down and saw her eyes slowly slowly starting to close, then flick open and then close again – and a few moments later she was fast asleep. No rocking, no feeding, NO TRAINING!! Like has been said in other comments – when they’re tired, they will sleep.

  18. Susannah says:

    It seems most comments here address two approaches: very active forms of soothing throughout the night (nursing, rocking, co-sleeping, etc) or ‘cry-back-to-sleep’ solutions. I didn’t follow a book or philosophy with my two girls, just did what felt right and tried to be consistent as they developed. At first, this meant nursing in the night. When I felt they were no longer as hungry, just needing some comfort in the night, I just held and sushed them (say a week of this), then sushed and rub their backs, or lay on the floor beside their crib to sing to them or sush them. They knew I was there, but – I believe – ‘learned’ to sleep for longer stretches faster than if I had consistently nursed, rocked, etc them each time. Of course, babies can feel pain, or sick, or lonely sometimes in the night, so I liked the idea of going to them, but not always nursing. Even for those moms who are sure their babies are hungry, I recommend trying a non-feeding approach (whatever might work for you) for 3-5 nights or even part of a night (ie. choose one time of night to feed – say 2am – and for other wake-ups try other solutions and/or offer water). There is a very good chance there might be better sleeps for you and your little one :)

  19. Pingback: Does a new study really support leaving your child to cry? | Evolutionary Parenting | Breastfeeding and Sleeping Arrangements - Science and History in Parenting

  20. Ksmith says:

    Being an infant or a young baby must be the most terrifying thing. the world is large, and cold, and confusing. It’s loud, full of contrasts and changing light. Parents’ voices, heartbeat, the warmth of a body against yours– those are the only non-instinctual things a baby really *knows.* A baby doesn’t know it’s disrupting your schedule, and arbitrarily forcing one on a baby–especially a new baby– is madness.

    There’s a reason why a lot of people try sleep training and can’t do it. There’s a reason why you are crying as you stand outside your child’s door listening to them scream in loneliness and terror. It’s because you know that you are the only thing they want or need, and the only thing that can make this better. Depriving a scared, tired, lonely child is not helping them to learn; it’s teaching them that, when they cry out in the night, there is no one there. I mean… just put yourself in that position. I am in my mid 30s and if I wake up in the middle of the night, I still feel comforted by the weight of my husband’s body in bed next to me– comforted by the knowledge that if that sound really was something scary, I am not alone. As that horrible dream fades, that someone will heelp me through it, etc. We are pack animals, humans. Why do we make the smallest and weakest of us deal with things we ourselves, as adults with a wealth of knowledge and logic and understanding, don’t like to deal with?

    I don’t cosleep. I did very occasionally with my oldest (who was entirely formula fed, for those of you who insist this kind of attachment parenting is solely the purview of breastfeeding, cosleeping hippy mothers living outside of reality) and very occasionally with my youngest, who I did manage to breastfeed. I didn’t make either of them cry it out because I couldn’t listen to them need me that much and not execute my basest, purest function as a mother– that of reassurance and comfort.

    We may know they are safe and protected in that dark room all alone. They don’t know they are safe and protected, though. it’s an important distinction.

    You are hardwired to care for your children. Trust your instincts, not a professional or an internet poster. Do what you can feel in your gut is right. Millions of mothers all over the world do.

  21. Kathleen says:

    People tend to over think things, in my opinion. Why care what anybody says, what is The Way? You can just decided not to (care). Unless there is a real problem in the family the current sleep situation is aggravation or contributing to (like waking every 1 1/2 – 3 hours with my son for over 14 mths while I became clinically depressed-then seek help), do whatever you think/feel is ok. This can and will change over time, sometimes day to day. Children are resilient and you know your child best. Learning new ‘tricks’ to make things easier is great, but don’t stress it!

    As for self-soothing and waking: my son used a pacifier and needed me to find it to fall back asleep (this was not the main reason for his bad sleep patterns btw). My twins sucked their thumbs, and when I would hear them wake, they soon settled back down as they found their hand. This is how SELF-soothing works (not relying on external help), and it exists. It’s a form of control and self-regulation, and can develop ‘naturally’, or can be a encouraged to bloom as with any other skill.
    (I think another factor with the twins is the fact that when they were both hungry/wet, they had to wait as I could usually only deal with one at a time. They learned patience (by SELF-soothing their stress for a while) very young, and very fast. They had to. Like I said, kids are resilient.)

  22. Emu says:

    My wife and I tried to let my 15mo “cry it out” one time. I ended up rescuing her from a pile of vomit because she was crying so hard and was so upset/agitated that she started throwing up.

    I think the so called experts do not realise that there is no one “true way” of parenting. Every child is different and what works with one wont work with another. The best they can do is generalise and note that there will be outliers for anything.

    What someone should do is write a child book that doesn’t try to tell you that X is the one true way to raise your child but has A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, etc. “This method has worked for a lot of parents but if that doesn’t work, try this or this”.

  23. Marie says:

    Does it really matter what you call it? Having my son has taught me that it is not helpful to go around polarizing every issue that can and does arise for parents. There is nothing all bad about sleep training or all good about not sleep training. If you are able to suffer through years of your child waking up through the night that is amazing. And it is your choice. Does it matter what you call it? If a parent chooses to sleep train yes it does involve some crying most of the time. INITIALLY. That is the part that is missing. Eventually you put your baby to sleep in their crib and they find their own way to fall asleep with no crying and they sleep all night. And this CAN happen as early as you think your child is ready for. So before you demonize parents who sleep train and get all hung up on the words “self soothe” imagine for a moment how wonderful it would have been to be able to put your 4,5, or 6 month old baby in his or her crib at bedtime awake and walk out of the room and have him or her out his/herself to sleep with no crying and stay asleep for the next 12 hours pretty much every night. One word…heaven!!

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Who’s demonizing parents who sleep train? Not me. And if you read my blog more carefully, you’d know that. And whether or not people call it self-soothing does matter. Because sleep pundits are telling parents that sleep trained babies have learned to comfort themselves, and there is no scientific basis for saying that. Plus, parents who don’t sleep train are made to feel guilty and inadequate because they have not taught their babies this “skill” of alleged self-soothing. So, yes, terminology does matter. If the experts offered sleep training as one option for parents who want or need it, and if they stopped implying that parents who don’t sleep train are deficient or that parents sleeping with their children is maladaptive, I wouldn’t say a thing. But many experts promote sleep training as the only legitimate option and they use false science to justify their advice. That’s what I object to. As I have said, or alluded to numerous times in this blog, what individual parents decide they need or want to do for whatever reasons they might have is none of my business.

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  25. dw7777 says:

    As an infant my daughter would wake up at 2 or 3 every night. At first I breastfed her, then had to go back to work so switched to pumped milk/formula. I would feed her and she would fall back asleep. The doctors and nurses in parenting classes and pediatric group had all told me not to introduce solid food for the first year, in the interest of avoiding allergies. My mother, however, had a different perspective. She said solid food would help the baby sleep through the night. She advised adding just some rice cereal to the baby’s meals. Guess what? Immediately, my 6 month old began sleeping through the night. I didn’t add a big variety of solid foods until 9-10 months. She never developed allergies. And she always slept through the night, unless she was sick.

    The ability to “self-soothe” never entered into tthe equation. Even the word “soothe” implies an irritation – hunger, wet diaper, illness, etc. An infant can’t “soothe” those kinds of needs away. By the way, my child is about to graduate with honors from a prominent university. She is healthy and beautiful, brilliant and well-adjusted.

  26. I eagerly await your next blog entry.

  27. First time mum says:

    THANK YOU!!! I love love love this post. This makes so much sense. I’m a first time mum and a self-confessed geek and have spent insane amounts of time reading about everything baby on websites, books, articles, you name it. The concept of self-soothing is all too often mentioned but never explained, and I simply could not figure out how it all worked.

    Example; for the first four weeks of my son’s life he was a very drowsy baby requiring no assistance to sleep at all. Then he went through a mental leap and suddenly he was a lot more awake and interested in the world around him – it was around this stage he started getting harder to put to sleep. He is now 12 weeks and will drift off to sleep with no help for his morning nap, but needs more and more assistance as the day goes on, with lots of cuddles, rocking and patting when going to sleep at night. I was totally confused. How can he be able to self-soothe in one instance and not another? Was he born with the ability to self-soothe and somehow lose it at 4 weeks? What???

    The few details about what self-soothing really is are decidedly sparse and conflicting. Some books say babies develop this “ability” around six months, others say three, others 4.5 months, but the general consensus is 3-6 months. But then if you believe in this concept, the ability to self-soothe comes across as a natural developmental milestone, much like rolling over, walking, talking, etc. which everyone seems to agree that babies develop in their own time and the margins for normal are quite vast (eg. my nephew didn’t start talking till about 3-4 years of age). But then why are we putting so much pressure on babies to magically have it as soon as they turn six months?

    I’ve also heard that thumb/fist/finger sucking is one of the ways that babies self-soothe. But some babies do this in utero and still can’t put themselves to sleep after they are born (I am thinking of one of my friend’s babies here).

    Nothing I read about this before made any sense and couldn’t be applied to my son. This post actually resonates with my experiences and what I know, and it just simply makes sense. I feel like I get it now.

    I’ve never made any comments on any other blog, forum or website, but this post helped me trust my maternal gut and saved me from probably sleep-training my son in accordance with conventional “wisdom” so I have to thank you for that.

  28. Martha says:

    Man! We are so screwed up with all these ‘sleep issues’! Why don’t we learn from other cultures : cuddle up next to your baby at night, comfort them with your sleeping body and your warmth. Teach them how to sleep with love not fear. Enjoy those cuddles because before you know it you won’t be getting so many! Babies are a gift not an inconvenience to be managed. GREAT blog post, thank you.

  29. megganmamma says:

    Great blog John. Really great. I’m a mum who wakes several times through the night to tend to my 16 month old boy, either by taking him to the potty (which I’ve done since he was 10 days old), breastfeeding or cuddling him. Of course I get really tired sometimes but I know it won’t last forever.

    Anyway, I’m curious to know what you think about this method that I’ve heard about, where the mum sleeps in another room while the dad goes to the baby and comforts them back to sleep. The idea of course is that the baby stops waking through the night. Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!!

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Meggan: Thanks for your comment. I have never really heard of the method you are talking about – at least not as a “method.” I’ve certainly heard of parents doing all sorts of things to get through the night, including having the baby sleep in a different room and having the father go in when the baby wakes up – usually from parents who are trying to reduce the number of nightime nursings of older babies or toddlers. I have no particular opinion about it. Almost any method I can think of has potential pros and cons and I prefer to let parents sort those things out. It all depends on what people are comfortable with and which “cons” they feel they can manage.

  30. Adina says:

    You have saved me. This entry reinforces what I have been feeling in my gut and what I have been telling others, though all around me I am told that I am wrong and that I am making mistakes with my child. My daughter is 13 months and she still nurses (and nurses to sleep) and I will continue to do so. What concerned me was the fact that she wakes twice a night on average and usually nurses back to sleep but after reading this I feel much better. Thank you. Thank you for putting this out there, thank you for your research and hard work and finally thank you for reminding me that I am a good mother.
    Looking forward to reading more from you. xoxo

  31. jessica says:

    My 11 month old started sleeping through the night when she was 4 months old. She’s my first child and I can’t stand to hear her cry, nor did i ever really want to put her down, so I never taught her to self soothe. I lay down with her until she falls asleep then I move her to her bed.

  32. maryellen Mccarthy says:

    I constantly feel so defeated at doctor’s appointments, while reading articles, even talking to other mothers. My 7 month old breastfed baby is no where close to sleeping thru the night nor does he self Soothe.. ever. He sleeps at most, on an excellent night, once every 2 weeks 5-6 hours. He wakes up every 4 hours. And no amount of letting him cry would ever put him back to Sleep until I nurse him. While I am exhausted. .. And would love to sleep, it just isn’t happening.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Maryellen: I’m really sorry to hear that doctors and other advice givers are not being very supportive or helpful with your problem. Your experience is an example of the kind of harm that can come from professionals who perpetuate the myth of self-soothing and act as if there is something wrong or abnormal with babies who wake up and cry in the night. Please understand that what you are going is one kind of normal (at least that what it sounds like, without having met you or your baby) and that you probably aren’t doing anything wrong. I hope you can find some supportive people willing to listen to you without saying or implying that your baby is waking because you did something wrong. I also hope you can find someone to mind your baby sometimes so you can have a nap or sleep in. If you have a partner, I hope your partner understands the importance of ensuring you get enough rest. In my experiences prolonged nightwaking often ebbs and flows but on the whole it tends to get (very gradually) better, and often gets to the point where it becomes easier to cope with. Best wishes,

      Best w

    • nettlefitz says:

      Maryellen, you and I are in the same boat. Consider me a supporter. <3

    • nettlefitz says:

      You have my support <3

  33. Kate Cooper says:

    I’m so glad I’ve read this, my baby is 6 months old and I spent ages getting him to self soothe as it’s all I read about, well he eventually learnt to do it, no crying it out after one attempt it made me too upset to hear a baby cry so much! he has however stopped doing it after an illness and more teething on top, I was obviously comforting him through his troubles and now he’s realised it’s nicer! I have been stressing ever since about this and have felt I’m doing something wrong as all you read about is having to retrain them after every illness and bout of teething! I’m sorry but this is mad as babies get I’ll and they teeth for two years, are we expected to stress out retraining them constantly? This is cruel on mothers and babies.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      I agree Kate. And I’m glad your found this post helpful. The big delusion for proponents of teaching babies to “self-soothe” via sleep training is that they think they are helping mothers. But they have no idea how much harm they are causing, simply by making Moms who won’t sleep train, or can’t make it work, or, like you, won’t do it over and over and over and over again feel worse than they already feel. Everybody who gives advice to parents should have a sign on their desk that says “Parents don’t need my help to feel bad.”

      • Kate Cooper says:

        Indeed! I think parenting has become a media trap, years ago babies were sang lullabies or had their head stroked, myself and. my brother never had a problem sleeping as children and my mum can’t remember any self soothing nonsense! What’s the point I’m leaving your baby to get stressed when you can help them, we help them in every other way after all!

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  35. Michal Zitron says:

    I sit here writing this comment at 10:35pm with a sleeping 16 week old in my arms. It has been a difficult evening to say the least. My first child was a patchy sleeper at best and only at 2 years old did he sleep all night. My daughter, the babe I now cradle in my arms, is significantly better already but tonight I began wondering if by rocking her to sleep I was “not helping her learn how to self soothe”, a term I had heard so often yet wasn’t ever sure I really bought. So I googled it. How reassured I am to have read this blog. We tried crying it out with her brother and it never worked. And now it makes so much more sense why. Thank you for sharing this important research.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Michal: Thanks for your comment. I wish you well. While, as you know, I don’t agree with the way the term self-soothing is used, I think it is fair to say (as I once read in a book by Penelope Leach) that falling asleep is partly about habits. So if a baby gets used to falling asleep in arms – which, of course, is a nice way to fall asleep – then he/she may get used to it and may want to fall asleep like that for a long time, and may have trouble falling asleep in other ways. Our kids fell asleep nursing, or in arms quite a bit as babies and sometimes it was hard to transfer them to the crib (we did use a crib for our first two). And once our kids were sleeping in their own bed we usually laid down with them until they were asleep. We did that for a long time – like until they were 6 or 7. There were exceptions along the way. Sometimes grandparents, aunts/uncles or babysitters did their bedtimes. But the point being, that staying with kids until they fall asleep is not generally the fastest route to independent sleep. Early independence was not important to us, so we didn’t mind lying down with them. But not everybody is prepared to do that for a long as we did.

      Good luck on your sleep journey!

  36. Julie says:

    I have let all of my 4 healthy babies cry it out at night at around 4 months-old. As a result, after a few days (or a few weeks with one of them) they were no longer waking and crying at night. I cannot see anyway in which they were negatively impacted by this. If anything they were happier during the day. I also was more energetic and happier from being well rested, which I am sure had a positive effect on my all of my children and my husband! And if they occasionally woke up crying at night after that, I knew that something must be wrong and was able to respond and address the issue. I have never know a healthy baby that was left to cry it out at night before 6 months-old to continue to wake up crying at nightly beyond 6 months of age for no apparent reason. Babies are smart! I think that frequently parents do not give their infants enough credit. They know that crying will bring mommy running whether they have a true need or just a want. It is my opinion that by letting my babies cry it out, they learned to save their crying at night for when it was really important.

    • Julia says:

      At 4 months old?? Most babies still need to feed at night at that age. Yes, 4 month old babies are manipulative – they only ‘want’ their mothers, rather than truly ‘need’ them. How dare they?

      • Julie says:

        People with differing opinions on “self soothing” or baby sleep can attack one another all they want. What is the purpose? What does that accomplish? What works for some people doesn’t always work for other people. Some people are willing/able to make some sacrifices that others are not able to (i.e. sleep, an extra income, etc). I simply expressed what has worked for me. I know me and I know that if I am tired from getting up with a baby, night after night, month after month, it wares on me and as a result my whole family (my 3 other small children included) suffers. I would love to have the energy to cater to every little want that my baby has, but that just isn’t realistic. I would rather that all my children have a happy, loving mom, that has energy to play with them, rather than a sleep deprived, grumpy, yelling mom.

  37. Pingback: Why Won’t My Baby Sleep? »

  38. Julia says:

    Great post! I am baffled by so many parents’ obsession with ‘self soothing’. My maternal health nurse actually recommended to me that I put my 6 week old down when he was drowsy but still awake so he would learn to ‘self-soothe’ (I always cuddled him to sleep – he’s now 15 months old, and I still do. Despite being told by others that I was creating a rod for my own back, it has always been a pleasure, not a burden). The only thing that baffles me more is people saying that their baby will cry unless they pick them up – there’s an easy fix for that! Unless you have a physical limitation, why can’t you pick up your baby??

  39. Vishaka says:

    Thanks for this amazing blog!
    I’m a first time mom and my son is now nearly 6 months.
    I’m Indian and I was raised in Thailand. Currently i live in the England. I had never heard of the term ‘self soothing’ until I was expecting. I never even know people sleep train babies! I mean really?! In India and Thailand, we do whatever we can to calm babies and help them sleep- whether singing, nursing, rocking…anything except leave them to cry on their own.
    We are 4 siblings and my mother honestly doesn’t remember how but we all just slept eventually ..there was no training or anything of such sort. When I talk about my son waking up every 2 hours for a feed in India , it’s normal and expected. In England, I get asked by people who don’t even have children whether he sleeps through the night yet?! Err..why not, they question me. Isn’t he nearly 6 months! And it goes on….
    Like everything else in terms of parenting I’ve found so many differences culturally. We Indians are so family oriented perhaps that’s why we generally co-sleep for many years.
    I’ve felt so much pressure the last few months for not following a schedule and feel under scrutiny from the group of people who follow such methods. Thanks for making me feel like what I’m doing is good coz it works for me and I’m not destroying my son’s life by not teaching him how to sleep in the way everyone else around me does!

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Thanks for your wonderful comment Vishaka and thank you for helping to point out the inherent cultural bias in some of the current advice about “safe” sleep and “healthy sleep habits” for babies.

  40. Cynthia says:

    This is nonsense. Any parent who’s ever stayed awake longer than their baby can tell you that self-soothing is a fact, and that babies who haven’t learned to do it even just to fall asleep the first time around will be fussier. To take the easiest example here: my niece immediately fusses when we lay her down on her back because she knows it means we’re putting her to sleep. The longer we actually stay with her in the room and try to cajole and comfort her, the more she will fuss and reach up to us wanting to be held. When we leave, she ends up crying for about 10 minutes before falling asleep. But if we leave the room without first staying a bit, she usually falls asleep much faster. You really should not need studies to inform you of such facts if you’ve ever had a baby. Everyone knows that parents can worry too much and coddle their baby too much to the point of spoiling them rotten. Self-soothing is a fact, it’s good for the baby, and it even promotes better social skills in the child. Now, learning to recognize when your child’s cry is because of real distress or pain, that’s another topic entirely and only parents will know the difference between their child’s various cries. However, please don’t bash something simply because you don’t understand it or haven’t thought about it long enough to reason it out.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      No. What is nonsense is to call the behaviour you are talking about self-soothing. I agree that it happens, but it’s not self-soothing. And it’s also nonsense to suggest that I am bashing parents who do the thing you describe. Read more carefully. What I object, and what I think I have proven through careful analysis of research (It is indeed something that I understand very well!) is that it is wrong to call babies who go to sleep on their own self-soothers. It’s just a misplaced word that has taken on a life of it’s own. Self-soothing is not a fact. Babies learning to go to sleep by themselves is a fact. The ideology of self-soothing is just an ideology.

      • Cynthia says:

        Self-soothing is exactly what it is, and it happens when parents are willing to let their baby learn on their own. Babies are very intelligent and resourceful, they will explore the world on their own with your supervision, and that includes their own bodies. Also, I never said you bash parents, I said you bash the idea of self-soothing, which you do. You seem to be splitting hairs right now. How do you think babies who are crying can fall asleep on their own? If you think it’s from exhaustion when the parent lets them cry, you’re wrong. That only happens when the baby is truly distressed and they will cry for a long time before falling asleep, not the mere 10 minutes I am describing for my niece. And that is if it even happens at all. A truly and greatly distressed will probably not be able to fall asleep just from tiring themselves out by crying too much and too hard. You say you did the research, but then you are overly reliant on studies or lack thereof. Our experiences speak for themselves. Calling something an ideology just because you disagree with one study is being a bit overzealous.

      • Anon says:

        Cynthia – quit while you’re ahead and please go read the research. Your niece isn’t even a case study.

      • uncommonjohn says:

        Lots and lots of babies cry for more than ten minutes (as you describe) when their parents try to teach them to “self-soothe,” and they get even more worked up in the process, and (again, as you suggest) can’t fall asleep. There are others who cry hard and then suddenly fall asleep. I have no idea if they fall asleep from exhaustion due to crying – I don’t think anybody knows – but I don’t see how they could have soothed themselves back to sleep. However, there is a document human stress response where people who are subject to high levels of stress fall asleep suddenly. It’s called withdrawal. I don’t know if that’s the case with these babies either. I couldn’t say. But it seems like it could be one of the possibilities some of the time

        If I’m “over reliant” on studies, I’m happy to be so. But I have also interviewed dozens of parents about their experiences of night waking and sleep training. I have also co-authored a study in which most of the parents tried to teach their babies to fall asleep on their own, using the standard methods, often without success. So I’m drawing from a range of experience and knowledge on this subject.
        The one things I’m not guilty of is dispensing parenting advice based on my observations of one baby. BTW You are not allowed to give parenting advice on this blog. All such comments by you have been and will continue to be removed.

      • Anon says:

        Oh my goodness Cynthia – all these comments and based on your sisters child – not even yours. You say all kids are different. But then continue to assume that what works for your niece will work for other kids. It is likely that your niece’s sleep has nothing to do with what your sister did and more with her natural temperament. You draw conclusions based solely on this one child on a blog that is dedicated to analysing *all* the research. Hmmmm…..

  41. Cynthia says:

    First of all, I would like to apologize for the tone of my first response to you. Since I responded respectfully and helpfully to others on your thread, I should have done the same to you. I do not disagree with everything that you say in this post, but I do disagree with you essentially calling self-soothing a myth. I am sorry that I did not make clear from the beginning that as a Child Studies student of two years, it bothers me that you appear to be dismissing the advice of those who make a living studying such things. The only advice I can offer to you at this point is to not simply “deconstruct” but to also give alternatives. This is a blog I found which does this, and I think you’ll find it very helpful:

    Secondly, I am sorry that you felt the need to delete my advice, possibly because I disagreed with you, but please keep in mind that it was meant to be helpful and provide a potential solution. Nowhere did I claim that my solution was “the one”, but I did give the example as an encouragement to mothers that you truly can make something work with some effort. Experts do not claim to know everything about your baby, they only want to help you, so please don’t react with anger at their advice, as you’ve done in this post.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Thanks for the clarification Cynthia. You should know that there are a lot of people who make a living studying these things, and in some cases, who give expert advice to parents, who agree with my taken on self-soothing, but it is true that many do not. But I submit that many, possibly most, of the people who tell parents to teach babies to self-soothe (read, go to sleep or back to sleep without physical contact, nursing, or other adult assistance of some kind) do not understand that self-soothing is an arbitrary, and, in my view, ill-considered, research term, nothing more. But it is a research term that has taken on a life of it’s own and come to mean something that it was never intended to mean, which is that the babies who go back to sleep on their own somehow soothed themselves in the process and that all babies over six months are developmentally capable of doing this and should be doing this, and that not being able to go back to sleep on your own or not being taught to is developmentally abnormal. That is spin and interpretation, nothing more. I have no problem with parents wanting to move their (older) babies towards more independent sleep if that’s what they want/need and I have no problem with sleep advice-givers who want to give them advice about how to do that – although I think that they should ad provisos that parents should be careful to be responsive to their babies most of the time. My problem is with those who
      a)talk as if these sleep trained babies have developed some sort of superior ability to soothe themselves,make this process sound easier than it often is (not all babies are like your niece), those who demean parents who don’t want to or can’t teach their babies to sleep independently or who act as if co-sleeping with babies is abnormal or that babies who aren’t taught to sleep through the night are at great risk for all sorts of problems. And there are lots of people doing that.

      If you can’t understand that, I don’t know what else to tell you. I guess you’re just going to keep misunderstanding me.

      • Cynthia says:

        Developmentally capable if taught is the key here. You cannot expect that it will naturally happen without any guidance on the parent’s part. Also, it is not as if leaving the child on their own means that you ignore the child or stop watching them. On the contrary: my sister simply steps out so that her daughter will be able to fall asleep without distractions, but every five minutes she checks up on her until she falls asleep, and since she sleeps for approximately 50 minutes now, she checks up on her while she is sleeping every 20 minutes or so. If she is really crying hard, even for just 5 minutes, my sister will not just leave her there. A baby learning self-soothing does not mean that the parent loses all responsibility for the child falling asleep, it just means that the child develops better sleeping habits under the supervision of the parents.

        If we’re sharing, my problem is not with people who tell others what they shouldn’t do, but with people who do so without offering alternatives. Simply patting parents on the back without telling them what might be going on with their children is just not enough. Also, there is such a thing as helicopter parenting even with babies.

        It may seem as if I’m making it sound easy, but like I said, anything done well requires effort. I made it pretty clear that this was not the case for my niece at first, after all. Also, do you disagree that every problem has a solution? It is the job of those who work with children to try to provide solutions to every problem. Do they always succeed? Of course not. But child psychology is a field that is constantly growing, and all I’m telling you is don’t get angry at them for making efforts to help parents.

        I understand you, but the question is whether you understand me as well. Btw, you say you dislike people demeaning parents for not being able to teach their children things such as self-soothing, but that isn’t what I did at all. On the contrary, I offered advice from my own experience as well as what I’ve studied so far, as well as encouragement to the parents who commented on your post.

      • uncommonjohn says:

        Lots of kids start sleeping through the night even though their parents don’t try to teach them to do it. They may start sleeping through the night at a later age than kids who are successfully Ferberized. But children do not necessarily have to be taught to sleep through the night.

        And… sigh… I am not angry at people for trying to help parents who are looking for sleep solutions. I am angry at some of them for some of the terminology they use and they way they suggest that their Ferber types of sleep training methods are the only legitimate way for parents to deal with night waking. I am also angry about their dishonesty (or perhaps ignorance) in using a term that suggests that 6 month old babies are capable of soothing themselves back to sleep and that this is a skill parents can and must teach their kids. I would never have written this blog post if the pro-sleep training pundits said something more like, “It’s OK to live with night waking and comfort your baby in the middle of the night if that works for you, but if you can’t or don’t want to cope with nightwaking here are some things you can try.” There are some advice-givers who take that approach, and I have no argument with them. But lots of them don’t. Instead they suggest that night waking after 6 months is abnormal, a disorder that has to be fixed, and that parents who don’t teacher their babies to sleep through the night can’t set limits or that they are putting babies are at risk for all sorts of bad outcomes later on. And they are wrong about that. That’s what I have a problem with.

        Lastly, I don’t prescribe what parents should do about night waking because there are so many variables involved regarding the families, the parents’ lifestyles and parenting beliefs, the babies’ personalities and various other things. My goal is to help parents understand a few things about sleep and the advice they are given so they can think their way through their problems. Obviously you are much more comfortable telling parents what to do than I am. But if you want to give sleep advice start your own blog, don’t do it here.

  42. Sarah beale says:

    I’ve been following this conversation with increasing interest, in two minds about whether to respond! But, as it’s 4 am, I’m wide awake with pregnancy insomnia and I feel that I have some insights into both sides of what is essentially a philosophical debate, I’m compelled to offer my views! It seems evident to me that on either side of the argument are 2 people who have a position framed by their view of the world. One one side, a (possibly – this is unclear) professional person with a strong problem solving attitude who is driven to seek solution based actions – self soothing ( or whatever we choose to call it- the term is arbitrary) and on the other side a parent who chooses a journey based on instinct and experience ( not suggesting that You don’t have have ‘experience’ Cynthia, merely suggesting that for one of you, the experience is a crucial part of the journey rather than being solely about the destination/outcome). I fear that the 2 modes of looking at the world may be mutually exclusive and one is destined never to understand the other!

  43. Sarah beale says:

    (I apologise in advance for multiple comments – I am on mobile and have a habit of accidentally deleting posts so I wanted be sure that I don’t lose my words!). I have become a passionate advocate against the dangers of sleep training, partly because of the damage it has caused my now 6 year old daughter and partly because of the journey that has evolved for me as I tread the parenting path with my other children and the ‘evidence’ that I now feel I have that choosing something different will naturally lead to a different outcome – which for me is happy, secure, confident and joyful children with a strong attachment to their mother and family. Generally a person who sees the world in myriad shades of grey, this has become quite black and white for me. My first child is s product of my (misguided) deep need to satisfy the parenting Holy Grail of a full nights sleep and a baby who was independent of her mother from birth ( a uniquely western parenting ideal) which I proudly achieved. We are now working hard to help her heal from the trauma of sleep training which, by definition, (yes,I’ve read the research) leads to self soothing ( ie the ability to soothe ones back to sleep without the aid of a parent – but ironically, possibly using other external aids such as comforters). My other 2 children, the youngest of which still sleeps next to me and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, conversely, were attended to constantly, never left to cry while ‘learning’ to sleep and both sleep soundly and deeply. Whether they continue to need the aid of a parent to reach that state of relaxation and subsequently, sleep, is of no relevance to me. Having a happy, joyful, confident child on the other hand is. The child who ‘slept through the night’ from 12 weeks old, independently and without parental aid is an emotional wreck with deep wounds which I know in my heart are attributable to my badly misguided actions during her early weeks and months of life. Oh, and not only does she now not sleep through the night, she needs physical contact from a parent to fall asleep and for most of every night shares a bed with her dad. Our children are not biologically different. They all have the same inherent needs. It is how we chose to meet those needs that differs and I now believe that choosing the myth of the modern baby who must learn to self soothe in order to clock up enough sleep hours is not only biologically wrong but dangerous for the long term well being of children and families.

  44. Sarah beale says:

    But before getting caught up in my own mother guilt, what I had intended to address, is the philosophical oppositional nature of the 2 arguments. One, that a child naturally needs ( and In fact has a biological imperative to ‘need’) assistance/contact/reassurance from an attached parent/caregiver to fall asleep and that not only is this not an unhealthy habit but an important part of our species survival mechanism and two, that a baby must learn to self soothe ( ie fall asleep unaided by a parent/caregiver) in order to achieve and sustain good quality sleep. The two schools of thought are destined to remain just that – two completely opposite schools of thought! And although I myself made the philosophical shift from conventional ‘wisdom’ to a more conscious and natural style of parenting, it seems unlikely that the same will occur here. At the root of the conversation seems to be the discomfort we have in the western world with being overly relied upon. There is a deep fear that our children’s biological need for us will result in clingyness, over dependence etc. In my experience so far, the opposite is true and if we were to compare ourselves to ancient cultures, I believe their experiences would prove this to be the case also. Our modern, western world doesn’t honour the biological attachment between a mother and child and as we move further away from our evolutionary path we seem to be hurtling towards a place where children should be forced away from their parents loving arms ( infant child care, pre-school/early learning, cots in separate bedrooms etc). All of which have become necessary as we chase the western ideals of individualism as opposed to community, consumerism rather than self sufficiency and commerce over social justice. Damn, sorry – I do get very caught up in all of this, especially at (now!) 5am when my pregnancy hormones are evidently at their peak! Babies simply must fit into our modern way of living which is, I believe, where this idea of self soothing has come from. Sadly, to our detriment as along with the introduction of these concepts and tools comes the erosion of instinctive parenting.

  45. Cynthia says:

    To make a single reply to all of your comments, first of all, I am a student of 2 years in the Child Studies program. This program shares several courses with the Early Childhood and Elementary Education program as well.

    Secondly, I honestly think that it depends on the methods you used with your daughter, as well as on her personality. Obviously, no one is telling parents to ignore their children. What you describe as the child who is independent from birth is pretty much a myth. Even children who have less contact with their biological mothers are still cared for and have contact with someone who takes care of them. Also, keep in mind what my two main points were going into this: first, that your child can learn to fall asleep on their own but it won’t happen overnight, and secondly, that you as a parent will learn the differences between your child’s cries so that you know when your child is truly in distress, and if they are, then by all means, go to them.

    I do not discard the benefits of experiencing things with your children at all, but what kind of experiences will you truly be having with a child who constantly throws tantrums to get attention? I’ve mentioned it before, my niece has a very happy disposition and wakes in a good mood when she is not in pain from teething (or more recently, bothered by a cold). Like your daughter, she sleeps through the night, but more than that, she falls back asleep very quickly and easily if she does stir. A good idea with babies, more than just the normal sound-only baby monitor, is to download an app that will allow you to sync your cellphone to a camera in the baby’s room. That way, you can get both a visual and audio feed of your baby at any time that they are sleeping in their room. I can ask my brother-in-law for the name of the app if you want.

  46. Pingback: Sleep training techniques that allegedly teach “self-soothing” don’t work for have the parents who try them: newly published study. | Uncommon Sense

  47. Pingback: What no one told me about babies and sleep | Shhh I have a baby!

  48. Jen says:

    I’ve been a terrible sleeper my whole life and spent the first 12 years of my life terrified of bed time. I never planned on co-sleeping but something changed in the sounds of my baby’s night time cries at 4 months. Rather than hunger or discomfort I heard fear in his cries. From that moment onwards I have stayed with him. He is a light sleeper and prefers breastfeeding to pumped milk so he tends to feed a lot at night since I work as the primary wage earner. I do surprisingly well on 2hour sleep intervals from as long as I let myself stay in bed with him from 8pm to 8 am. ( he is 9 months old)
    He’s thriving and though quick to demand attention he is quickly calmed when acknowledged. I plan to teach and guide him towards more independence when he is capable of understanding language involved. One advantage to our arrangement is his adaptability. My grandmother passed away and he was fine with sleeping on the floor in the hotel with me ( he rolls around too much for their beds) and fine with 30 hours total car riding ( with me in the back seat to keep him entertained) after the car rides he was delightful to my family at the funeral and they enjoyed watching him walk around and babble. I believe he has an intense and persistent deposition but I have continued to learn how to these traits are quite wonderful to nurture.

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