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!

Grrrr.

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

  1. Pingback: Educating the Jasseys – Lesson Two: The “Newborn Sleep Problem” | Evolutionary Parenting | Where History And Science Meet Parenting

  2. dina says:

    Ah, so refreshing to read something written by an individual with a brain. Thank you for saying all this!

  3. Camilla de la Rochère says:

    Thanks for this interesting blog post (and comments).

    I am a mother of two (pls bear with my level of English, it is my third language).

    A note to uncommonjohn regarding the logical rigor you strive to achieve.

    You write: “But a couple of things are certain. It doesn’t help to keep repeating something (the doctrine of self-soothing) that isn’t true.”

    I think one should not confuse “not proven” and “not true”, since I gather that the contrary assertion has not been proven either.

    It seems that more research is needed and, in the meantime, parents have to continue using their common sense and intuition!

    Regards.

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