Real Self-Soothing (It’s not what sleep experts say it is)

Sorry for the long absence.

Noticing the great interest in my self-soothing post, I thought I’d go further into the subject. It took me awhile to make sure I had it right.

So, if there is a real thing that we could rightly call self-soothing,  here’s how I would talk about it.

Regardless of your position on sleep training, I think we can all agree that self-soothing, meaning the ability calm yourself – at any time, not just when you wake up in the night – , is a very important life skill.

The questions are: How does that ability begin to develop early in life and how do we, as parents, help babies develop that ability? And, OK, is there any conceivable way that sleep training/controlled crying could help babies develop this ability?

I don’t think my elevator speech answer will surprise many people. Babies and little kids learn to calm themselves from the experience of being calmed by others – mainly their parents. I was aware of this on some level from my earliest days as a parent, although I couldn’t have put it into words. All I knew was that here was this little guy who was often upset, agitated and, at times, totally discombobulated. And he needed us – our physical contact, being fed, carried, sung to etc. to recover from that. I’m sure you’ve all felt like that.

But as time goes on I continue to find new and deeper ways to understand and think about how people develop the capacity to managing their inner feelings. And I keep stumbling on more research that tells us how the process works. I want to share some of that.

But first, I have to say that I dislike the term self-soothing and I don’t normally use it – except when I’m tearing a strip off conservative sleep pundits who try to co-opt self-soothing to put a happy face on their methods.

I prefer to talk about self-regulation. Because the ability to settle down is part of what many scientists, psychologists and some educators call self-regulation. (I have to credit Dr. Stuart Shanker for some of the ideas I’m presenting here.)

Self-regulation, as I think about it, is the ability to adapt your physical, mental, emotional and social abilities and energies to the situation, task or challenge at hand and to be able to deal with stressor and recover from the effort of that.  So, if you’re crossing the street and a Hummer is bearing down on you, you need to be able to summon up the energy and will to get of the way, real fast. And your body helps you do that by, among other things, increasing your heartbeat and giving you a shot of adrenalin. If you’re a child in school, you need to be able to stay calmly focused and attentive so you can learn. And if you’re tired, you need to be able to wind down so you can sleep.  Your brain and body need to help you do those things too. That’s self-regulation at work.

Self-regulation happens on various levels – physiological, emotional, cognitive (thinking) and social.  But physiological self-regulation is at the root of it all. If the physiological mechanisms of self-regulation aren’t working right, you’re going to have trouble controlling your emotions & impulses, getting along with people, recovering from stress and thinking clearly under pressure. That’s because your brain must put your resources toward coping with how unsettled or agitated you feel on a visceral level, instead of helping you to do what you want or need to do at a given moment.

Physiological regulation is even more important with babies because of their neurological immaturity. I’m sure many of you have heard or read that human beings are born neurologically immature compared to other mammals. Dr. James McKenna, an anthropologist and pioneering co-sleeping researcher at the University of Notre Dame, was the first person who pointed this out to me, but lots of people are talking about it these days.

So we’re born with this under developed brain and neurological system that, literally, develops outside the womb after birth. For one thing, the basic internal neurobiological mechanisms that our body uses to help us calm down are not fully functional. And, as various scientific findings show, those mechanisms become functional in the context of the caregiving relationship. The caregiver basically regulates the baby externally through interaction, holding, feeding, basic caregiving, talking, eye-contact, singing or making little soothing sounds that help the baby feel OK. Those experiences also help build the brain pathways needed for the emotion cognitive and social self-regulation.

Here’s just one example of how this works on a visceral level. We have a nerve – a network of nerves, really – called the vagus nerve. It connects part of our brain to the workings of our internal organs and also the muscles of the face and the middle ear.

One of the things the vagus nerve does is regulate our heartbeat, keeping it from beating too fast. However, when our brain detects a threat, the “vagal brake” as it’s called, comes off so our heart can beat faster to help us mobilize our physiological wherewithal to deal with the threat. When the threat is over, the brake goes back on and our heartbeat returns to normal, which enables us to calm down. (BTW, the ideas I am presenting in this section come from the work of a brilliant psychologist by the name of Stephen Porges.)

We don’t do that consciously. It just happens – part of the workings of the autonomic nervous system.  However, in some people (and some babies), that brake doesn’t work as well as it should. This is called “low vagal tone.” It can be assessed by measuring a normal variability in heart rate relating to breathing.  When people have low vagal tone the brake doesn’t go back on properly when the threat, crisis or stress is over, and the person remains more agitated and reactive, and has trouble calming down. Nor surprisingly, people with low vagal tone are at greater risk for all sorts of mental disorders and behavior problems. There is some evidence that good parenting can sometimes correct low vagal tone. I’ll get into that in another blog. But for now I want to help you understand the role that the vagus nerve plays in self-soothing.

What fascinates me is that the vagus is centrally involved in infant feeding. It turns out that suckling places a lot of demands on a newborn’s resources, so the vagal brake comes off when the infant feeds and goes back on when nursing is over (except with preemies – one example of their neurological immaturity).

Thus, infant feeding is not just about nutrition and satisfying a baby’s hunger. It’s inherently regulating. By that I mean it also helps the infant feel “OK” on a visceral, physiological level.  I’m sure that makes sense to anybody who has breastfed a baby or watched one nurse.

In other words breastfeeding is one of elemental mechanisms in the development of self-regulation. In fact, in one of Dr. Porges’ presentations, which I found on line, when he first presents the term self-regulation, his slide shows a photo of a baby breastfeeding. That doesn’t mean a bottle-fed baby can’t develop self-regulation. Other kinds of sucking and, obviously, other aspects of parental care  – including things like physical contact between babies and fathers (like me!)- are involved in the early development of self-regulation.

But the take home points are that a)babies are not created equal in terms of physiological self-regulation (some require more external regulation than others and, b)two key ingredients in the early development of the higher levels of self-regulation that people have more conscious control over are physical contact and interaction with a caregiver. (This is what English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was talking about when he wrote the now famous line: “There is no such thing as a baby. There is a baby and someone” or whatever it is he actually said.)  We often think of that dynamic as primarily emotional and social in nature. And, of course, it is. But the roots are physiological – a parent “regulating” a baby externally.

There’s  more to say on this, and it’s pretty interesting. But this is already pretty long for a blog post. The next one will come in a couple of days. Promise.
(Part two has now been posted. You can read it here.

Here’s the link to the Steven Porges presentation I mentioned earlier.

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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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11 Responses to Real Self-Soothing (It’s not what sleep experts say it is)

  1. I can’t wait! Please don’t leave me in suspense too long!

  2. Juliette says:

    Really looking forward to the follow-up on this one! And interested to hear more about your work with Dr. Shanker too!

  3. Excellent Post, John. Couldn’t agree more!

  4. "luckyenoughtobemomenough" says:

    Spreading your good words!

  5. Robyn says:

    The ability to self regulate isn’t even completely developed after babyhood. My 6 year old still have a hard time. Every adolescent struggles. And so do adults sometimes. That’s why relationships are so important and complete emotional independence is unhealthy.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Good point. One of the crucial points with regard to self-regulation is understanding that it come more slowly for some children than other and that those kids usually can’t help it. They need support more than they need disapproval and correction.

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  7. S.Beaton says:

    This makes so much sense. Look at kangaroo care in neonates. Must be based on this.

  8. S.Beaton says:

    This makes so much sense. Look at kangaroo care in neonates. Must be based on this. (Edit just read post two. It seems you did look at kangaroo care )

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

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