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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16 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 )

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  10. Danielle says:

    Hi – really enjoying these posts on the myth of self soothing. I am unclear however as to why the vagal brake would be off during breast feeding? The way I see it, nursing is a time of security not threat (such as being chased by a wild animal). But you stated that nursing “places demand on newborn’s resources” and because of that the vagal break is turned off? Can you clarify this issue for me? Thanks!

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Danielle: Thanks for this question. It does seem counterintuitive that the sense of security that nursing can provide would be associated with the body responding in the way it does when responding to a threat. I don’t claim have a full understanding of all the workings of the vagus nerve, but, based on my reading of the work of Dr. Stephen Porges (and others), and with the help of a quick e-mail correspondence with Dr. Porges, I can make a couple of points.

      First, helping us respond to threats is by no means the only thing the vagal brake does. It helps us manage other sorts of demands on our resources as well. And those demands are different for a newborn than an adult, or even a 6-month-old. Actually it’s not breastfeeding per se, but rather sucking itself, at a breast or bottle, that places metabolic demands on a newborn’s resources. So the vagal brake would come off during bottle feeding too. This is completely normal given how neurologically immature human babies are at birth. It is important to clarify that this stops happening as the baby matures. At some point — I don’t know exactly when, and, most likely it varies from baby to baby – the infant’s physiological and neurological development progresses to the point where its brain and body would sense that the vagal brake no longer needs to come off during sucking. This working of the vagal brake is one part of how the body is designed to help the newborn adjust to the demands of being out in the world instead of in the womb where everything the fetus needs comes directing from the mother’s body. In other words, the baby develops the physiological capacity to suck without the support of an increased heart rate. Interestingly, Dr. Porges told me that with preemies, the vagal brake comes off during sucking, but it doesn’t go back on when he baby is finished (or at least it stays off for longer, presumably it goes back on at some point). That’s because preemies are less physiologically mature and they have to work harder to suck. Because of their greater physiolocial immaturity they also need need more medical support (and as much bodily contact as they can get) to manage being out in the world.

      But breastfeeding does appear to play a role in helping the vagal system (for lack of a better word) to “learn” how to operate the way it should in a broader sense Dr. Porges describes the the removal and re-instating of the vagal brake during sucking as a wonderful “neural exercise” for a newborn. He says this ability to remove and reinstate the vagal brake that eventually helps the baby develop the neural pathways and enable it to calm even after major disruptions (upsets). That doesn’t mean the baby is calming entirely on it’s own without help from a caregiver (although that might happen sometimes). What it means is that the baby’s brain and body have the ability to work with (so to speak) the caregiver who is trying to comfort the baby with body contact, movement, soothing sounds or whatever.

      And, as many people know from experience, babies differ quite markedly in how easily they can calm down or be calmed. As I’ve posted before, some babies are born with more efficient vagal regulation (meaning the vagal brake works better in helping the baby stay in and/or return to a state of calm). Lots of research has shown this. And it’s probably one, but by no means the only, explanation for why some babies are fussier than others.

      Dr. Porges told me he was working on a paper based on his research that found that babies who are extremely fussy and difficult tend to have inefficient vagal regulation, meaning the operation of the vagus nerve (including its brake function), doesn’t work as well as it does in unfussy, calmer babies. This helps explain why some babies are so much harder to soothe than others. It’s not anybody’s fault, they were born that way, and they need even more external regulation from caregivers than other babies. However, Porges and his team found that at age 6 months this relationship between inefficient vagal regulation and fussiness was seen only in bottle fed babies. The breastfed babies were still fussy, but they showed efficient vagal regulation, which is undoubtedly good for them in the longer term, even if they remain fussy in the short term. The bottle fed babies who were fussy still had inefficient vagal regulation. What’s interesting is that non fussy babies had efficient vagal regulation whether they were bottle fed or breastfed. I don’t think that necessarily means that fussy bottle fed babies can never ever achieve efficient vagal regulation, although it may take longer and require a little more ongoing responsive, sensitive care from their parents. But it does support the idea that there is something about breastfeeding that helps the baby physiologically in ways that go beyond nutritrion (as many breastfeeding proponents have been saying for years).

      Dr. Porges also says that the muscles (and nerves) involved in early feeding behavior help develop the facial muscles and nerve pathways that are involved in social behaviour such as smiling, and the ability to engage in responsive social communication with a caregiver. Obviously bottle fed babies develop these abilities as well, but it seems that breastfeeding – in addition to being the way babies were designed to be fed, is also part of the way babies were designed to develop social abilities. Does that help?

      *For any bottle feeding mother or father (including gay men whose parenting partner is another man) who happens to read this and feels yet another a stab of guilt, remember that human babies are also designed to be adaptable and resilient. They have the capacity to survive and thrive in all sorts of circumstances. The love, care and responsiveness your baby gets from you (and dad, other mom, other dad, grandparents and other people) are the most important things in terms of helping your baby’s social engagement system to develop. And loving physical contact, eye contact and soft vocalizations that parents provide if they hold the baby while giving a bottle would definitely help “teach” the vagal brake to work properly.

      Of course, we’re talking about human development here, so let’s remember that human development is diverse and some babies are, by nature, more or less fussy, more or less easily calmed etc. And the challenge for the parents of the fussier, harder to calm babies, is to remember that you are going to have to put more work into calming than parents of other babies (or even your own other babies), and that, even when it seems like your efforts are doing much to calm the baby in the moment, you are undoubtedly helping your baby over the long term.

  11. Hmmm…I’m here to learn about self-regulation on the basis that I didn’t learn it as a child and am learning it as an adult so I wanted to find out more about when/how we learn the ability to calm ourselves. Rather than being emotionally overreactive (I am very occasionally, and then I really can’t calm down and will ‘act out’), I tend to be extremely cognitive and unable to feel my emotions (other-directed due to parents being unpredictable). I’m currently learning to identify my emotions and take steps to soothe myself.

    What’s really struck me here is the connection with the vagus nerve. I used to have a coil and was told by the doctor never to have one again. The reason I was told was that I have a ‘sensitive vagus nerve’. Basically when the cervix was stretched, I would go into shock – not psychological shock, but physical shock (my BPM would fall to a low level and I would black out). Apparently this occasionally happens when the coil is put in, but shouldn’t happen when it is taken out. It happened when mine was taken out, which is why I was told to avoid it. I also black out if I vomit, and apparently this is the same thing.

    My question, after all of that, was are these two things connected? I certainly didn’t receive “good-enough” parenting, and that’s the main problem, but would the possibility of a physically sensitive vagus nerve that would make me black out easily also be an issue? Or is this unrelated?

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi: Another interesting question. I couldn’t comment with certainty on the connection between your sensitive vagus nerve and the self-regulation issues you are trying to sort out. And I don’t know what sort of reading you’ve done about self-regulation, but I have done a lot of thinking and writing about it. The trouble is that people use the term self-regulation in many different ways. Some people talk about mainly in terms of managing emotions, other people think of it as impulse control and behaviour control, and then a lot of educators think of it as cognitive control – understanding and managing your thought process. I, and some other people I’ve worked with, see self-regulation in a broad sense – so all the things mentioned above are part of it. But the part that I think is most important, and most poorly understood is what I call physiological self-regulation (some say biological self-regulation, but we mean the same thing. And part of physiological S-R has to do with the workings of the autonomic nervous system and all the things it does to get us into the physiological state (alert, alarmed, calm, focussed, energized, tense or whatever) that helps us deal with situations – whether it’s dealing with danger, settling down for sleep, calming down after a threat is over, concentrating, summoning up extra mental or physical effort to do something that’s hard to do. The working of the vagus nerve is one part of that – an important part, I think. But of course, the vagus is involved in other physiolgical functions as well (although I don’t know that much about those things). And lots of other things are involved – releasing of hormone, brain signals etc. It makes sense to me that someone with a sensitive vagus nerve, might be affected in areas of physiological self-regulation, but I’m not enough of an authority to even really speculate on the specifics of your case. But, it’s very clear to me that people are not born equal with respect to physiological self-regulation. It comes harder to some kids that others, for various reasons. Obviously, people’s experiences, especially early relationships with parents/caregivers, affect self-regulation as well. But I’d make two quick points about physiological self-regulation. One is that if physiological self-regulation isn’t in place or isn’t working right, a person will not be able to regulate their emotions, thoughts and social behaviour as well. So, if someone had a self-regulation problem, I would always look at the physical realm first. Secondly, I believe that the key self-regulation skill for anyone is to be able to recognize when your physiological state is out of whack with the situation and learn strategies for changing their physiological state so it matches the situation. This includes things that lots of people already do – deep breathing to calm down, physical activity to energize yourself or make you more alert, taking a bath to relax, eating a snack when you are cranky because of low blood sugar (or whatever exactly it is about being hungry that makes some people cranky. My friend and mentor, Stuart Shanker says one of the important and overlooked aspects of self-regulation with kids is to figure out what the child’s stressors are – and these vary considerably from child to child – and then do what you can to reduce the stressors and reduce exposure to the stressors (although gradually building the child’s ability to cope with the stressor is important as well). He’s found that a lot of of the stressors that affect kids’ behaviour and self-regulation are everyday sensory stressors – heighten sensitivity to noise, smells, visual stimuli or social stimuli. I don’t think there has been as much thinking done about the everyday stressors of adults, which are probably not quite the same. But it’s on thing to think about in terms of how stressors might (or might not) be affecting you.

      If you really want to learn more about vagal regulation I’d suggest you read some of Stephen Porges’ stuff.There is quite a bit of it available on the internet. It might take you a bit of googling to find it, but it’s there. You might find some of it very technical (it is!). But, as far as I can tell, he’s the one that knows the most about the vagus nerve and it’s relationship to self-regulation. it might give you a bit of insight into the issues you are working on.

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