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.)


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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

204 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!


  4. Glad to have found your blog. The lack of research-backed advice/information on ALL things baby, particularly sleep, has been driving me insane. Especially when instead we get a plethora of opinion, much of it contradictory.

    • antireifier says:

      Children do not arrive with the same genes (unless identical twins) and therefore there is great variability. Until we are able to determine the unique style of each child we will not be able to answer a lot of questions. Fortunately most children have neurological plasticity so we probably won’t screw it up. The research does show that we should make our expectations fit the child’s capacities, motivation & temperament. Problems almost invariably arise when we fail to do this especially temperament. From where do I get to speak about this? I am a professional social worker with 47 years of experience with families of children of all ages. Plus raised 3 of my own two of whom also have children. Understanding the concepts of goodness or poorness of fit will help you make good decisions including when to gently support the child to meet expectations that are normally a poor fit for him/her.

      • uncommonjohn says:

        Agreed, and this is precisely why rigid “rules” (“expert advice”) about things like how to get babies to sleep through the night and what constitutes “normal” baby sleep are so unhelpful, They do not take into account the temperaments of individual children or their parents. This can also be true of advice that is based on much more sound scientific knowledge than the advice about so-called “self-soothing.”

  5. Mum says:

    Great points. There is so much that is written as if fact.

    But I do wonder about the last paragraph about breastfeeding. Has enough quality research been done to establish the link between breastfeeding and waking? I expect there are several variables that would need to be adjusted for eg, co sleeping, rooming in, amount of solids given . I have read conflicting evidence.

    One study I suggest you review:
    Brown, A and Harries, V. Infant sleep and night feeding patterns
    Breastfeeding medicine 10(5). 1-7

    They found no difference in night waking a between breast or formula feeding at 6-12 months.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi: thanks for your comments and for the reference to the study by Brown and Harries. I don’t think I was suggesting that there was a lot of high quality research to show that breastfed babies woke more often than formula fed babies. I was just making an ironic comment about one finding in the study I was deconstructing – a finding that the author chose not to emphasize. And when I was referring to the disconnect between modern sleep ideology and the biological realities of breastfeeding I was referring more to the realities of nighttime nurse – chiefly, the mother taking the baby into bed because it’s comfortable and easy and the tendency for both mom and baby to fall asleep when nursing at night. That’s a reality that some advice givers ignore when they tell moms to get out of bed to nurse the baby and then put the baby back in the crib after nursing to avoid bedsharing.

  6. Nikki says:

    My question is: where are the paeds in all this? Surely it’s ultimately for them to advise us what’s evidence-based and what isn’t? Or is this not considered a medical issue?

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Pediatric groups tend to be fairly conservative, as I expect you know. But individual doctors are pretty diverse in their views. The Canadian Pediatric Society actually has a pretty reasonable stance on things like nightwaking and co-sleeping. But in the US and Australia there are some very infuential people who have push sleep training and anti-co-sleeping ideology pretty hard using research “evidence” (some of it cherry-picked and some of it over-interpreted) to back up their positions. That has been very influential and has shaped the views a lot of docs who assume that these people know what they are talking about.

  7. Pingback: Self-Soothing Babies? - Exeter Baby Activities

  8. tabitha walden says:

    I know this is an old article, but I really enjoyed reading it. I may be showing some friends of mine this article if they keep pestering me about CIO and self soothing. As a mom, as someone whose worked with children for many years in a daycare/preschool setting, as someone whose always been passionate about learning about how children develop, leaving a baby or toddler to cry goes against everything I have learned in the past 20 years or so. It breaks my heart hearing my friends tell me they leave their infant to CIO, that the other they did so for 2 hours. Like, thought they “self soothed” if they had that “skill” why would it take two hours after months of having done this??? Sorry if I sound judgey. Can’t wait to go back through your blog and read more of your thoughts. It’s nice to find like minded people sometimes.

  9. Pingback: Helping Baby Sleep: Does Extinction Sleep Training Improve Baby's Sleep? | Evolutionary Parenting | Where History And Science Meet Parenting

  10. Kristen says:

    Excellent, thank you! May I reblog this?

  11. Pingback: The Beyond Sleep Training Project Frequently Asked Questions – The Beyond Sleep Training Project

  12. Pingback: The Beyond Sleep Training Project Stance on the Pick Up, Put Down Method of Sleep Training – The Beyond Sleep Training Project

  13. Pingback: 5 Infant Sleep Facts – On Your Journey

  14. Pingback: Babies and Sleep. One More Time. – Things Dads Do

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s