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What is Self-Soothing Really?

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In the first article of the series, Welcome to the World Little One, we explored your baby’s basic survival needs during the newborn phase. 

Today we tackle self-soothing. 

Google it and you get a lot about babies, kids, and the ability to fall asleep and calm down by themselves. Yes, that is the point, especially the point of the self soothing system I use, right? 

But teaching your child to self-soothe is a commitment and it’s about the process not the result,  so I'd like us to think bigger before we dive in.

How do you calm yourself, as adults, when you are stressed, overwhelmed, sad, angry, or feel any other number of combined emotions? You search for soothing sensory experiences that you believe will help you calm down.

You reach for comfort food. The taste of the food soothes you.

You take long, hot baths. The feel of the warmth on your skin makes you feel better. 

You listen to meditative and calming audio tracks or your favorite music. 

You smell the essential oils from your diffuser. 

You move your body with physical exercise to induce endorphins. 

This is your process. This is how you self-soothe. The psycho-social label for our actions is emotional regulation, and it is a foundational skill for healthy living.

When we use positive soothing skills we align our mind, body and spirit. It is not easy and, honestly, it’s not a skill that the majority of adults master. 

In fact, many adults without a basic foundation of self choose unhealthy soothing strategies that become a slippery slope towards self-medicating.

  • Had a long, emotional day? Three beers will make it better.

  • So stressed you can't sleep? A couple sleeping pills will knock you out.

  • Frustrated with an experience and the result? Just call a friend and complain, say some not nice things about other people and gossip a bit.

These are the flipside of the emotional regulation coin.  This is the ‘dark-side’ of self-soothing, numbing. Although they represent an unhealthy approach, notice they are still strategies that we use with the same end goal: trying to make ourselves feel better. 

Today’s scientists are focused on studying emotion, specifically how to manage it better.  Current research is reporting, “Emotion is now at the heart of clinical theory and is seen as the foundation to psychological change.” (Emotional Intelligence Toolkit) And popular culture is shifting its focus to self-care and mindful living. 

How does this relate to your baby’s world experience? I’m glad you asked. They are just tiny little creatures and cannot possibly be feeling any of this, right? Wrong.

In fact, feeling is all they do. 

All 5 of their olfactory senses are stressed from the moment they are born. 

  • Being born is stressful! 

  • Breathing for the first time in the world is stressful. 

  • Being asked to use their mouth to drink their own nutritious food is stressful. 

  • Processing the feeling of wet, dirty and dry on their skin is stressful. 

  • Feeling the discomfort of gas bubbles inside their body is stressful.

You are the soothing balm to their full-body stress for the first three months as they acclimate to this new environment. But that level of human pacifier isn’t sustainable long term, nor should it be. Your baby is designed to grow and gain the ability to take ownership of skills, one at a time, over time. 

What if your baby mastered the ability to soothe themselves at the early age of 12-16 weeks? 

What if your child had go-to soothing strategies and objects that predictably and repeatedly helped them regulate their emotions when they felt out of control?

The result?

A growing human psyche with the ability to notice and attend to their experience  emotionally, physically and cognitively. 

Now that is a win-win! The gift of a life skill that grows over time. A gift that will serve their growing sense of self. . 

When new parents hire me as a coach I always ask a series of questions including: 

What are you most excited about? And What are you most worried about? These elicit predictable responses: 

  • lack of sleep

  • messing my kid up without even knowing I’m doing it

  • giving them everything they need but not everything they want, etc. 

And then, more often than not, I hear this.

Cara, I just don’t know what we’ll do when we hit the Terrible Twos and what does Teenager Threes even mean? 

Seriously, they're holding an infant in their arms, and they're already concerned about what's going to happen two years later! I understand their trepidation because that's what they see and hear in the world, at family gatherings, and from all the unsolicited (and often well meaning) advice floating around the parenting world.  

Q. What are the ‘terrible twos’ and ‘teenager threes’ really all about? (notice, I didn’t give these terror-inducing labels power by capitalizing them)

A.  Emotional Awareness and Self-Regulation

Did you know that 85% of your child’s foundational brain development in four core areas is complete by 5 years old? One of these areas is the social/emotional realm. In other words, how your child interacts with their social settings and regulates the emotions they feel while doing so. 

A two or three year old who doesn't know how to regulate their own emotions feels extremely out of control. They fall apart in all sensory areas. The result is commonly referred to as a tantrum, meltdown, or hissyfit. 

Yes, it's loud and not very pleasing to watch, and can be super embarrassing in public, but it’s also preventable if you choose proactive parenting and best-practice foundational skill building!

To these new parents sitting in my office I say,

“Would you like your child to have the ability to understand what they are feeling, how to process and make sense of those emotions and take ownership of their soothing strategies?”

I’ve never met a parent who said no. Of course this is what we want! The problem is we don’t know how to teach these skills to a tiny, then little, then not-so-little person who has one way to communicate with us: cry.  

Teaching these foundational skills starts now, in their crib. 

It starts by teaching them they are safe and loved in their independent sleep space. 

That they can find their own calm, because they have their sleep object.

That they can work to learn this skill, even when it’s not easy, because they can trust you’re just in the next room and if they need a bit of help, you’ll come. 

This gift grows over time. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving. And not just in the world of sleep. An early self-soother becomes a young child with self identity, self confidence, self awareness. You are giving the gift of self.

And on that day your two year old shows signs of an impending meltdown you will be able to do a parenting magic trick. Acknowledge their out of control feelings, redirect them to their soothing object/space and support them to take ownership of their feelings, to work through them and come out the other side. 

To follow their healthy self-soothing process.


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