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Why “Self-Soothing” is a Bad Idea.

Updated: Mar 25

Long ago, in the time of the sabertooth tiger, we developed a survival tool -- the “fight, flight and freeze” responses.

And we still use them today. Briefly described: when faced with danger, humans get a burst of adrenaline that switches off less important body functions like digestion, or lactation, and prepares you to fight an attacker, or flee a dangerous situation with superhuman amounts of strength and energy.

But, just in case this doesn't work, we also developed a back-up response.

We learned how to freeze.

The freeze response shuts down the whole body and we appear dead. This is an attempt to become less visible, or to fool a predator into thinking that we are inedible, because we are already dead. It may also serve to numb a victim, in the event the predator starts eating them.

Also way back when, people carried babies all the time.

Humans did not always live in relatively safe shelters like houses and apartments.

Babies are helpless for quite a period of time, and dependent on their parents for food, safety and protection. Back then, if you set your baby down and walked away, there was a good chance your baby would not be there when you got back. So families kept babies close, and responded to their cries and whimpers quickly, so as not to attract the attention of predators looking for an easy meal.

A baby survives and thrives because of this action/reaction sequence:

Baby has a need-->parent responds-->need is met-->baby survives.

When they need food, attention, comfort, a clean diaper, or some other need, babies stir, stretch, coo or whimper. If there is no response, they cry. Mothers are wired to respond immediately to their baby’s cry. Most people can’t stand to hear a baby cry, and that’s how it's supposed to be.

Babies also have no sense of time. When a baby is separated from their mother, they can’t know she is coming back “in just a minute.” For a baby, every minute without a protector, is a life or death crisis. Over time, they grow, adapt, and with teaching, learn to regulate this life/death binary into nuanced reactions. They learn to save the hearty cry for real problems, and use calm reminders to get their needs met.

But always, if mother doesn’t respond, baby gets scared.

Feeling scared activates an adrenaline rush, and this escalates baby's response. They cry louder and harder. Without an adult, babies are incapable of fighting or fleeing. Baby is certain mother is gone forever, because if she was near, she would have responded to earlier whimpers and cries.

When a baby reaches a certain level of stress, they give up. They close down into a freeze response. This lowers their heart rate, breathing and digestion. They are immobile, which protects them from the Saber Tooth Tiger. The freeze response conserves energy so baby is more likely to live…to fight another day.

This freeze response is mistakenly called “self-soothing.”

But it’s not. In studies of the freeze response, heart, breath, and brain monitors show great distress. Blood markers show high levels of cortisol. If you study your baby, you can discern a freeze response from a relaxation response. A relaxed baby drifts from awake to drowsy, into relaxation, into sleeping. They have relaxed hands and relaxed eyes. A baby who has shut down in distress, has creases around their eyes. Their fists are clenched. Their behavior goes from sixty to zero; from crying to silent.

When parents ignore their baby and leave them to cry, what baby learns is this: “My needs do not matter." “I am alone in this world.” and “It’s no use asking for help.” And many babies do just this. Freezing becomes a habitual response that continues their whole life, not only in life or death situations, but whenever they are stressed.

Some babies won’t give up. They respond with a fight response.

You may know a baby that will not stop crying when left alone. Some babies are fighters who can force you to respond to their needs because they never give up. These babies are strong, their personality is hardwired to fight, and they require you to stay close. A fighter models what all babies need: close attention, soothing, feeding and comforting.

You can't undo what is hardwired.

One of the traps new parents fall into is thinking they have to teach their infants to self-soothe. Infants are too young to consciously self-soothe.

You probably know some babies who do self-soothe and you may wonder why your baby does, or does not. If your baby does, it's because they are easy-going and trusting by nature. If your baby is not easy-going, holding them and responding promptly to their needs will build that trust and feeling of safety. It may take a few years before they are comfortable being alone, but you can trust that time will come when your child feels safe enough.

Babies rely on parents comfort to fulfill their physical, emotional and mental needs.

Parents need to guide children by modeling emotional regulation and empathy. Parents teach babies and children which situations are safe, and which are not. They teach (or don’t teach) how to identify emotional states (feelings) and recover from frustration, fear and grief. When child is old enough where they mentally and physically trust that they are safe, they will self-regulate their feelings instead of over-reacting. And self-regulation is what it means to self-soothe.

Humans are hardwired to connect with other humans

Maybe you can remember a time as an adult when you were in pain, scared or lonely? Maybe you were frustrated, tired or hungry? Maybe just bored? If you were alone, how did you sort it out? Were you able to regulate your feelings by self-regulating? Or did you handle it in some other way: maybe eat chocolate, watch TV, smoke a joint, scroll social media, or drink a glass of wine?

A healthy way to deal with pain is to receive empathy through connection with other humans. This is why support groups and therapy work. If you have a happy, healthy relationship with your parents, it's because they offer empathy when you are frustrated, sad, or afraid.

Babies need cuddling, skin-to-skin contact, gentleness and empathy.

You can't spoil a baby by loving them, nursing them all the time, or holding them while they sleep. You won't spoil them by setting firm boundaries that protect them from callous relatives. By doing so, you are building a deep and trusting relationship. You learn what they need, and why, and provide it to the best of your ability.

Will you mess up? Of course--all parents do! All your child asks is that you try, to the best of your ability, to love, cherish, and protect them.

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