No, sleep training won’t teach your baby to self soothe. Babies cannot actually self soothe. If babies are upset, they need help to calm down and get back to sleep.
The detailed answer:
Most baby sleep ‘experts’ will tell you that babies should be ‘self-soothing’ to sleep from an early age. Some babies, indeed, are calm enough to be placed in a bassinet or cot sleepy-but-awake and will drift off to sleep without any intervention from a parent. Equally, researchers in the 1970s observed babies waking in the night and then falling back to sleep without crying, sometimes sucking on a thumb or stroking a blanket in the process.
So if some babies can do this, shouldn’t all babies be capable of self soothing? The short answer is no.
Most babies will cry when put down in their cots, away from their parents and most will cry upon waking in the night. Why? Because their evolutionary imperative is to alert their parents that they are alone in case there should be a predator nearby. Of course, we know there is no danger to our babies, safe in their 21st century houses, but our babies don’t know this.
And this is the crux of the matter when it comes to self-soothing: if a baby wakes and then falls back to sleep or is happy to fall asleep in a cot, then it is obviously capable of falling asleep alone (at that point in its development; unfortunately there are no constants when it comes to baby sleep), but if your baby cries upon being left, or upon waking, you are then dealing with the developmental skill of self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the ability to calm oneself from a state of high emotion. Research has shown that babies and toddlers’ brains are just not equipped to do this. They need a parent or other carer to help them to calm themselves down. This involves the parent performing calming and comforting behaviours such as cuddling, rocking, feeding, singing etc.
Whilst babies may eventually stop crying if you leave them alone for a length of time, this will not be because they have calmed themselves down, it will be either because their survival instincts have kicked in and they don’t want to alert a predator, they have fallen asleep out of exhaustion or they have shut down their emotions and are in a detached state of being. Not enough research has been done to know exactly which of these results are most likely, but the definitive answer is that the baby has not self-soothed.
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